Nietzsche Contra Schopenhauer: The Construel of Eternal Recurrence

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Nietzsche Contra Schopenhauer: The Construel of Eternal Recurrence

Several years after the completion of his chief work, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and shortly before his final mental collapse, Nietzsche pinpointed in retrospect its central concern: "the fundamental conception of the work, the idea of eternal recurrence, the highest form of affirmation which can possibly be attained" (6: 335). To have admitted that the most important philosophical project of his life was the construction of a formula which could overcome nihilism and affirm life, betrayed not only what he believed to have been his greatest achievement. It also shows to what extent he was influenced by one of his idols and at the same time one of his greatest philosophical enemies: that philosopher of the "denial of life," Schopenhauer.

It is clear that Schopenhauer remained for Nietzsche a lasting object of admiration and profound ambivalence. The theory of art propounded in The Birth of Tragedy was obviously, as Nietzsche himself conceded, built on Schopenhauer's aesthetics, although it parted company with the latter on its idea of the ultimate function of art. He dedicated one of his Untimely Meditations to Schopenhauer, his "philosophical educator," though he was later to reject Schopenhauer's epistemological and aesthetic doctrines. He came in the end to criticize Schopenhauer, along with Christianity, calling them "enemies of life" in their fundamental pessimism. Although in his late writings Nietzsche called Schopenhauer "nihilistic and decadent," he simultaneously praised him with the words: "he is the last German to be taken seriously...a European event, equal to Goethe, equal to Hegel, equal to Heinrich Heine" (6: 125). From all this we should be able to see that Nietzsche’s attempt to construct a philosophy of affirmation through his idea of eternal recurrence was aimed in Schopenhauer’s general direction.

I wish in this short paper to carry this claim further and show that it has more than merely general validity. The way in which Nietzsche construes his idea of recurrence in The Joyful Wisdom and Thus Spoke Zarathustra bears out well that the idea was, in all its details, directly influenced by and specifically marshalled against some of the main arguments of Schopenhauer. Nietzsche was thoroughly familiar with Schopenhauer's writings and a comparison of some of Nietzsche's major published passages on eternal recurrence and some of Schopenhauer's central claims will make clear both Nietzsche's indebtedness to Schopenhauer, and the way in which Nietzsche believed his refutation succeeded in creating what he held to be the "most noble formula of the great affirmation.

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"It is," writes Schopenhauer, "a total contradiction to want to live without wanting to suffer" (1: 141). The contradiction of which he speaks refers of course to his metaphysics of Will. Every object, every phenomenon in the world is a manifestation of Will, an undifferentiated, "blind," ceaseless impulse to existence, to life. The particular, individual manifestations of Will are for the knowing subject the epistemological "objectifications" or "representations" in the Kantian sense. But the Will as ground of these manifestations can be experienced directly in the movements and sensations of the body, for they are there supposedly not mediated by any cognitive synthesis. But once individuated into phenomena, each manifestation of Will fights against every other for the preservation or prolongation of its own existence. Thus, in this endless Hobbsian war of "all against all," every individual will inevitably suffer.

Schopenhauer does not argue that moments of contentment, even happiness, can be experienced in this situation; for when desired objects come into grasp, wishes can be fulfilled. But in the end, the search for lasting happiness is futile because the Will is essentially unceasing and insatiable.

This is also seen in all human striving and wishes, which convince us that their fulfillment is the final goal of the Will. But as soon as realized, they appear so to us no longer, and are hence quickly forgotten, antiquated, and actually, if unsatisfying, are cast aside as deceptions. Lucky enough, when something else remains to be wished for and striven after, for then this play can continue from want to satisfaction and then to new want, this painful river of happiness and boredom. To be stuck with merely one satisfaction would leave us with terrible boredom and a flat yearning for no particular object. When knowledge enlightens the Will, it may learn what it wills here and now, but never what it wills in general; every individual act has a purpose, but the Will as a whole has none (1: 229-30).

The Will is here an absolute phenomenological datum of life, but while it remains constant, its objects do not. They are either hindered from grasp, taken away, boring, or simply transitory, coming and going.

If the human condition were fully explained with this description, this condition would differ in no way from that which exists for animals, but Schopenhauer never tired of claiming that human beings were the most pain-stricken animals. The reason for this is that human beings have the particular ability to reconstruct the past through memory, and through the intellect to "replay" it.

We can make isolated episodes of the past present to ourselves intuitively, but we are aware of the intervening time and its contents only in abstracto. This awareness is mediated through concepts, which represent the contents of past days and years. In contrast, the animal's memory, like its entire intellect, is limited to intuition And the only thing that can trigger an animal's memory is a repeated impression which has already been experienced, a present appearance links with the trail of its last occurrence. The animal's memory is thus mediated solely through the present (2: 71).
The human memory is for Schopenhauer only possible through the formation of concepts. Therefore, human beings do not merely battle against present frustrations of their wills, but also with those which are reconstructed from the past. The past frustrations cause indecision and deliberation in the present.

Above all, our capability to deliberate is one of the things which makes human life so much more lamentable than animal life. For our greatest sufferings are not to be found in the present, as intuitive representation or unmediated feeling, they lie rather in reason, as abstract concepts, dreadful thoughts, from which the animal is totally free in its enviable, carefree, absolute present.(1: 390).

These "abstract concepts" and "dreadful thoughts" can take the forms of represented fantasies or memories, which are both capable of effecting a psychological fear of action. The past can in fact be so painful that it can lead one to depression. Schopenhauer actually dedicates a whole section in his first volume of The World as Will and Representation to a theory of insanity, in which he claims that it is characterized by a break in memory, which arises out of repression and causes schizophrenia (1: 260-63).

But the most important characteristic of memory and the past is for Schopenhauer what both reveal to the human being about him or herself. The "single thought" of the entire Schopenhauerian system is that "the world is the self-knowledge of the Will" (Atwell 25). The memory of the individual is here the counterpart of the history of humanity as a whole, both serving the function of mediating the knowledge of individual and collective human nature as insatiable Will. The past thus yields for us a very disturbing knowledge, a knowledge of our own essence as the cause of all suffering, which can bring the individual to want to obliterate that very essence.

The reaction to this knowledge of the Will is for Schopenhauer the crucial point of life, where the Will is either affirmed or denied. He recognizes both possibilities but a very peculiar characteristic of both is that the successful affirmation or denial of the Will entails an elimination of the consciousness of the past. Schopenhauer considers real affirmation to be "a self-sufficient willing, unfettered by the destructive effects of reflection" (1: 425). In this sense, affirmation would be a backstep to the animal's "enviable, carefree, absolute present," a pure and fully present willing, unhindered by the memories of past frustrations and fears of coming death. On the other hand, denial of the will to live is only possible for a true mystic or saint, in whose case the knowledge of the Will as cause of all suffering has been brought about for the specific purpose of being eliminated in them.

We now realize how holy the life of such a person must be, for in him the world not only momentarily disappears, as in the partaking of beauty, but is forever extinguished. Every last glittering flame of the body is snuffed out, and with this, such a person, after many bitter battles against his own nature, has completely triumphed; what is left over is a pure knowing being, an unspotted mirror of the world (1: 502).

With the Will, actively egoistic participation in the world is put aside, and with that all suffering and pain are overcome. For Schopenhauer, redemption means the cessation of the Will, which liberates the human being totally from the violent world. In this cessation, the past and time are naturally to be eliminated, for they create all the Will’s remorse and prompt it always to will for something else. But the past does reveal to us that this life is not worthy of our desire nor our attachment, and Schopenhauer sums up the point succinctly with a pronouncement that would ring in Nietzche’s ears; "Perhaps no one at the end of their life, if they were simultaneously enlightened and honest, would wish to live their life over again, in fact would much prefer complete nonexistence to it." (1: 422)

In the first important passage dealing with eternal recurrence in The Joyful Wisdom, Nietzsche gives the individual the same choice just described by Schopenhauer.

What if, someday or night, a daemon stole into your loneliest loneliness, and said to you; "This life, which you’ve lived up to now, you must live once again and countless times, and nothing new will come of it. Every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh, and everything inexpressibly small and great in your life must return to you, all in the same order and series. The eternal hourglass of time will be turned over again and again, and you with it, pebble of sand." Would you not cast yourself down, with gnashing of teeth, and curse the daemon who spoke thus? Or have you ever experienced one tremendous moment, which would cause you to answer him; "You are a god, and never have I heard a commandment so holy!" If such a thought were to gain power over you, it would transform you, maybe even crush you. The question put to everyone; "Do you want this again, and countless times?" would become the heaviest weight upon your actions! For how good would you have to become to yourself and your life to long after nothing more than this final confirmation and seal? (3: 570)

Despite Nietzsche's later ad hoc attempts to defend eternal recurrence as a "scientific" doctrine, it is clear from this and the other published passages dealing with it that Nietzsche's emphasis is not on the structure of the cosmos, rather solely on affirming life. In this, his first expression of the idea of eternal recurrence, Nietzsche offers us no promise of redemption in some future life, nor a greatly improved future for this one; rather our own life, to be lived again just as it has been lived, once more and "countless times" more. But how could redemption arise from such a situation? First of all, one must reconcile oneself with one’s past, for if the past eternally recurs, one must not only accept it, but will to have it do so, in order to hold the daemon’s pronouncement at all bearable. But the key to such an affirmation in this passage is a certain "tremendous moment," which could empower one to see the whole order and series of pain and suffering in life as justified because of it. As Erich Heller puts it, this passage suggests "ecstasy as the sole condition in which existence may be tolerable" (77). The ecstasy of this one moment occurs in a series of events, every one of which necessarily reoccurs, and therefore must be sufficiently intense to redeem the entire series.

In certain senses, this formula of the "great affirmation" is not so different from the saving catharsis which comes at the climax of a Greek tragedy. "With their choir, these Greeks, singularly capable in the most profound, deep and difficult suffering, consoled themselves. With the most penetrating look into the awful destructiveness of so-called world history, as well as the cruelty of nature, in danger of longing after a Buddhist denial of the Will,... they are saved by art; through art, life has saved them" (1: 19-20). A certain, incomparable moment is the savior. But not a Schopenhauerian aesthetic moment, which prompts the resignation of the Will; for Nietzsche, only life itself, the Will itself, can produce such a moment which has the power to redeem, and not condemn, life.

In his major work, Zarathustra, Nietzsche fundamentally reworks the idea of eternal recurrence. In the above section from The Joyful Wisdom, the past is not really essentially redeemed, but is rather compensated for. The affirmation of life, that is here the affirmation of the past, must be compelled by this "one tremendous moment," which gives the individual the "metaphysical comfort" to say yes to this "confirmation and seal," which renders life eternally affirmable. The decisive passages on eternal recurrence in Zarathustra characterize affirmation as the acceptance and willing back the past as it is, with or without any compensating moment.

In the section "On Redemption" in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche argues: "‘It was;’ this is the Will’s gnashing of teeth and loneliest darkness. Powerless against what has already been done...he sits before the past like a furious audience. The Will cannot will backwards, cannot break the rule of time--this is the Will's loneliest darkness" (142-3). Nietzsche thus agrees with Schopenhauer that what makes the affirmation of life so difficult are the effects of the past on the Will. However, Nietzsche calls the Will a "prisoner," because it is not capable of "unwilling" what it has already willed; contemplating its own past, it finds that it can neither change nor negate itself and its actions. This is simply not possible. He believes that Schopenhauer’s fundamental error was believing that the simple resignation of the Will, that is elimination of what one is, is not a genuine redemption. On the contrary, the denial of the Will to Live is tantamount to a self-imposed sentence of capital punishment. Nietzsche thus characterizes Schopenhauer's entire system of ethics, dominated by the notion of the cessation of the ego's willing:

"Punishment," this is what revenge calls it, and with this lie it wins itself a good conscience. And because suffering is caused by willing beings, the Will and all of life, because it cannot will backwards, must be a punishment! And then cloud upon cloud rolls over the spirit, until insanity preaches; "Everything passes away, because everything deserves to pass away!" "And time is thus brought to justice, and sentenced to devour its children." This is what insanity preaches. "Things are ordered by revenge and punishment. How can redemption exist in this river of things and punishment?" This is what insanity preaches. "Can there be redemption, if there exists eternal justice? Oh, immovable is the stone 'It was.' Punishment must be eternal too." This is what insanity preaches. "No deed can be negated, how can it be undone by punishment? This is the eternity of Being's punishment, for Being is always merely deed and guilt!" So then, the Will must in the end redeem itself, and willing become not-willing-yes my brothers, you know this fairy tale of insanity (Zarathustra 144).

Nietzsche's project in Zarathustra is the creation of the Ubermensch, who can justify and redeem life as it is, not merely as it is judged by this or that moral doctrine. Schopenhauer is thus classified among Nietzsche's philosophical opponents who place moral judgements upon existence. When the Will prefers resignation of life over its affirmation, existence condemns itself with a moral principle, which runs: "The Will causes all suffering: it is evil to cause suffering: the Will is therefore evil and deserves to be punished. It must as punishment be negated, either through eventual death or resignation. The whole Schopenhaurian system was for Nietzsche the newest in a long line of Western philosophies which subordinated existence to morality, and, therefore, he called Schopenhauer, along with Plato and Christianity, "decadent."

Since it is not possible to eliminate the consciousness of the past, as Schopenhauer thought was necessary, there was for Nietzsche but one more option: "To redeem the past, and transform every 'It was.' into an 'I willed it so.' To me, this is what redemption is" (141). Redemption is here not a liberation from the Will, rather a liberation of the Will from its terror when facing its own past. One cannot change, condemn, or negate what one has willed or done, and thus the past is psychologically bearable only when the Will has reconciled itself with it ("I willed it so."). Redemption with Nietzsche can come only through the Will itself; the very source of the endless striving of human beings, and all their suffering, is the only thing which can call it back to the world, affirming what it had once so wished to deny.

There is indeed in Zarathustra a moment of redemption, but not such a moment as would compensate for the rest of life, but rather a moment of complete, fatalistic acceptance. The type of fatalism created by an eternal recurrence does, however, have another side to it, for if everything eternally reoccurs, every deed in human life gains an eternal, absolute significance (Volkmann Schluck 125). The eternal recurrence works as a "mathematical magic" giving each moment of life a sort of infinite intensity (Heller 185). It is also worthwhile noting that the language that Nietzsche uses in his various formulae of life affirmation is thoroughly theological. Words like "redemption" and "justification" give his tone the sound of Luther. But Nietzsche uses this terminology as part of his "reevaluation of all values" project, and its attempt to deify and mythologize this world and this life, rather than some other world, as Christianity might.

But can it be done? To be sure, the eternal recurrence has some dire consequences for Zarathustra himself, for if everything eternally reoccurs, the counterpart of the Ubermensch, the "small man" (der kleine Mensch ) will also, and Zarathustra must take up arms in the same battle for eternity, must again teach, again suffer the same nausea of nihilism, and, perhaps, nothing will be achieved. Heller writes: "It is a terrifying experiment, for although it has been undertaken for the sake of the uninhibited fullness of life, it is terrifyingly self-defeating...and (would) frustrate the intention to articulate anything" (179). But Nietzsche sets it up so as to make Zarathustra's affirmation of this situation the only way to his self-redemption: "Thus ended Zarathustra's descent" (224). Clark summarizes these issues well:

Whatever he achieves will come undone, and he will need to redo it. As he imagines it, eternal recurrence is incompatible with ever establishing the overman or overcoming the small man...If one values life only as a means to something beyond the process itself--heaven, nirvana, the rock sitting on top of the mountain, the existence of the realm of right and justice or any other kind of utopia--...(that) deprive(s) life of intrinsic value...(But) whatever (Zarathustra) accomplishes in this regard, the small man will return and Zarathustra will have to resume the fight against him. The unrealistic model of recurrence makes Zarathustra's position like Sisyphus', and makes..."metaphysical comfort" impossible...This unrealistic construel of eternal recurrence gives Nietzsche a value the process of living as an end and not merely as a an end beyond the process (272).

Eternal recurrence has been seen by Nietzsche commentators as everything from a cosmological hypothesis to a Heideggerian refutation of Western metaphysics to a model for overcoming nihilism. But the key to understanding this strange doctrine is not necessarily to find a positive argument in it, but, strangely enough, to find a negative one. Nietzsche very seldom makes positive, systematic arguments, and so in reading him, one must always ask: "What is he critiquing, what is he arguing against?" It seems to me that these passages make clear that Nietzsche was marshalling the idea of eternal recurrence, an exaggerated, "unrealistic" legend imploring a fatalistic affirmation, against Schopenhauer's equally exaggerated presentation of the irredeemability of suffering, seeking a fatalistic resignation. Schopenhauer argues, if the Will is to be affirmed or denied, the consciousness of the past, that is the knowledge of all the suffering one has caused and undergone, must somehow be negated. The past serves only as a pedagogical device; it gives us self-knowledge, but only as a means to teach us that we must overcome our willful egoism. Nietzsche's recurrence is a fully mythologized attack on Schopenhauer's suggestions here, for the myth insists that the past must be fully accepted, cannot be negated and therefore must be affirmed. The past is not a pedagogy urging us to deny ourselves, but rather a means by which we realize the eternal validity of the individual ego's worth, who could will even a painful life again.

Nietzsche believed he had created the greatest model of life-affirmation with the eternal recurrence, and this should make us aware that he is fighting a completely Schopenhaurian battle with it. And some of the doctrine’s critiques of Schopenhauer are profound. His criticism of Schopenhauer prioritizing ethics over metaphysics, supposing the later to be governed by the former, seems on the mark. He also exposed Schopenhauer’s pessimism, which held that no evil or pain could be seen as at all justifiable or as having a redemptive character in the world in which we live. Nietzsche wished, as Clark points out, to accord the utmost value to the process of life itself, and in this sense, his formula of recurrence was an experiment with unqualified affirmation

But Nietzsche saw Schopenhauer as making resignation a categorical imperative (which was in no way the case, as I have mentioned), and, therefore, he believed he had to compel an affirmation which was equally as fatalistic and necessary as Schopenhauer’s denial of the Will. But it is perfectly easy to imagine persons who would in no way be able to will the recurrence of their lives eternally, victims of natural and social cruelty, oppression, poverty, disease; indeed it would be quite preposterous to "diagnose" human beings who endure much lesser degrees of suffering as "decadent" merely because they would be unwilling to eternally recur. In fact, asking that these people affirm these conditions eternally as their only hope of redemption might seem more the demand of a sadistic elitist than an Übermensch. It is thus apparent that the eternal recurrence fails as a redemptive formula for life, for all living beings; it only works for those lucky few who can answer the daemon affirmatively in the first place, and thus pass the test.

Works cited

Atwell, John, E. Schopenhauer on the Character of the World: The Metaphysics of Will. Berkeley: U of California P, 1995.

Schopenhauer: The Human Character. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1990.

Clark, Maudmarie. Nietzsche on Truth and Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990.

Heller, Erich. The Importance of Nietzsche: Ten Essays. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1988.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Sämliche Werke. 15 vols. Dünndrück-Ausgabe. Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyan, 1988.

Also Sprach Zarathustra. Insel, 1990.

Schopenhauer, Arthur. Werke in Fünf Bänden. Leipzig: Hoffmann-Ausgabe,1994.

Volkmann Schluck, Karl Heinz. Die Philosophie Nietzsches: Der Untergang der abendlandischen Metaphysik. Ed. Bernard Heimbüchel. Würzburg: Königshauser & Neumann, 1991.

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