Nietzsche’s eternal return – and its eternal answer
Nietzsche thought that Christianity’s chief perversion was its inability to appreciate life as it was; he thought we were always pining after some abstract, cold, lifeless world we could never reach. This is why he thought the true mark of the greatest man was to embrace life as it was over and over:
The greatest weight.— 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 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?
– Nietzsche, The Gay* Science, 1882
This accusation of Nietzsche’s, I would answer with this quote by Chesterton.
…children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we…
– Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 1908
I think Nietzsche’s challenge finds its answer in a God whose mercy endures forever, and yet is new every morning. Christianity isn’t about a cold, sterile survival; it’s about a constant process of dying and coming back to life. It was that very process, that story of death and rebirth, not only of God, not only of ourselves, but of the entire world, that gave history and nature significance, context, personality, and direction for Chesterton. It lit up this life, the one Nietzsche so wanted us to love, with a light beyond this world, and so infused it with a joy beyond this world (I’ve spoken of this elsewhere in a couple places as well.)
Both of these quotes claim a love of life and vitality, and both writers claim that the opposing view has a neurotic fixation about it. But I think it’s clear which side’s love is the healthier and more sincere one. Nietzsche’s love is neurotic in its fixation on loving what is and considering it good, in its persecuted challenge and self-conscious impossibility. Chesterton’s love is just happy to be alive; he does not force himself to think that what is, is good; he merely recognizes the good that is, and allows his love to draw him out of himself and into that which he loves.
From the same work by Chesterton:
There is such a thing as a narrow universality; there is such a thing as a small and cramped eternity; you may see it in many modern religions. Now, speaking quite externally and empirically, we may say that the strongest and most unmistakable mark of madness is this combination between a logical completeness and a spiritual contraction. The lunatic’s theory explains a large number of things, but it does not explain them in a large way.
In the end, I think Nietzsche falls prey to the same cold fixation he accuses the Christians of having. For me, Chesterton’s writing has the feel of a ruddy outdoors adventure about it, while Nietzsche’s love has feverishly locked itself in a stuffy little room and is staring intensely at the wall, trying to convince itself that the wall amazes it.
Nietzsche says Chesterton is insane because he cannot be content with the things in the room. But it is only the light from outside the room that allows Nietzsche to see anything inside. And since he has convinced himself that he is too mature and self-sufficient to try the door, he has no way of knowing there is no outside. Chesterton, meanwhile, is not trying to make some grand and heroic gesture of despair in being content with staring at the wall; he is just excited about going exploring, both in the room and out.
It all really depends on whether there is anything outside the room. Will you try the door?
*German “froelich”, like “frolic”, as in carefree and happy