Aphorism 341 — from Nietzsche’s “The Joyful Wisdom”
The greatest weight. — What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life you will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!”
Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: “You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.” If this thought gained possession of you, it would change you as you are or perhaps crush you. The question is each and every thing, “Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?” would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight. Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?
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When I first encountered this aphorism, it was in R. J. Hollingdale’s introduction to Thus Spoke Zarathustra, where it became associated forever in my mind with part of part 10 of “The Intoxicated Song”:
Did you ever say Yes to one joy? O my friends, then you said Yes to all woes as well. All things are chained and entwined together, all things are in love;
if ever you wanted one moment twice, if ever you said: ‘You please me, happiness, instant, moment!’ then you wanted everything to return!
you wanted everything anew, everything eternal, everything chained, entwined together, everything in love, O that is how you loved the world,
you everlasting men, loved it eternally and for all time: and you say even to woe: ‘Go, but return!’ For all joy wants – eternity!
The typical scholar would first point out that the aphorism from The Gay Science is a response to Schopenhauer’s view that no rational person would wish to relive their lives over exactly as it was (World as Will and Representation, 324), and that the section from Thus Spoke Zarathustra was in response to Goethe’s Faust, and Faust’s inability to want one moment twice. But these things are not what I want to focus on. At least, not right away. I wish instead to discuss how these two passages came together for me, to affect me as they did.
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While aphorism 341 gives us the demon’s offer, it is the section from Thus Spoke Zarathustra that gave me the reason why I should accept it. I was reading Thus Spoke Zarathustra in 1995, in the summer after I had finished the classes for my Master’s degree in biology. All I had to do was do the research for my thesis, and write and defend my thesis. Instead, I moved an hour and a half away from the campus to live with my parents. While living with them, a friend of mine got me a job as a security guard, which I thought was a great idea, because it would give me the time to read and write – I was starting to become increasingly interested in writing fiction and reading philosophy. Nietzsche in particular. Thus I read Thus Spoke Zarathustra while guarding a coal mine entrance. And it is here that I encountered this question: was I living my life in such a way that I would want to live it over and over? And further: Was I living such a life that I would want the moment I was living in to eternally return to me? Was I so happy with my life, with who I was, that I would want to become the person I was at that moment? In other words, did I have any regrets? And was I living my life at that moment in such a way that I would want to relive it, to come back to that moment? And what of other moments, future moments? Every decision I would make, every action I would take, were they going to be decisions and actions I would want to repeat? I was working as a security guard at a coal mine, and I had finished two years of graduate classes in molecular biology, a field I had grown bored with. Was I living a life I would want to live over again?
The thought crushed me. Under the weight of such a thought, I collapsed – not once, but twice. I had two nervous breakdowns – one in the summer, the other in the winter, almost six months later. The first while I was working as a security guard, the second after they fired me for applying for another job. I could not take the weight of this thought, that I should be living life in such a way that I would want to relive that life. I would not want to relive the life I was living at the time. It was a terrible life, filled with psychological pain I would not talk to anybody about – and I was getting a degree in a field that I enjoyed learning new things in, but did not actually like doing, and I was working at a job that I felt at the time to be degrading. I had a college degree in recombinant gene technology! How could I be working as a security guard at a coal mine in rural Kentucky? I had to make a change. The first change I made was to get a job as a substitute teacher, so I could at least do something with my education. And that caused me to get fired from the job I felt to be degrading. My world was out of control. And then my grandfather and my uncle both had strokes. There was nothing I could do. The world was out of my control.
One of the things Nietzsche is trying to do with aphorism 341 is get us to affirm the possibility that the world is completely determined, that everything that will happen will happen in a predetermined way, because of the way Newtonian physics saw the world. The world was determined because of its past. If that was the case (we now know, through chaos theory, that it is not – the past is postdictable, but the future is not predictable any further out than the weather is), we could either despair, or we could affirm it and find joy in it. The demon’s offer is an offering of a completely determined world. Your life would turn out the same way over and over, for eternity. And there was nothing you could do about it. If you came to realize that you lived in a world that you could not control, that would turn out the way it would turn out, no matter what you did – that, in fact, everything you did was itself determined, and would turn out the way it would turn out, no matter what – how would you react? One could argue that you would react the way you were determined to act, but this is a thought experiment. And history has shown us how people have reacted to this idea. The Romantics and the Existentialists both rebelled against the idea, and tried to assert human freedom despite our living in a deterministic world. The German philosopher Kant even went so far as to say that there were two worlds: one of Newtonian determinism, the other of human freedom. Nietzsche chose instead to affirm the Newtonian world. If that was the way the world was, we should rejoice in it, not despair. What, after all, could we do about it? So why not rejoice in the world as it is?
As it turns out, the world is not how Newton, the Romantics, Kant, and the Existentialists thought it was. Chaos theory shows us that the world is both determined and free, simultaneously. Thus, freedom of choice is real. But that does not negate the fact that we do live in a world full of things that happen that are outside of our ability to affect or change. If my grandfather and my uncle both have strokes, what can I do about it? Nothing. No more than a doctor could directly do anything about their having strokes. And I was not even a doctor. But at the time, I could not see that. I raged against the universe: Why couldn’t I do something? How dare the universe present me with anything that I could not affect! But dare it did, and there was nothing I could do about it. The world around me was doing what it was going to do, and there was little I could do to change it. The world was crushing me every bit as much as the greatest weight.
After the school year was over, I decided to put my life back into my own hands. At the same time, I came to realize that I could not control everything. And I became reconciled to that thought. Most of the world was outside of my direct control. And that was okay. What was in my control was how I would react to the world, and what I did with my own life. So I moved back to Bowling Green, lived with some friends, worked odd jobs over the summer, realized as I was working on two novel manuscripts that I wanted to write fiction for the rest of my life, looked into English graduate programs, realized I needed at least a minor in English, and signed up for a full load of English classes that Fall, deciding at the same time that I was not going to finish my thesis for my master’s in biology. And I made all of these decisions knowing I would not ever regret having made a single one of them.
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To affirm your life as it is, you have to live it without regrets. To regret something is to say that you wish what happened had happened differently than it did. And that means that you wish that everything that had happened subsequent to that action had happened differently. Take a look again at the section from Thus Spoke Zarathustra. To will your greatest moments, you have to have willed everything that happened up to that point. To reach the point you are now at, everything that happened to you had to have happened to you exactly the way it did, at the time it did, with all of the ramifications, or else you would not be at the point you are at now. To say that you regret any part of your life is to say that you wish that your life were other than what it is. To regret any part of your past is to admit to self-hatred, to self-loathing. So you need to ask yourself what I asked myself: is your life one that you would want to relive it, so that you could come back to the present moment, or even some moment from your past? And are you living life in such a way that you would want to relive it? Or are you one of those people that Schopenhauer said would not wish to relive their lives?
I made my decision. I wanted to live a life I would want to repeat. I wanted to live such a life that the very thought of reliving it brought me joy. I wanted moments that I would want to repeat forever into eternity. I could not imagine working in a molecular biology lab forever into eternity. Lab work bored me, and the thought of being bored forever was much too great a weight. But I was doing something that I could imagine doing over and over, for all of eternity. I was writing. I loved writing – the very process of writing, the creation of characters and the weaving of stories, developing pictures and ideas in words. And when I finished my first novel manuscript, it brought me such joy and clarity as to what it was I should be doing with my life that there was little question as to what I should be doing with the rest of my life. I should be writing. I have loved reading from a very young age – whether it be science or literature. I had loved nature so much, science seemed an obvious choice. But now it became clear that I love the word even more. I loved reading fiction, reading philosophy, reading everything. I still loved reading about molecular biology, but that was all. I had been told that I was good at explaining complex ideas in simple ways – and I brought that to my writing. I was taking creative writing classes to help me with my fiction, and I was applying to graduate schools in creative writing so further help me with my fiction. And I had, in one of my undergraduate short story writing classes written a short story that I was immensely proud of. It was a story I knew was the best thing I had ever written, and, as I continued to write, it became clear that it was a benchmark I would need to work on reaching again. That story was one of those moments of joy – it was a moment of creation I wanted to relive. And each new short story was an attempt to repeat what I had experienced in creating that story. It did not matter that it was several years before I could write another story that good. And it did not matter if I ever wrote another one that good. I had done it once, and that moment made it worth repeating my life. It was at that moment that I regretted nothing in my life – nothing that had ever happened to me, good and bad, nothing that I had ever done, thought, or had not done. Everything was affirmed in that one moment of creation.
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To say that I do not regret anything in my life, anything that ever happened to me, is not to say that I live my life without learning from it. To refuse to regret anything from one’s life is different from recognizing that one has made poor decisions in the past that one can then learn from, and not repeat in the future. What this does prevent one from doing is worrying over something that happened in the past. There are no more “I wish I’d never done that.” Instead, there is “Well, I did it, and I have seen the repercussions from it, and I don’t want to do that again in the future.” The first one is negative, the second one is positive. The first one denies the value of the experience. The second one affirms the value of the experience – and properly treats it as a learning experience.
Yet, when I have told people that I regret nothing from my life, I have gotten looks of terror. I do not exaggerate. People have looked at me as if I were some terrible, terrifying monster. How could you not have any regrets? Do you not have a conscience? Of course I have a conscience. This is not an issue of conscience. This is an issue of what attitude one has toward one’s life – which is to say that it is an issue of what attitude one has toward life. Do you affirm or deny life? Your life? Do you live a life of “quiet desperation” as Thoreau would have it? Or do you live a life of quiet joy? I choose joy over desperation. When faced with such a person, how would you expect them to react? I am no monster, but having once been the person they now are, I can understand why they may misunderstand and think that someone who lives a life with no regrets could be a monster. People are filled with awe at both the awesome and the awful. I claim to be neither, but I do understand how someone who does not know me can think of me as being potentially awful for living a life of no regrets.
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There is a correlation to having no personal regrets, and that is not regretting another person’s past. My decision to drop out of graduate school in molecular biology to pursue graduate programs in English and in Arts and Humanities is one of the best decisions I made in my entire life. My decision to major in recombinant gene technology and minor in chemistry and do two years of graduate classes in molecular biology is equally important and positive. I could not have done any of the things I have done, thought the things I have thought, done the scholarship I have done, or written the stories or poems I have written if it were not for the education I have received in biology and chemistry. Every decision I have made in regards to my education have been good decisions, they have been exactly what I needed to make me who I have become. How do I know this? Because I did have this education, and I have become the person I have become. Had I made any change – any change – I would not now be the person I am right now. And I would not want that. However, my own father cannot see this.
I have had several discussions with my father about this issue. He has asked me if I regretted not getting my Master’s in molecular biology. And I have told him that I do not. He has claimed that I wasted my time doing biology when I could have been concentrating on what I am now doing. Which is ridiculous on the face of it. I could not have decided to go into the arts and humanities until the crisis that led me to start writing as much as I was. Further, the first novel manuscript was based on an idea I developed in molecular biology – so I would not have even started, let alone finished (and, later, destroyed) the manuscript that put me on the path to writing fiction in the first place. Everything had to happen exactly as it happened in order for me to be in the exact place I am at the present time. For him to say that I should have done something different is the same as him saying that he wishes that I was a different person than I am. To object to someone doing something in the past is to object to who that person is. Remember that the next time you say that someone should have done this or that different. You are objecting to that person being who they are. What we should do instead is discuss past episodes as learning experiences. We should only criticize those we love for not learning from their past mistakes (though in my case, I reject the idea that what I did was even a mistake). If that person has clearly learned from what they did, then there should be no criticism. In my case, it would be just to criticize my dropping out of graduate school the first time if I repeated that pattern in getting my MA in English, or if it seemed as though I were going to not finish my dissertation for my PhD. It is ridiculous to criticize someone for dropping out of graduate school seven years before when they have 323 pages of a dissertation sitting on a dresser in the house. The product is there to look at. How can you wonder if what is clearly almost done will get finished? And there are several more reasons why this is a ridiculous complaint, aside from my having already finished a Master’s thesis before: I am a completely different person now than I was seven years ago, and I am doing a completely different kind of project for my dissertation, in a completely different field of study. In other words, there is almost nothing similar to compare.
What my father cannot seem to understand is that I am a completely different person now than I was when I dropped out of a graduate program in molecular biology, and he cannot understand the fact that I do not regret any of the decisions that I made, and that I would make those same exact decisions over again if I could somehow go back in time and change them. Of course, to say that I have no regrets and that I would not go back in time to change anything is to say exactly the same thing.
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In aphorism 341 of The Joyful Wisdom (also known as The Gay Science), Nietzsche gives us in the demon’s offer a chance to affirm life as such through affirming our lives in particular. In other words, he asks us how we would react if a demon should offer us eternal recurrence. How would you respond? Would you be crushed by the idea? Would you curse the demon? Or has there ever been something in your life so wonderful that you would want to repeat your life in every detail so you could relive that moment – and become the person you are at the moment of the offering – over and over again? For those who would reject the offer – thus accepting Schopenhauer’s view that no rational person would wish to relive their lives over exactly as it was (World as Will and Representation, 324) – Nietzsche has nothing more to say. But for those who would accept it, Nietzsche offers, “Incipit tragoedia” and Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the further development of the tragic, recursive geometry of time introduced in the demon’s offer – an offer which Oedipus accepted at the end of “Oedipus tyrannus,” providing the model for the tragic view of time. Only those who can say “Yes” to the offer are ready to hear what is to follow – Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera shows the consequences of this Schopenhauerean rejection, with the fictional example of Mirek (the individual) and the nonfiction example of communist Czechoslovakia (the country/society/culture) of attempting to erase their pasts – the most active rejection of Nietzsche’s demon’s offer one can undertake. Mirek thought he could control his destiny by erasing (forgetting) his past – just as the Communists thought they could do the same for the destiny of Communism. He wanted to “destroy his own hated youth” just as the people of Bohemia “rebelled against their own youth” (18), resulting in Prague Spring, which, as a “bad memory” is not even remembered, having been “carefully erased from the country’s memory” (19).
By attempting to erase people “from the country’s memory,” the Communists showed us how dangerous is the desire to forge, to erase our memory and our youth. But this is only a natural response, as Schopenhauer recognized, when he said “perhaps at the end of his life, no man, if he be sincere and at the same time in possession of his faculties, will ever wish to go through it again,” since “everything excellent or admirable is always only an exception,” and “as regards the life of the individual, every life-history is a history of suffering, for, as a rule, every life is a continual series of mishaps great and small” (WWPI, 324). But, natural as this response may be, we can see that it is also a tragic response, resulting in people being imprisoned or killed and erased from photographs and history books. Those who would refuse to go through it again are saying No to their lives – and if they are in power, this No-saying can turn deadly.
Unless we affirm our lives, whether that be our own individual lives, or the life (history) of a nation or a people, the consequences can be tragic. This is, in one sense, ironic, considering that Oedipus’ life is precisely terrible and, therefore, tragic, because Oedipus, in the end, would have accepted the demon’s offer, knowing full well what that would entail. This is what makes Oedipus both wonderful and terrible, truly awe-ful. But at the same time, this is what makes one’s life beautiful, this affirmation, as it now gains a certain depth – of time. Since it is unlikely one is going to actually encounter such a demon, one can take this idea metaphorically, and chose memory over forgetting. Of course, this too is tragic, though perhaps a considerably less bloody tragedy, at least for people other than oneself, as we see with Hölderlin’s idea of tragedy being connected to memory, with memory’s failure over time. As Dennis Schmidt points out in On Germans and Other Greeks, in discussing Hölderlin’s novel Hyperion for Hölderlin, “A separation in time cannot be overcome . . . since such a separation is the province only of the past. . . . Separation in time can only be suffered” (131).
The problem with forgetting is that it is “absolute injustice and absolute solace at the same time” (Kundera, The Art of the Novel, 130) – and often the former is used in hopes it will lead to the latter. But both of these point to precisely why forgetting is tragic – it is an attempt by a finite creature to attain infinity (the absolute). In attempting to forget, we attempt to overstep our bounds, as defined by physis (we are a remembering being, and as such, we overstep out bounds by trying to make ourselves forget – we try to make ourselves other than human). The attempt to deny the past is the attempt to deny tragedy. And it is the attempt to deny ourselves.
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Heraclitus says that “to God all things are beautiful and good and just, though men suppose that some are just and others unjust.” Do you understand what this means? The affirmation of your life also means the affirmation of all of life – of everything that ever happened in the world. If your life as it is could not be where it now is without everything that happened in it, then this is equally true of everything in the world – even of the universe. Think about it: everything had to have happened exactly as it did in the world in order for you to have even been born. Thus, to affirm your own existence, you have to – to take an extreme example – affirm the existence of Hitler and the extermination of the Jews in the Holocaust. That does not mean you have to like, approve, or promote such behavior – but it does mean you have to recognize that the world as a whole – all things – are beautiful and good and just. If you have ever had a great moment you would want to experience once more, then you have affirmed the existence of Hitler. And rather than denying what he did, or pretending that what he did was another generation’s fault or problem, we have to come to terms with what happened, and learn from it, and learn how to avoid something like it happening again. We have to also come to recognize all the good that came out of what happened. Good? you ask? If you cannot see the good, you are refusing to look hard enough – and you are negating your very existence, and the beauty of life itself. In other words, we have to do something eminently Christian: we have to forgive Hitler. That’s right, we have to forgive him. For only in forgiving him can we heal ourselves. Only in forgiving him can we affirm our lives, our existence, and life itself.
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In an odd sort of way, many will find it easier to forgive Hitler than to forgive those closest to them – those we have to forgive the most. Our lives are full of resentment toward others – and the easier our lives have been, it seems the more resentment we build up against others. Especially those closest to us. People just barely surviving do not have the luxury of resentment — they actually have to live physically. Resentment is a luxury. It comes from idleness and boredom. And there is nothing more destructive to ourselves than resentment. With it we separate ourselves from others, especially those closest to us, and barricade ourselves not just from them, but from others. We sever social bonds, and in severing such bonds, we sever ourselves from much happiness. We are a social species, and our bonds of family and friends are so very important to us for us to live healthy lives. Resentment cuts those bonds. Resentment only makes us bleed – it does little if any harm to those we resent. Resentment is the knife we use to cut ourselves, to watch ourselves bleed. It fogs our sight as the blood runs in our eyes. We stumble and fall, and then blame those we resent.
Resentment is the world’s greatest poison. A slow poison eating away at our lives, at our selves, killing us slowly. Do you think that your slow dying will harm those you resent? Why hurt yourself to harm others? But if you are not big enough to avoid resentment, you are not big enough to refuse to harm others, you are certainly not big enough to forgive. And thus your life is poisoned, and the lives of everyone around you is poisoned. Almost every sin against others comes directly from the sin of resentment. Hatred, including self-hatred, and all the self-destructive things that come with it, and racism, theft, lying, true sadism, true masochism – all of these have their sources in resentment. Let go of your resentment – affirm life – these are the same things, the same things that will make life not just worth living, but a true joy.