“Do you remember what you told me once? That every passing minute is another chance to turn it all around.” ~ Tom Cruise as David Aames, Vanilla Sky
Some people consider Friedrich Nietzsche one of the most exciting philosophers of all time. Certainly his ideas have been influential and his writing dramatic. And whatever your take on his point of view, the themes he addresses are provoking enough to give us something to gnaw on and make us think. And in the end, to some extent, maybe that was all he intended in a world where people generally just went about their business and accepted the values of the culture they were immersed in.
The quote above addresses one of his original constructs, the idea of life being an eternal recurrence. Christian teaching is not alone in giving weight to the decisions of this life by indicating their significance with regard to eternal outcomes. Nietzsche, on the other hand, chooses to suggest our decisions in this life have weight because how we choose to live today will be replayed over and over again unto eternity.
It’s a very unusual perspective in some respects, a variant on reincarnation, which also has us returning indefinitely, but in differing capacities. Scholars have argued whether the idea is meant as a serious conjecture or a concept to make us more thoughtful about our behavior here and now.
I would suggest that Nietzsche’s sole intent with this concept of eternal recurrence was to get us plugged in to the significance of our acts. His was a brilliant mind, but as far as I am aware he does not offer a supporting argument for the notion proposed. It is a certainty that he understood that even if we ourselves were recurring, our circumstances would not be, for times change, culture changes, history is unfolding all around us.
This theme of eternal recurrence is echoed in Cameron Crowe’s film Vanilla Sky. Once one grasps the film’s premise, the viewer is like Theseus following Ariadne’s thread to find his way through the labyrinth. In the film, David Aames is unaware that he is experiencing this “eternal recurrence”, but only knows that something is terribly wrong. The climactic scene on the rooftop brings a number of historically significant philosophical questions to the surface.
Of Nietzsche, we know that his ideas went on to influence innumerable existential philosophers and lay the groundwork for postmodern explorers. He lived passionately, a philosopher whose roots were less grounded in reason (the dominant theme of the Rennaissance and modern rationalism) and drawn more from the Dionysian, the experiential and the irrational.
While living in Italy, Nietzsche had a nervous breakdown while witnessing a man beating a horse. Embracing the horse, whose suffering was more than he could bear, Nietzsche fell apart and spent the last ten years of his life in a broken state.
Nietzsche’s writings are challenging to put your mind around in part because he did not believe it necessary to have a systematic, rational viewpoint. More than once he declares his distrust of systematizers. In this regard he may have foreshadowed the postmodernists who do not find it necessary to be altogether consistent in their own views. He may have even suggested that atttempts to be consistent are a waste of time.
What matters, he asserted, is not getting everything figured out, but experiencing our lives as fully as possible and becoming all we’re meant to be. “The present moment is all, so let us make the best use of it and of ourselves.” With that I would agree; the truth is true wherever it is found.
The two photos on this page are of the house where Nietzche lived in Turin, at via Carlo Albierto 6, when he had his nervous breakdown and of the plaque stating that Nietzsche lived there. In 1861Turin was the first capital of united Italy. The capital later moved to Florence and ultimately to Rome.
THIS BLOG POST IS A REPRINT OF SEPTEMBER 30, 2009.