Hourglass of Existence

“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 immeasurably small or great in your life must return to you – all in the same succession and sequence – even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned over and over, and you with it, a grain of dust.” – Nietzsche

Many great thinkers over the years have written about the dialectic and how to overcome the tension of opposites. We see the universe in polarities. The goal of the dialectic is to overcome this basic tendency to see the world as split into options, choices, and decisions. Nietzsche’s novel approach is to deny the existence of choice (even if he was only kidding). He decided that we should choose (or appear to choose) in a way that we would be happy with – for eternity. Unfortunately, choice rears it’s ugly head every day, every hour, ever minute.

Even if Nietzsche is right and we don’t really have a choice, we still have to choose, otherwise we will remain immobilized in doubt and fear forever. Life would essential come to a stand still. Satyendra Nath Bose predicted (along with some help from Einstein) that as temperatures approached absolute zero (-459 degrees Fahrenheit) all motion would stop. The idea came to be know as Bose-Einstein condensation. And, several years later the theory was proved – as temperatures approached absolute zero, all motion (and time?) did indeed stop and all matter began to blur. I think that psychological immobilization is probably much like the theory that Bose put forth in 1924. Eternal indecision is an irrational attempt to stop motion and time. As anyone caught in this loop can attest, time and motion does go right along even if we wish it wouldn’t.

Confronted with a decisions where the outcomes both lead to happiness, but only in varying degrees, the choice is not all that difficult. However, confronted with two horrifying decisions, how does a person choose? Do you die being burned alive or do you jump off of one the tallest buildings in the world? Neither option appears to lead anywhere. In that case, does choice even matter if the outcome is the same? Not choosing, of course, would lead to the same fate but doing something, anything is in our nature – a nature we can’t escape even if, in the end, it doesn’t matter. If we could freeze time in this moment, would we? The decision would probably be the same – it would just take an eternity to come to. I’m happy with choice, or at least the illusion of it, but by the time we wish we could stop time and really reflect on what to do next, that moment is already gone.

“Which brings us at last to the moment of truth, wherein the fundamental flaw is ultimately expressed, and the anomaly revealed as both beginning, and end. There are two doors. The door to your right leads to the source, and the salvation of Zion. The door to the left leads back to the Matrix, to her, and to the end of your species. As you adequately put it, the problem is choice.” – The Architect

Comments (1):

  1. TheFearsome

    August 8, 2006 at 12:08 pm

    Thanks Matt for this interesting topic. I remember like it was yesterday the first time we discovered Nietzsche, we looked him up in that old green Encyclopedia of Philosophy. We were impressed by his impossible eccentricity, and the fact that his thought ended in “lunatic mysterium”.

    The ‘Doctrine of Eternal Return’ is a very contentious issue in Nietzsche studies. Its a topic that could never be settled in the short attention span of the blogosphere. But I have some notes from my Nietzsche and Heidegger studies, and I think I can make an argument in its defense that it is not equivilent to some sort of “Eternal indecision” and that it is not a joke but a RIDDLE.

    Your argument of the paraylisis of an “Eternal indecision” is important but for me it is more congruent with the consequences of Kant’s thought of the ‘Moral Imperative’. In fact, I experienced the kind of paralysis that you described for a significant number of years. When I knew you best I was indeed a prisoner of the moral imperative, and I entered into the work-a-day world with its fetters. I was unable to release myself from its paralysing structures legitimately, so I escaped a fugitive, that is through an existential (or maybe a faustian) “downgoing”.

    In order for me to defend the doctrine of return, I must contextualize the quote that you have provided from the The Gay Science, moreover I must add the sentence that comes directly before and the sentences after the quote.

    First let’s look at the context:

    It is from passage number 341 in The Gay Science entitled: “The Greatest Burden”

    So first of all the thought of ‘Eternal Return’ is entitled “The Greatest Burden”. It is notable that a burden does not promote vacillation, but draws all forces to itself, exerting a downward pull.

    I recall that years ago, carrying a backpack that was absolutely too heavy for me on a long hike, from my ascent I remember arriving to a level part of the trail and thinking to myself, ‘well here is some relief,’ only to find that the fact that I had to walk completely up-right caused me great an even greater difficulty with my burden.

    One can only imagine what kind of downward force “the greatest burden” would have and how it would condition even the simplest things (e.g. like merely standing up-right).

    Yet who is to be afflicted with this greatest burden – this “thought of thoughts?”

    “Do you will this once more and coutless times more?”

    The above thought would everywhere and at all times weigh upon our actions.

    Or would it Matt?

    Maybe we could shrug-off this so called “thought of thoughts” quite easily without much effort at all. So how exactly should we come upon this ‘thought of thoughts’ in a way that would make it the ‘The Greatest Burden’?

    Here is where the SENTENCE that comes directly BEFORE the quote you provided comes into play:

    “What would happen if one day or night a demon were to steal upon you in your loneliest loneliness and say to you…”

    It is clear from the conditional above that the thought of eternal return does not come to just any arbitrary human being in his or her most arbitrary everyday context.

    The thought comes in the moment of a human being’s “loneliest loneliness” So now imagine “what would happen if a demon were to steal upon you in you loneliest loneliness…”. Imagine? Well it’s still not clear what this means is it? But we have recieved a clue as to how the Riddle is to come into view. It is to appear at our “loneliest of loneliness”.

    Nietzsche in fact doesn’t say what would happen (if a demon were to steal…), but instead contitnues to question…

    So here is where the sentences directly AFTER the quote you have provided is significant, here he uncovers two alternatives:

    “Would you not cast yourself down, gnash your teeth, an curse the demon who said these things? Or have you ever experienced a tremendous moment when you would reply to him, “You are a god; never have I heard anything more godly!” If that thought ever came to prevail in you, it would transform you, such as you are, and perhaps it would mangle you. The question posed to each thing you do, “Do you will this once more and countless times more?” would weigh upon your actions as the greatest burden! Or how beneficent would have to become toward yourself and toward life to demand nothing more than this eternal sanction and seal?”

    So would you curse the demon, or would you perceive him god? But wait! For God’s sake don’t answer too easily, this most burdensome of thoughts must be answered with the greatest hesitation!

    Nietzsche himself first communicates the thought of Eternal Return not as part of a ‘system’ but as an after thought in the Gay Science. What is Gay Science? It is the decisive (and cheerful) attitude that we must take towards the pursuit of essential knowing. A cheerfulness that is accompanied with a certain superiority. A superiority that isn’t dashed by even the most difficult or even the most terrifying of matters. That is an attitude towards knowing that is not crushed by the most difficult of matters, but an attitude that is invigorated by them by golly.

    So the context of the quote that Matt has provided is the conclusion of The Gay Science, and it is where Nietzsche first unloads his most frightening “thought of thoughts”. A thought that is meant to inspire the onset of fear and dread. And this folks is the conclusion of the Gay Science? He is testing those that have entered into the Gay Science. Nietzsche is here trying to invoke the scintillating tension of the relation of the most beautiful with what is most terrifying, the tension of what is most “abysmal” with what is the “highest” thought of thoughts.

    “Frightfulness is proper to greatness: let us not be deceived” – Nietzsche

    That is Greatness and great heights subsist together with the depths and with what is most terrifying. So the thought of Eternal Return is (at least initially) a thought for the heroic thinker only, and the one who is on the journey to the the nether regions of a downgowing.

    “What makes someone heroic?” Asks Nietzshe in The Gay Science:

    “Going out to meet one’s supreme suffering and supreme hope alike.”

    “The heroic spirits are those who in the midsts of tragic horror say to themselves, “Yes”: they are hard enough to feel suffering as pleasure”

    The thought of eternal return is “the highest formula of affirmation that can ever be achieved”.

    So it appears that Nietzsche through the thought of eternal return is actually moving away from his younger nihlism and towards some sort of theory of “affirmation”.

    So just who is this heroic thinker who is capable of thinking the “thought of thoughts”? None other than (drum roll please)… ZARATHUSTRA!

    Zarathustra is the initial and proper thinker of the thought of eternal return. Zarathustra is Nietzsche’s poetic creation of the heroic thinker of the “thought of thoughts” the one who takes this most abysmal thought into the greatest hights.

    Thus for Nietzsche the communication of the thought that is most difficult to bear, i.e. ‘The Greatest Burden’, first requires the poetic creation of the figure who will actually think this thought properly and teach it (i.e. we must pass through the ‘Superman’ to transform humanity).

    The crucial matter here is that there are people out there who are not “shattered” by this doctrine. And Nietzsche will suggest that it is because the average person is simply unable to think it properly.

    So ‘we’ (‘we’: that means you and me, Matt, Chris is twirling that little florescent ‘Stone Mtn. laser show thingy in his head at this point)…’We’ must be careful here not to think of the thought of ‘Eternal Return’ too easily, or we will be scorned like Dwarf below that Zarathustra has carried into the heights:

    In the section: “On the Vision and the Riddle”

    We are provided with a vision of the “loneliest one”. Zarathustra tells “The Riddle” aboard a ship, that is underway on a voyage to the open, “unexplored” seas. And to WHOM does he tell it? Not to the other passengers, but to the crew alone:

    ‘To you, bold searchers and researchers and those that ever took to ship with cunning sails on terrifying seas’

    And just WHEN does Zarathustra tell the crew the riddle? Not at the moment he comes on board, because he keeps silent for two days. He speaks only after they have gained open sea.

    Zarathustra then tells them about his ascent upon a mountain path at twilight:

    While ascending, Zarathustra must constantly overcome the “spirit of gravity.” The spirit of Gravity pulls downward without cease, and yet for the one who climbs, the one who carries his “archenemy” into the heights with him, that spirit is no more than a dwarf.

    As he climbs the depths themselves increase and the abyss first becomes an abyss – not because the climber plunges into it, but precisely because he is ascending.

    Nietzsche is here again playing with the relationship of opposites, and through the above picturesque imagery he is trying to reveal the [necessary] relationship of opposites.

    Zarathustra, the climber, versus the dwarf , the one who drags down.

    When climbing , there comes a time for decision:

    “Dwarf! It is either You or me!” The way that the issue is posed suggests that the Dwarf has the upper hand. But then shortly after the situation is totally reversed.

    “Stop, dwarf! said I. “It is I or you! But I am the stronger of us two: you do not know my abysmal thought. That you could not bear!”

    So here for the first time we catch sight of the source of the “superiority” of our heroic thinker, the profundity of his abysmal thought. A thought so abysmal that if confronted by any ordinary human being, they would have the rug so utterly pulled beneath their feet that they would not survive. Inasmuch as Zarathustra thinks the abyss, the “thought of thoughts”, inasmuch as he takes the depths seriously, he rises to the heights and surpasses the dwarf.

    “Then something happend that me lighter: the dwarf, being curious, sprang from my shoulder. He squatted on a rock in front of me. But at the very place we stopped there was a gateway.”

    Zarathustra now describes the gateway. With the description of the image of the gateway Zarathustra has brought “the Riddle” to vision.

    In the gateway two long avenues meet. The one leads forward, the other leads back. They run counter to one another; they affront one another. Each extends infinitely into its eternity. Above the gateway appears the inscription “Moment”.

    The gateway “Moment,” with its avenues stretching infinitely onward and counter to one another, is the image of time running forward and backward into eternity. Time itself is viewed from the “moment,” from the “now”.

    Both ways (i.e. future eternity and past eternity) find their departure here, one extending into the ‘not-yet’ future, and the other leading back into the ‘no-longer’ past.

    The above vision of the Gateway is the sighting of the riddle itself, but NOT its solution. When the “image” becomes visible, and is described , the RIDDLE draws into sight for the first time.

    Zarathustra directs a question concerning the gateway and its avenues.

    If anyone were to strike out on oneof these avenues, and continue on and on, what would happen? ‘Do you believe, dwarf, that these ways contradict on another eternally? – that is to say, do the paths run away from one another eternally, are they contrary to one another?’

    The dwarf then responds… ‘Everything straight deceives,’ murmured the dwarf contemptuously. “All truth is curved; time itself is a circle.’

    The dwarf resolves the difficulty! But he mumbles the solution contemptuously. The riddle is not one which the dwarf would take pains with; for him it is scarcely worth even talking about. For if both ways extend to eternity, they wind up at the same place; they meet ther, they link up and form one uniterrupted highway.

    What to us looks like two straight avenues taking off in opposite directions is in truth that segment of an enormous circle which is visible to us here and now, while the circle itself perpetually revolves back upon itself. The straight is semblence. In truth, the way the avenues take is circular (i.e. truth itself is circular – being as it proceeds in truth is circular). Time is circling in itself, and hence the ever-recurring same for all being in time, is the way in which being as a whole is.

    The dwarf has “solved” the riddle, but Zarathustra’s response is “wrathful”:

    “You spirit of Gravity ,’ I cried wrathfully, ‘don’t make things too easy for yourself! Or I’ll leave you squatting where you are right now, lamefoot! – and I was the one who carried you high!”

    Instead of rejoicing in the fact that the dwarf has thought his thought Zarathustra becomes mad. So the dwarf has not really grasped the riddle; he has come to the solution too easily. Accordingly , the thought of eternal recurrence of the same is not yet thought when one merely imagines “everything turning in a circle”.

    Zarathustra abandons anyone who thinks Nietzsche’s keenest thought “dwarfishly”, and leaves the “lamefoot” squatting where he squats.

    Zarathustra immediately directs a second question to the dwarf. This question refers not to the avenues, but to the gateway itself.

    ‘the Moment.’ ‘Behold,’ I went on, ‘behold this Moment!

    Thus the entire vision is to be pondered once again on the basis of the “Moment” and in relation to it.

    ‘From this gateway ‘Moment’ a long avenue runs eternally rearward: behind us lies an eternity.’

    All the finite things that can hasten along that avenue and that need only a finite span in order to run thier course, all these finite things must therefore have already run through thsi eternity, must have already come along this avenue.

    1. Above we have first put forth the infinity of time in the directions of future and past.

    2. Secondly we also have put forth the actuality of time (i.e. time is not subjective)

    3. Lastly we have presupposed the finitude of things and their courses

    On the basis of the above presuppositions, everything that can in any way be must, as a being, already have been. For within an infinite time the course of a finite world is necessarily already completed.

    If, therefore, “everything has already been there, what do you make of this ‘Moment’, dwarf? Must not this gateway too already have been there? And if all things are knotted tight, so that the moment pulls them along behind, must not the moment also pull itself along behind? And if the moment also moves down the lane ahead, must not all things strike out along the avenue once again?

    The axis (or the fulcrum) of the movement of the ‘Eternal Return’ has been revealed, THE MOMENT.

    If all finite things have already taken place down the avenue of the infinite past, then this very moment has already taken place. And of course this moments as finite must also necessarily take place during the course of the infinite future.

    Zarathustra repeats basically what the dwarf said before, ‘All truth is curved; time itself is a circle’. But, we are no longer spectators looking from the periphery of some abstract infinite circle, but we have now entered into the circle at the gateway of the MOMENT. Only now is one burdened with the daunting task of adopting a stance within this gateway.

    The difference between the understanding of the dwarf and Zarathustra only lies the smallest gap. But the dwarf at this point of course vanishes. But for those who remain at the gateway, the invocation of the most abysmal thought begins and for those Zarathustra relates to us “the Vision” :

    “I saw a young shepherd, writhing, choking in spasms, his face distorted: a thick black snake hung out of his mouth”

    The snake had bitten fast there. Zarathustra pulls at the snake, in vain.

    “Then the cry rose out of me, ‘Bite! You must bite! Bite off the head! Bite!”

    How does the dwarf make the interpretation of the ‘gateway’ too easy for himself?

    The dwarf merely looks at the two paths extending to infinity, and he thinks about them merely in the following way: If both paths run on to infinity (“eternity”), then that is where they meet; and since the circle closes by itself in infinity (i.e. far removed from me) all that recurs, in sheer alteration within this formulaic system of circuitry.

    This dwarfish understanding concedes that things die, depart, disintegrate, and it accepts the negative with its outragious destruction. While at the same time even the negative of “ceasing to be” itself ceases to be and there is the “compensatory” forces that take a turn for the better. Hence all is bound for for perpetual compensation. Such compensation in fact makes everything indifferent: striving is flattend out into mere alteration of events that parade through the ‘gateway’.

    One now possesses a handy formula for the whole and abstains from all decision.

    But Zarathustra says that the two paths “affront one another” in the gateway. We must NOT envisage the ‘not-yet-now’ parading itself through the gateway to become the ‘now’ and as it forthwith passes becoming the ‘no-longer-now’ that repeats itself ad nausium.

    We are not a spectator, but must enter into the moment performing actions directed toward the future, while at the same time accepting and affirming the past, BY NO MEANS LETTING THE PAST DROP. The ring of eternal return is not closed in some remote infinity, but possess its unbroken closure in the MOMENT. The moment as the center of striving; what recurs – if it is to recur – is decided by the moment.

    But the ‘moment’ is only momentous for the one who stands at the gateway and feels the collision past and future. He or She is the heroic thinker who carries ‘THE GREATEST BURDEN’.

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