Continuing with Nietzsche, we come to his idea of “eternal recurrence.” *Caputo puts it thus:
“Eternal recurrence is the mythic idea that the course of time will be repeated over and over again, and has already been repeated an infinite number of times. So readers face a confusing situation: why is this critic of religion and metaphysics flirting with an old myth that goes back to an ancient Persian religion (Zoroastrianism) to get his point across…”
My own thought, as to his use of allegory (for instance, the shepherd and the snake in Thus Spoke Zarathustra) is to pay homage to what he thinks both Christians and Enlightenment secularists are doing, which is telling stories about the way things are. But it’s not as if he really believes his own myth here in the sense of there really being a shepherd or a snake or even a real Zarathustra. However, he does believe he is capturing something real or making an observation regarding what existence really means. But beyond that:
“There are many different ways to interpret this tale and the idea of eternal recurrence. The best explanation Nietzsche gave of it, at least the one that makes the most sense to me, is to treat the doctrine as a test of our own personal will-to-power, by posing a hypothetical question to ourselves: What if a spirit were to come along and whisper the thought of eternal recurrence in your ear? Would you regard this spirit as an angel or a devil? In other words, would you, in your heart of hearts, be willing to live your life—exactly the same life, in the same body, with all its joys and sufferings, bright days and dark nights, with all the truly mean, stupid and humiliating things you have done –repeated down to the last exact and most minute detail, repeated again and again, for ever and ever, as it has already been lived an infinite number of times before? Do you say yes to life—not an illusory blessed life in heaven where we don’t get sick and old, but this life, with all its warts and bruises, all its ups and downs? Do you say yes not to eternal bliss outside time but to the endless repetition of your life in time, to the whole wheel of becoming, all its sufferings and all its joys bundled together in one package? Take it (life) or leave it. Are life’s sufferings justified for you by its joys (Greek tragedy), or is life damned by its sorrows and death (Platonic-Christians)?”
It seems that Nietzsche was surveying the land after god has died and asking the question: If there is no heaven, no purpose, no point, no goal, no higher or lower, no good or evil, no “reason”, what do we do now? He answers the question by suggesting the first thing we need to do is find out who is strong enough to live now once we’ve learned everything we were holding onto was false. Is this life, just by itself, adding nothing to it, with all its hurts and joys, worth living? Most atheists do not get this, the depth of this critique. Why? Partly because they live sheltered lives. They live after all the heavy lifting has been done. They live after the wilderness was cleared, crops planted, houses built, along with entire towns and cities (a civilization). They live after centuries of a culture believing certain things are good and certain things evil. The live after centuries of believing there was a purpose to life beyond eating, mating, and dying. The live in the “good” part of town, God bless them. You almost want to just pat them on their little heads and let them go on with their fairy tale like lives—aren’t they cute. This was something Nietzsche could not do. He said, “You don’t know it yet, but the narrative that built all this is no longer really believed. And you hold onto it, even though you killed the God behind it—the narrative that built all this—thus, you committed suicide you just don’t know it yet. Welcome to the land of the walking dead. And you think all this will remain just because you now tell a differing fiction, one that tells us a faith in “reason” “science” and ourselves will suffice. You have traded one fiction for another and the one you believe now will never sustain what you have but is even now passing away. And here he was a prophet. He died in 1900. Within the next fifty years, the world would see catastrophic world wars, the Holocaust, and destruction unlike anything the world had ever seen before. And these catastrophic events weren’t triggered by something that came from the religious world; they came from the world (the enlightened western world, so-called, liberal secular states) that had killed god but thought it could maintain a “Christian” and ethical world through science and reason alone.
“The story of eternal recurrence provides a criterion or a principle of selectivity that sorts out the strong from the weak, the best from the worst, the noble from the base, the lovers of the earth from the lovers of death and an illusory after-life. Read thus, eternal recurrence is an ‘existential’ truth, an existential test, a hypothetical thought experiment that measures what’s in our bowels, not a speculative metaphysical theory about, or religious revelation of, the essence of reality. It belongs to the domain of existential truthfulness. Henceforth truthfulness demands we take life on its own terms, without requiring any divine insurance policies that all is well or will eventually be well in the end, affirming life in all its glory and misery, the two together, which divides the yea-sayers from the nay-sayers…Life, is justified as an ‘aesthetic’ phenomenon, he concludes. By this he means not merely by art…More importantly, he is saying that life is justified by our feeling (aesthesis) and passion for life, and that passion is self-validating. He was saying that life is justified by its high points, and that life itself divides the high from the low, the noble from the base, the strong from the weak, and serves not as a scientific or objective criterion of truth, which would require proofs and evidence and arguments, but as an existential test of truthfulness—to life.”
Nietzsche saw that the only alternative to a nihilistic suicidal existence once god has died is to simply affirm life and living, here and now, and that choice alone would determine who was strong, weak, and therefore either noble or base. He is not using these terms in the traditional sense, because he knows in this context, there is no longer a “noble” or “base” there is only those who will survive and dominate. There will be nothing to appeal to beyond “winning”. Life itself will tell us who the “winners” and “losers” are, but as already noted, whether it is Exxon or Greenpeace is neither here nor there in such a world. Once the gauge of all measurement is gone, once the source of all gravity is gone, there is only flux, floating, and free-fall. Those who can affirm this and over-come, will do so, and will be the “winners” and those who cannot will “lose”.
To much of what Nietzsche offers here, many an atheist will normally respond with, “yes, we simply have to become our own measurement (‘man is the measure of all things’) and we have to decide what is good and what is evil.” And, Nietzsche would reply, “exactly—you agree with me.” But here is where he lets the other shoe drop: He would tell these same atheists that “good” and “evil” cannot simply become secular versions, supported by a supposed universal “reason” or “science”, of the same traditional Christian morality—the morality of loving our neighbor and especially loving the “least” of these, or the stranger, or, especially our enemies. He would remind them of something they had forgotten or didn’t know yet: they killed the god and the narrative that brought this mentality to us, this ethic; thus, we need to let the mentality, the ethic, die along with its god. So forget about all your words like “better” or “progress” or “fair” that you understand in only one way after 1500 years of Christendom. It may be, he would tell us, we want those words to be understood in the exact opposite way of what we now believe those words to mean. Maybe we will want to use those words to describe a Holocaust or the corporate rape of the earth. On what basis, he might ask, will you tell us we are “wrong” or not being “reasonable”? Those types of words now simply become the moveable metaphors describing power in motion and nothing more (indeed, there is nothing more). What is “better”, what is “progress”, what is “fair”, is if in my love of life, I, in my sheer will-to-power, dominate my environment. If I do that, then use whatever “effing” word you want to describe what I just did, because I don’t care and it doesn’t matter. You might as well use the word, “kershunkel” for “better” or “progress” and all the rest, he might tell us.
Nietzsche knew that if there really is no “ought” and only the “is”, then power is all that is left to us. We will always make up our “oughts” to simply give cover to our assertions of power. In such a world, it becomes impossible for the weak or the losers to ever be right or “moral” about anything—to have any truth. A dead person cannot have been right, true, better, more fair, more progressive, or anything really. They are dead—cased closed. There can be no such thing as a Holocaust or massacre. There can be no such thing as a memorial–there is nothing to remember except an event of matter-in-motion. We would simply list the numbers as in an accounting ledger—they are numbers only. To comment beyond that would be to speak nonsense. After centuries of Christian ethical teaching, Nietzsche knew that western culture was simply imitating what had been ingrained for so long—it was the air they breathed. But he knew the narrative, the belief, the philosophy, the theology, the devotion, a deep understanding of that narrative had been slowly dying and replaced by Enlightenment reason and science. The branches were still there but the roots were dead. Thus, all this talk of loving one’s neighbor and caring for the poor was tied to something we no longer believed and could not sustain if there is only a “pure” nature with no remainder or excess. If there is no remainder, then anything added (love thy neighbor) is a false psychological gloss. Nietzsche knew that his world had not yet caught up to this truth, but were living off inherited capital. One day however, those camping in the cathedral (squatters) would be told to leave as the bills were no longer being paid and the cathedral would soon be demolished.
It is only possible to describe something as a Holocaust or even a tragedy if we have some remainder or something in excess of pure nature or the material in mind. Even if we think we can just use our imaginations to do this, to imagine it is something more, it still makes the Holocaust as Holocaust, non-existent. And why would we need to “imagine” something more to begin with? Again, in pure nature the only way we could describe a Holocaust would be to write the number or term, Six Million (or whatever the number) and say nothing more. If anyone tried to write a poem, a song, make a movie, write a book, articulate a meaning, cry, or anything beyond writing the number, they would be saying nothing or talking about something imaginary, completely unhinged from reality since reality is only “pure” physicality with no remainder. If there is no “ought” then there are only events. Even the word “justice” simply becomes a moveable metaphor, a cover, whereby all we are describing is the strong imposing their sense of justice (their will) upon the weak. A tumbleweed blowing across the road is on the same par with a million bodies being blown to pieces, across a field, the only difference is scale and type of matter. We could only talk about either event in terms of numbers, equations, time frames, geography, speed, distance, genus, and purely mechanical processes. Anything beyond that is to talk of nothing—to speak of the impossible. It would be gibberish. Nietzsche’s point: Quit speaking gibberish and live. But he wasn’t only saying this to Christians—he was saying it to “enlighten” liberals and rationalists who were still living off the capital of the Christian ethic and narrative, thus speaking the same gibberish, without benefit of actually believing the underlying story, but still wanting the same goal or direction (love of neighbor/mercy).
(Just as an aside here, if you find yourself reading anything in this post and thinking it’s suggesting that atheists/secularists are not or cannot be moral without belief, you are reading absolutely incorrectly. Suggestion: read some basic philosophy and theology in the areas of epistemology and ethics and then come back and read the post again)
In such a world, one of pure nature, pure physical material, metaphors become meaningless. Their use would be seen as a form of talking to one’s self, a mental illness really because it would be like someone incessantly bringing up something imaginary in response to what can only be described in mathematical/mechanical terms as an event, the passing of time, and matter-in-motion. All terms like good, evil, fair, better, worse, progress, regress, tolerant, intolerant, reasonable, or unreasonable and such are the false psychological gloss the losers, the weak, the mentally defective, bring up to make sense of the fact that life is stronger than they are. Or, they are the gloss the “winners” use to justify their domination. Either way, they ultimately mean nothing, refer to nothing, and describe nothing. Of course, thank God, the very fact they are used is unimaginable really, if this world, the world Nietzsche posited, actually existed. Metaphors then, by their very existence, speak to the existence of the transcendent, the excess, the remainder, and counter the naturalist narrative of a supposed “pure” nature.
Caputo sums up this chapter thus:
“In sum, the theme of rationality that sprung up in modernity, which set Reason up in judgment over God and truth and detached itself from the classical search for wisdom, eventually ended up looking foolish. That in turn occasioned a kind of anti-modern blowback. The first reaction took the elegant form of Hegel’s metaphysics of the spirit, in which the formality of Enlightenment rationality was absorbed as an abstract moment into the concrete life of truth in history. The next was the searing and sarcastic attacks of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, who countered Enlightenment rationality with the passions of existential truth and of a pagan affirmation of natural life, of the earth and time. But Hegel’s thought remained complicit with the modernist notion that there is nothing to which reason does not give us access. Kierkegaard’s thought ended in a kind of sickness unto death and allowed our life in time to be shattered to pieces by the shock of eternity. Nietzsche’s affirmation of life was shockingly elitist and aristocratic. By the end of the nineteenth century, we were left with a choice between the madness to which Pure Reason had led and a salutary madness which had reacted against it. But either way truth remained within the grip of the dichotomies set in place by the Enlightenment, of faith versus reason, rational versus irrational, subjective versus objective, certitude versus doubt.”
One cannot understand our present day in the west, without understanding some of the history we just went over and these main historical figures, who still speak to us. We still grapple with what they wrote. What we think is just “the way things are” or our attitude of, “everyone knows that” is entirely a contingent and constructed way of “seeing” or “looking” at the world. Whether or not it is true or accurate, and even what those two words mean now, is entirely another question. The bottom line is that modernity has been called into question, really, for some time now, although it is just catching up to some of us. Instead of just assuming, instead of just arguing out of the modern Enlightenment narrative (as a given), one must now justify that very narrative to begin with. One must now start there, which is why we have so many atheists/agnostics and Christians/religious people talking pass one another. Caputo then brings us up to the present:
“By questioning the assumptions common to both sides, twentieth-century philosophers opened the door to a new way of thinking about truth. In taking a postmodern turn, philosophers would show that these dichotomies [as noted in the last quote above] were in fact straitjackets that make it impossible to understand what we are doing, that they in fact gave rise to a kind of blackmail—if you are not for what the Enlightenment calls Reason, you are judged irrational. That is like saying if you are not for the policies of the party currently in power, you are unpatriotic. They demonstrated that the borders between these opposing categories [like faith and reason] break down, that faith is a way to see even as seeing requires a certain faith. In the emerging view of truth what would take shape under their hand, which is modeled after neither God nor Reason but the event, to be in the truth is to me mindful of the contingency of what we take to be true at any given moment, and to cultivate an acute sensitivity to the unforeseen turns truth may take in the future. In short, to be in the truth means to stay in play with the event, and that requires willingness to take a risk. There thus emerged a postmodern sense of truth that was a counterpart to the ancient idea of wisdom.”
*(All block quotes—Caputo)