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Nietzsche’s Eternal Return (newyorker.com)
73 points by apollinaire 9 months ago | hide | past | favorite | 55 comments

I've always found his concept of "live life in such a way, that at the end, you could say once more!"

Just imagine, how different would life be if people tried to live it in such a way, that if there was eternal re-occurrence, they would be content to relive it indefinitely.

The funny part really is, for all you know this isn't the first time where having this conversation.

> live life in such a way, that at the end, you could say once more

This is in stark contrast with Hinduism and Yoga - there the goal is to never come back!

In a sense, the idea of eternal recurrence (and much of Nietzsche's philosophy) was a direct attempt to reject Eastern (or Buddhist) conclusions.

Schopenhauer had a metaphysics & morality that was fairly consistent with (and maybe informed by) Buddhism - i.e. existence is suffering/dukhka, this arises from will/trishna, and its cessation can be achieved through something that looks like the dissolution of the self.

Nietzsche, who was an avid reader of Schopenhauer, ran with the idea that life was fundamentally a process of will/craving, but spent his career trying to reject the conclusion that this is something to be overcome.

I find Nietzsche's philosophy makes a lot more sense when motivated in this manner.

In no way does Hinduism contrast that. And Yoga is not a religion.

Eternal recurrence is also a Hindu concept. The Eternal part is a little iffy at times though.


I like to think. If we made it here once, we can make it agian.

These two excerpts probably explain what 'Eternal Return' is referring to.

> To the opponents of democracy, Nietzsche says, in essence: Just wait. Liberal democracy will devour itself, creating conditions for authoritarian rule. Disorder and instability will sow distrust in politics itself. “Step by step, private companies will absorb the functions of the state,” Nietzsche writes. “Even the most tenacious remnants of the old work of governing (the activity, for example, that is supposed to protect private persons from one another) will finally be taken care of by private entrepreneurs.” The distinction between public and private spheres will disappear. The state will give way to the “liberation of the private person (I take care not to say: of the individual).”

> The entrepreneur Peter Thiel, an avid reader of Nietzsche, says things like “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.” ... For tech billionaires, national and racial hatreds are inconveniences; their authoritarianism wears a cosmopolitan face, promising frictionless commerce for all.

That's not what the eternal return refers to. It refers to physics - that the Universe will expand from and collapse to singularity and then do it again. His argument that if matter is finite, and time is infinite - therefore if we are composed of matter and given an infinite amount of time he thinks it is inevitable that matter/oneself will return to the exact same state over and over again.

It is an interesting thought experiment and I don't believe he's 100% correct with it, although I'll spare my interpretation.

It's not that the things you're saying don't have some relation to Nietzsche, but it has more to do with his thoughts on morality and so you're lumping things together in a categorical error. It's more important to think about it than to think Peter Thiel did all the heavy lifting for you already.

That's not it either. Eternal return is a actually a mental model to prepare yourself for all decision making: make the choice that you would be willing to live with choosing again and again for eternity. It's about removing yourself from cultural and political expectations and struggling through the only path that is uniquely you, because any less would be to lose yourself.

Someone suggested in another comment that you wouldn't know which life this is currently. This is also missing the point. Neitzchean eternal return is more like a Hell: relieving all your mistakes over and over for all time. Destined to make the same choices while woke to their failings.

The idea was to assert a non-humility and non-christian model of morality (a morality of self-realization)

Your last sentence is correct more or less, but I will say it can be both things at once, Nietzsche was taking a big gulp with that exercise and physics is part of it based on how he thought about it in relation to reality and his timeframe, not abstract unprovable concepts - a philosopher's job isn't to take you in one direction, so that's all that matters, although I will say Nietzsche was so close, but at the same time suffered from his own fatal flaw - dogma. Though he criticized Socrates exploitation of tragedy to convolute philosophy over the years, he seemed to see in his own self as some sort of tragic figure with people using morality as a way to shortcut. His longing for the 'ubermensch' is his own kinda distorted way of longing for a Christ like figure who knows that reason should prevail over morals - he maybe shouldn't have written off psychology and the Bible so hastily.

Where Nietzsche failed to connect the dots as a result of his logical error (righteous dogma/indulging in tragedy as a moral device with his longing for a savior figure) is that he is essentially arguing that the only sin is original sin. Before I get into how his argument fits into that, let me restate his argument in a logical manner so you can tell I understand it somewhat. Morality is a problematic logical argument because it means different things to different people depending on their intrinsic motivations (which are somehwat animalistic, unless one trains one mind to think logically, and even then still one must always learn to recognize the beast) - therefore it is subjective, and non-quantifiable and therefore useless to an intellectual argument - this creates false equivalence, this creates conflicts when people insert morality into their reasoning - it is a logical shortcut.

Back to original sin - "Eating from the tree of KNOWLEDGE OF GOOD AND EVIL" - the Bible is a liar's paradox and if you start to look at it that way it's logical masterpiece and you bet whoever wrote it understood human nature and physics big time. Nietzsche believed whenever you thought you had knowledge of something, you had probably made some logical error in pursuit of a truth you wanted to believe was fixed. He is probably right - God is not divine justice and if it were we've all probably manipulated it to our subjective whims. Jesus isn't magic. But perhaps they are useful analogs : God is Truth, and unknowable - Jesus/Nietzsche/Ubermensch represents logic coupled with mankind's initial logical fallacy (pride of knowledge/divine b.s.) thus becoming a pariah (crucified/madness/misappropriated), just believing they could say something was good or evil without providing rationale as backed by a societal construct that was made to keep some kind of order (such as saying there is no relationship between physics and philosophy and religion and space/time) - but that's neither here nor there for me to speak of, I'd rather someone else pick up the hypothesis, but I may chime in if someone goes too far off course with this.

> Peter Thiel

See also: his dark revolution aka "The Dark Enlightenment".

Examples: https://ieet.org/index.php/IEET2/more/Searle20160815

'On the Genealogy of Morals' was the most coherent, accessible, and IMHO relevant text to out times, that Nietzsche ever produced.

This book changed my life, and sparked my interest in philosophy generally. Highly recommended.

Just go and read Deleuze's essays on Nietzsche. They're short and extremely insightful

You'd be much better advised to just go straight to the source and read Nietzsche, especially as he's one of the most readable, entertaining, and interesting philosophers ever.

You'd do yourself a disservice by looking at him through someone else's inevitably distorting glasses.

It is always a good idea to read a philosopher through Deleuze's words. If there's one philosopher whose main sticht was distorting others in productive ways, it's Deleuze. It is a pretty up-front distortion ("taking them from behind and giving them a bastard child"), but usually providing an incredibly useful new perspective

> especially as he's one of the most readable, entertaining, and interesting philosophers ever.

You would do me a service by declaring your sarcasm, if any is intended. Nietzsche is famously one of the most dense philosophers to get into, and there are many different ways to interpret his writings. I've struggled through works by Nietzsche, and though I would definitely recommend it and agree that it is entertaining, interesting and thought provoking, "readable" isn't a word I would use to describe it.

do you have to learn german just to read nietzsche?

As someone that has learnt German for other reasons, it definitely helps. There is a lot of word play in German in his writings that I feel translation loses. As well as emphasis in word choices stemming from German as a language that tends to either get glossed over or overlooked.

But in the end, no you don't, but it helps in the nuances of what is trying to be conveyed.

IMHO, Nietzsche was both a great poet and a great philosopher, and the former can't really be translated. I'd imagine it's a bit like watching a shakespear play in a foreign language - still a dramatic and entertaining time, but you might be left wondering what all the fuss is about.

In English, the Kaufmann translations are excellent.

That is if you want to look at the world through someone else's inevitable distorting glasses ;)

His book on Nietzsche is very good, though a bit controversial since he leans on Will to Power so much.

I've been meaning to write a blog post titled "Nietzsche loves Nokogiri" for the last... five years? Whew... The thesis is that basically, Nokogiri was the right response to the situation with Hpricot. I'm not sure how many Rubyists even remember those days at this point...

  Nietzsche is dead

This article, as to be expected by the New Yorker, is fairly underwhelming, lacks a point and is outright wrong in a few places. For one, trying to apply Nietzsche’s thought to modern politics is to completely misunderstand the man. His work has nothing to do with the supposedly ‘new’ phenomenon of news and media lying about the truth. It is far deeper and profound than the Trump-buzzword article of the day.

It’s probably fair to say that Nietzsche, if he were around today, would almost certainly have no interest in the petty squabbles of democratic politics. To assign him a political viewpoint is to misunderstand that he is fundamentally interested in the individual human being as a self-contained phenomenon. His philosophy is not accurately characterized as “individualism” but it is absolutely not political in nature.

In any case, the title refers to an interesting idea which oddly enough isn’t even mentioned in the article itself: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eternal_return#Friedrich_Nietz...

I personally enjoy the New Yorker and liked the article.

And in college I read “Politics and Modernity”, which does indeed use Nietzsches thought to investigate, well, the politics of modernity.

The author studies political science at Johns Hopkins and so there are at least a few people who would disagree with your statement that Nietzsche has nothing to do with politics of our moment.


FWIW I thought it was an excellent book.

I wouldn't say that Nietzsche was apolitical.

He wrote that "Wagner has become what I most despise: an antisemite."

Nietzsche was very vocal in his opposition to antisemitism, which extended far beyond his break with Wagner, a man who he had formerly deeply admired. Ironically, his sister was an ardent antisemite, who falsified his work to make him seem sympathetic to her views.

Though Nietzsche would was not primarily a political philosopher (except in the sense that, arguably, everything is political) it is likely that were he alive today he would be opposed to the xonophobia and racism that is at Trump's core and that of many of his supporters.

I agree with everything you said but this part:

> the individual human being as a self-contained phenomenon

He was absolutely an existentialist, but I think his rebuke of the Cartesian _cogito_ undermines that self-contained concept.

I was trying to avoid delving into his whole idea of the will and explicit anti-‘selfhood’ as it seemed a bit too much for a HN comment. But yeah, I was trying to say that N. isn’t really a political thinker. He is better described as interested in fundamental forces that are far deeper than (what he perceives as) the petty mob values of democratic politics or a simple concept of individualism.

> Scholars still debate what Nietzsche had in mind. A physically stronger being? [..] A kind of cyborg?

Nevermind scholar, what person who actually read Nietzsche seriously considers either of those? I would really like to see a source for this other than pop culture. Even "spiritual aristocrat" is weird, "spiritual athlete" would make more sense to me (even though it still wouldn't really say anything).

Consider the opposite of the Übermensch, the "last man": http://thelastmanonearth.blogspot.com/2009/03/nietzsche-and-...

Or this:

> Anyone who doesn't want to belong to the masses need only cease to go easy on themselves; let them follow their conscience, which cries out to them "Be yourself! You are none of those things that you now do, think, and desire." Every young soul hears this call night and day and trembles, for when it thinks of its true liberation, it has an inkling of the measure of happiness for which it is destined from eternity. As long as it is shackled by the chains of opinion and fear, nothing can help it attain this happiness. And how bleak and senseless this life can become without this liberation!

-- Friedrich Nietzsche

I don't know what the Übermensch is, I always read Nietzsche like a poetry collection anyway, rather than a coherent model, and I haven't read Nietzsche in ages -- but I am pretty sure being one's own person (which of course is different for everybody) is part of it.

The most consistent interpretation IMO is 'person who engages in self-mastery to overcome obstacles'.

I think that interpretation also jives with why he was so critical of pity and humanism: because he genuinely believed that some suffering is needed because overcoming obstacles through exertion of the will is the only way for humanity to live a satisfying existence.

That's my $0.02 anyway...

The concept of self-mastery suggests that the outcome of the ancient dictum 'Temet nosce' (know thyself) is part of a (once well-known?) psychological process, of a liberation from ignorance.

I see an echo of that in Jung's 'individuation'. I see other echoes in Gurdjieff & Ouspensky's writings, in the efforts of the (non-materialist) alchemists, in Maslow's 'self-actualization', in Bucke's 'cosmic consciousness', etc ... and that's just in the West.

Huxley displays a somewhat more universal (but abstracted) outline of this constellation of efforts in his 1946 The Perennial Philosophy.

Long ago I waded (not very deeply) into N., but as I recall, he explored a lot more than this one idea. Maybe he's become most identified with it because its other numerous threads are too esoteric ... or concealed.

NB: One Jung take on Nietzsche (1936): https://www.philosopher.eu/others-writings/essay-on-wotan-w-...

The article goes on and on but says nothing insightful. Just Wikipedia-like facts, strung together for the purpose of who knows. Be warned or be content that you're not the only one with that feeling.

>The article goes on and on but says nothing insightful.

It's not supposed to.

A better title would be "A general introduction to Nietzsche's life to people who have only heard his name" -- rather than the more promising "Nietzsche’s Eternal Return" which only concerns half a hastily written paragraph in TFA.

That said, it's quite poorly informed in the philosophical aspects (didn't bother to check the biographical ones):

"Scholars still debate what Nietzsche had in mind. A physically stronger being? A spiritual aristocrat? A kind of cyborg?"

Scholars might still debate "what Nietzsche had in mind" with Ubermench, but they don't consider any of the above options (except perhaps "a spiritual aristocrat", and that's still extremely vague).

Why do current scholars consider meaningful a philosopher who left poorly specified one of the core idea about which he wrote?

Nietzsche also put an end to a century of increasingly technical and analytical philosophy by dropping a lot of truth bombs that exposed the futility of a century of German philosophy. He’s kind of an edgelord by 19th century standards, but he wasn’t wrong that German philosophy had been intellectual masturbation with no meaning for quite a while.

His wordplay is an intentional reaction to blowhards like Kant and Schopenhauer — who attempted to be so precise they were almost certain to be proven wrong given enough time. He is intentionally vague, because he’s allowing for the fact that definitions and sentiments change arbitrarily over time. But he is intentionally evasive in his prose to distance him from a specific German philosophical tradition.

There's nothing poorly specified about Nietzsche's ideas, he just wrote deliberately in a way to be incomprehensible to people casually browsing his books, or looking for quotes to bandy about someplace like this. He deliberately says in a few places (effectively) "if you can't be bothered to read my entire works then you have no right to claim to understand my thought." It's a bit pretentious and a bit arrogant, but please don't confuse a New Yorker article wondering whether the overman is a "cyborg" with the consensus of serious Nietzsche scholars. He is not so unambiguous as English-speakers who've read 1 or 2 critical essays and skimmed half of one of his books would lead you to believe. (I've read all of his books multiple times, the big ones over a dozen times, and studied him for 5+ years in college).

There are lots of legitimate criticisms of Nietzsche. But saying "overman could be a very strong man, or cyborg??? lol we don't know" is a bad faith child's argument, imo. Overman (the man who continually self-overcomes) is a notable example of a very clearly articulated idea in Nietzsche's thought, and it has nothing to do with being stronger or more powerful than other people.

Well, assuming that was the case, it could be for several reasons.

For one, because in certain areas of philosophy (as in certain areas of life in general) what's important is how deep you went, and what insights you brought, not how clearly you expressed them.

Second, because, unlike the case accounting or physics, but not unlike paining, a particular sketch open to interpretations can more important than a perfect, but bland and meaningless, photograph. One of the roles of philosophy is to make you think, not necessarily to tell you what to think and give you exact proofs and specs.

Third, because literary techniques, including poetry, metaphor, parable, satori, and mystery, have been part of philosophy for millennia. It's not just some crude axiomatic endeavor (as it sometimes, for some philosophers, is) going from first principles to the proof some theorem.

Fourth, for the same way we don't drop physicists just because they have holes as big as what's this "dark matter", or how QM and relativity work as a cohesive whole in their theories.

That said, the case here is simpler (although part of the above hold). Nietzsche made quite a clear case. Scholars argue about the extensions and repercussions of it -- the same way computer science is still developing Turing's ideas.

was far more clear

Because one of his main points is that it's impossible to be specific about some things and it's important to be suspicious about those who claim to have the truth.

> The article goes on and on but says nothing insightful.

Every NewYorker article basically.

It’s not really possible to say anything insightful about Nietzsche at this point. He’s probably the most overanalyzed philosopher ever.

The article hits the big one people miss — that he’s describing a state of existence rather than any imperative.

It’s the New Yorker.

While I don't agree with everything Pinker says, I must say, Pinker's point on "Drop the Nietsche" in his book, Enlightenment Now, did influence me:

Keep some perspective. Not every problem is a Crisis, Plague, Epidemic, or Existential Threat, and not every change is the End of This, the Death of That, or the Dawn of a Post-Something Era. Don't confuse pessimism with profundity: problems are inevitable, but problems are solvable, and diagnosing every setback as a symptom of a sick society is a cheap grab for gravitas. Finally, drop the Nietzsche. His ideas may seem edgy, authentic, baad, while humanism seems sappy, unhip, uncool. But what's so funny about peace, love, and understanding?

Edit: "I agree" --> "influenced me". Maybe reading more of Nietsche might open up my mind more on his work. :-)

I think there is an interesting idea of Nietzsche related to pessimism that often gets lost. I've read Nietzsche's entire published work and Nachlass multiple times in my teen years and the most central concept in Nietzsche for me personally was his concept "pessimism of strength":

Quote 1:

We can thus guess where the great note of interrogation concerning the value of existence had been set. Is pessimism necessarily the sign of decline, of decay, of failure, of exhausted and weakened instincts?—as was the case with the Indians, as is, to all appearance, the case with us "modern" men and Europeans? Is there a pessimism of strength? An intellectual predilection for what is hard, awful, evil, problematical in existence, owing to well-being, to exuberant health, to fullness of existence? Is there perhaps suffering in overfullness itself? A seductive fortitude with the keenest of glances, which yearns for the terrible, as for the enemy, the worthy enemy, with whom it may try its strength? from whom it is willing to learn what "fear" is?[0]

Gibt es einen Pessimismus der Stärke? Eine intellektuelle Vorneigung für das Harte, Schauerliche, Böse, Problematische des Daseins aus Wohlsein, aus überströmender Gesundheit, aus Fülle des Daseins? Gibt es vielleicht ein Leiden an der Überfülle selbst? Eine versucherische Tapferkeit des schärfsten Blicks, die nach dem Furchtbaren verlangt, als nach dem Feinde, dem würdigen Feinde, an dem sie ihre Kraft erproben kann? an dem sie lernen will, was »das Fürchten« ist?[1]

Quote 2:

A fundamental question is the relation of the Greek to pain, his degree of sensibility,—did this relation remain constant? or did it veer about?—the question, whether his ever-increasing longing for beauty, for festivals, gaieties, new cults, did really grow out of want, privation, melancholy, pain? For suppose even this to be true—and Pericles (or Thucydides) intimates as much in the great Funeral Speech:—whence then the opposite longing, which appeared first in the order of time, the longing for the ugly, the good, resolute desire of the Old Hellene for pessimism, for tragic myth, for the picture of all that is terrible, evil, enigmatical, destructive, fatal at the basis of existence,—whence then must tragedy have sprung? Perhaps from joy, from strength, from exuberant health, from over-fullness.[0]

Eine Grundfrage ist das Verhältnis des Griechen zum Schmerz, sein Grad von Sensibilität, – blieb dies Verhältnis sich gleich? oder drehte es sich um? – jene Frage, ob wirklich sein immer stärkeres Verlangen nach Schönheit, nach Festen, Lustbarkeiten, neuen Kulten aus Mangel, aus Entbehrung, aus Melancholie, aus Schmerz erwachsen ist? Gesetzt nämlich, gerade dies wäre wahr – und Perikles (oder Thukydides) gibt es uns in der großen Leichenrede zu verstehen –: woher müßte dann das entgegengesetzte Verlangen, das der Zeit nach früher hervortrat, stammen, das Verlangen nach dem Häßlichen, der gute strenge Wille des älteren Hellenen zum Pessimismus, zum tragischen Mythus, zum Bilde alles Furchtbaren, Bösen, Rätselhaften, Vernichtenden, Verhängnisvollen auf dem Grunde des Daseins, – woher müßte dann die Tragödie stammen? Vielleicht aus der Lust, aus der Kraft, aus überströmender Gesundheit, aus übergroßer Fülle?[1]

[0] https://www.gutenberg.org/files/51356/51356-h/51356-h.htm [1] http://www.zeno.org/Philosophie/M/Nietzsche,+Friedrich/Die+G...

Nietzsche's work is all about fighting with pessimism? Instead of dropping Nietzsche, go and actually try to read him / or about him from genuine source, `Nietzsche and Anarchy: Psychology for Free Spirits, Ontology for Social War` is a great, positive and down to text reading for start

Pinker is perhaps the single most uninformed public “intellectual” in society today. His ideas are slightly above Gladwell yet somehow he commands respect. I really don’t understand it.

By any stretch I'm not "blown over" by Pinker's work, but calling him "most uninformed" is uncharitable.

Sure he has his blind spots, and sometimes gets carried away and says things that are not at all in his wheelhouse. But overall, I think his work is a "net good".

Ad hominem attacks don't really improve the level of discussions on HN.

I don’t consider it an ad-hominem attack. The man has consistently shown that he is vastly undereducated on things he has public opinions on. The quote linked to above is a perfect example - it reads as if from someone who skimmed the Wikipedia article on Nietzsche and spent zero time attempting to understand his thought.

For anyone who has even a passing knowledge of Nietzsche’s ideas, Pinker’s quote is just hilariously, woefully ignorant. Nietzsche was not a pessimist - if anything he was an optimist. It’s only in the (uninformed) public imagination that he is some kind of nihilist pessimist. Judging from Pinker’s quote, his knowledge of Nietzsche doesn’t go deeper than public hearsay.

Considering that nearly all of Pinker’s works suffer from this same flaw, I have no problem dismissing him.

Neither does nagging like this

Don't try to be Nietzsche unless you actually are Nietzsche.

yawn I’m tired of Nietzsche. Just as the world needed a new prophet, Zarathustra, we need a new misunderstood, brooding, wishes-he-were-a-poet grimbad philosopher. Nietzsche is great, but the motions of the ages are even startig to catch up to him, too. Ecce Homo is still interesting and somewhat relevant, but all of his other works are full of ideas that hae been sufficiently adopted or misappropriated by society at large as to be faux pas or bland. His war against Christian society and morals, for instance, while stylistically interesting, is almost entirely irrelevant at this stage in history. He’s become idolized and his message has become diluted, just like everyone else.

That said, he’s still a delight to read. Some of the aphorisms are also still glittering gems. I just find the major concepts in his thinking are somewhat musty at this point.

Nietzsche never truly had a war with Christianity. He was an optimist often mistaken as an nihilist. I’m skeptical why he never went into how free will is an illusion and otherwise his writing illustrates he thought people could make themselves have a good destiny or not. His eternal reoccurrence theory even is more understandable when thinking from a hard determinist mindset.

> I’m skeptical why he never went into how free will is an illusion

> Men were considered "free" only so that they might be considered guilty – could be judged and punished: consequently, every act had to be considered as willed, and the origin of every act had to be considered as lying within the consciousness (and thus the most fundamental psychological deception was made the principle of psychology itself).

Source: Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche

There’s no doubt he was an optimist just as there’s no doubt he was at war with institutionalized Christianity. Combatting Christianity and being a nihilist are not the same thing. You’re right that Nietzsche’s work comes from a place of hope.

Nietzsches cheif argument was for a “revaluation of all values”—he believed that, given the major technological and scientific breakthroughs in the 17c - 19c, man had to reorient his relation to life. The old social forms, such as traditional Christian morals, were holding humanity back by valuing or prioritizing the wrong things (e.g. humility instead of the pursuit of knowledge). That’s the major thrust of his whole output. He was largely right about this. The point of my op is to say that we’ve more or less achieved what he sought minus the ordination of some new shceme of shared values to guide us (ubermensch).

People let Nietzsche’s admittedly amazing stylistics cloud their comprehension of his arguments which are actually rather straightforward—he saw that the world was changing and that societal change was lagging far behind technical change, as it in fact still does to this day.

So who would you advise be read instead of Nietzsche?

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