Nietzsche’s life sentence

Lawrence J. Hatab


Lawrence J. Hatab

In this book Lawrence Hatab provides an accessible and provocative exploration of one of the best-known and still most puzzling aspects of Nietzsche’s thought: eternal recurrence, the claim that life endlessly repeats itself identically in every detail. Hatab argues that eternal recurrence can and should be read literally, in just the way Nietzsche described it in the texts. The book offers a readable treatment of most of the core topics in Nietzsche’s philosophy, all discussed in the light of the consummating effect of eternal recurrence. Although Nietzsche called eternal recurrence his most fundamental idea, most interpreters have found it problematic or needful of redescription in other terms. For this reason Hatab’s book is an important and challenging contribution to Nietzsche scholarship.


Confessions of a Lifer: Thus Spoke Hatab
Abbreviations of Nietzsche’s Works


1    Nietzsche’s Challenge to the Tradition: From Metaphysics to Naturalism
2    Retrieving Greek Tragedy
3    Morality, Nihilism, and Life Affirmation
4    Eternal Recurrence in Nietzsche’s Texts
5    Making Belief: Literal Repetition and Its Existential Force
6    Calling Witnesses: A Review of the Literature
7    The Trouble with Repetition: Confronting Critical Questions

Laughter and Truth: Nietzsche’s Philosophical Satyr Play
The Dance



Confessions of a Lifer:
Thus Spoke Hatab


When Dr. Heinrich von Stein once complained very honestly that he didn’t understand a word of my Zarathustra, I told him that this was perfectly in order: having understood six sentences from it—that is, to have really experienced them—would raise one to a higher level of existence than “modern” men could attain.

— Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo

Why Nietzsche was so Anxious

Nietzsche occasionally despaired of attracting readers whom he deemed worthy of his books. His insights were so exacting, his inspiration so overpowering, his truths so explosive, that mere mortals could hardly help but miscarry them. In typical fashion, of course, he also raised to dizzying heights the stakes of readership. His Zarathustra, he modestly opined, is “the greatest present that has ever been made to [humankind] so far” (EH P, 4)—Promethean fire, presumably, was a close second; The Antichrist is “the most independent” book ever produced (TI 9, 51); and so on. His authorial prowess was so magisterial that he helpfully devoted the longest chapter of his “autobiography” to a detailed explanation of why he wrote “such good books” (EH III).

But the unrivaled genius of Nietzsche’s “good books” accounts for only half of what he took to be the problem of his readership. It was also his fate to toil in an epoch that was stunningly unprepared to receive his effluent wisdom. In his estimation, his first generation of readers was as ridiculous as his books were sublime. The hands into which he was obliged to place his precious teachings would no doubt fumble them, twisting them into cheap platitudes and, even worse, trendy ideological slogans. As he neared the end of his productive career, he grew increasingly fearful that he would be mistaken for his opposite, regarded as yet another moralist or “improver of mankind” (EH P, 2). Alarmed that he might someday be hailed as a “holy man,” even as the “founder of a religion,” he launched a noteworthy preemptive strike: “[I would] sooner even [be] a buffoon.—Perhaps I am a buffoon” (EH IV, 1).

One need not leave one’s armchair to venture an amateur diagnosis of such anxieties. Nietzsche feared being pronounced “holy” precisely because he (believed he) knew the desperate condition of the likely readers of his books. He was too keen an observer of his times to bequeath his writings without reservation to the indiscriminate and redemption-minded readers of late European modernity. (He stubbornly persisted in writing in German, after all, despite claiming to loathe the Germans as a people dispossessed of their formerly formidable philosophical spirit.) He must have been tempted, like Moses, to destroy his tablets rather than place them into such unworthy, idolatrous hands.

But Nietzsche also knew that there was something of the “holy man” in him. He was, admittedly, a “child of his time” (CW P), which means that he too shared in the diffuse, post-theistic religiosity that clouded his unhappy epoch. He also knew, or at least suspected, that his residual religiosity would very likely complicate the dissemination of his more radical teachings. He knew, that is, that he would need to cultivate a new breed of strong readers, philological warriors who could endure his occasional lapses into religiosity while continuing, undistracted, to receive from him the teachings he was poised to dispense. Such readers surely awaited him in the postmoral future that he so vividly imagined. But what of his present, the twilight epoch of late modernity? Were such readers likely to be found in an age that he had expertly diagnosed as irrecuperably decadent?

Although he claimed among his contemporary readers “nothing but first-rate intellects and proven characters, trained in high positions and duties” (EH III, 2), this boast is difficult to square with his more typical expressions of contempt for his late modern contemporaries. If such worthies were actually scattered throughout Europe and North America, posted in offices of influence, then his prospects for readership were not nearly so bleak as he preferred to insist. In that event, in fact, he would have been obliged to revisit, and perhaps even to retract, the sweeping jeremiad that he had pronounced on the whole of late modernity.

Nietzsche’s post-Zarathustran writings thus stage a full-blown psychological drama: Should he trust his supposedly feeble readers to receive his untimely teachings, guard them from vulgar distortion, and deliver them intact to the rightful audiences of a distant posterity? If so, then how light (or strong) a touch should he apply in his repeated efforts to instruct his readers in the art of appreciating his Dionysian wisdom? Or should he simply trust no one, strategically encrypting his teachings so that only the most Thesean of his readers will penetrate to, and return from, the center of his labyrinthine thought? Is it preferable to be read poorly by many, on the remote chance that someday some wayward disciple will inadvertently bequeath these teachings to those readers for whom they are intended? Or to be read well by so few that his chances of surviving the long entr’acte of late modernity are virtually nil?

Such excruciating self-interrogations eventually took the measure of Nietzsche’s sanity. Early in 1889, following an explosively productive year of writing and plotting, he fell without return into madness—the result, as legend has it, of inserting himself between a besieged horse and its whip-wielding master. Notes and letters scribbled in early 1889 suggest that in madness he attained the crystalline certainty that his sanity would not abide. As the shroud of madness descended, he presented himself as a resolute lawgiver, as sheltering within his elastic soul “every name in history,” and as promising bold political action—including several high-profile assassinations—as favors to his dearest friends.

In light of the drama that filled Nietzsche’s final years of sanity, it would be easy enough to misplace the questions of audience and readership that vexed him. Let us then be careful to raise them anew: How should we read Nietzsche, especially if we accept in some version his chilling diagnosis of the late modern epoch? While it is easy enough to imagine oneself belonging to those intrepid hermeneuts of “the day after tomorrow”—and who amongst Nietzsche’s readers has not surrendered to this all-too-human conceit?—the trickier task is to take seriously his prediction that the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, despite hosting a noisy era of “great politics,” would amount to little more than a Zwischenspiel in “the Dionysian drama of ‘The Destiny of the Soul’” (GM P, 7). To do so would be to acknowledge, if not necessarily to affirm, that we are not Nietzsche’s ideal readers. As he proudly explains,

Given this feeling of distance, how could I possibly wish to be read by those “moderns” whom I know! My triumph is precisely the opposite of Schopenhauer’s: I say, “non legor non legar.” (EH III, 1)

Although Nietzsche is now (and will continue to be) widely read, his putative “triumph” endures. So long as we late moderns remain mired in our desuetude, Nietzsche (or someone on his behalf) may maintain his assertion of superiority over us. Were we the readers he claims to deserve, we would have elevated ourselves by now “to a higher level of existence” (EH III, 1) and, presumably, taken up permanent residence beyond good and evil.

Of course, Nietzsche need not be right about us. For that matter, he need be neither sincere nor forthright in characterizing us in such unflattering terms. Whether real or exaggerated, honest or strategic, his preferred terms for engaging with us reveal the irony of his predicament. Although he refuses to affirm us, he has no choice but to rely on us to transmit his precious teachings of affirmation. It is up to us to read his books, however poorly, and to recommend them enthusiastically, if ignorantly, to our progeny. For better or worse, we are the monkish intermediaries who must safeguard his books, preserving his teachings until such time as his intended readers arrive to glean their true, full relevance.

One teaching in particular must survive the tumultuous entr’acte of late modernity: the idea of eternal recurrence. According to the most popular formulations of this idea, we are encouraged to imagine the cosmos as eternally recurring in every detail of every iteration of its every configuration. Doing so will allow us to discern how closely we approach the standard established by those heroic individuals who embrace without revision the eternal recurrence of all that they have been, done, and known. Although Nietzsche’s readers dispute the precise implications of the idea of eternal recurrence, they are generally agreed that it is meant to play an indispensable, if unspecified, role in delivering someone—though perhaps not us—to an unconditional affirmation of life. Nietzsche himself confirms this interpretation when he identifies the idea of eternal recurrence as the “highest formula of affirmation [Bejahung] that is at all attainable” (EH III; Z, 1). Despite the fact that the cosmos bears no trace of transcendent meaning, moral order, anthropophilic teleology, or metaphysical comfort, we may nevertheless aspire, by dint of the idea of eternal recurrence, to affirm the whole and our humble place within it. Having done so, we may gratefully look back on life, complete with its inevitable disappointments and losses, and shout da capo! …


The Trouble with Repetition: Confronting Critical Questions

This last chapter will confront a number of critical problems that arise if eternal recurrence is granted any kind of validity. The discussion will engage four questions: (1) Does eternal recurrence entail a deterministic denial of freedom? (2) Does eternal recurrence subvert Nietzsche’s promotion of creativity? (3) Does the charge of moral repugnance make eternal recurrence intolerable? (4) How can eternal recurrence admit of truth in any worthy sense?

The Question of Freedom

Nietzsche rejects both the notion of a free will and an unfree will (BGE 21). Yet he also champions an idea that seems clearly at odds with freedom, namely necessity. It is important to begin with an analysis of this idea in order to address critical assessments of eternal recurrence and to fathom how freedom can function in Nietzsche’s thought. As we have seen, Nietzsche specifically associates eternal recurrence with necessity, and the repetition scheme seems to imply a rigid determinism, because any event that happens, has happened, or will happen cannot admit of any alternatives. Whatever I do next has happened an infinite number of times in the same way, and so there is only one possible future. Surely this sounds like determinism and a denial of freely chosen acts in any sense, since choice implies real alternative possibilities.1 My argument is as follows: Nietzschean necessity does rule out classic conceptions of free will, but it does not fit classic conceptions of determinism either. Nietzsche advances an unusual sense of necessity that echoes the ancient Greek understanding of fate, most especially the force of tragic fate.

For Nietzsche, the necessity of an event does rule out alternatives, but simply from the standpoint of the “self-evidence” of the immediate event as such, with nothing other or outside it, whether that be a causal chain or a self-originating “will” or “substance.” This is why Nietzsche says that “occurrence (Geschehen) and necessary occurrence is a tautology” (WP639). Necessity is counterposed not only to free alternatives but to any sense of mechanism,causality, or law: “Let us beware of saying that there are laws in nature. There are only necessities” (GS 109).2 We have previously seen that one connotation of necessity follows from the absence of global purposes, an absence that makes the idea of an “accident” senseless (GS109). But necessity is also different from logical or causal necessity. Nietzsche dismisses any radical sense of causality or law. The reason he denies both a free and an unfree will is that each is a false attribution of causality: freedom as self-causation and unfreedom as external causation (BGE 21). Necessity does not follow from the force of law but from the absence of law (BGE 22); it cannot mean some fixed relation between successive states (which violates the primacy of radical becoming) but simply that a state is what it is rather than something else (WP 552, 631). Necessity indicates that an occurrence “cannot be otherwise” simply by force of its immediate emergence, independent of any sense of causality—whether the self-causality of freedom, the final causality of teleology, or the efficient causality of determinism—since causality always looks away from an occurrence as such and in one way or another relies on the possibility of alternatives. Teleology looks “ahead” for intelligibility, mechanism looks “before” and “after” for causal regulation, and freedom looks “within” for a spontaneous agent. Alternativeness, of course, is essential to freedom, but it operates in teleology too (“straying” from telic movement—an accident—helps define proper movement), and in scientific causality as well (current causal findings depend on positing future repetitions and alternative results under different causal conditions).

About the author:

2005hatabLawrence J. Hatab, June 12, 1946 (age 71) is Louis I. Jaffe Professor of Philosophy at Old Dominion University. He is the author of Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morality (2008), Nietzsche’s Life Sentence: Coming to Terms With Eternal Recurrence (2005), Ethics and Finitude: Heideggerian Contributions to Moral Philosophy (2000), A Nietzschean Defense of Democracy: An Experiment in Postmodern Politics (1995) and Myth and Philosophy: A Contest of Truths (1990).


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