I have recently become quite interested in the great 20th century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. He is the quintessential postmodern deconstructionist. Born into Lutheranism and devout as a child, he slowly lost his faith after the horrific and slow death of his father. He could not see how a good God could allow such a thing to happen. Eventually, personal pain turned into a philosophical pursuit. One that would reshape the Western world.
Nietzsche came to the conclusion personally and philosophically that “God is dead”. In a unique but troubled brilliance, he was able to articulate modern religious belief as a delusion meant to give meaning to the absurdity of existence.
Of course, if one removes metaphysical telos from human existence, you create an existential crisis. Nietzsche’s, “God is dead” removes purpose for life and has the potential to fill one with dread; it did for him and it has for Western culture.
This problem was one he wanted to solve. He desperately desired to give meaning to life and create a philosophical framework that disregarded the need for religious faith and also gave meaningful purpose to life.
Eventually, he created a thought experiment that he thought answered the challenge of meaning and purpose but I think he gave a deconstructionist articulation of hell. He labeled his thought experiment, “eternal reoccurrence”. Nietzsche writes,
“What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “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 unutterably small or great in your life will have to 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 upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!”
Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: “You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.” If this thought gained possession of you, it would change you as you are or perhaps crush you. The question in each and every thing, “Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?” would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight. Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?”
The purpose of this excercise was to propel the individual to make moral choices and personal decisions of agency in which there would be no regret. In other words, Nietzsche wanted people to not leave anything on the proverbial field of life. By living from this myth, he believed you would personally experience meaning and purpose in life. But he is wrong. This isn’t the road to meaning but the path to hell.
If you had to relive your life over and over again for eternity without the ability to change one point of your existence and have the awareness of this continual loop, I would suspect several things would happen:
- Slowly but assuredly the one experiencing eternal reoccurrence would ghoulishly change being faced without respite with an unchanging story line. Consider this thought experiment: pick your favorite movie that you have watched dozens of times. It is important that this a movie you love without equivocation. Now consider how you might feel about yourself, the movie and existence if that was your eternal life. Strapped to a couch, eyes forced to focus, engaged with each frame until it was burned into your mind, and watching a movie over and over again without rest or new experiences. It seems that the very experience of infinite repetition would change you negatively forever. Over an eternity, the very conclusion of nihilism that Nietzsche was seeking to escape would be crystallized into every pore of existence. Life would have no meaning except this hell of repetition. It would be an eternal life of dread.
- The very nature of something being eternally unchangable and having to be relived without relief is as close to a definition of real suffering that the most tyrannical malignant could ever come up with. In such a reality, every point of that life would slowly become infinite points of joy or horror. But in infinite passes of the same events, joy would infinitely decrease and horror would infinitely increase. Until only horror, angst and misery remained. It reminds me of the mythological story of Sisyphus. He was condemned by the gods to an eternity of rolling a rock up the hill only to watch it roll down again. One could possibly imagine the first few dozen times of rolling that he could perhaps find joy, whether in the work or in his mind. But eventually, no matter the strength of mind, he would only know suffering. This is embodied suffering. This is the very nature of hell itself.
- Finally, the endless repetition of even the most joyful moments of existence would eventually become places of terror until one’s existence in this eternal loop would just be one of eternal terror. For every moment of happiness, there would be the intense knowing of coming loss, the dread that this is not special but as common as the most mundane activity, eternally so; you would have an eternity to find new faults and failures in those you love with the hell of knowing that they cannot change; and joy would lose its meaning but horror would take on new depths. It would grow with each waking moment until terror was the only world you knew. Hell and terror are the same. To experience eternal terror is to burn forever in the fire that never extinguishes.
Nietzsche wanted to remove God from human existence. Much of the madness of our age finds it’s roots in this endeavor. He was right to seek meaning for existence since it is a deeply human need. But in my opinion he has not answered it, not even close. In seeking meaning, Nietzsche found hell.