Part V: Eternal Return
Friedrich Nietzsche’s ‘Eternal Return’
Nietzsche’s last great concept at the heart of Zarathustra is the ‘Eternal Return’.
This idea even constitutes, according to Nietzsche, the essential thought of Zarathustra.
What does this thought consist of?
Nietzsche wonders what could be the most fertile value, the most useful to life, the most creative, the most positive. This value should correspond to “the highest statement”. It’s in the hypothesis of an eternal return of all that has already been that Nietzsche finds the strongest expression of this statement. He exhibits for the first time this thought, which he calls “the heaviest thought”, in the Gay Science (Aphorism 341):
The greatest weight:[i] 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, an 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 in- numerable 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?[ii]
A very beautiful text, isn’t?
What is striking is that Nietzsche first presents, in more than half of the text, this thought as an absolutely frightening prospect: this thought would “crush you”, “You would throw yourself on the ground,” he said. But it is Nietzsche’s strategy to make the hypothesis of an eternal return of the same on the one hand as scary as possible, and on the other extremely desirable.
The exhortation which is here implicit, and which will become explicit in the Zarathustra, is the following: let us evacuate the negative affects of our existence (the bad conscience, guilt, fear, mistrust, shame, disgust, contempt, weariness, and fatigue) so as to live a life that is fully affirmative, that assumes each of its moments, without regret, without remorse, with joy and impatience, so much so that we can only want relive it identically an eternity of times.
Where comes Nietzsche’s idea of an eternal return, an idea that is still rather singular, from?
Certainly from his readings of different philosophies and mythologies: the idea of a cycle of nature that inexorably returns, a new beginning. Identical life is present in many Indian or pre-Socratic myths, Pythagoreans in particular.
And Nietzsche, very early on, incorporated into his reflections this mythological motif. For example, in a text written at the age of 18, entitled “Fate and History”, Nietzsche evokes this cyclical dimension of existence by comparing it to the path of a needle on the dial of a clock:
Has this eternal becoming no end? What are the mainsprings that drive this great clockwork? They are hidden. But they are the same in the great clock we call history. Events are its face. From hour to hour the hand moves ahead; at twelve o’clock its course begins anew: a new world-period dawns.[iii]
This metaphor of the clock and in particular of the hand placed on the number twelve, indicating noon, and therefore a new beginning, will mark Nietzsche since it is found, twenty years after this text of youth, in the Zarathustra.
In the meantime, Nietzsche certainly noticed that Schopenhauer himself evoked the present as “eternal midday” and that the will, constantly reiterated and manifesting itself in the immediacy of the present, was, for Schopenhauer, the mainspring, the motor of the eternity of existence. These reflections will undoubtedly influence Nietzsche.
What is a bit confusing is that Nietzsche will actually give a double foundation to the thought of eternal return: an ethical and existential foundation,
This eternal return, Nietzsche seems to want to present it as a physical law. In fact, he tries to give scientific credibility – and material evidence – to his philosophical speculations. He is aware of the danger represented by the radical perspective that he is developing in his philosophy, and which may endorse any theory, any vision of the world and engender a total and inconsistent relativism.
And while defending the irreducible singularity of all existence, he is wary of the whims of the individual. He speaks about the “selfishness as error” and about the necessity to “experience in a cosmic way”. So he tries to somehow moor his reflections to a form of universal necessity.
Nietzsche reads various physical science works, notably those of Julius Robert Mayer, one of the founders of thermodynamics, who published from the 1840s studies on “mechanics of the heat” (“Mechanik der Wärme”) and who postulates, in his works, the hypothesis of conservation of quantities of heat and energy in nature. Nietzsche is seduced by this theory, certainly keeping what he wants to keep, remembering the great ancient myths about the cycles of the universe and ends up to persuade that there may be a scientific justification for these myths. If the quantity of forces and energies in the universe does not change, he concludes that on the one hand, the universe is closed, and if on the other hand time is infinite, we are able to make the hypothesis of a number, certainly immense but all the same limited, of possible combinations. And so he comes to the hypothesis of a repetition, at one time or another, of each of the combinations that have already taken place.
So, we find in the writings of Nietzsche, and in particular in posthumous fragments, reflections that show that he adheres to this hypothesis. At the same time, there are also many traces of his skepticism. Nietzsche is aware, inevitably, that the theory of an eternal return is at the end of the day not very credible, despite his efforts to try to found it scientifically: the eternal return is more myth, metaphysics than science.
Nietzsche, for example, expresses his skepticism in Zarathustra’s monologue entitled “The stillest Stunde” – The Stillest Hour. This is the time when Zarathustra is alone with himself at the end of Book II, and dare not confess – much less confess to his disciples – the revelation that he had; that of an eternal return of all things. It is a conversation with his mistress (i.e. ‘The Stillest Hour’):
Then without voice it spoke to me: “You know it, Zarathustra?” –
And I cried out in terror on hearing this whispering, and the blood drained from my face, but I kept silent.
Then it spoke to me once more without voice: “You know it Zarathustra, but you do not speak it!” –
And at last I answered defiantly: “Indeed, I know it, but I do not want to speak it!”
Then it spoke to me again without voice: “You do not want to, Zarathustra? Is this even true? Do not hide in your defiance!” –
That is what is most unforgivable in you: you have the power, and you do not want to rule.” –
And I answered: “I lack the lion’s voice for all commanding.”
Then it spoke to me again like a whispering: “The stillest words are those that bring the storm. Thoughts that come on the feet of doves steer the world.
Oh Zarathustra, you shall go as a shadow of that which must come; thus you will command and lead the way commanding.” –
And I answered: “I am ashamed.”
Then it spoke to me again without voice: “You must become a child again and without shame (“Ich schäme mich”). [iv]
This shame is the shame attached to the old Christian culture; culture which gives rise to it. It is also, probably, the embarrassment that Zarathustra feels to reveal a so foolish ‘truth’ (everything that happens will happen again). And it is here that we slide towards the second meaning of this thought of the eternal return: its ethical, existential sense.
Then it spoke to me again without voice: “You must become a child again and without shame.
The pride of youth is still on you, you became young at a late time; but whoever would become a child must also overcome his youth.” –
And I thought for a long time and trembled. At last however I said what I had said at first: “I do not want to.”
Then laughter broke out around me. Alas, how this laughter tore my entrails and slit open my heart!
And it spoke to me one last time: “Oh Zarathustra, your fruits are ripe but you are not ripe for your fruits!
Thus you must return to your solitude, for you shall yet become mellow.” –
And again there was laughing and it vanished; then it became still around me as if with twofold stillness. But I lay on the ground and the sweat poured from my limbs.
– Now you have heard everything, and why I must return to my solitude. I withheld nothing from you, my friends.
But hear this from me as well, I who am still the most tightlipped of human beings – and want to be so!
The shame reported by Zarathustra is probably also a form of “modesty” (The word “Scham”, in German, which appears in the text, precisely means “modesty”): modesty that there is in fact, for Zarathustra, and through him, for Nietzsche to communicate, the bottom fruit – modest and very personal – of his own experiences, the conclusion of his years of experimentation and reflection, the summary of his wisdom, which states, simply and sincerely: one must live one’s life with such intensity that one could only want to revive it exactly the same.
But this thought, however simple it may seem, contains a real strength. In formulating the idea that one must love one’s life, and all the moments that constitute it, to the point of wanting to relive it strictly identically an infinity of times, this thought provides the ultimate criterion for intensifying our existence. This intensification is based on the affirmation of our will. What kind of life do we really want to lead? What are we willing to accept? What would we like to refuse? The “you have to” imposed by the commandments, moral and religious, is thus replaced by an “I want” that obeys its own law and tests its own relevance, its own consistency by confronting it to the prospect of its infinite reiteration.
The will is thus eternal. For Nietzsche, the test of good will is not conformity with the other wills, the criterion is the power of affirming one’s will and its infinite reiteration: “What you want, you must want it to happen an infinite number of times!” He said that we should not reduce the “I want” to the somehow brutal expression of self-assured subjectivity that makes fun of rules and conventions. What is behind this “I want” is above all a certain attitude towards life: an active acceptance, an impatient and grateful consent, and a “say-yes”. A “Ja-sagen”, Nietzsche states, an amor fati. By accepting life in its entirety, with its share of punishments and cruelties, being ready to take risks, one ensures a more intense and lighter existence, free from fears, freed from paralysis. By acting, one discourages the resentment, which develops in general in helplessness and inaction.
I mentioned the idea of eternity and that the will is for all eternity. In fact, Nietzsche wants to replace Christian belief in eternal life after the death by an ethic of the eternal existence here below. Religion promised eternity, Nietzsche’s philosophy somehow puts it into practice. Christianity achieved something incredible by replacing death by everlasting life – by drawing pretense to better despise life here below, which is necessarily ephemeral, transient. Nietzsche counter-attacks and proclaims that eternity indeed exists – and that she is of this world! Every second lived must contain a drop of eternity, a potential of eternity.
The figure, par excellence, who acquiesces in life to the point of wishing it to return eternally; he who is capable of living every second with the greatest intensity, is the “superhuman” (Übermensch), a form of superior affirmative humanity to which all our efforts must be directed, as we have seen in part IV.
What is interesting to note is that Nietzsche presents the thought of the eternal return as a belief that needs to be gradually incorporated into the human being, in the same way that the belief in eternal life was inoculated Christians over centuries and centuries to succeed, according to Nietzsche, to specimens of contemporary nihilists. For the philosopher, it has been said, mind and body are indissoluble; the belief in the eternal return must therefore take possession of our organisms and regulate our equilibrium, the drive to make us whole beings devolved to the enjoyment of the moment, to the carelessness of becoming and always taken by a happy astonishment regarding the effects of their will.
Henry Nelson Wieman’s ‘Creative Good’
Nietzsche’s take on the “Eternal Return” brings me to Henry Nelson Wieman’s view on the “Creative Good”. While Nietzsche was wondering what could be the most fertile value, the most useful to life, the most creative, the most positive, the value that would correspond to “the highest statement” and finally found the ‘Eternal return’; Henry Nelson, searching the same value, found the ‘Creative Good”. While Nietzsche wanted to replace Christian belief in eternal life after the death by an ethic of the eternal existence here below, Wieman replaced the Christian belief in eternal life by a belief in the “Creative Good.” While Nietzsche was aware, inevitably, that the theory of an eternal return is at the end of the day not very credible, despite efforts to try to found it scientifically, for Wieman the “Creative Good” is real and stayed all his life the focus of his quest, although he admitted that he had not fully described it, yet.
In ‘The Source of Human Good’, Wieman identifies ‘God’ as the ‘Creative Good’. In thinking of God as ‘Creative Good’, Wieman follows the Jewish tradition in giving priority to the creative event, while rejecting the transcendental. An analysis of our experience, Wieman argues, shows that no transcendental reality could ever do anything, could ever make any difference to our lives in the form of some events.
Wieman distinguishes this ‘Creative Good’ from the ‘created good’ and he argues that not all created goods carry in themselves the nature of goodness: “Something, over and above their bare existence, must pertain to them to make them truly good.” [vi]For Wieman this ‘Something’ is the ‘Creative Good’, which, to him, is what others meant by God.
The ‘Creative Good’ is for Wieman the reality doing the work in history, and it is this work that has been understood mythically in the western religious tradition as the work of a transcendental person. This mythical understanding, however, involves a contradiction between belief in an absolute beyond history, time and space and belief in God as a person. If we examine the concept of the Creative Good, argues Wieman, we can see how this has come about. The Creative Good at the level most important for human persons takes place between persons. It depends upon the interaction between persons in creating human personality with all its values, and has the potential to save it from values that have become demonic. The necessity of interactions between persons however does not always require physical presence. There can even be an interval of time between the persons in their interactions, and this may extend indefinitely so that the most important participants may have died before the present participants in the communication were even born. Wieman admits that the mythical symbol of God as transcendent person may be indispensable for the practice of worship, and says that the best in Christianity can be put quite simply as:
… the reversing of the order of domination in the life of man from domination of human concern by created good over to domination by creative good. This event saves the world when it includes the establishment of a community which carries the new order down through subsequent history. [vii]
So, the real living ‘Creative Good’ is Wieman’s view of Nietzsche’s myth know as his concept of ‘Eternal Return’. To Henry Nelson Wieman the ‘Creative Good’ is the ‘absolute goal’:
An absolute goal, as I see it, is a goal intrinsic to human existence of such sort that human being could not exist without it. It is absolute in the sense that the very continuance of human life requires it. Stated in the simplest possible form, the absolute goal is the creation of coherence, the recovery of coherence when it is disrupted, and the extension of coherence by absorbing new insights, when conditions make this possible. This coherence is never perfect and complete. It is always in process of being formed. All development of knowledge is by expanding the range of theories which distinguish and relate events in such a way that inference can be extended more widely from what is now observed to other events and possibilities more or les remote in time and space or otherwise inaccessible to immediate observation. No child could develop a human mind without the widening range of coherence in the form of knowledge. [viii]
According to Wieman, knowledge, human association and culture depend upon this coherence. And he continues:
This continual recovery of coherence together with acceptance of innovations, this widening of coherence in the life of every individual as he matures from infancy to some level of attainment, and this extension of coherence through a sequence of generations when a culture is being created, is what Hocking calls the work of the “whole idea”. I call it creativity, or the continuous creation of coherence by the way of creative interchange between individuals and peoples. [ix]
Wieman does not believe that there is any final form of this coherence that eternally comprehends all reality. In other words, there is no final ‘created good’. Even if there were an eternal being, Wieman argues, it would not be possible for us to recognize or worship such a being except in the creativity operating in human life, i.e. the ‘Creative Good’. Wieman continues:
The actual empirical reality, which we find occurring in human life, is creativity operating to create coherence in the forms of language and logic, in the forms of science and art, friendship and community of minds, in the forms of a coherent culture and the continuity of history. [x]
This brings us back to the crucial question Wieman wanted to be answered by his empirical philosophy: “To what must our commitment be given if the appreciative consciousness of man is to be created in each individual beginning with infancy, is to be saved from perversion into hate, fear, arrogance and is to be expanded indefinitely?” The answer to this question is to Wieman what ‘Eternal Return’ meant to Nietzsche. It is not the eternal return of a human being; it is the eternal return in each human being of the Creative Interchange process. The objectors to his vision are tackled this way:
An objector might reply that the eternal being does operate in human life in the form of the creativity [Creative Interchange] mentioned. If that is so, then my contention is granted. This creativity operating in human life calls for our religious commitment. If the objector insist that our ultimate commitment must be given to the eternal being, because the creativity derives from that source, I reply: It is impossible for any man to adore, worship or otherwise recognize the eternal being, except as the creativity in human life creates in him the appreciative consciousness which is able to worship such a being, supposing that there is any eternal coherence of all reality. Therefor, no matter how we take it, religious commitment must be given first of all to the creativity which expands and deepens the appreciative consciousness of man. [xi]
So Henry Nelson Wieman makes it very clear that Nietzsche’s ‘God is dead’ is a lie; on the contrary God [Creative Interchange] is alive in every human being, so Creative Interchange eternally returns in every born soul, which is his take on Nietzsche’s ‘Eternal Return’. Wieman continues explaining, one more time, what he means by Creative Interchange:
The expansion and deepening of appreciative consciousness is accomplished by the kind of interchange which (1) creates in me some apprehension of what the other person values and (2) integrates this newly acquired form of appreciation with my own coherent appreciative consciousness. The integration may take the form of recognizing what the other person values without adopting his liking as me own, but nevertheless keeping his values in mind so that I can understand him by putting myself more or less in his place. In this way the appreciative consciousness of man is expanded and deepened. [xii]
Finally Wieman underlines once more the need of Man’s Ultimate Commitment to Creative Interchange:
The empirical philosophy of religion [i.e. Wieman’s philosophy] insists that religious belief should be shaped to direct the ultimate commitment of human life to what does in truth create, sustain, save and expand that coherence which sustains human life and deepens the appreciative consciousness to apprehend the greatest human good human life can ever attain. [xiii]
Nietzsche’s ‘Eternal return’ vs. Wieman’s ‘Creative Good’
Both, Nietzsche and Wieman, understood that the ‘Creative Good’ couldn’t be commanded. It has to work from the ‘inside-out’, so you have to want it in the first place. Wanting is necessary but not enough, the conditions so that the ‘Creative Good’ can thrive should be present.
While Nietzsche’s ‘Eternal return’ is a myth, Wieman’s ‘Creative Good’ is a reality.
Both, Nietzsche and Wieman, proclaim an active acceptance and ‘yes-saying’ to life; they accept life in its entirety and choose to live ‘Richly with Dark Realities’.[xiv] This ‘yes-saying’ is, to both, based on the affirmation of our will.
Nietzsche wanted to state with his ‘Eternal return’ that the will is eternal, while Wieman wanted to state that the ‘Creative Good’ is eternal. Indeed the commitment to Creative Interchange should be ‘eternal’ as the living of Creative Interchange from within. This commitment to Creative Interchange provides the ultimate criterion for intensifying our existence. This intensification is based on the affirmation of our commitment.
Finally, it’s interesting to note that both, Friedrich Nietzsche and Henry Nelson Wieman, state that their belief – respectively the ‘Eternal Return’ and the commitment to live Creative Interchange from within, thus the ‘Creative Good’ – needs to be gradually incorporated in the human being.
Das grosste Schwergewicht. Literally the noun means heavyweight and this term is actually used to designate the heaviest class in boxing; but it is also used quite commonly for “main emphasis” or “stress.” In an earlier version of this aphorism, I rendered the title “The greatest stress!’ My reasons for concluding that Weight” is better are spelled out in the section on the Eternal Recurrence in the Introduction. Nietzsche himself considered section 341 the first proclamation of “the basic idea of Zarathustra” (Ecce Homo, BWN, 752), meaning the eternal recurrence.