[E]ternal recurrence means that every time you choose an action you must be willing to choose it for all eternity. And it is the same for every action not made, every stillborn thought, every choice avoided. And all unlived life will remain bulging inside you, unlived through all eternity. And the unheeded choice of your conscience will cry out to you forever.
(“Nietzsche” in Irvin Yalom’s When Nietzsche Wept)
Nietzsche was a nihilist. He rejected the truth of normative and evaluative statements. That said, the exact kind of nihilism he favoured is a matter of some dispute (a dispute I touched upon in a previous article). Furthermore, despite his commitment to nihilism, a lot of Nietzsche’s philosophy was dedicated to moving beyond it. He wanted to show how life is still possible in the shadow of nihilism. Indeed, on one reading, it is possible to argue that Nietzsche saw nihilism as a great opportunity for humankind. Instead of passively accepting the values that are foisted upon us by cultural tradition, we can now actively create our own value systems. This could bring new hope to our lives.
Key to this was the doctrine of eternal recurrence. This doctrine showed how to add weight to our decisions in a nihilistic world. According to this doctrine, whenever you make a decision, you should imagine that you will have to make that decision over and over again (i.e. that there will be infinite replays of the decision). You should then choose whichever option you would be willing to choose across all of those replays. In other words, don’t go with one option for the sake of it and hope that you’ll get a chance to choose another option at a later replaying; pick the option that stands up to scrutiny over and over again.
Nietzsche may have believed that eternal recurrence was a real thing, and that our lives really do replay themselves an infinite number of times. But that’s not strictly speaking necessary to the usefuless of eternal recurrence as a decision heuristic. We can analyse it as a purely imaginative doctrine. The question then becomes: would it really make a difference if we imagined infinite replays of the same decision? Would such imagining help us to overcome nihilism?
Nadeem Hussain, in his article ‘Eternal Recurrence and Nihilism: Adding Weight to the Unbearable Lightness of Action’ argues that it could. In the remainder of this article, I want to review what he has to say. I think Hussain’s argument is fascinating, in particular because it shows how Nietzsche’s doctrine of eternal recurrence has some direct analogues in modern moral theory and psychology.
That said, before I get into the meat of Hussain’s argument, it is worth repeating something he himself says, namely: that despite its importance in his philosophical project, Nietzsche doesn’t actually say a whole lot about the doctrine of eternal recurrence. He doesn’t offer a detailed explanation of how it is supposed to be applied to day-to-day decision-making, nor a detailed justification of its use. So interpreters like Hussain have to read between the lines and construct an understanding of the doctrine that does justice to what Nietzsche seemed to be saying. In other words, don’t fool yourself into thinking that what follows is pure, unadulterated Nietzsche; it’s Hussain’s take on Nietzsche.
1. Why do we need to add weight to our decisions?
Let’s start by considering exactly why the doctrine of eternal recurrence is needed. Hussain takes the view — which he defends at greater length elsewhere — that Nietzsche is a thoroughgoing nihilist about normative and evaluative judgments. In other words, he thinks that all statements of the form ‘X is good’ or ‘X is obligatory’ are false (or, more properly, not capable of being true or false). This means that, at best, these statements are expressions of, perhaps widespread, feelings or attitudes. We can call this view ‘theoretical nihilism’.
This creates a problem for Nietzsche because of the claims he makes about human psychology. Like Schopenhauer before him, Nietzsche thinks that the will is an overwhelming psychological force in human life. People constantly want to do things; they are restless and try to change the world around them. Nietzsche’s twist on Schopenhauer is that he thinks the will always seeks out forms of resistance and tries to overcome them. This means that the will is, to use his phrase, a ‘will to power’. Related to this, Nietzsche thinks we are in the constant habit of making normative and evaluative judgments to fuel the will. We tend to think that certain things are good and certain things are bad. These normative and evaluative judgments play a key role in our psychological economies. What’s more, these normative and evaluative judgments tend to take an unconditional form: we don’t question them or doubt them when they are operative. They dominate our minds and make us think that whatever course of action we have chosen is necessary right now. Any disruption to this psychological economy, would be existentially threatening to creatures like us.
(I would also add — with the caveat that I am not a Nietzschean scholar and I get the impression that what I am about to say would be sacrilegious in the eyes of some Nietzscheans — that despite all the protestations to the contrary, there is an implicit evaluative judgment underlying Nietzsche’s thinking about the role of the will to power in human life. He seems to value it and think it should be given an outlet for its insatiable appetite. Indeed, he seems to go so far as to claim that it would be self-denying and inhumane to deny it its role.)
The problem with theoretical nihilism is that it seems to undercut the evaluative judgments that provide the fuel for the will. It rips asunder our psychological economy and turns us into ‘wantons’: people who are not committed to anything and get carried away by the whims of the moment. If our belief that ‘X is good’ is just an expression of opinion, and not grounded in some deeper metaphysical truth about the value of X, it is difficult to see why we should sustain our commitment to X. Maybe we should value something else? Or maybe we should just give up valuing altogether and let other people decide what we should do? This latter possibility is referred to as ‘passive nihilism’ by Nietzsche. It involves the passive acceptance of evaluative beliefs foisted upon us by others and not the active choosing of our own value systems. Nietzsche seems to prefer active nihilism over passive nihilism. But this is puzzling. How can you be an active nihilist if you accept theoretical nihilism? How can you remain committed to any project or plan if you know, deep down, that they aren’t really worthwhile?
One solution, favoured by Hussain, is to act ‘as if’ your projects and plans have value. More precisely, Hussain argues that one way to avoid complete motivational collapse is to sustain ‘honest illusions’ about the value of your projects and plans. But it is hard to see how honest illusions by themselves can address the problem. If the illusions are honest — i.e. if you are not deluding yourself into thinking that theoretical nihilism is false — won’t your projects and plans continue to feel hollow? This is where the doctrine of eternal recurrence comes to the rescue.
2. How Eternal Recurrence Adds Weight to Our Decisions
The idea of eternal recurrence adds weight to our illusions of value. It acts as a motivation amplifier. It takes advantage of the fact that we are naturally evaluative beings. We make evaluative judgments all the time. Our commitment to theoretical nihilism might call those judgments into question but it doesn’t change the fact that evaluations bubble up into our minds unbidden all the time. The important thing is to work with these natural evaluations and turn them into something with a bit more oomph.
You do this, according to Nietzsche, by taking a step back. So suppose you are deciding which course to study at university. You have the choice of computer engineering or biology. You have an interest in both, but you are not sure what to do. Instead of getting bound up with your occurrent feelings and emotions about the choice, you should instead get some psychological distance. This is what the imaginative exercise underlying the doctrine of eternal recurrence enables you to do. Instead of looking at the choice as being one that is being made at a particular moment in time, look on it as a series of choices that will repeat themselves across multiple (ultimately infinite) possible worlds. In other words, imagine that you will face the same decision over and over again. Furthermore, imagine that there is a constraint on how you get to decide across all those possible worlds: whatever you choose right now, in this world, will be the choice you have make in all those other possible worlds. So if you are stuck with the choice you make now across an eternity of replays, you need to make sure that the decision is one that you would be happy with across eternity.
I think that the movie Groundhog Day is, in some ways, a meditation on this Nietzschean exercise. In the movie, the main character (played with sardonic world-weariness by Bill Murray) is forced to live the same day over and over again. At first, this causes him great anxiety, then, when he gets used to it, he takes advantage of it to satisfy his hedonistic desires. He finds this hollow and unsatisfying so, finally, he tries to do good. In the end, he constructs a perfect day of perfect choices — ones that he can be happy playing out over and over again. In other words, he arrives at a set of decisions that can be endorsed under the strictures of eternal recurrence. Admittedly, the movie is not perfect illustration of eternal recurrence. Ultimately Bill Murray’s character gets to escape the fate of living out the same day over and over again, and, furthermore, the idea of doing good is contrary to theoretical nihilism. Nevertheless, for all its imperfections, I think it is a useful analogy.
You may still be wondering: how exactly does eternal recurrence add weight that is otherwise lacking. There are two things worth saying here. First, as Hussain points out, imagining the decisions playing out over and over again allows for small differences between preferences to aggregate into larger differences. So, for example, computer engineering and biology might seem roughly equal to you in the here and now, but maybe you have a very slight preference for biology. This slight preference may not be enough for you to discount the possibility of studying computer engineering right now, but over repeated plays the small difference will aggregate into something much larger. Consequently, the decision to study biology over computer engineering acquires weight that it previously lacked.
The other point, which Hussain makes in a couple of different ways, is that the idea underlying eternal recurrence is not that dissimilar to other proposed decision heuristics. For example, moral constructivists often claim that we can build objective normative and evaluative truths out of our tendency to form normative and evaluative beliefs. We can do this by following certain decision heuristics. When confronted with an evaluative belief like ‘X is good’ they might try to determine whether X is really good by imagining what an ‘ideal observer’ would think of X. The ideal observer is a hypothetical person who is perfectly rational and has full information about the nature of X and its relation to the world. Would that person endorse the belief that X is good? If they would, then X is indeed good; if not, then it is not. Hussain argues that what these moral constructivists are doing is very similar to what Nietzsche is trying to do with the doctrine of eternal recurrence. The one important difference, of course, is that Nietzsche is not trying to use the heuristic to construct objective normative and evaluative truths. He is just trying to add weight to our choices that might otherwise be lacking. In some ways, this makes his decision heuristic less of a hard sell.
Similarly, Hussain points out that the account of willpower favoured by some psychologists has a lot of overlap with the doctrine of eternal recurrence. George Ainslie (and others) have argued that our tendency to succumb to weakness of the will is caused by the fact that we radically (hyperbolically) discount the value of certain future options. This radical discounting can lead to the phenomenon of ‘preference reversal’. For example, we may value not-smoking much more than smoking, but at certain crucial moments our desire to smoke the next cigarette will exceed our desire to quit due to the way in which we discount future value (illustrated below).
How can we avoid succumbing to weakness of the will? One suggestion is that instead of focusing on the value of smoking vis-a-vis not-smoking in a particular moment we focus on the value of smoking vis-a-vis not-smoking across a large set of decision points. So imagine you must repeatedly face the choice of smoking/not-smoking. What’s the value to you of not-smoking across all those repeated decisions points and how does it compare to the value of smoking? If you really do value not-smoking over smoking then thinking about the choice in these terms could make the critical difference both because it creates some distance between you and your current decision and because focuses on the aggregate outcomes of all those decisions, not just one particular decision. This is very like the eternal recurrence idea.
That’s it, that’s Hussain’s interpretation of eternal recurrence. As mentioned at the outset, I find it interesting, particularly the links he draws between eternal recurrence and other related decision heuristics. I do, however, have some lingering doubts. For instance, I am not sure exactly how the imaginative exercise is supposed to work in practice. Obviously, I cannot imagine an infinite number of possible replays of the decision I am about to make. So would five be enough? Or thirty-five? Can I really imagine that many replays or will I tend to lose interest after two or three?
More importantly, although eternal recurrence may add weight to values that are otherwise light, I cannot see how it can add weight to nothing at all. So if I value nothing (or have no clear intuitions or beliefs about what I value), imagining multiple replays of a decision isn’t going to do much good, is it? Hussain alludes to this problem early on in his article, noting that honest illusions may not really address the problem of theoretical nihilism unless you have an underlying desire to sustain those honest illusions. He repeats the point later in the article when he notes that eternal recurrence is a game and for it to work you have to have the desire to play the game. But where does this desire come from? How can that desire have sufficient weight to guide all our decision-making? Is it not as questionable and contingent as any other desire as a result of theoretical nihilism? In short, couldn’t theoretical nihilism lead to a total collapse of the will (i.e. the loss of the will to will) and if so wouldn’t that render the doctrine of eternal recurrence moot? I guess one Nietzschean answer is that it is impossible for the will to completely collapse since we have the strong psychological habit of valuing things. Eternal recurrence is about amplifying those inevitable natural values into something more impressive. But I’m not sure if that is true. Certainly, there are days when I feel apathetic about everything and if that mood sustained itself over a long period of time I’d find it difficult to care about playing the eternal recurrence game.