A New Existential Reality

A New Existential Reality December 16, 2018

A New Existential Reality 

Guest post by Daniel Reynoso

“The Eternal Hourglass of Existence is Turned Upside Down Again and Again, and You with it, A Speck of Dust.”  Nietzsche

Nietzsche believed that the death of God—that is, the existential loss of faith at the heart of the modern methods of philosophy and science—necessarily implied the loss of all absolute points of reference in the realms of knowledge and morality. He recognized that this was not fully understood in his day, even by skeptical atheists who no longer accepted the God hypothesis. The meaning of such a catastrophe needed time to become fully appreciated by humanity.

He also believed there would still be “shadows of God” lingering for centuries,[42] even in disciplines that seem to omit the God hypothesis altogether.[43] He even thought that these shadows had been incorporated into the very nature of human language itself.[44] Reorienting humanity to a world without God would be a monumental task that future philosophers and free spirits would need to undertake, and Nietzsche thought science was helping to pave the way to that end.[45]

Key Concept #2: The Eternal Return of the Same (568)

Everything Returns

So when he experienced his mystical insight of the interdependent unity of all things, we should not be surprised to learn that it came about as a result of developing theories within the scientific discipline of physics that were gaining traction at that time. He even understood science to be predicting that all things were not only completely intertwined, but that they would also repeat over and over again.

In fact, about ten years after Nietzsche attained to this insight, the philosopher, theoretical physicist, and mathematician Henri Poincaré proposed his own version of the theory, known as the Poincaré recurrence theorem. The Poincaré recurrence theorem states that “certain systems will, after a sufficiently long but finite time, return to a state very close to, if not exactly the same as, the initial state.”[46] The theorem was proposed by Poincaré in 1890, but it was not proved until 1919.

Nietzsche, the avid student of physics and the other branches of science, had already put all of this together in 1881. His idea is known as the Doctrine of the Eternal Recurrence, or the Eternal Return of the Same,” and it posits the identical scenario: given the infinite nature of time and the finite nature of material substances, all things will eventually reorganize themselves in exactly the same way over and over again for all eternity.[47]

This was an insight that transformed Nietzsche from an aimless author into a man of destiny prepared to heed the great calling that became his life task. As a classical scholar, he understood that the idea of a two-way recurrence itself might already have been proposed by the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus and adopted by the Stoics.[48]

A Unique Insight

But what made Nietzsche’s insight novel was that he had arrived at the theory using his adept philosophical understanding of the most cutting-edge scientific discoveries of the time. That is, he believed it might be the case that further science would establish this scenario as the reigning cosmological theory,[49] and he tried to use the Eternal Return as a way to frame an existential philosophy.

Nietzsche considered the prospect that he, along with everyone else, would have to relive his same life over and over again for all eternity to be the most terrifying prospect he could face. He thought it was “the heaviest burden” one could carry, a truly paralyzing thought.

Nietzsche himself claimed that his painfully strained relationships with his mother and sister were his own greatest objections to the prospect of the Eternal Return,[50] but he still wondered aloud how “favorably inclined to yourself and to life” you would have to become “so as to long for nothing more ardently than for this last eternal sanctioning and sealing?”[51]

Nietzsche came to consider the ability to embrace the Eternal Return as the highest and most profound proof of inner strength one could muster.[52] This embrace of the Eternal Return, of “saying Yes to life even in its strangest and hardest problems”[53]—what Nietzsche calls the tragic perspective—is the litmus test for determining how we really feel about our lives.

This existential imperative[54] became, for Nietzsche, the springboard to a whole new way of understanding his life and the world around him. Where once we might have endured life for the sake of finality or completion, in the Eternal Return we find that the tragic perspective is forced to contemplate existence from the platform of eternity.

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[42] Ibid, 108: “New Struggles – After Buddha was dead people showed his shadow for centuries afterwards in a cave, an immense frightful shadow.  God is dead: – but as the human race is constituted there will perhaps be caves for millenniums yet, in which people will show his shadow.  And we – we have still to overcome his shadow!

[43] Friedrich Nietzsche, Toward a Genealogy of Morals, Essay I, “Good and Evil, Good and Bad,” 13: “Natural scientists are no better when they say “Force moves, force causes,” and so on—our entire scientific knowledge, for all its coolness, its freedom from feelings, still remains exposed to the seductions of language and has not gotten rid of the changelings foisted on it, the ‘Subject’ (the atom, for example, is such a changeling, like the Kantian ‘Thing in itself’).”

[44] Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols: How to Philosophize with a Hammer, Reason in Philosophy, 5: “And in India, as in Greece, the same mistake was made: ‘We must once have been at home in a higher world (instead of a very much lower one, which would have been the truth); we must have been divine, for we have reason!’ Indeed, nothing has yet possessed a more naive power of persuasion than the error concerning being, as it has been formulated by the Eleatics, for example. After all, every word and every sentence we say speak in its favor. Even the opponents of the Eleatics still succumbed to the seduction of their concept of being: Democritus, among others, when he invented his atom. ‘Reason’ in language – oh, what an old deceptive female she is! I am afraid we are not rid of God because we still have faith in grammar.

[45] Friedrich Nietzsche, Toward the Genealogy of Morals, Essay 1, “Good and Evil, Good and Bad,” 17: “All the sciences from now on have to advance the future work of the philosopher, understanding that the philosopher has to solve the problem of value, that he has to determine the rank order of values.

[46] Wikipedia, “Poincaré recurrence theorem”

[47] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Joyful Wisdom, 341: “The Heaviest Burden. What if a demon crept after you into your loneliest loneliness some day or night, and said to you: ‘This life, as you live it at present, and have lived it, you must live it once more, and also innumerable times; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and every sigh, and all the unspeakably small and great in thy life must come to you again, and all in the same series and sequence – and similarly this spider and this moonlight among the trees, and similarly this moment, and I myself. The eternal sand-glass of existence will ever be turned once more, and you with it, you speck of dust!’ – Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth, and curse the demon that so spoke? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment in which you would answer him: ‘You are a God, and never did I hear anything so divine!’ If that thought acquired power over you as you are, it would transform you, and perhaps crush you; the question with regard to all and everything: ‘Do you want this once more, and also for innumerable times?’ would lie as the heaviest burden upon your activity! Or, how would you have to become favorably inclined to yourself and to life, so as to long for nothing more ardently than for this last eternal sanctioning and sealing?

[48] Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo: How One Becomes What One Is, Why I Write Such Excellent Books, “The Birth of Tragedy,” 3: “I still remained a little doubtful about Heraclitus in whose presence alone I felt warmer and more at ease than anywhere else. The affirmation of impermanence and destruction which is the decisive feature of a Dionysian philosophy; the affirmation of opposition and war, Becoming together with the radical rejection even of the concept Being— these things in any case I can recognize as being as closely related to me as anything thought to date. The doctrine of the ‘eternal recurrence’—that is to say of the absolute and eternally repeated cycle of things—this doctrine of Zarathustra’s might it is true have been taught before. In any case the Stoics, who derived nearly all their fundamental ideas from Heraclitus show traces of it.

[49] Scholars of the philosophy of science and physics still debate Nietzsche’s cosmological picture and his notion of the Eternal Return. For example, Nietzsche offered a famous picture of his own limited understanding of the universe in his late notebooks: “And do you know what ‘the world’ is to me? Shall I show it to you in my mirror? This world: a monster of energy, without beginning, without end; a firm, iron magnitude of force that does not grow bigger or smaller, that does not expend itself but only transforms itself; as a whole, of unalterable size, a household without expenses or losses, but likewise without increase or income; enclosed by ‘nothingness’ as by a boundary; not something blurry or wasted, not something endlessly extended, but set in a definite space as a definite force, and not a space that might be ‘empty’ here or there, but rather as force throughout, as a play of forces and waves of forces, at the same time one and many, increasing here and at the same time decreasing there; a sea of forces flowing and rushing together, eternally changing, eternally flooding back, with tremendous years of recurrence, with an ebb and a flood of its forms; out of the simplest forms striving toward the most complex, out of the stillest, most rigid, coldest forms toward the hottest, most turbulent, most self-contradictory, and then again returning home to the simple out of this abundance, out of the play of contradictions back to the joy of concord, still affirming itself in this uniformity of its courses and its years, blessing itself as that which must return eternally, as a becoming that knows no satiety, no disgust, no weariness: this, my Dionysian world of the eternally self-creating, the eternally self-destroying, this mystery world of the twofold voluptuous delight, my ‘beyond good and evil,’ without goal, unless the joy of the circle is itself a goal; without will, unless a ring feels good will toward itself-do you want a name for this world? A solution for all its riddles? A light for you, too, you best-concealed, strongest, most intrepid, most midnightly men?– This world is the will to power—and nothing besides! And you yourselves are also this will to power—and nothing besides!” (The Will to Power, 1067)

[50] Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo: How One Becomes What One Is, Why I Am so Wise, 3: “I confess that the deepest objection to the Eternal Recurrence, my real idea from the abyss, is always my mother and sister.” Interestingly, this passage was suppressed by his sister, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, once his literary estate fell to her care after her brother became mentally incapacitated. The passage only came to light and was subsequently published in the 1960s, nearly 80 years after Nietzsche wrote it. (see Michael Tanner, Nietzsche: A Very Short Introduction, Chapter 7, “Occupying the High Ground,” OceanofPDF.com

[51] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Joyful Wisdom, 341

[52] Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo: How One Becomes What One Is, Why I Write Such Excellent Books, “The Birth of Tragedy,” 2: “I was the first to see the actual contrast: the degenerate instinct which turns upon life with a subterranean lust of vengeance (Christianity, Schopenhauer’s philosophy and in some respects too even Plato’s philosophy—in short the whole of idealism in its typical forms) as opposed to a formula of the highest life affirmation born of an abundance, a superabundance, an affirmation free from all reserve even of suffering, even of guilt, even all that is questionable and strange in existence. This last most joyous most exuberant and exultant Yes to life is not only the highest but also the profoundest conception and one which is most strictly confirmed and supported by truth and science. Nothing that exists must be suppressed nothing can be dispensed with. Those aspects of life which Christians and other Nihilists reject belong to an incalculably higher order in the hierarchy of values than that which the instinct of decadence approves calls good. In order to understand this a certain courage is necessary and as a prerequisite of this a certain excess of strength: for a man can approach only as near to truth as he has the courage to advance—that is to say the extent of the advance is a measure of his strength. Knowledge and the affirmation of reality are just as necessary to the strong man as cowardice, the flight from reality—in fact the ‘ideal’—are necessary to the weak when inspired by weakness. These people are not at liberty to ‘know’—decadents have need of lies—it is one of their self-preservative measures.”

[53] Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols: How to Philosophize with a Hammer, What I Owe to the Ancients, 5: “The psychology of the orgiastic as an overflowing feeling of life and strength, where even pain still has the effect of a stimulus, gave me the key to the concept of tragic feeling, which had been misunderstood both by Aristotle and even more by modern pessimists. Tragedy is so far from being a proof of the pessimism (in Schopenhauer’s sense) of the Greeks that it may, on the contrary, be considered a decisive rebuttal and counterexample. Saying Yes to life even in its strangest and most painful episodes, the will to life rejoicing in its own inexhaustible vitality even as it witnesses the destruction of its greatest heroes — that is what I called Dionysian, that is what I guessed to be the bridge to the psychology of the tragic poet. Not in order to be liberated from terror and pity, not in order to purge oneself of a dangerous affect by its vehement discharge — which is how Aristotle [mis]understood tragedy — but in order to celebrate oneself the eternal joy of becoming, beyond all terror and pity — that tragic joy included even joy in destruction. And with that I again touch on my earliest point of departure: The Birth of Tragedy was my first revaluation of all values. And on that point I again stand on the earth out of which my intention, my ability grows — I, the last disciple of the philosopher Dionysus — I, the teacher of the eternal recurrence.

[54] The notion that Nietzsche’s Doctrine of the Eternal Return is an existential imperative was championed by the late Nietzsche scholar Bernd Magnus in his classic work, Nietzsche’s Existential Imperative: Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy (Indiana University Press, 1978). Magnus argues for an interpretation of the Eternal Return that uses the concept to in order to deliberate on future action, which is very reminiscent of Dr. Victor Frankl’s fundamental tenet of his logotherapeutic psychology, “So live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!” (Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, 1946). While this is certainly one valuable use of the tool of the perspective of the Eternal Return, it’s doubtful that Nietzsche intended for us to understand the doctrine in precisely, or only, this way.


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