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Reconciliation with the Past




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4. Creation Amid the Ruins

Because revenge and remorse can neither win redemption, Nietzsche had to find another path which the Übermensch could take. This path however is shrouded. Nietzsche is ambiguous as to how this higher redemption is to be actually attained; perhaps it can never be fully received. What he is clear about is what the Übermensch has to reclaim: his freedom. 

    It is freedom after all which essentially is robbed from a man who is impotent in reclaiming his past; because he can no longer undo what has been done, he not only experiences his loss of freedom in not being able to will back, but he also feels unfree in the present in not being able to will at all. What thus truly sadden us when we revisit difficult experiences in the past is our powerlessness and loss of will. Whence the sighs, the shrugs, and the tears one sheds always only too late.

    Yet while the will cannot will backward, or may it be neutralized in the present with remorse, Nietzsche says that it still can reclaim something. Upon looking back at the past one may nevertheless say these terrible words Nietzsche gives us: “But I will it thus! I shall will it thus!”[1] The will can still create, says Nietzsche, even when it is held back or imprisoned. And while it cannot change past events, the will can still help in changing one’s own attitude and relationship to those very events. That is to say, though I will have to relinquish all control over the past because I am no longer there, I may nevertheless claim it here and now by saying that “I willed it so.” Half lie and half an illusion, I can still recover the past by claiming it to be my own.

    “All ‘it was’ is a fragment, a riddle, a grisly accident—until the creating will says to it: ‘But I will it thus! I shall will it thus!”[2] If before I was a victim of events that I did not control, a plaything of the gods, prone to error by ignorance or shortsightedness, or a sinner by my own reckless desires—I can nevertheless gather all these events and claim them now as mine. I am free to own and claim the past even if I have forever lost it. I am free to change the way I see the past by reinterpreting its meaning, or by reading into it what I want it to mean. Though I cannot really move the rock of the “It was,” I can still call and make it my rock, bless it as a monument of my life. 

    Acceptance—whether of the past, tragedies, loss, failures—now receives greater meaning if we understand it as claiming something which was initially alien and oppressive to us for ourselves. It now means owning up to it, owning it, making it one’s self (pag-ako). Now accepting one’s past no longer has anything to do with weakness and passivity; neither is it accomplished with a shrug, a sigh, or with a bowed head. “The will is a creator,”[3] says Nietzsche, and while it cannot create back, it can re-create in the present and in the future. As Nietzsche says in an important passage in “On Old and New Tablets” also in Zarathustra,

I taught them all my creating and striving: to carry together into one what is fragment in mankind and riddle and horrid accident—as poet, riddle-guesser and redeemer of chance I taught them to work on the future, and to creatively redeem everything that was. To redeem what is past in mankind and to recreate all “It was” until the will speaks: “But I wanted it so! I shall want it so—” This I told them was redemption, this alone I taught them to call redemption.[4]

    The will, because it is free, can nevertheless choose to refashion the life of a man by first recreating the events of the past in order to transform them into something which instead of blocking a path, opens many more ways. Recreating one’s past here does not mean repeating it in the same manner and succession; neither does it mean covering it over or destroying it totally in order to rebuild something different. On the contrary, recreating the past means reconstructing or renovating (Lat. renovatio, meaning “renewal”) it in order to make it new and beautiful. Renewed, the past then invites us to return to it and take refuge in it; made beautiful, it then attracts us to finally love it. Like lost lovers who have found themselves again, reconciliation with time in this sense finally means being reunited with a past to become whole again.

    Without changing what cannot be changed, reconciliation with the past is still possible because of my freedom. Constrained it may be to will back, I am still free to look back at my past from where I am, account for what I have done and failed to do, and then say in my heart that—mistakes and tragedies and all—these are mine. Come to think of it, other than my future death all I can say that is truly mine is my past. The present slips through my fingers like water; and yet do I have my tomorrow. But all the tears I have shed, all the pain I suffered and caused, the sadness in the wake of a great loss, and most of all my decisions and deeds—all these are of mine; they made me who I am.

    Trying to put some sense into a confused Electra, Orestes tells her after murdering Clytemnestra and Aegistheus that though what he did can never be undone, what he did discover was the weight of his freedom. Sartre writes:

Orestes. I am free, Electra. Freedom has crashed down on me like a thunderbolt.
Electra. Free? But I—I don’t feel free. And you—can you undo what has been done? Something has happened and we are no longer free to blot it out. Can you prevent our being the murderers of our mother—for all time?
Orestes. Do you think I’d wish to prevent it? I have done my deed, Electra, and that deed was good. I shall bear it on my shoulders as a carrier at a ferry carries the traveler to the farther bank. And when I have brought it to the farther bank I shall take stock of it. The heavier it is to carry, the better pleased I shall be; for that burden is my freedom.[5]
    Orestes saves himself from remorse and guilt by exercising his freedom even beyond his act. In claiming his gruesome matricide to be his deed, he breaks free from the clutches of the guilt which was supposed to hound him. Zeus knew he couldn’t touch Orestes or make him pay for any crime because Orestes knew what other people in Argos did not: that he was free. And though his skies would be covered by the flies, and even if he would for the rest of his days be hounded by the Furies—those terrible gods of remorse—we imagine Orestes at peace because he found the path he was to take by virtue of his deed. 

    “Today I have one path only, and heaven knows where it leads. But it is my path.”[6] Before he leaves the kingdom which was supposed to be his, Orestes parts with the until then frightened and remorseful men of Argos by saying thus: “You see me, men of Argos, you understand that my crime is wholly mine; I claim it as my own, for all to know; it is my glory, my life’s work, and you can neither punish me or pity me.”[7]

5. The Answer of The Übermensch to the Test of the Eternal Recurrence

It is clear then how Orestes will respond to the challenge of Nietzsche’s demon. He will say with a resounding Yes that he would “want this again and innumerable times again.”

    The Übermensch for Nietzsche also does not feel remorse nor does he see the need for repentance; he sees his past not as an obstacle but as a way to become greater than what he already is. Ultimately, what does the Übermensch overcome if not for his past and his old self? If the past defines our present, then it can be said that to overcome what we are means to overcome what we were. This is what Nietzsche means in the beginning of Thus Spoke Zarathustra when he reminds us that the “human being is something that must be overcome,” and that man is “still more ape than any ape,” that “much in [him] is still worm.”[8]

    By reading Thus Spoke Zarathustra backward, or by interpreting the meaning of the Übermensch from the point of view of the eternal recurrence, we can see that the power that the overman is to possess is his ability to redeem his past and recreate his life. Whence the need for self-contempt, chaos, children and new beginnings—all of which were the themes Nietzsche takes up in the first parts of Thus Spoke Zarathustra. But new beginnings are only possible if there are endings. The Übermensch clearly defines the boundaries between the past and the present, making sure that they do not flow into one another, confusing and frustrating our freedom. In doing so Nietzsche gives us an alternative to the what he understood was the Christian understanding of time which supposedly gives less importance to the present in favor of the past and the future. The Übermensch both leaves and claims his past with neither regret nor remorse, and this enables him to take on new paths and create new beginnings.

    As he begins rebuilding his life, the Übermensch has to always undergo the demon’s test. He must consider if the decisions he is about to make and the actions he is to take are something that he will want “again and innumerable times again.” Only in this way can he avoid once again becoming tied to his past. 


Last two sections of a paper on Nietzsche

30 March 2012



Lessons of wars past.
This one's for me. 








[1] Nietzsche, Zarathustra, II “On Redemption.”
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid., III “On Old and New Tablets,” §3.
[5] Sartre, The Flies.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Nietzsche, Zarathustra, I “Zarathustra’s Prologue.”


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