The Innocence of Becoming
The Trouble with History
Not only is Nietzsche's contribution to the assault on metaphysics widely recognized, it is taken for granted that, as one aspect of that assault, he denigrated "history," helping to undermine the premium on historical modes of understanding characteristic of the nineteenth century. Around the turn of the century, Dilthey warned against the shortsighted denigration of historical consciousness that he found in Nietzsche and the developing vogue of Nietzsche's thought. From then on, Nietzsche's emphasis on self-creation, his critique of "the will to truth," his aestheticist talk of the fictions we create in order to live in the face of blank becoming—all have seemed to suggest that his thought was fundamentally antihistorical.
It is certainly true that Nietzsche inveighed against the historical sense as inimical to vitality and creativity. In Beyond Good and Evil , for example, he associated history with the faddish borrowing from any and all historical periods that seemed characteristic of his own century and that stood in sharp contrast
to the self-affirmation he valued. He had in mind, for example, the copying and emphasis on revival in architecture that later drew the wrath of pioneering modernists like Walter Gropius. But historical-mindedness covers a multitude of possibilities, and Nietzsche sensed that what remains as the metaphysical tradition dissolves is precisely history. As he experienced it, however, history in a postmetaphysical mode was anything but sustaining or reassuring.
In attacking nineteenth-century historical-mindedness, Nietzsche was not simply shifting the focus from public to private, from historical copying to individual self-creation, from historical consciousness to some subjective time consciousness or concern with one's personal past. It was the relationship between these two levels—the public-historical and the personal-individual—that he found decisive. Through the categories of his maturity—amor fati (loving one's fate), eternal recurrence, the innocence of becoming—Nietzsche was seeking to envision a mode of individual experience emptied of the troubling mode of historical consciousness that first seemed to follow from the waning of metaphysics.
Even as a young scholar, Nietzsche was restive with the dominant historicist imperatives of his own time, especially as embodied in philology, his own academic specialty. His first major work, The Birth of Tragedy (1872), flew in the face of the notion that we study the past for its own sake, apart from some contemporary concern. Nietzsche sensed that historical inquiry and understanding were necessarily bound up with the living of the present inquirer. Precisely because history was not the province of a past readily distinguishable from the present, historical inquiry might have a deeper contemporary relevance than the standard justifications and imperatives suggested. As the other side of the coin, however, if history was not confined to the past, it entailed risks; it could be corrosive.
Nietzsche's untimely meditation "On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life" (1874) has come to be associated especially with one, relatively familiar antihistorical theme. What he found disadvantageous for life in his own time was especially a passive, vulgar-Hegelian endorsement of the actual and a sense of coming late, of living when little of moment was left to be done. In this double sense, a premium on history undermined the sense of possibility necessary for ongoing creative energy.
This baggage surrounding history was part of what troubled Nietzsche, but an emphasis on this theme has diverted attention from a preoccupation that was also evident in this early meditation and that proved deeper, dominating his subsequent intellectual quest. We moderns, Nietzsche tells us, are caught up in "the tireless unspinning and historicizing of all there has ever been." History
dissolves everything "that possesses life," just as it had, partly through the agency of David Friedrich Strauss, the Christianity in which Nietzsche himself had been raised. And this makes for the "dismantling of all foundations, their dissolution into a continual evolving that flows ceaselessly away." There may have been something great and noble about, for example, the founding of Christianity, but between Christianity's founding and its historical success "there lies a very dark and earthy stratum of passion, error, thirst for power and honor." Nietzsche experienced, in a deeply personal way, the corrosiveness of historical understanding—what it means to grasp things, perhaps even all things, as contingent historical products.
The problem was that historical inquiry reveals, not the reason for things, but the lack of reason, the sheer contingency of everything that has resulted historically. Nietzsche was clearly appalled as he began to sense that our world has resulted from nothing but history, which, in turn, is nothing but this freakish concatenation of lies, errors, and self-serving actions. History, he says, "always brings to light so much that is false, crude, inhuman, absurd, violent that the mood of pious illusion in which alone anything that wants to live can live necessarily crumbles away." From this perspective, insofar as the hypertrophy of historical-mindedness threatened to undermine action, it was not because history makes us complacent but because it undermines even the foothold for commitment. Yet apparently nothing could resist the corrosive historical treatment; by Nietzsche's time, history had become a maelstrom sucking everything in. What had seemed the true world now appeared as but a layering of human contrivances in a field of sheer becoming.
So the world was coming to seem nothing but history, but this was obviously not Hegel's sort of history, because the process seemed utterly without the higher-order rationality and necessity that Hegel had posited. To understand the world historically is not to grasp some justifying reason but to realize that things would not have to be this way at all. The fact that our reality has turned out, so far, to be this way and not some other way comes to seem a billion-to-one fluke, honeycombed with absurdity.
This sense of reality collapsing into the mere contingency of history remained fundamental to Nietzsche's experience and intellectual enterprise. In his notes of the mid-1880s, he remarked that "the victory of a moral ideal is achieved by the same 'immoral' means as every victory: force, lies, slander, injustice"—to which he subsequently added the marginal gloss, "unsparing honesty." Such honesty compels us to recognize that the whole of our world is
woven around such capriciousness and contingency. And he was struck with how much is crushed, stifled, lost, as any particular world comes to be.
To emphasize contingency was to dissociate origins from meaning, purpose, reality, truth. Nietzsche's way of answering his own question in Daybreak is typical: "How did rationality arrive in the world? Irrationally, as might be expected: by a chance accident." He asserted the implications most fully in On the Genealogy of Morals .
The cause of the origin of a thing and its eventual utility, its actual employment and place in a system of purposes, lie worlds apart; whatever exists, having somehow come into being, is again and again reinterpreted to new ends, taken over, transformed, and redirected by some power superior to it; all events in the organic world are a subduing, a becoming master , and all subduing and becoming master involves a fresh interpretation, an adaptation through which any previous "meaning" and "purpose" are necessarily obscured and even obliterated.
"Genealogy" would be Nietzsche's way of analyzing what has "somehow come into being," what has happened between that "origin" and the present. And his premium on genealogy was not to dismiss history but to take history more seriously—radically and deeply seriously. However, because history is not some orderly process of development implicit in the origins, but merely contingent, accidental, capricious, there can be no shortcut to suprahistorical understanding. The genealogical understanding of anything that "is" requires painstaking analysis.
Though some of his preoccupations were novel, Nietzsche was concerned with history in something like the conventional sense when he wrote "On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life." At issue was not just empty, neutral "becoming" but history, with a determinate content; capricious though our history has been, it has resulted in something in particular, in this and not that. And the fruit of historical inquiry was not some sort of fiction or "lie" but plain old historical truth. Indeed, the problem with history was precisely that it uncovered the historical truth of things present—a problem because the unvarnished truth proves disillusioning, nauseating, and thus inimical to further action.
At this point, Nietzsche's antidotes to the disadvantageous effects of historical-mindedness were relatively conventional and did not directly address the most troubling aspects of the hypertrophy of history. He spoke of constructing history selectively, in such a way as to enhance life; he spoke of forgetting, by moving away from any cultural premium on empirical
historiography; he valued those great individuals who "do not carry forward any kind of process but live contemporaneously with each other," in an exalted dialogue across history. By communing with the like-minded over time, the life-affirming individual seems to deny time and history altogether.
But Nietzsche also responded in more innovative ways, first by turning the tables and historicizing historical-mindedness itself. The nineteenth-century premium on historical understanding stemmed from a sense of coming late that was itself historically specific, not suprahistorically privileged. At first, this insight seemed reassuring. Despite the nineteenth-century tendency, we apparently do not have to think historically and thereby experience the world as freakish and jerry-built. Once the ideal of truth is similarly historicized, the historical accounts that result from our historicizing way of accounting for things come to seem but one set among the innumerable fictions that human beings impose on empty becoming.
Emptiness and Connectedness
By the time of his "middle works," Human, All Too Human (1878), Daybreak (1881), and The Gay Science (1882), Nietzsche had taken this further step. In Human, All Too Human , he announced his discovery that even belief in truth as a superior value arises only in certain historically contingent situations. So it was not simply our particular historical truths but the very idea of truth as a cultural value that could be shown up as historically specific, contingent, and subject to dissolution.
But if truth could not hold, neither could the idea of history as usually understood—connoting a world that was, on some level, sufficiently coherent and stable to admit truth. As history consumes even itself, we are left with mere flux, sheer becoming, on which human beings, in their need for the security of stable being and suprahistorical truth, impose their particular, contingent fictions. What we take to be "truths" are simply the particular fictions or illusions that have made possible our particular mode of life, that have enabled us to live—more or less well.
Growing from within the particular true world we have posited, the Western ideal of truth has been central to our particular mode of life—which is not to be valued highly, according to Nietzsche's criteria. The recent emphasis on historical truth is but an aspect of that larger cultural strategy. It was bound up
with a particular way of conceiving the world—as historical and thus in terms of continuity, even rationality and necessity. In showing up the ideal of historical truth as but a particular, contingent lie, Nietzsche seemed to undercut the whole package. Whereas historical inquiry had seemed to assume a tyrannical privilege, endlessly showing the capriciousness of our world, we come to feel ourselves free to remember or forget as we choose. As part of the repertory of cultural lies, historical understanding could be assessed simply in terms of its value for "life."
Although it may first seem unnecessarily provocative, the term "lie" is a fair characterization, because in constructing fictions we are hiding from the real nothingness of flux or becoming. We want to believe that some metaphysical sanction or necessity attaches to the particular, merely contingent world that has become. In Beyond Good and Evil , Nietzsche asks rhetorically, "Does one not write books precisely to conceal what one harbors?" and then suggests that beneath every philosophical opinion, there is another, and another beneath that, with no stable foundation: "Every philosophy is a foreground philosophy," a surface over something richer, stranger, which, however, is also a surface, for "underneath" there is only "an abysmally deep ground behind every ground, under every attempt to furnish 'grounds.'" Ultimately, in fact, "every philosophy also conceals a philosophy; every opinion is also a hideout, every word also a mask." As I discuss in chapter 8, deconstruction would take one of its cues from Nietzsche's emphasis on this endless concealment and exclusion.
We seem well on our way to the familiar "posthistorical" Nietzsche of discontinuity and self-creation, but at this point we encounter a fork in his response to the appalling experience of the collapse into history. By historicizing even the historical treatment itself, by dissolving everything into empty becoming and fictional contrivance, Nietzsche seemed able to deflate the particular world and to sidestep any deeper confrontation with the appallingly capricious particularity of things. But he sensed that this tack was too easy; something about the new experience of "nothing but history" continued to gnaw at him.
It was important to grasp that reality, including the present premium on the historicizing mode itself, did not have to be this way, but it was this way—and it mattered that it was. There may be nothing behind us but "dreadful accident," but this moment is as it is because there have been these accidents and not some others. Even though what "there is" is "really" only lies, it is decisive that it has been these lies and not some others. Though there may be great scope for creative reinterpretation, to recognize that the actual is but a provisional, unstable, contingent historical resultant does not make it go away, or enable us to lie it away. What we are left with, then, is not simply a limitless invitation to invent fictions; we necessarily begin with the
particular world generated by our particular lies so far, a world with which each of us is indissolubly bound up.
A number of Nietzsche's emphases during this middle period suggest his continued preoccupation with the nature of that world and the modes of experience possible within it. Even while attacking the historical-mindedness of his own time, he insisted that it was precisely a historical sense, a deeper historical sense, that the West had lacked—and continued to lack. In Human, All Too Human , he charged that "lack of historical sense is the family failing of all philosophers," who lead us to think we can infer an eternal essence from human being as it is now. "But everything has become: there are no eternal facts , just as there are no absolute truths. Consequently, what is needed from now on is historical philosophizing , and with it the virtue of modesty." Nietzsche was recognizing that human being has become as it is through a particular historical process. And modesty was called for because we come to understand that our interpretation, like all the others, will not apprehend stable, suprahistorical "being" but will simply add to the history by giving a particular understanding of the resultant of that history so far.
Metaphysicians, Nietzsche went on to argue, worry about the relationship between the world of appearance and the thing-in-itself; they want to know what there really is, apart from the contingencies of historical circumstance. They have overlooked the possibility that what we
call life and experience . . . has gradually become, is indeed still fully in process of becoming , and should thus not be regarded as a fixed object on the basis of which a conclusion as to the nature of its originator (the sufficient reason) may either be drawn or pronounced undrawable. . . . That which we now call the world is the outcome of a host of errors and fantasies which have gradually arisen and grown entwined with one another in the course of the overall evolution of the organic being, and are now inherited by us as the accumulated treasure of the entire past—as treasure: for the value of our humanity depends on it.
This passage makes it especially clear that the departure from metaphysics soon leads us to a fork in the road. On the one hand, where there once seemed suprahistorical essences that metaphysics might grasp, we now see only "a host of errors and fantasies," and we seem to have turned our backs on any cultural premium on, or perhaps even the possibility of, historical truth. But on the other hand, those errors and fantasies are the particular errors and fantasies that have produced our world—the only world we have, the world with which we must deal. And through the same process we ourselves have become the particular beings that we are. So there might be special value in understanding ourselves
and our world historically, even though postmetaphysical historical inquiry would focus on contingency and not essence and even though no complete, definitive account would be possible.
Although some have found in Nietzsche the warrant for an antihistorical emphasis on "discontinuity," he was much taken with the connectedness of things—on precisely the historical level. Even after suprahistorical essences or necessities are forgotten, things cohere, q follows p and is as it is partly because p was as it was. "History" is simply this temporal coherence, this connectedness of things from one moment to the next.
Moreover, Nietzsche was struck with the fact that this horizontal interconnectedness means that things last—and thus are for keeps. In Human, All Too Human , he suggests "that . . . every action performed by a human being becomes in some way the cause of other actions, decisions, thoughts, that everything that happens is inextricably knotted to everything that will happen." Thus we "come to recognize the existence of an actual immortality , that of motion: what has once moved is enclosed and eternalized in the total union of all being like an insect in amber." This notion makes sense only insofar as the world is a history, only insofar as the endless becoming is not just empty flux but takes on a particular content.
Moreover, this connectedness across time meant that our personal lives are bound up with the happening of this particular world. As Nietzsche put it in The Gay Science, "The most dangerous point of view. —What I do or do not do now is as important for everything that is yet to come as is the greatest event of the past: in this tremendous perspective of effectiveness all actions appear equally great and small." And because of this insight into the permanent weight of what we do, Nietzsche could write a few years later, "I myself am fate and have conditioned existence for all eternity."
Nietzsche, of course, was not shy about claiming world-historical importance for his own contribution, and his antiegalitarianism shaped his way of conceiving the implications of his insight into the immortality of what we do. But his notion that "all actions appear equally great and small" indicates that each of us, in everything we do, has "conditioned existence for all eternity." To be sure, members of "the herd" all do essentially the same things; their actions are interchangeable, so there is no drama to the action of any one of them. Yet even Nietzsche could not deny that collectively their actions add up and weigh heavily, as the impact of our long experience of Christianity amply attested. For all his emphasis on the higher types, Nietzsche grasped that the
mechanism through which a particular reality results is egalitarian—indeed, all too egalitarian.
So even if we think in terms of lies or fictions, it matters for all time that human beings have imposed these fictions and not some others, because subsequent fictions will respond to, and thus embody, the particular world that has resulted so far. What remains, with the collapse of metaphysics, is not mere flux or discontinuity but the total particular that results from the connectedness of things. For Nietzsche, that is the terror. And the challenge was to find a way beyond what he found appalling about the bland particularity of our merely historical world.
Reshaping the Past
With the reduction to history, we initially experience our connectedness with the past as a limitation and burden. Our present and we ourselves seem to have resulted from a past that is not freely chosen—that has, in fact, the freakish, capricious consistency of "dreadful accident." Yet its weight is overpowering. Especially in Thus Spoke Zarathustra , Nietzsche sought to envision redemption from the weight of "it was," the unwilled past.
That effort ultimately led Nietzsche in two innovative directions. The first, accenting the scope for will, creativity, and radical historical questioning, proved congruent with a radical historicism. But something about the experience bound up with that response led Nietzsche to push beyond, to what we might call a "posthistoricist" position, a mode of individual experience emptied of genuinely historical consciousness.
The past is heavy, not airy and weightless, precisely because it was a certain way and not some other; so it will not do simply to turn away from it, laugh at it, or play with it. Says Nietzsche's Zarathustra, "A new will I teach men: to will this way which man has walked blindly, and to affirm it, and no longer to sneak away from it like the sick and decaying." So to dissolve the burden of "it was," we must come to terms with the particular way the world has been by inquiring into it and, on that basis, specifying an understanding of the past and its connection with us that we can affirm. Nietzsche wanted to be able to say "Yes to the point of justifying, of redeeming, even all of the past." In a world of nothing but history, redemption would entail understanding the whole past, in all its contingency, as necessary to the resulting of our particular present—and saying that we would not have it otherwise.
At first glance, the lack of metaphysical grounding seemed to afford unlimited scope for creative human will to reshape the past to serve this present purpose.
Says Nietzsche's Zarathustra, "All 'it was' is a fragment, a riddle, a dreadful accident—until the creative will says to it, 'But thus I willed it; thus shall I will it.'" "As creator, guesser of riddles, and redeemer of accidents," Zarathustra goes on to say, "I taught them to work on the future and to redeem with their creation all that has been . To redeem what is past in man and to recreate all 'it was' until the will says, 'Thus I willed it! Thus I shall will it'—this I called redemption." So in this mode Nietzschean affirmation entailed actively shaping all those accidental fragments back there, including even the meaning of past lives, so that they can be understood as leading to a willed present. This is the initial thrust of amor fati—Nietzsche's formula for affirming what I understand as necessary for my life and this moment to be as they are.
Since students of Nietzsche have been quick to accent the antihistorical side of his thinking, it bears special emphasis that amor fati refers not to some isolable level of the self as opposed to the larger "public" world of history. Thus Alexander Nehamas's influential reading, though superb in many respects, is one-sided in framing Nietzsche's point as self-creation/discovery, based on encounter with one's own past, conceived in isolation. Nehamas's account does not do justice to Nietzsche's sense that the distinction between self and history has broken down. As the passages quoted above make clear, individual actions are for keeps, immortal, bound up with the shaping or resulting of the public, historical world, not just a distinguishable self. Conversely, any individual is but a piece of that totality, with its finitude and fatality. Thus what is to be shaped and affirmed is not simply a personal past but a particular totality, the world resulting from history.
Because everything is bound up together, Nietzsche noted repeatedly, I cannot condemn anything without condemning everything; in the same way, affirmation of any single moment entails affirmation of all of existence. So amor fati is not just a matter of not wanting anything about myself to be different; because my life is bound up with this totality, the whole capricious history has been necessary for my personal experience to be as it is. What is to be affirmed is the whole interlocking chain of "accidents" necessary for this particular world to be as it is. Nietzsche envisioned not merely some generic affirmation
of "life" but affirmation of this life, recognizing what the this-ness involves—and has involved.
The past weighs so heavily because the fragments from back there come to us already shaped; a historical interpretation we have not chosen, and that we nonetheless take to be definitive, initially surrounds our present experience. We take it as "true," so we are not even aware it is nothing but a historical interpretation—even a reinterpretation. For Nietzsche, however, it could be taken for granted that any historical account has been constructed—contingently, even arbitrarily—as part of the resulting of the particular world. Certain reinterpretations have proven powerful enough to win out and structure the world as it has become so far. To understand the world as nothing but history is to grasp the scope for deconstructing and redoing the account we have inherited, for giving the past new meaning in light of our ways of living the present. So to dissolve the weight of "it was," we must at once inquire into the past and self-consciously deconstruct the oppressive account we have inherited.
If what lies back there is nothing but a jerry-built history, historical questioning expands and deepens, cutting all the way to the bottomless bottom. By unearthing buried layers, showing up layer after layer as merely historical and contingent, we disassemble the unchosen past into "fragments," bits and pieces that we can then reassemble as we choose, in light of the way we choose to be at present.
In a Nietzschean mode, we understand that such deconstruction leads to nothing more than a redescription. As a historical inquirer, I am not establishing the truth once and for all but simply showing up some present understanding as itself historical and replacing it with one of my own. My way of framing my inquiry and shaping its results stems from my particular purposes, my particular will to power, which entails the "imposition of one's own forms." The becoming of the particular world continues as what it has become, so far, is subjected to such ongoing reinterpretation, stemming from the will to power that resides in individuals.
For all Nietzsche's emphasis on fictions and lies, however, what I need to dissolve the weight of the past is a true account of the becoming of this particular world. Nietzschean will to power entails an attempt to stamp one's particular rue interpretation on the world. Even though my particular redescription stems from my creative will, and even though no account is definitive or complete, I cannot say just anything about the past if I am to find redemption. I must genuinely confront the particular way "it was," including the particular way the past has come to weigh on me through our inherited historical account; otherwise, the scope for dissolving the weight of the past is lost. Despite Nietzsche's
assault on the "will to truth" and his emphasis on creative fictions, willful lying or fancy affords no redemption. And we do know the difference. Try it.
But though some of Nietzsche's accents presuppose a weak, radically historicist conception of truth, he was not in a position to explore the scope for such a dimension in a postmetaphysical culture. Preoccupied as he was with the assault on metaphysical truth, he did not make the distinctions necessary to explain what such a weaker truth might entail, why we can come up with it, how it stems from will yet differs from willful fiction or fantasy.
What Nietzsche did, however, was to carry out such radical historical questioning himself, especially in On the Genealogy of Morals , which seeks to understand how we in the West have become as we are, with our particular moral categories and the hangups that have resulted from them. In his own contingent way, he sought genuinely to understand the particular historical reality that has resulted from those buried contingencies. He focused on dimensions of the Western tradition that genuinely troubled him, that had real consequences for his life. And it was crucial that he come up with an account he could genuinely believe in, could take to be true. So his account was deeply serious, not fanciful or playful.
Such historical questioning is central to Beyond Good and Evil as well. In an important sense, in fact, Nietzsche's whole enterprise was an effort of historical excavation to dissolve the weight of "it was," the particular tradition that had imposed this particular mode of being on him—and us. And with the cultural reconstitution that has accompanied the eclipse of metaphysics, Nietzschean genealogy has seemed ever more central as an approach to the world as historical. It frees human creativity by showing the historical contingency of what had come to seem suprahistorical and natural.
Nietzsche's first way of positing redemption from the weight of "it was" thus entailed an active and apparently ongoing engagement with history, including a premium on historical questioning to serve creative world-making. But somehow this loosely historicist response elicited troubling concerns about responsibility and guilt, judgment and punishment. So Nietzsche's accents changed as his confrontation with the world as historical deepened.
What Nietzsche began to envision has proven extraordinarily difficult to characterize because he was explicitly seeking to avoid the customary dualisms of freedom-determinism, active-passive, and innovation-repetition. Willed creative response remained, but it was to be experienced and understood—in relation to the totality of things—in a new way. Nietzsche sought to make history, which had seemed to demand our endless active engagement, go limp, so that individuals would come to experience themselves as a piece of fate, flowing with the totality. This response may be characterized as posthistoricist because it presupposes the reduction to a merely particular history yet seeks to avoid the experience that Nietzsche's initial, generally historicist response seemed to entail. It was with his second response that Nietzsche reached the obscure
categories of his maturity—eternal recurrence and the innocence of becoming, which gave a deeper meaning to amor fati.
Affirming the Particular Totality
Somehow even affirmation of the whole past was not enough for redemption, so Nietzsche pushed on to formulate a more radical form of affirmation, adding eternal recurrence to amor fati, thereby expanding what is to be affirmed and altering the relationship between the individual and the totality. With the addition of eternal recurrence, the future as well as the past is drawn into the present moment, and the world to be affirmed becomes the finite totality of a closed system. As a result, we no longer feel ourselves to be making the future as we act in our particular ways. But why did Nietzsche find it so important to draw the future into the finite totality? What did he find troubling about the historicist tension of his first response?
We saw that redemption, with the first formulation of amor fati, entails recasting the capricious accidents of the past into products of one's own will. But this suggested that the work of redeeming the past is never finished, because more dreadful accident is at work in the process whereby each moment becomes the next. To experience the world in this way thus seemed to yield an imperative of ongoing action, a restless effort to keep creating, from the fragments of the past, a situation that I can fully affirm. Moreover, we noted that Nietzsche's emphasis on interconnectedness means that everything we do has history-making implications. There is nothing but the horizontal, endlessly provisional world of human redescription and response. Under these conditions, I might feel a heightened sense of responsibility for what I do, including my ways of shaping the past, and even feel myself subject to judgment for how well I do it. Orientation to the future breeds uncertainty, guilt. I have never quite done enough; even insofar as I forge a new situation from the dreadful accident of the past, the moment constantly slips away from me.
To achieve redemption, then, it could not be sufficient merely to redescribe the past in the process of affirming the present, in the way that Nehamas has emphasized. It is not enough that I experience every present moment as the culmination and justification for all that has ever been. Redemption requires that I experience every present moment as complete, so that there is nothing else that needs to be done. At every moment, I must feel such reconciliation with the whole that there is no scope for, no need for, future-oriented projects to further change the meaning of the past, now to include the moment just completed. Thus the future must be drawn into the present moment that I affirm.
But what must the world be like, or what world would we have to posit, for this to be possible?
Nietzsche introduced eternal recurrence, or eternal return, in August 1881 in a famous passage in The Gay Science , after hinting at it earlier in the same volume.
The Greatest Weight. —What if some day or night a demon were to steal after you in 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?
Nietzsche found this notion novel, prophetic, exhilarating; he consistently portrayed it as the highest possible formulation of affirmation—and as the core of his mature thinking. Yet the category has bedeviled commentators. Some find it a cosmological principle, others a mode of selfhood. Allan Megill suggests that it makes no significant sense at all. Yet it was clearly a way of confronting the world as a total history, and it needs to be understood in terms of the reduction to history at issue for us in this study.
Most commentators agree that eternal recurrence is not to be taken as a literal cosmological principle, involving the actual recurrence of everything, even though this might seem to follow if we posit the infinity of time and the finitude of matter/energy. As Nehamas has argued, what matters is the notion's psychological significance, its implications for individual experience. Nietzsche envisioned a new approach to life, lived as if eternal recurrence were the case. He valued the mode of life that could grasp and desire eternal recurrence, not
the dubious cosmology that would underpin it. Nor does Nietzsche's use of eternal recurrence require any such cosmology.
But though it is not a cosmological principle, eternal recurrence is a conception of the totality of things. And Nehamas, in concluding that "the eternal recurrence is not a theory of the world but a view of the self," concentrates excessively on the level of personal experience and individual psychology at the expense of that sense of totality. It is crucial that the sense of self that Nehamas associates with eternal recurrence was the outcome of several steps, starting with Nietzsche's early experience of history as a particularizing totality. Indeed, Nietzsche's archetypal experience of nothing but history gives point to the idea of eternal recurrence and explains his insistence on its decisive importance. In fastening on the notion, Nietzsche was responding, most immediately, to the preoccupations that came to the fore with his generally historicist response.
In one of his unpublished fragments, Nietzsche suggested that all possible combinations are tried out, and some commentators have understood eternal recurrence in these terms, wondering what the point is, what difference it could make. Read this way, the notion would take all the sting out of "it was." But even in this passage, Nietzsche concludes that the world is "a circular movement of absolutely identical series." What matters is the particularity of the sequence, in which the combination at each moment affects all subsequent moments. And elsewhere Nietzsche insists explicitly that the world lacks the capacity for infinite transformations. Thus, as Ivan Soll has emphasized, eternal recurrence cannot mean that all possible combinations are realized; rather, what is ultimately at issue is one eternally recurring series. Nietzsche's emphasis was on the eternal recurrence of the same , as opposed to the other, or the whole array of possibilities. What matters is the this -ness, the particularity.
The sequence, in other words, is a particular way, and there is a sense in which the world, though endlessly becoming, is complete as a finite particular.
Eternal recurrence means, most obviously, that history has no goal or end. So not only are we to do without God and a transcendent heaven; there is also no prospect of the completion and deliverance that Hegel and Marx imagined. Nietzsche even took a second step and warned against placing too much stock in the discovery that there is no goal; it is too easy to infer that the newly discovered aimlessness of the world has been intended, that mechanisms have been set up to prevent the world from reaching a goal or final state of "being." The discovery of no goal might even be taken to have been the goal.
We might assume at first that in precluding any sort of goal, Nietzsche wanted both to expose the "weakness" that requires such illusions and to buttress human creativity at every moment. But in fastening on eternal recurrence, he was seeking to preclude novelty and creativity, in order to make the world—this particular world—a closed system. His shrill denial of novelty and creativity seems curious at first because it is hard to square with some of his other emphases. When attacking metaphysics and ideals of suprahistorical truth, he consistently held that human beings create a world, as opposed to discovering a world already there, and this emphasis can be found even in his later works. The reduction to history, with the corollary that "I myself am fate and have conditioned existence for all eternity," seems to entail precisely the novelty and creativity that Nietzsche sometimes took pains to deny.
At the same time, however, Nietzsche had long sought to play down individual agency and human creativity in some of his passages. In Human, All Too Human , for example, he insisted that the most valuable creations just happen, ultimately as part of the circular fatality of the world, requiring no anxiety about agency or creativity on the part of human beings. He increasingly found it necessary to fight the idea of the world as created, even the very idea of creation. In The Gay Science , he warned that even after the death of God, various shadows of God remain, lurking especially in our notions of novelty and creativity. Those shadows will "cease to darken our minds" only when we have
managed fully to de-deify the world, so Nietzsche began explicitly denying novelty and creativity: "Let us beware of thinking that the world creates new things." In a note from 1885, he observed that "the world, even if it is no longer a god, is still supposed to be capable of the divine power of creation, the power of infinite transformations." We think this way partly by habit, but Nietzsche implied that "all those who would like to force on the world the ability for eternal novelty " were simply trying to assume the mantle of creator that had once belonged to God. Nietzsche even appealed to "the recently attained preponderance of the scientific spirit," which contrasts with the religious, god-inventing spirit, to buttress his vision of the world as a closed system, lacking the capacity for eternal novelty.
At first, Nietzsche's denial of both goal and novelty-creativity makes the human situation, and the world itself, as dismal as possible. Because there is nothing but this closed circle of dreadful accidents, he could say of the world in 1888, "It lives on itself: its excrements are its food." The world just is, is here, not in the old metaphysical and suprahistorical sense, but rather as the finite totality of a particular history. To feel the weight of this dismal fact is to face the nauseating particularity of the world that Nietzsche experienced, in a halting way, in "On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life." The mode of eternal recurrence intensifies the original experience of the collapse into history, initially making that experience even more appalling. Now we come to experience reality as, for all time, this way—this particular closed system and not some other. Moreover, just as the possibility of deliverance or fulfillment falls away, neither can there be nothingness or oblivion. We are confined to this particular horizontal world forever.
Although Nietzsche clearly thought in terms of a circle, an identical series, a weaker version of eternal recurrence helps dramatize his point. The future can hold no more than what can result from this moment, itself merely a particular resultant. Any possible future will thus embody this freakish present moment, which, in that sense, recurs forever. The thing is here forever, as a closed system—this particular closed system. Combining endlessness and completeness, cementing limitation and finitude, eternal recurrence completes the reduction to a particular history, making it as radical and thoroughgoing as possible.
Redemption lies in fully experiencing this reduction but then going on to a mode of life in which the nauseous experience of limitation dissipates. I must be able genuinely to say that I would not have it otherwise, in full knowledge of the sort of stuff that went into making his moment what it is, in full knowledge that it has had nothing but its own excrement to feed on. And I fully understand
that novelty is precluded, so this moment, excrement and all, recurs forever. To affirm this moment, I must be able to affirm the whole thing because I experience this moment—in all its appalling finitude—as the culmination of everything, past and future, because even the future has no more significance, holds no more for us, than to come back round to this. "My consolation," said Nietzsche, "is that everything that has been is eternal."
What is to be affirmed, then, is not simply the past that resulted in this present but the whole closed system of which this present moment is a necessary part. Only in the mode of eternal recurrence does the experience of amor fati become total. It goes without saying, however, that for Nietzsche, such affirmation of the whole contingent, particular world was only for certain hardy spirits; the weak would be unable even to fathom it.
The mode of completeness that Nietzsche posited differed radically from Hegel's precisely because Hegel's still-metaphysical apparatus had dissolved, leaving nothing but history. For Nietzsche, the present is a culmination, but a weak and recurring culmination, not the necessary end of a teleological process. Moreover, every moment is a culmination, each finite and particular, yet each a microcosm of all that ever has been and ever will be. At the same time, it is crucial that every moment is a culmination as opposed to a stepping-stone; thus every moment can be experienced as an end in itself. Nietzsche could thereby envision a world, a mode of living, "without goal, unless the joy of the circle is itself a goal." And he noted explicitly that to live in the mode of eternal recurrence is to make possible, even in this world of endless becoming, the completeness we once associated with stable being: "To impose upon becoming the character of being—that is the supreme will to power. . . . That everything recurs is the closest approximation of a world of becoming to a world of being :—high point of the meditation."
At the same time, Nietzschean completeness does not mean the "wholeness" that Hegel and others have sought to envision, as an antidote to our alleged, much lamented fragmentation and alienation. Nietzsche was seeking to grasp what redemption would mean when we have come to understand that we are not becoming whole or complete selves, that there is no such prior form for us to fill. What is required is not action on the world to add to it, to have more experiences, to develop one's self, but simply a new mode of experiencing what there already is. In a crucial sense, in fact, we are to be redeemed precisely from the assumption of inadequacy and incompleteness, from the gnawing sense that one can, one must, always do more to overcome the lack, in response to the fact that the particular episodes of our finite world have still not made us "whole" or "complete." The mode of affirmation that now
becomes possible means that we no longer experience the finitude and particularity of the world—and thus of ourselves—as a limitation.
In one sense, then, the accent on eternal recurrence, and the attendant denial of novelty and creativity, is simply to warrant full experience of the present moment—as entirely sufficient. But in concentrating everything into the present through a post-Hegelian kind of completeness, Nietzsche was quite explicitly responding to an experience that newly opened with the reduction to history—and that he found negative. The transcendent God had long seemed the creator of the world and the judge of human beings. With the death of that God, the idea of the world as created remained, but in the merely historical world, creation seemed to result from ongoing human activity. Having inherited or usurped God's creative attributes, we feel responsible for what the world becomes. Indeed, the endless openness of the merely historical world imposes a heightened sense of responsibility—a sense that entails anxiety and the possibility of guilt and judgment. In the mode of eternal recurrence, in contrast, there is nothing that needs to be done, so we are free not only from resentment of the past but also from the guilt that remained as a shadow across the world even with the eclipse of metaphysics.
The idea of eternal recurrence enabled Nietzsche to imagine a situation of playful innocence, the "innocence of becoming," a telling phrase that he used at several key points in his mature writings, most notably in a striking section of Twilight of the Idols : "Becoming has been deprived of its innocence when any being-such-and-such is traced back to will, to purposes, to acts of responsibility: the doctrine of the will has been invented essentially for the purpose of punishment, that is, because one wanted to impute guilt." "Today," Nietzsche continued, "we immoralists are trying with all our strength to take the concept of guilt and the concept of punishment out of the world again," most immediately in opposition to the theologians, who "infect the innocence of becoming by means of 'punishment' and 'guilt."' But how can our continuing experience of guilt and punishment be dissolved? What must we be able to say of the world if we are to feel innocence instead?
That no one gives man his qualities—neither God, nor society, nor his parents and ancestors, nor he himself. . . . No one is responsible for man's being there at all, for his being such-and-such, or for his being in these circumstances or in this environment. The fatality of his essence is not to be disentangled from the fatality of all that has been and will be. . . . One is necessary, one is a piece of fatefulness, one belongs to the whole, one is in the whole; there is nothing which could judge, measure, compare, or sentence our being, for that would mean judging, measuring, comparing, or sentencing the whole. But there is nothing besides the whole. That nobody is responsible any longer, that the mode of being may
not be traced back to a causa prima , that the world does not form a unity either as a sensorium or as "spirit"—that alone is the great liberation: with this alone is the innocence of becoming restored. The concept of "God" was until now the greatest objection to existence. We deny God, we deny the responsibility in God: only thereby do we redeem the world.
With everything already "here," we experience ourselves not as creating the world but as happening with the world. Thus Nietzsche's Zarathustra inveighs against "for"—purposiveness or instrumentality—in our experience of what we do: "Unlearn this 'for,' you creators! Your very virtue wants that you do nothing 'for' and 'in order' and 'because.' You shall plug up your ears against these false little words." The purposelessness of living in the mode of eternal recurrence undercuts the imperative to make a different future that would result from an experience of tension with the resultant of history so far. And with no scope for purposive agency, there is no scope for responsibility, guilt, or judgment.
Even in The Gay Science , Nietzsche linked the idea of purpose with the notion of accident in a way that foreshadowed his mature vision of redemption: "Once you know that there are no purposes, you also know that there is no accident; for it is only beside a world of purposes that the word 'accident' has meaning." As purposiveness drops out, then, the mechanisms through which some particular world comes to be in history no longer seem appalling and oppressive; I no longer experience the happening of the world as "dreadful accident." I can thus affirm and feel one with the whole.
In the mode of eternal recurrence, "becoming" of course continues, but we simply happen with the circular event of the world, feeling ourselves "eternal" as we do. And though action continues as well, it comes to be experienced as innocent play, even dance, as opposed to responsible, purposive, history-making creation. Thus Nietzsche's reference to "'play,' the useless—as the ideal of him who is overfull of strength, as 'childlike.'"
Especially in his late work The Antichrist , Nietzsche explored what it would mean to feel eternal in a merely historical world. Relishing the paradoxical twist of his argument, Nietzsche insisted that "heaven" is no longer something to come but a mode of present living and acting for every moment. And Jesus had exemplified the glad tidings by living in "the kingdom" of this mode; in experiencing each moment as eternal and complete, he had been the terrestrial embodiment of redemption, not merely the promise of a redemption to come. Redemption is now; heaven is here.
The experience Nietzsche envisioned in The Antichrist entails something like responsibility, but not for history. The only responsibility is of the higher types for value, by being or living in a life-affirming way. They are responsible not for doing anything in particular, through history-making action, but for being in a certain way, for living and experiencing in a certain way. Doing will follow, but it will be innocent, because, again, with every moment a culmination, there is nothing more that needs to be done.
Nietzsche's mature categories enabled him to posit a world in which, despite the reduction to history, we do not experience our actions as "making history," as helping to create the world, to determine what it becomes. As action becomes a kind of innocent play, the sense of weight, responsibility, and endless tension with the world dissipates. Even though I "have conditioned existence for all eternity," I am simply a necessary part of the whole fatality that is in a crucial sense already complete.
In the same way, there is no premium on knowing any particular chunk of history to help us respond to the present in a purposive way, in the mode of "making history." If I affirm all that has happened, I feel no call to ask about, or to deconstruct, any particular part of it. I can simply play with the relics of the past as I dance with the happening of the world.
It is crucial, however, that even in this final phase Nietzsche was not proposing that we simply ignore the world as history, turning from it to concentrate on present living as an end in itself. At each moment, I fully understand all that it means for reality to be historical, all that it means for this world to be as it is. Yet what matters to me is not my involvement in the ongoing history but my affirmative experience of the eternal present. As the world flattens into nothing but history, redemption requires a "posthistoricist" mode of experience that resists and transcends the totalizing historicism that first seemed to follow from the eclipse of metaphysics and that portended the anxious responsibility, guilt, and judgment that Nietzsche feared.
Nietzsche's Triple Legacy
The deepest thrust of Nietzsche's thinking does indeed prove ahistorical or antihistorical in implication—but not because he turned from nineteenth-century modes of historical-mindedness to emphasize self-creation. Rather, his mature strategy stemmed from a sustained effort to come to terms with the new, more all-embracing experience of the world as historical that imposed itself with the waning of metaphysics. Without this experience of the reduction to history, and the attendant sense of belonging to this particular finite totality,
categories like amor fati, eternal recurrence, and the innocence of becoming would hardly be meaningful at all. Yet Nietzsche kept coming back to these themes, almost obsessively.
No doubt the preoccupations that led Nietzsche to them reflected his particular biographical circumstances. His father was a Protestant pastor who died when Nietzsche was only five years old. Nietzsche was under intense family pressure to follow his father into the ministry, yet he lost his faith altogether in his teens. Thus, to some extent, surely, his concern with responsibility, guilt, and innocence. But the point is not to reduce Nietzsche's thought to the accidents of biography. Such biographical idiosyncrasies meant simply that Nietzsche felt with a particular intensity a new set of preoccupations that were coming more widely to the fore. Thus his response has proven archetypal.
At the same time, however, we have seen that Nietzsche's quest for posthistoricist innocence was the last of several ways he responded to the collapse into history. And what he bequeathed to the subsequent effort to specify the terms of a postmetaphysical culture has proven a contradictory, tripartite legacy. His initial aestheticist response, accenting fictional redescription, has contributed to the tendency to blur the distinction between history and fiction. Because there is no final, determinate way the world is, the world comes to seem a fictional text subject to endless reinterpretation stemming from the creative will that resides in individuals.
But even as he emphasized fictions, Nietzsche fastened on the other side of the coin as well: the connectedness of things meant that some particular world endlessly results from the concatenation of individual response. And he showed why we might seek to know—truly know—the world that has resulted from our particular lies and fictions as we respond to it with new creative fictions of our own. In this sense, Nietzsche worked beyond aestheticism to his second, radically historicist response, which accents the scope for deconstructing that world through genealogy, a form of historical inquiry that serves ongoing action. By showing that all our ways of being are subject to such genealogical inquiry, he radically expanded the focus—and potential import—of historical inquiry.
But it is equally important that Nietzsche did not stop with this radical historicism but pushed on to a third strategy, centering on the quest for innocence. Although the resulting orientation was extreme, this quest was plausible, and it initiated an ongoing concern with individual experience in the face of an intrusive, suffocating history. A purely historical world has seemed to offer new scope for play, dance, laughter, and self-creation, and exploration of such possibilities has proven essential to the ongoing mapping of the postmetaphysical terrain.
Distinguishing the aestheticist, historicist, and posthistoricist directions in Nietzsche's thought enables us not only better to grasp the thrust of each but
also to box out the blurring and overreaction that his legacy has also occasioned. Yet the distinctions are difficult because the three strands coexisted in Nietzsche's mature thinking and because they have gotten further intertwined as the Nietzschean legacy has been disseminated.
Nietzsche's quest for innocence was one response to the new experience of nothing but history, but Croce and Heidegger moved in very different directions in response to much the same new sense of the world.