The Eternal Recurrence of Not Too Much

Friedrich Nietzsche
Image by mansionwb via Flickr

NYU’s Philosophy department has a mostly-deserved (I think) reputation as the most prestigious philosophy department on earth, but it’s particulate focus on analytic philosophy and snobbish attitude towards most other fields left some pretty substantial gaps in my education. One of the bigger gaps is shaped like Nietzsche’s comically large mustache, and I hope to soon plug that hole with a copy of The Nietzsche Reader that I picked up at the Book Barn (stay tuned for a lot of Nietzsche blogging once that happens). One reason I’m excited to dig in: the concept of eternal recurrence has been on my mind a lot lately.

For those who only have a foggy notion what I’m referring to, here’s the relevant passage from The Gay Science:

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 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.” If this thought gained possession of you, it would change you as you are or perhaps crush you. The question in each and every thing, “Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?” would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight. 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?

I’m obsessed with this passage. Part of the reason why is because I love the whole concept of philosophy imparted by aphorism. It’s a far cry from the lab report-style of analytic philosophy; it’s a good deal more Gothic, and a bit more poetic.

What also intrigues me about the aphorism is that it’s impossible to tell whether Nietzsche intended it as a metaphor for how to take stock of one’s life, or as an actual metaphysical proposition about the way the universe is. His writing elsewhere clarifies that it’s the latter, but I refer the ambiguity here. There’s more to the idea as a simple thought experiment than as a real theory.

It’s a thought experiment that carries particular personal resonance for me at this point in my life. I just finished college, and I am currently unemployed. Since I’m not sure what state (or even what country) I’ll be moving to once I find a job, I’m living with my parents for the time being. There’s not a whole lot for me to do, and to the extent that I feel any real pressure to complete a project, that pressure is all internal. It’s been this way for about a month. As someone who only feels comfortable when he’s busy, the frustration has been, at times, immense. What drives me crazy is the lopsided feeling of the days: how they’re over before they’ve even begun, and how I find myself straining for some way to occupy the hours until the next one appears.

But then I think of eternal recurrence, and imagine my July—my month of very little—not as thirty-one days I squandered and will never see again, but as thirty-one days I will repeat throughout eternity. After all, in a way, I will: those days, or at least the narrative I tell myself about them, are now an irrevocable part of the grander narrative of my life. When I think about it that way, I start to grasp the stupidity of wishing them away, or just wishing that it will be over soon. When I start doing that, I’m squandering an opportunity to construct something of value out of those moments.

To me, the challenge presented by eternal recurrence is to create something of value out of even the most mundane moments. In order to do that, one must have a preternaturally fertile inner life. Since I’ve always believed that cultivating your inner life is something that deserves a lot of effort and care, maybe the days that force us to rely on it for stimulation are valuable after-all, like an intensive introspection workout. It’s in that spirit that I look forward to reading some more Nietzsche—and, since I’ve missed it, doing some more philosophy talk on this blog.

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