“The question in each and everything, Do you want this again and innumerable times again?” announces Nietzsche in The Gay Science. What does this mean exactly?
Nietzsche’s push for a revaluation of values was one of the central ideas of his philosophy. Instead of taking things that we deem good or right as is, such as treating your neighbour with kindness or being humble, he took on the role of an archaeologist and attempted to dig up the histories that led us into thinking these actions and moral laws were right to begin with. Of course, such an undertaking soon reveals that our moral laws weren’t given in some sort of absolute or universal manner. This is of course disturbing, to imagine that the ethics of ones world could have been otherwise. Where do we go from here, with nowhere to turn to point us towards the right decision?
Of course we can’t just throw away history entirely. “We need history, inasmuch as the past wells up in us in hundred of ways. Indeed we ourselves are nothing other that what we sense at each instant of that onward flow” writes Nietzsche. In a sense, we are always and forever carried by the momentum of that which came before.
John Kagg, author of Hiking With Nietzsche, describes a pyramidal stone in the Swiss Alps that Nietzsche refers to in his work. It is this exact rock where “the idea of eternal recurrence, the highest formula of affirmation” was conceived. So what is this highest formula? It’s terrifying and brilliant all at once.
Nietzsche asks you to imagine a moment when you are completely and entirely alone. At this moment, a demon appears and announces that the life you are currently living and will continue to live will reoccur again and again and again. Everything good and bad that has happened to you, every kiss and every heartbreak, every moment of dread and sublimity, will be experienced infintely.
For many of us, this would suck. A lot. Schopenhauer even notes that “he who lives to see two or three generations is like a man who sits some time in the conjurers booth at a fair and witnesses the performance twice or thrice in succession. The tricks were meant to be seen only once; and when they are no longer novelty and cease to deceive, their effect is gone”. Certainly living the same life over and over would be boring and, likely, uncomfortable.
However, Kagg rightfully observes that such a what-if scenario is to be taken as a challenge. “A challenge — -or better, a question, that is to be answered not in words but in the course of life”. Suddenly every action would become meaningful and heavy. Such a way of life requires one to be well adjusted, as in “to choose, wholeheartedly, what we think and where we find and create meaning”. If you’re going to end up doing the same thing for eternity you probably want to choose the right thing to do.
It should also be noted that the demon comes when you are entirely alone. Hence, we have no choice in appealing to any institution or person or ideology. Only you can choose what is right in the end. This burden, to weigh ones binding to history against the unique potentials of individual will, is arguably that which marks our existence with value.
Nietzsche also states that, in order to master this form of living, one must learn to love even the most uncertain and undesirable conditions of life. Through embracing suffering, we become the captains of our being. “Before fate strikes us, we should guide it”.
This complex interplay of the past and future as one and the same interrogates us at each moment, asking why we continue to sell away our precious time to mediocrity and conformity. Perhaps the words of Victor Frankl illuminate this best: “Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!” It seems to me that there is nothing which would stimulate a man’s sense of responsibleness more than this maxim, which invites him to imagine first that the present is past and, second, that the past may yet be changed and amended.”