Here is an excerpt from my Junior Thesis, I submitted this with my resume for an intership in the spring. If you are interested in reading the rest of the 70 pages, I am more than willing to email you the rest of it, when it is done (2 weeks from now). It is sorta political, I guess . . . figured I haven't posted in a LOOONGGG time, so here goes:
The Eternal Recurrence
“Two paths meet here; no one has yet followed either to its end. This long lane stretches back for an eternity. And the long lane out there, that is another eternity. They contradict each other, these paths: they offend each other face to face: and it is here at this gateway that they come together. The name of the gateway is inscribed above: ‘Moment.”
“All that is straight lies,” the dwarf murmured contemptuously. “All truth is crooked time itself is a circle.”
This excerpt from Zarathustra is Zarathustra’s first encounter with what he and Nietzsche will later to refer to as the eternal recurrence. What is incredibly interesting about this section is that not even Zarathustra, the one who is great heights from the rest of humanity, is able to understand the message behind what the dwarf, the proclaimer of the recurrence, is trying to say. Zarathustra is unable to hear the eternal recurrence and he tries to dismiss it, he feels that this dwarf is a bad omen, preaching to him something terrible that must be rejected. The Dwarf explains to Zarathustra, that time is not a linear pattern, a history with a beginning and end. But rather time itself, is like the Overhuman, in that it is a process, in which we must both engage in this process as well as accept it. But at the outset, though, we can see that Nietzsche realizes how difficult the eternal recurrence is, and is probably admitting that he himself, although presented with the notion many times, was not at first able to understand it. Thus, the readers must be very careful when trying to understand this philosophy—it is one so delicate, yet intricate, that we can not afford to mishear Nietzsche when he speaks of the eternal recurrence.
The eternal recurrence effectively serves as the opposition to hedonism and nihilism in a world without repressive, dogmatic morality and the absence of God. Richard Avramenko argues that once Nietzsche created the eternal recurrence as an opposition to repressive notions of truth (specifically, Christian notions of truth), there becomes a large void. In Avramenko’s essay he is specifically referring to a void of friendship in that Nietzsche effectively denied any sort of ground in which friendship can form. As Avramenko says, “The whole of Thus Spoke Zarathustra can be understood as Zarathustra’s quest for a type of friendship that can grow out of this groundless ground.” I agree with Avramenko here that Nietzsche both created a void with the eternal recurrence and also tried to fill that void with the recurrence. So, when Nietzsche chooses to deny the conceptual truth of good and evil, it leaves a huge vacancy for what humans should do. Nietzsche fills this void with the eternal recurrence. The idea is that every action, or every way that we live our lives will occur over and over again, eternally. This serves as Nietzsche’s beyond-morality moral system—if we are truly able to joyously say ‘yes’ to every action we take, then we are headed towards the overhuman. Essentially then, the eternal recurrence serves to give a path for humans to try to become the overhuman—to understand the process of subversion and creation, which is the overhuman, without falling into nihilistic despair.
As Avramenko points out in his essay, the eternal recurrence is not exactly something that westerners are easily able, or even willing to accept:
“With the declaration of the eternal recurrence, Nietzsche is introducing uncertainty and unpredictability. It would thus be better to refer to the eternal recurrence as a flavor. It is a flavor for which we must develop a taste. The eternal recurrence, as Nietzsche well knows, is a tough pill to swallow and this is precisely why he calls it ‘the greatest weight.’”
To begin with the notion that time is anything but linear is problematic for the Western ear. Avramenko places Nietzsche in a debate with Augustine who argues, referring to cyclical theories of time, “even when it [the soul] has attained wisdom; it must proceed on an unremitting alternation between false bliss and genuine misery. How can there be true bliss, without any certainty of its eternal continuance?” Augustine’s reaction to cyclic notions of time demonstrates a very Christian and western understanding of how time functions, and furthermore, a reality that is dependent upon having God and a heaven to obtain when time has ended for a specific human being. Yet obviously, Nietzsche rejects the Christian morality and God himself. Not only is Nietzsche creating a philosophy to fill his ‘moral hole’, he is also directly responding to and refuting typical Christian understandings of time, existence, and ‘right’ action. The eternal recurrence seeks to dislodge the authority that Christians have assumed and display a direct contradiction of it, both to fulfill his own philosophy and to engage in irony. To argue that Nietzsche believes we need to authoritatively accept his eternal recurrence and abandon the ‘inferior’ Christian notion, is completely outside of Nietzsche’s project. Instead of choosing one over the other, Nietzsche asks us to develop a taste for the eternal recurrence. Whether or not the eternal recurrence is ‘true’ or ‘better’ is of no real consequence, but by developing this taste, or ability to hear the recurrence, we are able to see the ironic nature in all human things and head up the mountain towards the overhuman.
The eternal recurrence serves not only to disrupt a Christian notion of time, but it also serves to disrupt any sort of linear, rational, or higher truth. The eternal recurrence renders it impossible for there to be definitive truth or a values system that transcends time, space, geography or even relativity because the eternal recurrence exemplifies a system with no actual truth, but rather truth as a process, something that must be constantly created and destroyed in order for the elimination of repressive notions of truth, and leave the Dionysian, or the positive, liberated aspects of mankind in their wake. Truth, value, and morals can not be habitual or long-lasting under this system; as the Earth itself does, they must be always changing, engaged in a process of creation and destruction—plate tectonics. In the Genealogy of Morals Nietzsche warns us of any words that do not take part in this process of creation and destruction because they will try to lead us to single goals, aims or meanings. “The whole surface of consciousness must be kept clear of all imperatives. Beware even of every great word, ever great prose! The organizing idea that is destined to rule keeps growing deep down . . . it prepares single qualities and fitnesses that will one day prove to be indispensable as means toward a whole.”
After looking closely at these words and trying to understand what they mean, we now must ask the same question that Nietzsche asked himself towards the end of his second essay in the Genealogy of Morals, “What are you really doing, erecting an ideal or knocking one down?” And Nietzsche responds to this question:
Have you ever asked yourselves sufficiently how much the erection of every ideal on Earth has cost? How much reality had to be misunderstood and slandered, how many lies have had to be sanctified, how many consciences disturbed, how much “God” sacrificed every time? If a temple is to be erected a temple must be destroyed: that is the law—let anyone who can show me a case in which it is not fulfilled!
With this we can now look at the rhetoric of Zarathustra and Ecce Homo and look for the subversive and ironic process in which Nietzsche tries to both create and destroy systems of values, truth, rhetoric, and inquiry. But we must listen closely, and dissect with delicate fingers as to not try to find the new idols and ideals that Nietzsche is creating, but to look to see how he moves outside of the truth-game altogether. Nietzsche’s divergent rhetoric is arguably the most difficult part of Nietzsche’s works to truly understand, but by not understanding this essential quality of Nietzsche, it is not possible to hear Nietzsche.
Before we move away from the fundamentals of Nietzsche’s words and concepts, and move into his rhetoric in general, we must take into account the Overhuman and the Eternal Recurrence and their affects on language in general. For Nietzsche, language can have no transcendent truth, but truth in language is similar to the Overhuman and the Eternal Recurrence in that it is able to obtain some form of human truth through a process of creating and destroying. Essentially then, language is not transcendent, and as Tuska Benes argues, it is only adequate if we forget that we created language and that we created truth. “Accepting the illusion that words referred to things allowed early humans to live in mutual trust. The invention of truth thus had ‘pleasant, life-preserving consequences’ Society, however, had thereby exchanged a set of lies for the truth.” So with a language that humans have created they were able to become social creatures, they could move away from, repress, basic primordial desires. But for Nietzsche, this conversion from the base creature to the social creature brought with it inherently negative, inherently repressive, and inherently forgetful forces. In the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche allegorically compared this social change of human-creatures “well adapted to the wilderness, to war, to prowling, to adventure,” who had to repress those instincts to effectively live socially to sea animals coming out of the water who had to “walk on their feet and ‘bear themselves upright’” —the skills that the sea creatures had developed for marine life became unnecessary. This shift from primordial language to a socially ‘meaningful’ language helped humans to adapt to their new surroundings, but it also meant that humans forgot that there was no truth, and instead believed that the truth and language that they had created was somehow transcendent. “Faith in truth depended for Nietzsche on a process of forgetting. People had to deny and repress the actual origins of language in order to believe in the accuracy of its representations.” Society, today as we see it, is fundamentally established on the fact that we have forgotten that we have created truth, language, and god, because “acknowledging the rhetorical foundation of words would have automatically destabilized the edifice of truth built upon them.”
Avramenko, Richard. “Zarathustra and his Asinine Friends: Nietzsche on Post-modern, Post-liberal Friendship.” American Political Science Association. Chicago, Annual Meeting: np., 2004. 1-30.
Benes Tuska. "Language and the Cognitive Subject: Heymann Stienthal and Friedrich Nietzsche." Language & Communication Vol. 26 Issue 3/4 (Jul 2006): 218-230.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the Genealogy of Morals. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Random House, Inc., 1967.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for None and All. Trans. Kaufmann. London: Penguin Books, 1978.