What if?

My recent trawl through stuff I’ve copied down unearthed this little puzzle:

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?

from Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, s.341, Walter Kaufmann transl.

Nietzsche doesn’t make it clear whether you’d begin your new life knowing you’d lived it before, Groundhog Day style.

If you did know then it wouldn’t be exactly the same, would it? You’d be able to tweak your actions and responses like Bill Murray did to come up with a different outcome. If you didn’t know then it wouldn’t matter how many times you lived it because it would always come as a complete surprise. Also unexplained is whether the demon allows you to go on living some more after he’s told you of the eternal recurrence, thereby giving you the chance to make your life one worth reliving.

Maybe I’m overthinking it. What if? is always hypothetical, releasing us from the deadly grip of realism in our daily lives. Nietzsche came to reject all supernatural and metaphysical beliefs but he was open to the idea of heaven on earth, the possibility of which his imperfect but thought-provoking little scenario above seems to signal.

Me, I haven’t a clue what my reaction would be … gnashing and cursing … grinning and craving … who knows?

How about you?

21 thoughts on “What if?

    1. Yes, he’s very hard to read because of his uncompromising fierceness. He always makes me feel uncomfortable but it’s no bad thing to be taken out of one’s comfort zone once in a while!

  1. What a fascinating idea. Not someone struggling to get out of the numerous frustrating repetitions, but actually seeing the purpose of it all. Reliving the family holidays, a chance to be with those again who have now passed over, the day you met your partner. The children. Those you raised in your beliefs and have turned out all right. Pain, mistakes, the hideous things that happened. to me the latter would be worth it to be with those I care for. And a chance to get it really right would be more than worth it. What if your mistakes “passed before your eyes” once, during your lifetime, so you have a chance to correct them now rather than at death. It always amazes me how this happens, for five short minutes, after the funeral of someone we love, and five minutes after that, someone puts music on and brings out the alcohol and sandwiches. Perhaps each person should have a scheduled required 3 hours per year they have to complete. Alone on a beach, or in a darkened church, or some favorite place in nature, where they have to sit alone and absolutely quietly in the dark, for two hours, and then watch the sun come up.

    1. This is a wonderful series of ideas. Thanks so much for contributing them. A proper acceptance of such things is an essential counterweight to the terrible attitudes which lead to outrages like the tragic events in Nice. It’s all about learning to value life …

  2. Dave I always thought that in this situation the whole punishment thing (and that’s what demons are for isn’t it? Just listen to Old Harry’s Game.) would be that you did know your life was repeating but you were not able to do anything at all about it. With no chance of tweaking anything, no chance of becoming a fantastic pianist for example, and knowing everything was coming round again and again this would become hellish.

    But memadtwo is quite right, in spite of the famous politician’s cry “lessons will be learned”, we are repeating ourselves and seem incapable of doing the Bill Murray thing to make each one better.

    Hey ho, the sun is shining and it’s Friday 😃

    1. OHG is marvellous, isn’t it? Gallows humour, I suppose, which you need after reading gloomy old Nietzsche … though to be fair to him, he could never understand why people didn’t see his funny side. Humankind cannot bear too much reality, as TS Eliot said, which may be why lessons are never learned. It seems we prefer to rewrite history … Let’s face the music and dance, eh? 😀

  3. I used to think, back in my younger days, that all my life was a dream. In reality I was a discorporate mind in an infinite nothingness. I would dream my life and then spend a millennium mulling it over, tasting its nuance, before dreaming another life. It beat having nothing.
    But I guess that is what believers think god does really. He dreams the universe. So, in my own limited way I was a god!
    It’s alright – I grew out of it.

  4. Or what if we are just playing a part in a play, script predetermined – not by a greater being, but just a force of whatever created the big bang, if that is what happened – and besides being the players we are the audience, and as in extended performances of a play, we are replaced. Yet, one morning one person goes off script.

    1. Hmm, something about this reminds me of The Truman Show … amazing how much you’re rooting for the Jim Carrey character by the end, isn’t it? The idea we’re all puppets is the stuff of nightmare … especially if believing we have free will is part of the illusion! (Screams quietly.)

  5. I think it would be terribly boring to live a life you’ve already lived yet fun and a second chance if you can make amends however if you have to undergo all that you have already undergone the case for the latter is very weak,

    1. I agree. The repetition would be killing. I think this is Nietzsche’s rather clumsy way of saying Yes to life, no matter what, but exact recurrence with no chance of variation is a bit of a turn-off!

  6. I would love to relive every moment, and I think it would be interesting to see it all again with a full memory of the whole saga, but without tweaks. How wonderful would it be to relive those horrible embarrassing moments again but with the knowledge now of how insignificant they become and how they make for such great anecdotes later in life. It would be nice to be able to smile through those moments the second time around. I’m sure after 3-4 times, much less entertaining. Brilliant post 🙂

    1. I find myself veering around on this but you make an excellent case for a second bite of the cherry so I think I’ll go with that, with the hope that the double perspective leads to a richer, deeper experience.

  7. Love Groundhog Day. We watch it every year in honor of the equation. Would I relive my life? You bet. it’s not there weren’t minuses and regrets, some big ones, but they are far outweighed by the positive experiences. –Curt

  8. If I’ve already written this before, will I word it even more carefully now, or less? Seems to me it depends on whether we’re glass half-full or half empty types.
    Nice post.

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