Everything is empty, everything is the same, everything was!
(TSZ II “The Soothsayer,” p.105)To redeem those who are past and to recreate all ‘it was’ into ‘thus I willed it’—only that would I call redemption!
(TSZ II “On Redemption,” p.110)
Nietzsche would unabashedly declare that the thought of the eternal recurrence of the same—what he would later call “the highest possible formula of affirmation” (Ecce Homo, p. 123)--was his greatest discovery and contribution to humanity. Why would he think highly of the eternal return? What did he see in this thought that could summarize his philosophy in the simplest yet most powerful way? Let us see.
First announced in the section “The Greatest Weight” in The Gay Science (341, p.194-95), the eternal recurrence of the same declares that all things and events repeat themselves endlessly. “The eternal hourglass of existence,” as the devil proclaimed, “is turned over again and again” (Ibid., 194). More than being a metaphysical and cosmological statement, as it is presented in his other works, the eternal return’s importance lies in being able to pose a clear ethical question to each human being. And the question is this: If all things repeat themselves endlessly, then how are you to go about with your life? Or better: If your past will repeat itself, “Do you want this again and innumerable times again?” (Ibid.).
That question is to be the heaviest weight for the man of regret. What is the man of regret? Such a man discerns that he made mistakes, let a lot of opportunities pass his way; he may have never reached his potential, let other people down, in the process becoming a disappointment to others and himself. He could be a man who feels he received the short end of the stick, was treated unfairly, and unable to receive retribution or justice.
Simpler still, the sorry man could be a man who went through loss, pain, and suffering—things we doubtless do not want to experience again. Whence his sighs and shrugs and blank stares. Whence these pregnant words he utters now and then: “If only I could, I would have had done things differently.” The words “sayang” and “sana” pepper his speech.
While it is only natural for us to feel regret, Nietzsche sees something dangerous hidden behind that usually melancholic but generally harmless emotion. When regret cannot bear its loneliness any longer, or when we realize how impotent we are in the face of a past we can no longer touch or save, that is the time when we can avenge our past in the present. This is what Nietzsche calls “the spirit of revenge.”
That fact that “the past is past,” as we say, is according to Nietzsche “the will’s gnashing of teeth and loneliest misery” (TSZ II “On Redemption,” p.111) “That time does not run backward,” he adds, “that is its wrath” (Ibid.). Precisely because he can no longer go back, change what has happened, and claim what has been lost, the sorry man “rolls stones around out of wrath and annoyance, and wreaks revenge on that which does not feel wrath and annoyance as it does” (Ibid.).
If the past cannot be demolished, the present sets the stage for the destroyer to avenge himself. And more alarmingly so: those who feel no regret, the happy ones, those who are reconciled with life, they will be the victims of avengers because they have to learn how to also suffer like the avenger: “on everything that is capable of suffering he avenges himself for not being able to go back” (Ibid.).
Revenge is more than the desire to get even or receive justice or to render due punishment. Much worse, revenge receives its spirit from a hatred of the past in particular, and of the indifference of time in general. “This, yes this alone is revenge itself: the will’s unwillingness toward time and time’s ‘it was.’” (Ibid.)
Can there be any redemption for a man whose will is impotent against the past? How can one prevent regret so as to save one’s self from the spirit of revenge?
This is where Nietzsche’s insight of the eternal recurrence offers a solution. If we let go of the notion of a linear time—past, present, future (a notion that Christianity introduced)—and then imagine time to be a circle, a going back while a going forward (thus a going nowhere), then the past loses its irrevocability, not because it can no longer be changed, to be sure, but (and this is a wild guess) because even if one had the power to change it, the past will necessarily happen again.
The notion that something could be done in the present to reconcile one’s self with one’s past, or the idea that something can be hoped for, like a redeemer or savior, betray that all too human belief that we control time, that we can bend or reverse it. But: “Everything is empty, everything was, everything is the same” (TSZ II “The Soothsayer,” p.105). Time has no goal and thus no direction, and if it has no direction it will also necessarily lack sense and meaning—as in Greek tragedy.
Like Oedipus who plucks out his eyes because he could not look at a world he could no longer understand, the man of regret may understandably “gnash his teeth” upon learning that time offers neither redemption nor reconciliation. Nietzsche however envisions another, higher man who will be unmoved upon by a revelation. The overman says of his cruel past: “But I will it thus! I shall will it thus!” (TSZ II “On Redemption,” p.112). To the demon of the eternal return he says: “You are a god, and never have I heard of anything more divine” (Gay Science, 341, p. 194).
Affirmation of Life
This is why the eternal recurrence was for Nietzsche the highest form of the affirmation of life. The overman has no need for redemption because he does not require revenge; and he does not need to avenge himself in the present because he never regrets his past. He loves his fate (amor fati) and says “the great Amen” to what has been, what is, and what will be.
To clarify, the overman is not a fatalist or a man of resignation, someone who has given everything up because he sees no point in going against the inevitable recurrence of time. To the contrary, the overman wills a higher will, a “creative will,” one which gives itself its own redemption and joy (TSZ “On Redemption,” 112), things that he no longer requires from the world.
By affirming what cannot be willed otherwise, by declaring “But I thus will it!” one becomes higher and larger than any crushing fate. One even frees one’s self from the bounds of time: the differences between past, present and future vanish in the pronouncement “I thus will it.” Whence Sisyphus’s smile, and Oedipus’s holy remark that “All is well” (Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus).