Marriage of Heaven & Hell


This is my small tribute to William Blake. I took two lines from his Marriage of Heaven & Hell and illustrated them with pen. He had not chosen to illustrate this part of his poem. I have alluded to a few Blakean and spiritual themes, so the drawing will repay close inspection. Jung’s words: No tree grows to heaven unless it roots reach down to hell, come to mind.



William Blake’s Visions

This is an extract from an Appendix I’ve written for my Blake book. I thought I’d post it here as it has been a while since I posted anything.

As distasteful as the subject of ‘seeing spirits’ is to our twenty first century minds, I am afraid we will have to consider such strange claims made by Blake, that he saw, for example:

a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars.

This, one of many such statements, was when he was a boy walking in Peckham Rye. Foster Damon asserts:

Blake’s visions were not supernatural: they were intensifications of normal experience. He believed that ‘all men partake of it, but it is lost by not being cultivated.’

It is certainly less problematic to understand Blake’s visions in this way but Blake also unambiguously believed in an afterlife and that the spirit exists independently from the body. (He says he saw his dying brother’s spirit ascend through the bedroom ceiling for example.) Seemingly, the question is not so clear-cut as Damon would have us believe. I think there are a number of strands which need untangling. Firstly, let us agree with Damon as far as his explanation goes. Artists, especially, interpret sense experience visually. Some even have ‘eidetic’ perception; that is, they can vividly visualise things that are not present in their immediate environment. Let us posit that Blake was, most likely, one such artist. This obviously explains how he could visualise the spirits of Milton, Solomon, Nelson and other historical figures.

Perhaps, then, all of Blake’s visions can be explained in such a manner; he had the artist’s proverbial vivid imagination. If we add to that his Neo-Platonic philosophy, then the problem could be solved. We have to remember that for Blake the interior mind of Imagination was pre-eminent. As Kathleen Raine reminds us:

In the material world of objects measurement, quantification, is the sole means of knowledge. In the world of immeasurable life, moods and meanings, states of being, heavens and hells, paradises and dreams cannot be quantified. . . the inner worlds have at all times been populous with gods and angels, demons and fairy people, embodiments and enactors of thoughts and moods of a mental universe.

In fact, we all have visions. Every night when we are asleep we dream and see events and people who are not in the same room as us! Is it much of a further step to consider the phenomenon of Near Death Experiences when people see a bright light, go down a tunnel, witness a review of their life and are welcomed by celestial beings? These NDE’s have been so well documented as to require no elaboration here. I am not even too interested in whether they are authentic visions or the result of altered brain chemistry. I am more interested in how they relate to Blake’s experiences. In 1983 Dr Bruce Greyson devised a scale showing the common features of NDEs.

The Greyson Scale

-Experiencing an altered state of time

-Experiencing accelerated thought processes

-Life review

-Sense of sudden understanding

-Feelings of peace

-Feeling of joy

-Feeling of cosmic oneness

-Seeing/feeling surrounded by light

-Having vivid sensations

-Extrasensory perception

-Experiencing visions

-Experiencing a sense of being out of physical body

-Experiencing a sense of an ‘otherworldly’ environment

-Experiencing a sense of a mystical entity

-Experiencing a sense of deceased/religious figures

-Experiencing a sense of a border or point of no return

The scale is used to assess the NDEs of people who report such experiences, but for our purposes let us see how each item correlates with Blake’s experience. I would suggest that all of the items are within Blake’s experience as recorded in his letters, poems or contemporary accounts. The only possible exceptions are ‘life review’ and the last on the list, but that is because of the particular context of the experience; that of near death. (Although, even on his death bed, Blake started singing about the heaven he could ‘see’ and was about to enter!) Blake would not be interested in whether such experiences are ‘real’ or could be measured by electrodes in the brain. As far as he was concerned his visions were part of his experience and needed no further authentication. (Carl Jung wrote about UFOs but he didn’t imagine that we were literally being visited by aliens!)

Incidentally, a Gallup Survey1 in the USA in 1982 concluded that NDEs had occurred to 8 million people or 4% of the population. That is a lot of people and shows that Blake’s experience, whilst admittedly not NDE, cannot be dismissed as hallucination of mere fantasy. We know so little about consciousness, so at the least, we should keep an open mind about so called visions.

The final aspect of this topic we should consider is that of ‘interior locution’ or the sense that we have received a kind of interior spoken message. Blake wrote to Crabb Robinson:

I write when commanded by the spirits and I see the words fly about the room in all directions.

‘Channelling’ is the modern counterpart of this kind of inspiration. Two of the most popular books of this kind are A Course in Miracles and the Conversations with God series by Neale Donald Walsch. In his Introduction to Conversations With God, book Three, the author states:

This is an extraordinary book. I say that as someone who has had very little to do with writing it. All I did, really, was “show up,” ask a few questions, then take dictation. That is all I have done since 1992, when this conversation with God began. It was in that year that, deeply depressed, I called out in anguish: What does it take to make life work? I wrote these questions out. . . in an angry letter to God. To my shock and surprise God answered. The reply came in the form of words whispered in my mind by a Voiceless Voice.

We probably will quibble about Walsh thinking it really was the ‘voice of God’, however, we can see that fundamentally this kind of inspiration has been going on since the dawn of history. His words, ‘I cried out in anguish’ may remind you of my cry for help, and, why is it that in millions of similar cases a ‘reply’ of sorts usually comes? We are back to the idea of there being something greater than ourselves or our little egos. Some people call this God, whilst others may just allow it to be something beyond their intellectual understanding. This is where a secular version of Buddhism parts company with ‘religious’ Buddhism. As, mentioned before, the nearest Soto Zen (religious Buddhism) comes to there being a numinous, eternal dimension to life and death is in the use of words such as the Unborn, and the Eternal.

Let us leave the final word to Blake:

Now that I may say to you, what perhaps I should not dare to say to any one else: That I can alone carry on my visionary studies in London unannoyed, & that I may converse with my friends in Eternity, See Visions, Dream Dreams & prophecy & speak Parables unobserved & at liberty from the doubts of other Mortals. . . Doubts are always pernicious [. . .] I take your advice. I see the face of my Heavenly Father; he lays his Hand upon my head & gives a blessing to all my works. . . through Hell will I sing forth his Praises. . .Excuse my, perhaps, too great Enthusiasm.

Letter to Thomas Butts, 25 April 1803


1. Quoted in What Happens When We Die, by Dr. Sam Parnia.

William Blake’s Bounding Line

dante bolake

From The Divine Comedy: Dante

This will fit in somewhere in my book. I thought I’d post it as it can easily stand alone, without reference to the rest of my book.

It is revelatory to spend a good half hour or so simply looking at Blake’s visual art without trying to interpret its meaning. You will quickly see that he much prefers the swirling, flaming line to the straight line! What could be a greater signifier of his revulsion of static, fossilised philosophy and attitudes? His visual exuberance is testimony to his aphorism, Energy is Eternal Delight.

The Job engravings do not appear quite as exuberant compared to some of his coloured images elsewhere; they seem much more controlled. This is partly because he used copperplate engraving; however there is much in the way of exuberant energy once we begin to look and examine the imagery, shapes and the composition of each plate. There are the obvious flaming shapes in engravings 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 11, 13, 16, and 18. But even the more serene plates are usually framed by swirling flames, vines, flowers, snakes and even abstract curves.

I have already hinted at the reason for this predilection for flaming shapes, that he is visually representing spiritual and physical energy. Blake believed that the artist should represent the unseen spiritual world; almost an impossible task you may think! He regarded the clearly defined line as superior to the three-dimensional, modelled, shape. Partly this is a result of his choice of medium when he was an apprentice; engraving. He chose a linear style as it is peculiar to engraving but he also was influenced by seeing Greek Vases and Gothic Art early in his career.

Here are Blake’s own words about line from an essay he wrote about the Book of Ruth:

The great and golden rule of art, as well as of life, is this: That the more distinct, sharp, and wirey the bounding line, the more perfect the work of art; and the less keen and sharp, the greater is the evidence of weak imitation, plagiarism, and bungling…. What is it that builds a house and plants a garden, but the definite and determinate? What is it that distinguishes honesty from knavery, but the hard and wirey line of rectitude and certainty in the actions and intentions. Leave out this line and you leave out life itself; all is chaos again. . .

Above all, though, we must remember that the Industrial Revolution was in full swing, in his lifetime, and he predicted the tyrannical effects of industrialisation upon humankind. Now, of course, an engineer who designs machines uses a ruler! Yes, a straight edge; perhaps this too explains why Blake made so much use of the ‘bounding line.’ It represented ‘vital life’ when, in contrast, all of the machinery he saw -with its interlocking cogs, girders and rivets – represented ‘eternal death.’ (We only need to recall that, in his day, children, some as young as 6yrs, spent over 12 hours on one shift working in factories.)

PS. This is not a Luddite Manifesto! Blake was not against science/technology on principle; he just saw that it would come to dominate the spiritual potential of humankind and narrow our outlook. In a word (or rather in a phrase!), he predicted the philosophy of scientific materialism which is entrenched in the so called developed nations today! (What would he think of man-made global warming?)

Blake’s Beasts

This is a chapter from my book in progress.

This is another striking engraving, almost mandala-like in its design and symmetry. There are some beautiful colour versions including this one. (My commentary is for the black and white engraving; if you want to compare them see the Blake Archive online.)

God at the top of the composition points down to the circle below Job where two beasts are enclosed on a circle. They are Behemoth with a human ear and a scaly Leviathan upturned in a seascape. Wicksteed sees them as monstrous, ‘terrible in their magnitude and their might, but unillumined by intelligence, or the knowledge of brotherhood.’

When we consider the natural world and its many ‘food-webs’ we soon realise it is a case of eat and be eaten in the wild. Every life-form is preying on some other life-form in order to live and reproduce. There is a lot of sex, killing and devouring in nature! If we also reflect on the millions of years in which dinosaurs lived and ruled the earth the vision of nature ‘red in tooth and claw’ becomes even more obvious. (The largest land animal that has ever existed throughout earth’s long history was a species of titanosaur. The fossil remains of one suggests that the creature weighed around 77tons, was 130 ft long and 66 ft tall. It lived around 100-95 million years ago – named by scientists as Patagotitan mayorum.)

This is a useful alternative picture to put alongside the television wildlife programmes which are so popular and are mostly upbeat and promote the marvels and wonders of nature.

Blake of course did not know about natural selection but if he had lived in the time of Darwin perhaps he would have embraced his account of the creation and evolution of nature (including human beings?)!

In his own words:

[Nature] is a Creation that groans, living on Death, where Fish & Bird & Beast & Man & Tree & Metal & Stone live by Devouring, going into Eternal Death, continually.


From a human point of view this alternative view of nature ‘red in tooth and claw’ is another example of dukkha. In human terms there is no meaning or purpose in all of the competition within species, or killing between species – the evolutionary biologist’s mantra is, ‘each generation of a species needs to get its genes into the next generation.’ If, like Richard Dawkins, you can accept that this is ‘the greatest story ever told’ – the title of one of his books about evolution – then you will probably understand human love, creativity and aesthetics as mere by-products of evolution.

It is sobering to think that Blake lived when the industrial revolution was in full swing. What would he make of space flight, atomic bombs, military drones, factory assembly lines, and the computerisation of warfare? Probably he’d say, ‘I told you so.’ My point is not to be a Luddite, but merely to suggest that technology has this knock-on exponential effect and we unconsciously start to ‘worship’ it instead of ‘God’ (or instead of prioritising human values such as equality, self-knowledge or peace of mind) – and there has been a phenomenon going in an opposite direction during this scientific and technological progress; a diminishing of the stature of human beings. We become mere cogs in the vast machinery of societies; as envisioned by Blake and countless writers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Blake was concerned primarily about how the worship of Urizen (scientific materialism in our thinking) had a detrimental effect on consciousness and the ‘soul’ rather than being simply critical of science and technology per se.

Wicksteed says of this plate,

This design shows us the creation of the outer or natural world, which to Blake seemed but a shadow of the world within.

Joseph Wicksteed

Are we to believe that Blake was an out and out Gnostic; that he believed that the visible world was created by a demiurge and was intrinsically evil? Christopher Rowland explains that the bible itself is often ‘gnostic’ in terms of divine beings wielding power:

Of course the emergence of a contrast between an exalted divinity and lesser divine powers, and the opposition between God and Satan, are all deeply rooted in the bible. [. . .] other parts of the Hebrew Bible, suggest that, whilst God may have been the ultimate source of power in the universe, he was not the only one to wield such power.

Christopher Rowland

It is not my purpose in this book to trace all of Blake’s influences; sufficient to say that he read and admired Jacob Boehme and Emanuel Swedenborg both of whom believed in a ‘spirit world.’ The latter wrote The True Christian Religion where we see that he believed literally in spirits, ‘One day as I was talking with an angel. . . and ‘as I was walking around Hell. . ‘ Blake actually satirises him in A Memorable Fancy so Blake’s understanding of angels and spirits is ambiguous to say the least.

For our purposes it is irrelevant whether we understand these elements as literal or allegorical although the latter position will serve us best in the long run. It is far more crucial to grasp Blake’s prescriptive project concerning how to ‘cleanse the doors of perception.’ One thing is certain and that is Blake was concerned how to fully appreciate this world as opposed to any ‘afterlife.’

Let’s return to our original question, did Blake believe the material world was evil? Clearly, posed like this it is seen as absurd; how could someone who writes, ‘Everything that lives is holy’ believe that this world is evil! The only evil Blake is cognisant of is whatever reinforces Single Vision – but many factors make up this single vision and the transformation to Fourfold Vision is difficult and subtle.

Renunciation is a word often used in a Buddhist context; usually when someone decides to renounce ‘household life’ and become a monk. However, it can also be used to describe the Buddhist path followed by a lay person. Unfortunately the word has negative connotations and may have ascetic overtones.

Speaking personally I came to Buddhism out of despair; I was sick of suffering and knew that psychology, philosophy and any other ‘worldly’ prescription for my malaise was inadequate. I came to ‘renounce’ the ordinary method of looking for satisfaction in the usual places such as career, intellectual pursuits, cultural activities, relationships and so on. John Middleton Murray expresses the difference between material knowledge and spiritual knowledge very well:

The cry of the human soul is for ever more knowledge. Were the only knowledge to be had that of the Five Senses and the Reason, which reduces all things to an abstract sameness, this hunger of the soul would drive men mad; more knowledge would be only ‘a repetition of the same dull round.’ But this hunger of the soul can be satisfied. But it can be satisfied only if there is a knowledge of a different kind from that of Reason and the Five Senses: and this knowledge must be of such a kind that to know one single thing by its means is to know all. . . If he can see the Eternal Individuality in every thing, then at every moment of such knowledge, he knows not merely the particular thing but the mode in which it is real; the mode in which all things are real, and in which they are real. That mode is Eternity. In the knowledge of Eternity the desire of man for All is justified: in an eternal moment he can possess All, and in possessing All, he becomes All.

J Middleton Murray

This is similar to how Eckhart Tolle speaks of the difference between one’s ‘life situation’ and ‘being.’

What you refer to as your ‘life’ should more accurately be called your ‘life situation.’ It is psychological time: past and future. Certain things in the past didn’t go the way you wanted them to go. You are still resisting what happened in the past, and now you are resisting what is. Hope is what keeps you going, but hope keeps you focussed on the future, and this continued focus perpetuate your denial of the Now and therefore your unhappiness. . .Your life situation exists in time. Your life is now. Your life situation is mind-stuff. Your life is real. Find the ‘narrow gate that leads to life.’ Narrow your life down to this moment. Your life situation may be full of problems – most life situations are – but find out if you have any problems at this moment. Not tomorrow or in ten minutes, but now. Do you have a problem now?

Eckhart Tolle

If ever there was a poet of the Now it must surely be Blake.

He who binds to himself a joy

Does the winged life destroy;

But he who kisses the joy as it flies

Lives in eternity’s sunrise.


I think there is some equivalence between Blake’s Poetic-Genius and Eckhart Tolle’s ‘mindful’ focussing on the present. Both are eloquent about the identification of self with mere thinking and self-consciousness. In There is No Natural Religion Blake says:

If it were not for the Poetic or Prophetic character the Philosophic & Experimental would soon be at the ratio of all things, & stand still, unable to do other than repeat the same dull round over again. (emphasis added)


This is the real meaning of his ‘dark satanic mills.’ He often used the metaphor of mill machinery to stand for this mechanical, prosaic approach to life. Locke thought we come into the world as blank slates and that perception is passive. Blake disagrees and says we possess wisdom from the beginning and that our perception is heightened by the use of imagination and intention.

Innate ideas are in Every Man, Born with him: they are truly himself. The Man who says that we have no Innate Ideas must be a Fool & Knave, having No Conscience or Innate Science.

Annotation to Reynolds

Frye comments on this quotation:

Sense experience is itself a chaos. . . The wise man will choose what he wants to do with his perceptions just as he will choose the books he wants to read, and his perceptions will thus be charged with an intelligible and coherent meaning. Meaning for him, that is, pointing to his own mind and not to, for instance, nature.

Northrop Frye

We should now be able to see that Blake did not belittle or undervalue the natural world. He simply prioritised the Imagination and saw the ‘developed’ human being as the creator of her world; a creation accomplished by ‘cleansing the doors of perception’ anew in each moment. Blake concurs completely with Tolle’s ‘present moment’ – in Milton he has these wonderful lines:

There is a Moment in each Day that Satan cannot find,

Nor can his Watch Fiends find it; but the Industrious find

This Moment & it multiply & when it is found

It renovates every Moment of the Day, if rightly placed.


This is no different to Soto Zen’s, ‘when hungry eat, when tired sleep, and when doing the dishes just do the dishes.’



frozen lake

Strangely I submitted this to an online literary magazine and it was accepted. Unfortunately I can’t remember which one;  shows how important it is to make a note of where we send pieces!


Remembrance & Redemption

Apologies to St John of the Cross, George Herbert, George Barker, George Macbeth, Edward Lucie-Smith, David Holbrook and Jack Clemo.

In the darkness I crept out, my house being wrapped in sleep.

I am the man who has seen affliction. My enemy has driven me away and made me walk in darkness. He has made my skin and my flesh grow old and has broken my bones.

I leaned into the driving sleet. I found them between far hills by a frozen lake on a patch of deep snow. How could I have been the only witness? Whoever lived in that house must have seen and heard what I saw and heard. So severe the black frost that it bent the white burden of the bracken. Only one red shoe and a discarded glove showed through the snow. I had a vision of the world’s dark deeds. I could smell incinerator smoke; I saw bodies shovelled into dark pits. Children buried in a frozen lake. How long must I bear the unbearable; how long in this shadow of death? I retraced my steps but only succeeded in going round in circles.

It goes, the fever leaves me – my clumsy tongue no longer bursts my lips. I wore a black band on my arm. I thought they’d crucify me; I heard howling throughout the dark night.

Two of them came like bears out of the white forest; one held me in his arms. Dead wood with its load of stones brought to life again. He touched me lightly on the cheek. I lay quite still. I threw away my care and left my fear and trembling behind. Bright sun flooded the forest floor.

I rose up from my ancient grave. Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright!


Nietzsche, Part Two: Who am I?

ecce homo pic

In this Part Two I explore Nietzsche’s view of the self and compare it to the Buddhist view. I also examine what Nietzsche meant by freedom and what existential freedom can be for us today.

I should emphasise that Nietzsche is never prescriptive although his aphoristic style gives the impression that he is. I don’t have the same qualms about being non-prescriptive!

When I was a teenager – and perhaps being unsociable – my mother would often say to me, “Be yourself, Eric.” Needless to say this irritated me because I sensed an ulterior message of ‘be who I want you to be.’

Of course adolescence is the prime time to explore who we are. However, the question is far from straight-forward. Some people seem to arrive at their ‘identity’ as if there were a ready-made mould simply to be filled. They then spend the remainder of their lives reasonably content with their roles: teacher, lawyer, bus driver, builder, wife, husband and so on. Their role and the people they meet contribute to a ‘hardening’ of their character. No doubt many continue to grow psychologically and spiritually, but many others live out their lives ‘being someone else.’ (That is, living The Looking Glass Self – Charles Horton Cooley coined this term to express how the self is shaped by the reflected opinions of others around us.)

Eric Berne was among the first to describe how assigned roles can suffocate us and in the last 50yrs or so the burgeoning market of self-awareness courses and books has encouraged us to examine our identities and question our very thoughts and feelings in order to find out ‘who we are.’

Is it possible that Nietzsche was thinking along these lines? The sub-title of his Ecce Homo is the wonderfully pregnant aphoristic, Becoming Who You Are! And in Untimely Meditations this aphorism is even more to the point:

All that you are now, doing, thinking, desiring, is not you yourself. (my emphasise)

As we saw in Part One Nietzsche denies that there is a permanent, unchanging self – he seems to confirm David Hume’s insight that thoughts and feelings come and go independently of any agent. Buddhism has the same idea or rather, insight, with its anatta – here is a definition taken from a Buddhist Dictionary:

As applied to man it states that there is no permanent ego or self. . . which make up the personality. The Buddha, however, nowhere denied the existence of an ego, but taught that no permanent entity. . . can be found in any of the human faculties.

Here, for comparison is a longer quote from Nietzsche:

Owing to the phenomenon ‘thought’, the ego is taken for granted; but up to the present everybody believed. . . that there was something unconditionally certain in the notion ‘I think’, and that by analogy with our understanding of all other causal reactions this ‘I’ was the given cause of the thinking. However customary and indispensable this fiction may have become now, this fact proves nothing against the imaginary nature of its origin; it might be a life-preserving belief and still be false.

Will to Power; 483

And it is obvious that Nietzsche sees the individual as a ‘ community of selves,’ – and that the free spirit is aware of the multiplicity and harmonises the community. I think his ”will to power’ is the harmonising factor. Just one quote:

The highest man would have the highest multiplicity of drives in the relatively greatest strength that can be endured. Indeed, where the plant ‘human being’ shows itself strongest one finds instincts that conflict powerfully but are controlled.

Will to Power, 966

Some people, when they first come across this idea of ‘no-self’ (or the notion that they don’t originate their thoughts) begin to experience panic, as if they are going to somehow disappear or disintegrate. Of course it can be unsettling and that is all to the good. However, Buddhism is not saying the self is a complete illusion or that we should not act as if we were individual agents with free will. It is rather like the physicists’ description of reality consisting of indeterminate sub atomic particles in an endless energetic flux. We don’t go around (unless you are a quantum physicist!) visualising this sub atomic world; tables and trees are still solid to all intents and purposes. By analogy the self is separate and acting-on-the-world – but, there is a deeper reality also there once we question appearances.

It was Heraclitus who said we never step in the same river twice. Nietzsche too sees everything in a state of flux or ‘becoming.’ He also echoes Eckhart Tolle’s insistence that the ‘present moment’ is the only reality:

the present must not under any circumstances be justified by a future nor must the past be justified for the sake of the present. . . Strictly speaking nothing of the nature of Being must be allowed to remain – because in that case Becoming loses its value. .

Will to Power 708

And in Thus Spoke Zarathustra:

But the best parables should speak of time and becoming: they should be a eulogy and a justification of all transitoriness.

If we think of present-moment moments when we were, say transfixed by the beauty of a bird’s song, or moved by a painting, we can clearly see that we are much more than our thoughts and feelings or even our memories. In that moment consciousness is heightened and the ‘small self’ transcended. We are not aware of ourselves as a ‘particular person’ or as ‘someone’ carrying out a particular role.

As I stated in Part One, we today have a tremendous advantage over Nietzsche; many of us are incorporating meditational practices into our lives. For example the Buddhist anatta is not mere philosophy or metaphysics – it can be a real aid for us in letting thoughts and feelings pass though consciousness. I’m thinking of the problematic or painful thoughts of course, but it applies to all thoughts really. If I keep having the thought that ‘so and so ignores my emails because he isn’t interested in my ideas’ I may slip into a whole narrative of judgemental thoughts and end up in self-loathing. We may be able to accept the idea, ‘don’t believe everything you think,’ but ‘don’t believe everything you feel,’ is much more difficult. Most of the time we invest our identity in what we think and especially what we feel. Buddhism says this is delusive and I think Nietzsche is saying something similar. Getting to know how our minds work and the tricks they play on us is all part of what today is called mindfulness. I know of no other method other than some sort of mind-awareness practice such as mindfulness – which can enable us to respond in freedom to circumstances. If we are not self-aware in this respect we will be reactive to life, always acting from conditioning, rather than proactive. Where Nietzsche isn’t prescriptive, we can be prescriptive. (Even a book like The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People talks of changing the obsolete scripts we were handed out in childhood/during our education etc.)

Another area where there is a huge overlap between Buddhism and Nietzsche is in the acknowledgement of suffering as part of life and how to incorporate it positively into our lives. As we saw in Part One Nietzsche’s solution is in his amor fati – to praise in spite of. Buddhism sees the cause of suffering (secondary suffering that is, as explained in Part One) as ‘grasping’ at things which we think will be advantageous to us and rejecting what we think will be disadvantageous.

Ahjan Chah emphasises that mindfulness of our likes and dislikes is a constant effort, not for the faint-hearted!

The Dhamma (Teaching) of the Buddha is profound and refined. It isn’t easy to comprehend.. If true wisdom has not yet arisen you can’t see it. . . When you experience happiness you think there will be only happiness. Whenever there is suffering you think there will only be suffering. You see only one side and thus it’s never-ending. There are two sides to everything; you must see both. Then when happiness arises, you don’t get lost; when suffering arises, you don’t get lost.. .. you see that they are interdependent.

Food For the Heart.

I am afraid if we want to be really free existentially and spiritually we will have to go against the current of accepted values and opinions. Nietzsche of course exemplifies this alone-ness. Here he is writing about the pioneer, ‘we free spirits’.

Solitude, that dread goddess. . . encircles him . . who today knows what solitude is? . . .If once he hardly dared to ask ‘Why so apart, so alone, renouncing all I loved? Already hearing the answer.

You had to become master over yourself. . of your own good qualities. Formerly they were your masters. You had to acquire power over your Yes and No and withhold them in accordance with your higher aims.” (my emphasis)

Human, All too Human

If we can become more all-embracing in our attitude to life and less self-concerned we will find our sense of self changing; I have had to incorporate my experience of depression into the context of Buddhist training and it has meant going into some very dark places. Once the journey has been started it is likely painful memories and feelings will surface. We use right effort and patient endurance to convert the three poisons of greed, hatred and delusion into generosity, compassion and wisdom. Likewise, Nietzsche’s ‘will to power’ is a good antidote to akrasia ( the inability to act according to our good judgement) and helps us to keep our minds receptive to new experiences and to grow in self-knowledge.

Although Nietzsche is all too often associated with wilfulness, and Dionysian abandon, one of his last acts before insanity overtook his last years, was to throw his arms around an ill-treated horse in an act of empathy. And who said he never wrote about love?

To have travelled the whole circumference of the modern soul, and to have sat in all its corners – my ambition, my torment, and my happiness. (sounds like becoming friends with hatred, greed and delusion to me!) Veritably to have overcome pessimism, and, as the result thereof, to have acquired the eyes of Goethe – full of love and goodwill.

The Will to Power, 1031

Nietzsche: would you be prepared to re-live your life in exactly the same way?

penguin nietzsche reader

Dipping into Nietzsche: would you be prepared to re-live your life in exactly the same way?

Part One

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.

Ecce Homo

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.

Zarathustra asks:

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: