Nietzsche and Eternal Recurrence
In this essay, I am going to discuss Nietzsche’s idea of Eternal Recurrence and its implication in the meaning of life. Nietzsche proposed the idea of Eternal Recurrence that “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more.” (GS 341) In some of his writing, Nietzsche asserted that Eternal Recurrence is “the most scientific of all possible hypotheses.” (GS p. 17) He assumed that time is infinite and our life is finite, according to the law of probability, the combinations of atoms that will recreate our life must recurrence again and again. As the latest development in cosmos science and quantum physics show that the space and time of universe is bounded and particles could have infinite number of quantum states, Nietzsche’s hypothesis is unsound. However this essay is not an inquiry into the scientific proof of Eternal Recurrence, we should treat Eternal Recurrence as a thought experiment to help us understand our life.
In the Christianity view of the world, life is linear in time. Man lived his time on earth, and then after he died, he will be judged by God. God will assign the man’s place in heaven or hell to have eternal happiness or eternal pain. In Nietzsche metaphysical system, God is dead; therefore there is no longer a God to judge the action of man. Many people are looking forward to the life after death. They endure the suffering in life and looking forward to the reward in the heaven. Taking away their God would render their life without purpose. They may think that the time on earth is finite and short, no matter what they do will not matter anymore after they die. As a result, they will suffer from the despair in a form of nihilism. In order to give some meaning to their lives, he proposed Eternal Recurrence as an alternative to fill the void left behind by God’s death.
According to Nietzsche, man should take the responsibility of morality into his own hand after God is dead. With an eternal recurrence of life, we must bear the result of every choice we make in our life. No matter the end result is happy or painful; we have to live through it again and again forever. Nietzsche thinks the idea of eternal recurrence would emphasis the importance of our decision and causes us “the greatest stress”, since we have to discern carefully about all our decisions and make sure the end result is the one we truly desire. For those people who enjoy every moment of life, who live with no regret, the eternal recurrence is a supreme elation. Their life is all they want. They do not need an external God to fulfill their life. In eternal recurrence, they would life to “crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal.” (GS 341) Nietzsche hoped this thought experiment would force us to examine our life, ask ourselves the question that “are we willing to live the same life again?” By answering this question, we will be able to internalize our desire and enjoy what life offers and become a “superman”. Once we achieve the state of “superman” by removing the concept of God, we can live our life in a new sea of possibilities, to explore all the new options and experience new growth potential.
Indeed the eternal recurrence may give us “the greatest weight” in choosing how to live our life, it seems that Nietzsche is too optimist about the human psychology and how a decision is make. In Nietzsche’s ideal scenario, the eternal recurrence would free the mind of man and let man live boldly and dangerously to have an exciting life. If man is rational and taking eternal recurrence very seriously, he may take every small detail into consideration before making the decision, then the outcome is very likely the exact opposite of what Nietzsche had suggested. On one hand, the eternal recurrence encourage man to pursuit his dreams by removing limitation imposed by Christian morality. On the other hand, the eternal recurrence also discourage man to take risk, since if he failed, he may have to live with the undesired outcome forever. Human mind tends to weight loses more than gains. If given a free choice, most people would pay safe and choose conservatively instead of roll the dice bravely and hope to win the jacket pot in life. When a man examines his life using eternal recurrence, it is very likely to find himself didn’t indulge enough in his desires or passions. He may regret not living his life to its fullest and “throw himself down and gnash his teeth” on the missed opportunities. However at the same time, he would also be glad that he had restrained himself or otherwise he could have failed miserably.
Nietzsche thinks those who affirm life would “jump in joy” for eternal recurrence, so they can repeat everything in their life eternally. Yet, Nietzsche did not foresee those who really affirm life would fill with the darkest despair for repeating the same routine life after life. According to the law of diminish return, more of the same life would bring less happiness and gradually lost its meaning after repeating itself too many times. A man may have lived a colorful and positive life, but he may not want to repeat the life again. For better or for worse, it is more fun to try something new in the next life. Nietzsche praises those who bravely sail in the new sea of possibility, yet eternal recurrence put a boundary on this new sea. The real “superman” would seek new adventure, sail in uncharted water like a voyager instead of going back and forth in same water body like a passenger ferry. The “superman” cannot bear the boredom of eternal recurrence, just like they cannot bear the boring life preparing for Christian’s judgment day. They escape from the cage of God, but they fall into another cage called eternal recurrence. The “strong” man need not seek the purpose of his life from a higher deity; he can create the meaning of his life by using eternal recurrence as a mental apparatus. The “stronger” man has no need to rely on such a mental apparatus; he could still assert the will of power even he can only live this life once. He would not look forward to more of the same life, which would eventually become boring. He would rather have an eternal resurrection than an eternal recurrence, so that he can come back to the world to experience a difference life by exploring the new possibilities. The meaning of life does not require an eternal repetition. If a life is meaningful, living it once already fulfill the purpose. If a life is meaningless at the first time, no matter how many times you repeat it, you cannot generate meaning from a void. There is nothing in eternal recurrence can’t be fulfill by living through it once and only once. The meaning of the second recurrence of the first life is redundant and hence meaningless.
In conclusion, Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence provides a new perspective to evaluate our life from traditional Christian life view. However Nietzsche failed to anticipate challenge from post-Christian morality. Eternal recurrence maybe a very powerful mental tool back in Nietzsche’s time, but today it looks pale in comparison and could not provide a satisfying answer to those who follow “the way of the stronger man”.