Nietzsche and the Architects

Maybe you read Nietzsche in your student days, when you were still wide open to new ways of seeing existence. Maybe you did a double-take when you ran into eternal return, his marquis idea. It isn’t a winner with most readers. Understandably so. There is something that makes your skin crawl about the prospect of living your life over and over in an infinite loop, the same life you’re now living, down to the minutest particulars, including the times you screamed through kidney stones or lay lonely and depressed after a breakup, a bankruptcy, or a death. How could Nietzsche, who had more than his share of misery in his sickly and solitary life, have embraced eternal return so euphorically?

Eternal return is stripped of its dreadfulness if you recognize one thing about it. It isn’t real. It can’t be real, taken on its own terms. Go ahead and suppose the universe—everything—does circle back on itself at some future time with complete, lockdown precision, such that the tolerance for novelty and variation is nil. The cycle ushers us, too, with all our frailties and foolishness, back into existence, continuing a pattern of recurrence that will never end. In simple terms, a perfect repetition has occurred.

Any repetition has two elements, sameness and difference. You went to the pretzel stand on Monday and you went again on Thursday. Hummingbirds hovered at your patio’s salvia plants this year just as they did last year. The same thing occurred but at a different time. Time is always the difference in a repetition. Presiding autonomously over our lives, marking them off the way a clock on the sidelines does the action of a soccer match, Time makes repetitions possible. Where the universe is concerned, however, there is no Time presiding on the sidelines. There can’t be because there are no sidelines! Time is real, yes, in the swirl of the cosmos, but it is not separate and sovereign; it is a thread woven into the universe’s fabric along with all the other threads. It is as much a component of the universe as the Milky Way or Galaxy GN-z11, and as subject to the universe’s destiny. The universe cannot come back “at a later time.” Nor can your life with it.

So you have nothing to worry about. You are not trapped in a never-ending loop. You cannot step twice into the same episode of kidney stones. Nietzsche almost certainly understood this and was pulling our legs with “eternal return.” He was like architects who use illusion to create a powerful effect for aesthetic purposes. Nietzsche had his own purposes and felt they were important enough to justify presenting something that he knew was an illusion as the truth.

George Angell, January 2020

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