Friedrich Nietzsche had a recurring thought about recurrence.
In one of his early works, he imagines people being asked “whether they would wish to live through the past ten or twenty years once more”.
In a later work, he appears to raise the stakes:
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” … Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: “You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine”.
Assuming the demon and I didn’t get hung up on questions like “Who are you anyway?” and “Are you sure about that?”, I’d want some clarification. (I can’t imagine gnashing my teeth, since I don’t know what that is.)
Tell me, demon. Would I know that I was living my life again? There wouldn’t seem to be much point in doing it again from scratch.
The demon would probably have a ready answer: if you knew you were living it again, it wouldn’t be the same as living it the first time. You’d have more knowledge the second (or third, or fourth) time around, and presumably be in a position to make different choices.
Right, the Debbie Anderson thing again.
But if I didn’t know anything more this time or remember how things turned out before, what difference would it make? Even if things turned out differently, I wouldn’t know they were turning out differently. I’d simply be living my life as if it were the first time. In fact, for all I know, I’m living my life right now for the umpteenth time, even though it sure feels like the very first (and only) time.
The demon might be nonplussed at this point. Hey, he might say, I never thought of it that way. If you remember you’re doing it again, you’re not really doing it again. But if you don’t know you’re doing it again, you might as well be doing it for the first time. Oh well, I guess it was a stupid question to begin with.
Nietzsche clearly didn’t think it was a stupid question. He thought that a superior person would willingly live the very same life over and over again. To do so would be the highest affirmation. Life is tragic and full of pain, but the best among us will embrace it anyway.
He’s probably right about that, even though the idea of “eternal recurrence” is a dead end.
What some of us really want, of course, is to go back and do things differently. If I could only go back to that one moment ten years ago, or forty years ago, I’d do it better this time.
Since we’re merely human, fantasizing about the past is much easier than getting the future right.