Friedrich Nietzsche on Doing It Again

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.

8 thoughts on “Friedrich Nietzsche on Doing It Again

  1. I assume that the demon is oneself. And, I agree with Nietzsche’s final assessment that life must be chosen. One possibility that wasn’t mentioned is that the purpose of living life differently would imply that all possibilities of a life must be led. Wouldn’t one naturally want to live all lives? Even the bad ones (horrible beginning, middling, or ending) would seem more fun than not living. Embrace life; as the master spake. Also, not knowing the previous outcomes would make the next more realistic and less boring.

  2. It’s hard to imagine what it would be like to start over again, knowing you were starting over again and remembering what you did last time. You might develop a really severe case of cognitive dissonance. And drink a lot.

    On the other hand, even if you had a very different life each time, while being aware of all your past lives, you might run into the boredom problem. It might feel like getting on a treadmill over and over again, even though it was a different treadmill. If you didn’t know you were living again, of course, it would feel just like it feels now.

    As for wanting to live any life at all, I’m not sure I agree. First off, not living at all would hardly seem to matter to you, since there would be no “you” for it to matter to. And if living is always better than not living, does that mean we should all procreate as much as possible, just so there are more and more lives being lived? It might be better from your perspective for you to be born (although that brings us back to my first point), but I’m not sure how it would affect the rest of us.

  3. Of course if the “you” you refer to in your last paragraph is a spandrel i.e., consciousness is an effect of complex organisms then what possible difference could it make?

  4. The conception of the “eternal recurrence” (one of the many descriptions of it which you quote) (from Joyous Wisdom (371)) was one of the desperate avenues that FN used to escape his discovery of the complete absence of meaning in the world where nothing corresponds to one’s innermost aspirations and desires and leads us wandering aimlessly through an infinite void. Once FN expressed his long-held idea that infused every one of FN’s thoughts and terrors, that “God was dead” (Joyous Wisdom (125)), he sought for a cure for the magnitude of this overwhelming deed–which Man in his unthinking destructive need for “truth” at any cost, exposed the original lie of the “true world” the “other world” the world which religion used to destroy the value of this world. FN knew this would be too much for Man to bear: the ruinous culmination of the Platonic evisceration of man’s wholeness by the identification of his true being in Reason alone (This is echoed in a giant as great as Descartes as well.)
    Your analysis (which I regretfully must characterize as ridiculous and an utter and complete misunderstanding of the significance of FN) misses the significance of not only the eternal recurrence but the entire meaning of FN’s philosophy. The aphorism which you take to mean some type of facile eastern-type of actual “reincarnation” is nothing of the sort and bastardizes the reason that FN called that Aphorism “The Greatest Burden”. Perhaps had you quoted the rest of the paragraph you might have not have been so cavalier in your juvenile analysis. After your truncation of the quote, FN goes on to say: “If this thought took control of you, it would transform you and perhaps crush you.” The clear meaning is to cure the annihilation of Man’s worth, for If you could truly desire this life over and over again and truly accept such a challenge, you could possibly live fully, without fear and self-disgust, in a world of darkness without end, with integrity and an unassailable honesty–despite the darkness; and, perhaps, even rise above the destruction of all that was great in Man. (Note FN does not say that you would be actually live over and again, he uses the phrase “If this Thought took control of you”, such a “thought …could transform you into a greater and more noble person who could live without any guilty conscience of the “magnitude of the deed (killing God) which he knew in his inner most Being to be a “deed too great for Man”.and that “never was there a greater and more terrible deed.” (125) .
    The recurrence is an idea to transform the Man who is perspicacious enough to recognize the truth: that the nihilism that eats away at our post-Modern souls might itself be able to forge a Man who lived at the pinnacle of Being. To possibly affirm our lives in a world in which “the horizon [is] wiped out”–this was what he gave to Man in the “Thought” of the recurrence–the possibility of overcoming, the triumph over the impossible battle in one’s soul to cure the poisonous result of Man’s sickness to use Reason in the service of knowing everything about himself, even the worst things imaginable.
    FN was indeed ahead of his time by recognizing that Man had broken history into two parts, and that what came after him would be a place where no one could live.
    (As a side note, perhaps if you considered that every great mind of the past Century recognized FN as the most important philosopher since Plato, e.g., Camus: “The only honest question of this time is suicide.” Heidegger, Sartre, deBouvour, Brecht, Camus, Jaspers, and those who felt it but had not expressed it in all of its barbaric truth: Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, Tolstoy, Buber, Husserl, Kafka, Henri Bergson, Gabriel Marcel, Santayana, Thomas Mann, Rainier Maria Rilke, Celine, Baudelaire, Ortega y Gasset, Yeats, even William James, or someone even you may have read, Alan Watts.) They all deal with the problem FN had described and lived and finally in 1886 exposed to the World, not to destroy Man but to give him a way to survive it.
    Guessing from your comments and those that follow your lead it would seem that there is a conspiracy to forget all of this or deny it, which may be no more than one more contrivance in the vast effort of modern society to flee from itself.

    • This is a bit much to chew on before breakfast, and it isn’t clear whether Mr. Relkin’s comment is meant to be taken seriously or is offered as satire, but for anyone happening to follow this little discussion, Nietzsche is one of the few philosophers whose work tends to generate overheated commentary like this. If I’d made some remarks concerning Descartes and his demon, for example, it’s highly unlikely that anyone would have bothered to respond in this way. I thought I wrote about eternal recurrence because of its relevance to human (especially my) psychology, but now I realize that it was because of my unconscious desire to participate in the global conspiracy to misrepresent “FN”.

      It sounds like a fun group to be part of, so later in the day I’ll do my best to support the conspiracy by responding to the above comment further.

    • After reading your comment more thoroughly, I’m going to proceed on the assumption that you’re trying to make a serious point (although it would do you more credit if you were brilliantly satirizing people who “support” their intellectual heroes with pompous, invective-filled attacks on perceived critics).

      Here are a couple paragraphs from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s article on Nietzsche (granted, the author and editors might be part of the anti-FN conspiracy, but note the last sentence):

      “In a more well-known aphoristic work, The Gay Science (Die fröhliche Wissenschaft, 1882) — whose title was inspired by the troubadour songs of southern-French Provence (1100–1300) — Nietzsche sets forth some of the existential ideas for which he became famous, namely, the proclamation that “God is dead” and the doctrine of eternal recurrence — a doctrine that attends to how people of different levels of health are likely to react to the prospect of being reborn, over and over again, to replay life’s experience exactly as before in every pleasurable and painful sequence of detail…

      Nietzsche’s doctrine of eternal recurrence (sections 285 and 341) serves to draw attention away from all worlds other than the one in which we presently live, since eternal recurrence precludes the possibility of any final escape from the present world. The doctrine also functions as a measure for judging someone’s overall psychological strength and mental health, since Nietzsche believed that the doctrine of eternal recurrence was the hardest world-view to affirm. There are some differences of scholarly opinion concerning whether Nietzsche primarily intends this doctrine to describe a serious metaphysical theory, or whether he is offering merely one way to interpret the world among many others, which if adopted therapeutically as a psychologically healthy myth, can help us become stronger.

      Despite your interpretation, I didn’t write anything that contradicts the passage above. I certainly didn’t imply that Nietzsche believed in reincarnation. I knew there is some scholarly disagreement about what he did believe, but I don’t find that issue very interesting.

      However, reading a couple of Nietzsche’s references to eternal recurrence yesterday got me to thinking what it would mean to live one’s life over again, and why that’s a recurring fantasy for some of us. Maybe you were too wound up to notice by then, but I did refer to Nietzsche’s use of eternal recurrence as part of his life-affirming philosophy. It’s true that I could have explicitly referred to Nietzsche’s thoughts on eternal recurrence as a “thought experiment”, but most people would understand that imagining a demon telling us we are going relive our lives is just that, not a claim that demons or reincarnation are real.

      Nevertheless, if a philosopher is going to suggest a thought experiment (“how would you react to this bizarre situation?”), the thought should make sense. I still think the idea of living one’s life over again doesn’t make sense, and is therefore a stupid and unhelpful idea, for the reasons I gave yesterday.

      If you make a habit of leaving comments on the internet (somehow, I get the feeling you do), you should consider being less rude, not jumping to conclusions and working on your sense of humor. But thanks for your comment anyway.

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