The Eternal Return: Nietzsche’s Brilliant Thought Experiment Illustrating the Key to Existential Contentment
“Owning up: to recollect, to regret, to be responsible, ultimately to forgive and love.”
By Maria Popova
Chance and choice converge to make us who we are, and although we may mistake chance for choice, our choices are the cobblestones, hard and uneven, that pave our destiny. They are ultimately all we can answer for and point to in the architecture of our character. Joan Didion captured this with searing lucidity in defining character as “the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life” and locating in that willingness the root of self-respect.
A century before Didion, Friedrich Nietzsche (October 15, 1844–August 25, 1900) composed the score for harmonizing our choices and our contentment with the life they garner us. Nietzsche, who greatly admired Emerson’s ethos of nonconformity and self-reliant individualism, wrote fervently, almost frenetically, about how to find yourself and what it means to be a free spirit. He saw the process of becoming oneself as governed by the willingness to own one’s choices and their consequences — a difficult willingness, yet one that promises the antidote to existential hopelessness, complacency, and anguish.
The legacy of that deceptively simple yet profound proposition is what philosopher John J. Kaag explores in Hiking with Nietzsche: On Becoming Who You Are (public library) — part masterwork of poetic scholarship, part contemplative memoir concerned with the most fundamental question of human life: What gives our existence meaning?
The answer, Kaag suggests in drawing on Nietzsche’s most timeless ideas, challenges our ordinary understanding of selfhood and its cascading implications for happiness, fulfillment, and the building blocks of existential contentment. He writes:
The self is not a hermetically sealed, unitary actor (Nietzsche knew this well), but its flourishing depends on two things: first, that it can choose its own way to the greatest extent possible, and then, when it fails, that it can embrace the fate that befalls it.
At the center of Nietzsche’s philosophy is the idea of eternal return — the ultimate embrace of responsibility that comes from accepting the consequences, good or bad, of one’s willful action. Embedded in it is an urgent exhortation to calibrate our actions in such a way as to make their consequences bearable, livable with, in a hypothetical perpetuity. Nietzsche illustrates the concept with a simple, stirring thought experiment in his final book, Ecce Homo: How One Becomes What One Is:
What if some day or night a demon were to steal into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live and have lived it you will have to live once again and innumerable times again; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unspeakably small or great in your life must 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…”
Like the demon in Kepler’s visionary short story The Dream — the first work of genuine science fiction, which occupies the opening chapter of Figuring and which the great astronomer used as an allegorical tool for awakening the superstition-lulled medieval mind to the then-radical reality of the Copernican model of the universe — Nietzsche’s demon is not a metaphysical extravagance but a psychological gauntlet, an alarm for awakening to the most radical existential reality. At the heart of the thought experiment is the disquieting question of whether our lives, as we are living them, are worth living. Kaag writes:
Nietzsche’s demon… is a challenge — or, better, a question — that is to be answered not in words but in the course of life: “The question in each and every thing, ‘Do you want this again and innumerable times again?’ would lie on your actions as the heaviest weight! Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to long for nothing more fervently than for this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?”
Are we, in the words of William Butler Yeats, “content to live it all again”? Being content in this sense is not being distracted from, or lulled to sleep by, or resigning oneself to a fate that cannot be avoided. It is to live to your heart’s content with the knowledge that you will do this, and everything, again, forever. We made our last turn into the Waldhaus driveway and came to rest beneath its canopied entryway. Nietzsche suggests that the affirmation of the eternal return is possible only if one is willing and able to become well-adjusted to life and to oneself. To be well-adjusted, for Nietzsche, is to choose, wholeheartedly, what we think and where we find and create meaning. The specter of infinite monotony was for Nietzsche the abiding impetus to assume absolute responsibility: if one’s choices are to be replayed endlessly, they’d better be the “right” ones.
There is a beautiful meta-layer to the book — Kaag is writing after returning to Piz Corvatsch, where he had first hiked as a tortured nineteen-year-old on the brink of suicide, hoping to find sanity and salvation in the footsteps of his brilliant, half-demented hero. Revisiting “Nietzsche’s mountain” as an adult cusping on middle age, with his beloved — also a philosopher, though of the warring Kantian camp — and their young daughter, Kaag is performing a real-life enactment of the eternal return. He is thrust into the deepest, most disquieting, yet ultimately buoyant evaluation of the choices he has made in the decades since and their combinatorial consequence in the life he is now living — a life, in the end, well worth living.
He considers the power of Nietzsche’s thought experiment as a tool for calibrating our lives for true contentment:
It might be tempting to think that the “rightness” of a decision could be affixed by some external moral or religious standard, but Nietzsche wants his readers to resist this temptation. Nietzsche’s demon, after all, comes to us when we are all alone, his question can be heard only in one’s “loneliest loneliness,” and therefore the answer cannot be given by consensus or on behalf of some impersonal institutions. It is, indeed, the most personal of answers — the one that always determines an individual choice. Of course you can choose anything you want, to raise children or get married, but don’t pretend to do it because these things have some sort of intrinsic value — they don’t. Do it solely because you chose them and are willing to own up to them. In the story of our lives, these choices are ours and ours alone, and this is what gives things, all things, value. Only when one realizes this is he or she prepared to face the eternal recurrence, the entire cycle, without the risk of being crushed. Only then is one able to say with Yeats, “[A]nd yet again,” and truly mean it.
With an eye to Hermann Hesse’s wisdom on the difficult art of taking responsibility, Kaag adds:
Perhaps the hardest part of the eternal return is to own up to the tortures that we create for ourselves and those we create for others. Owning up: to recollect, to regret, to be responsible, ultimately to forgive and love.
Hiking with Nietzsche: On Becoming Who You Are is an incandescent read in its entirety. Complement it with Walt Whitman on what makes life worth living and Bertrand Russell on how to grow old with contentment, then revisit Nietzsche himself on the journey of becoming who you are, the true value of education, depression and the rehabilitation of hope, the power of music, and how we use language to both conceal and reveal reality.
Published December 19, 2018