Dipping into Nietzsche: would you be prepared to re-live your life in exactly the same way?
Nietzsche is both a heroic and tragic figure. He epitomises the individualist; the person who finds the ordinary conventions and values of life trivial and stultifying. Who cannot be moved by the picture of him striding over the mountain tops, ‘6000 feet beyond man and time’, when ‘the abysmal thought’ came unannounced into his mind.
Nietzsche’s master- stroke is his much misunderstood Eternal Recurrence. The relevant passage is from The Gay Science/The Joyful Wisdom:
The greatest weight.— What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence – even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!”
Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus?… Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?
The Gay Science, s.341, Walter Kaufmann, translator
Buddhist metaphysical ideas about karma are too complex to go into detail here but suffice it to say that everything we have thought or done in the past determines the sort of person we are in the present. One saying which has become common currency is – what we think today determines who we are tomorrow, which suggest it is widely understood outside of Buddhism. Here is a simple example of how we could create negative karma: if we are nasty to people habitually, one of the consequences is likely to be a lack of friends. If we are always criticising others we will suffer consequences; probably again people will avoid us. Why bother? (some might say!) The whole point of Buddhist training for me from the beginning was that I was sick of myself; I wanted to do something about myself. I wanted to change! (Keep this in mind as you will come across the same idea in Ivan Osokin’s story.) Any genuine spiritual training addresses these questions, ‘is it possible to change for the better? Is it possible to find lasting peace of mind?’ Surely everyone of us, if we are honest and have enough courage for self-reflection, has regrets about our past? (Not that many of us are like Edith Piaf with her Je ne Regrette – although perhaps she was only putting Nietzsche’s philosophy into practice?)
I wrote the above before I’d read the relevant chapter in Alexander Nahamas’, Nietzsche, Life as Literature. He dismisses a cosmological view of eternal recurrence preferring to interpret Nietzsche’s idea in psychological terms. His chapter devoted to Nietzsche’s idea is of considerable subtlety so I will merely pick out a few of the peaks and ‘free-associate’ a little.
It is vital to grasp that although Nietzsche describes his insight as ‘that abysmal thought’ – he paradoxically sees it as the ultimate spiritual test wherein we either succumb to life’s ills and challenges or completely accept them (how Buddhist is that!). This is how he puts it:
My formula for greatness for a human being is amor fati (love of one’s fate): that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it – all idealism is mendaciousness in the face of what is necessary – but love it.
Nehamas describes how all actions, situations and circumstances are interconnected in ways which sound to me very similar to the Buddhist idea of Indra’s Net; here is a typical description:
In the realm of the god Indra a vast net stretches infinitely in all directions. In each “eye” of the net there is a single brilliant, perfect jewel. Each jewel also reflects every other jewel, infinite in number, and each of the reflected images of the jewels bears the image of all the other jewels — infinity to infinity. Whatever effects one jewel effects them all. The metaphor illustrates the interpenetration of all phenomena. Everything contains everything else. At the same time, each individual thing is not hindered by or confused with all the other individual things.
At the same time Nehamas wonders why Nietzsche’s demon does not offer an opportunity for us to put right the mistakes we made in our previous life/lives, instead of mechanically repeating the life as if it were fixed. (Remember Nietzsche is thinking hypothetically.) The answer is related to Nietzsche’s view of the self being non-substantive (more Buddhist parallels):
There is no ‘being’ behind doing, effecting, becoming; ‘the doer’ is merely a fiction added to the deed – the deed is everything. . . our entire science still lies under the misleading influence of language. . (This ‘no self’ in Buddhism is referred to as ‘anatta’)
The Genealogy of Morals
our bad habit of taking a mnemonic, an abbreviated formula, to be an entity, finally as a cause, eg. to say of lightening ‘it flashes.’ Or the little word ‘I’.
Will to Power, 548
Nietzsche believes that everything is so interconnected that if one detail in an event of the past were hypothetically changed the whole event would be different. Therefore – ‘there is no thing without other things.’ We need to accept good and evil as we imagine them to be; the warp and woof of existence.
Have you ever said Yes to a single joy? O my friends, then you have said Yes too to all woe. All things are entangled, ensnared, enamoured; if ever you wanted one thing twice, if ever you said, “You please me, happiness! Abide moment!” then you wanted all back. All anew, all eternally, all entangled, ensnared, enamoured.
Thus Spoke Zarathustra
Nehamas continues: a life that was different in any way would simply not be our life: it would be the life of a different person. To want to be different in any way is for Nietzsche to want to be different in every way; it is to want, impossible as that is, to be someone else.. . if we were to have another life it would necessarily have to be, if it were to be our life at all, the very same life we have already had.
Now, you are probably thinking that this is all very theoretical and that it doesn’t have much practical relevance for our actual lives. I personally have found that if you use Nietzsche’s idea as a ‘thought experiment’, it sheds considerable light on how we regard such things as regret, shame and contrition. One of Nietzsche’s enduring ideas is that interpretation and re-interpretation are essential approaches to experience; this is a very optimistic standpoint which may alleviate the possible pessimistic reaction to the idea of his eternal recurrence.
Other thinkers have wrestled with the problem. Consider the Russian writer, P. D. Ouspensky’s novella, The Strange Life of Ivan Osokin. (Ground Hog Day uses the same idea of eternal recurrence to great effect.) Ivan – in the novella – goes to a magician and asks to be sent back to his childhood in order to live his life over again and avoid all the mistakes he’s made. As we reflect on our past mistakes, naturally shame and regret will arise and it takes courage even to look; many people will not even acknowledge they’ve made mistakes. The question Nietzsche poses is; can we embrace all of it; the joys, woes and shame together; could we go back to our childhood and welcome the magician’s deal on condition that everything would occur exactly as the first time?
If you are wondering what happened to Ivan Osokin, he goes back to his childhood and repeats his life and makes exactly the same decisions as before, because he could not remain ‘present’ to the present. In Ouspensky’s terminology he was too identified with the situations he found himself in. (This aspect of mindfulness in the present moment is not something that Nietzsche discusses (and probably isn’t familiar with?) and could be considered to be the one factor missing from his account.) It is quite moving towards the end when he has glimpses of deeper realities when he is more alert; more present. This is the magician speaking when Ivan returns to him after re-living his life:
You know that everything repeats again and again. There have been other people who made the same discovery but they could make nothing more of it. If you could change something in yourself you could use this knowledge for your own advantage. You say you have nothing. Not quite. You have your life. So you can sacrifice your life. (my emphasis)
In the story, Ouspensky could have had Ivan become aware of his habitual reactive responses to life, and hence show him able to change. (Change often happens if we acknowledge our mistakes and vow not to repeat them, and then live in the ‘Now’. ) However, to show Ivan repeating the same mistakes drives the message home, that he is pinioned to the ‘wheel of life.’ Ouspensky’s view is somewhat pessimistic compared to Nietzsche’s.
To sum up: Osokin illustrates our common experience of regret and wanting to change the past. If this regret leads to us re-orientating our lives, becoming less self-concerned then all the better. This is where Buddhism, or any genuine spiritual practice, scores over Nietzsche! Ouspensky’s story is the antithesis of Nietzsche’s view as Osokin certainly cannot accept his past. He is ultimately a ‘nay-sayer.
As I’ve tried to argue, Nietzsche does not intend the idea of Eternal Recurrence to be taken literally. It is a thought experiment to focus our attention on the will, past events, self forgiveness and a celebration of life, ‘in spite of’. No amount of thinking will enable most of us to shout a resounding ‘Yes’ to the question, ‘Would you be prepared to live your life again exactly as before?’ But it may be possible to forgive ourselves and live in the present.
This is a good place to end Part One. Part Two will be posted some time in May. For anyone new to Nietzsche I’d recommend the ‘Penguin Classic’, A Nietzsche Reader (Translation by R. J. Hollindale) in which extracts from Nietzsche’s books are arranged chronologically. There is also a humorous and accurate short video here: