Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence and the Affirmation of life

The eternal recurrence is most heavily referred to by Friedrich Nietzsche in his 1883 Thus Spoke Zarathustra, where it serves primarily as a thought experiment proposed by the title character (Zarathustra) that is meant to designate a supreme achievement of human development; the ascension to a higher type of consciousness in man.

In Zarathustra, Nietzsche conceives of a cyclical universe, where every event is ever recurring, across an infinite stretch of time, forever. Nietzsche’s intent is to focus the mind of his readers on a possible reality in which every action they had committed (all faults, setbacks, mistakes, and wrongdoings) was bound to be repeated by them, an infinite amount of time. Where they would be forced to endure their shame and grief over and over again, unable to change or improve on any past misdeeds, for all eternity. And then to ask the question: “Would you be willing to bear such a reality?” Would a person be able to cope with knowing that s/he will have to helplessly live through all the pains, heartbreaks, bad decisions, and grief that s/he has already struggled through once in life? And would this person, aware of this eternal recurrent, still manage to affirm a will to live?

Nietzsche believed that most people alive would decisively shriek a unanimous “No!” to such a proposition, because it would seem too bleak and fatalistic a fate to have to eternally return to one’s life’s errors, infinitely doomed to recommit one’s sins (for lack of a better term). Nietzsche saw this as a reflection of the destitute modern man has surrendered himself to; the wanting denial of one’s true existence. He contrasted this with what he called amor fati (Lat. love of fate):

My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it—all idealism is mendaciousness in the face of what is necessary—but love it (Ecce Homo, “Why I am So Clever,” section 10).

To be able to look at the compilation of one’s life, with all one’s mistakes and regrets, and still unashamedly proclaim one’s desire to relive it all as is (with no intent to alter one’s past actions), is according to Nietzsche the ultimate affirmation of life—a full embrace of one’s existence, a testament to the arrival of the overman (Ger. Übermensch).

Although the eternal recurrence was a central theme in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche seemed to have somewhat abandoned the thought experiment in much of his later work (he makes no mention of it in either Beyond Good and Evil or On the Genealogy of Morals). However, this appears to be a hasty conclusion, since Nietzsche does make continuous references to the basic sentiment found in his 1883 philosophical novel, and seems to be expanding on the same core concepts in his later writings.

This eternal return, and its importance in signifying the coming of the overman, is Nietzsche’s attempt to offer a possible redemption narrative for humanity. A means by which man can take the fatalistic nature of life, and surpass its dire implications by ascending beyond them into a realm of complete oneness with all the facts and events that come together to compose one’s life story. Yet, this redemption is not inevitable, for man (or “modern man,” as Nietzsche would say) is in a constant state of rejecting amor fati, and moving away from self-acceptance, in favor of finding acceptance with “higher” ideals, that are imagined to dwell exterior and superior to oneself. This is the fate of what Zarathustra called the “last man”—the alternate fate of mankind—the final descend of mankind to a sheepish, complacent shell of what he once was, living in fear of his own existence.

George Orwell’s 1984 and Perfect Hoplessness

All-Knowing State: 2015 Isn't Very Different from Orwell's 1984

I believe that George Orwell’s 1984 is one of the most important pieces of social commentary of the 20th Century.  Unlike other dystopian novels, 1984 is unique in its narrative of hopelessness and despair, by virtue of the author’s refusal to grant his protagonist a final means of escape.  Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, is an earlier novel that follows a similar theme of the lone individual trying to hold on, both physically and mentally, against a totalitarian power that is seeking to subdue his will.  But, even though some might view the fate of Huxley’s protagonist John as tragic, in comparison to the fate of Orwell’s protagonist, Winston Smith, Brave New World actually concludes on a moment of defiance by the individual against the oppressive system–a faint murmur of hope in human dignity is still salvaged.  Orwell’s 1984, leaves no room for such salvation.

To me, this message was not apparent the first time I read the book, not until I finished it all the way through.  Witnessing the glimmers of defiance Winston shows throughout his interrogation, convinced me that somehow, by some means, he would be able to combat against his oppressors and triumph over them in the end.  This feeling was intensified to its peak when Winston, feebly, abandoning all care for argument or rationale, lashes out at the source of his misery, “I don’t know–I don’t care.  Somehow you will fail.  Something will defeat you.  Life will defeat you” (p.269). The retort of a man that has been taken to breaking point, but is still trying to push forward for the sake of something–anything–better, than what is presently staring him in the face.  The novel implies that even Winston’s interrogator was fleetingly taken aback at the sudden burst of indignation, causing him to launch into an array of verbal battery battery against the defiant prisoner:

“Do you see any evidence that this is happening?  Or any reason why it should?”

“No.  I believe it.  I know that you will fail.  There is something in the universe–I don’t know, some spirit, some principle–that you will never overcome.”

“Do you believe in God, Winston?”

“No.”

“Then what is it, this principle that will defeat us?”

“I don’t know.  The spirit of Man.”

“And do you consider yourself a man?”

“Yes.”

“If you are man, Winston, you are the last man.  Your kind is extinct; we are the inheritors.  Do you understand that you are alone?  You are outside history, you are nonexistent / And you consider yourself morally superior to us, with our lies and our cruelty?”

“Yes, I consider myself superior” (p. 269-270)

What I love about this scene is the sheer insubordination show by the wholly helpless Winston.  The resolve to forgo all pretense of humility, and openly declare his superiority to the authority that is eager to rob him of his humanity.  Unfortunately, without wanting to give too much detail away, the enthusiasm raised in this dialogue disappears as quickly as it comes.  The world Orwell has created is perfectly hopeless, one in which the future can only be accurately described as, “a boot stamping on a human face–forever” (p. 267).  But none of this can truly sink in to the reader, even through all the torture and pain and anguish, not until the haunting final four words are read.

Bibliography

[All quotations used from the following citation]

Orwell, George.  1984.  “Part Three: III,” (Signet Classic: New York), 1949, 1977 reprint.