To begin with a very specific concept in Nietzsche’s work, I hope to terminate in the broader and more general consideration deriving from it. The concept being that of the eternal recurrence. Something of an odd one, in that body of work, since it has the hallmarks of sounding like a metaphysical thesis, something which I am going to assume it is not (well, ‘conclude’, but for reasons of space-saving…).
The basic idea is simple. Imagine every instant in the entire progression of time replaying without deviation from start to finish, once this world’s lifespan has reached its finish. The metaphysical tempt is clear. It immediately betrays hallmarks of some strands of scientific cosmology as well as religious traditions. The clear difference is in the invariance. No positing of quantum effects, infinitesimal discrepancies in starting conditions, or necessities of free will to allow changes in the unfolding universe.
So what is the point? It is not a metaphysical thesis even in part because a) it is ludicrous and b) since the far more salient point is the psychology of the thesis, the complete lack of our awareness of this repetition would render that beyond useless. The point is clearly a psychological one because of the question about what such a consideration would mean to us.
The pithy and attractive answer for the stygian mindstated such as myself is that this is the most horrifying idea imaginable, and that is almost its own point. Of course, the eternal recurrence would mean that perfect summer day came around again, your childhood dog is alive again, and the endless re-manufacture of those sweets you used to enjoy. But, in the main, it means every millisecond of agony, pain, and loss, occurring forever, without surcease or mutation or hope of appeal.
But, this is Nietzsche, of a certain period, and so the invitation is for joy rather than despair. And I can see how. Because it is horrific beyond compare, to encompass this idea, to imagine it so completely you can, momentarily at least, believe it, and remain standing, is a triumph. To encompass it and laugh, transcendent. This fits with the brittle and shallow, if largely correct, interpretation of so much of this type of Nietzschean expression, but it still misses one point. There are lines in his work pertaining to this idea exhorting us to change every ‘it was’ into an ‘I will it thus’. To, it seems to me, take a personal responsibility for all that has happened, or at least happened because of us. That is happened because of us, not to us. That each such moment had its necessity, and that each one stood upon those preceding, and we can no more wish for the ‘bad’ things to be excoriated from history than the ‘good’.
In my thinking this was the invitation, and the point. To redeem the misery and tragedy of life, by asking us to see and accept a type of unity in our own experience. That what is is because of all that went before and we should not wish for alteration, if we are to affirm anything in our lives.
Perhaps this sucks the joy out of joy. But then anyone who finds joy easy, or commonplace, does not need to agonise so. As a struggler, I am stirred by the attempt, whatever I believe its validity to be.