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?