The Gay Science?

The Greatest Weight

AS A DIGITAL SELF-HELP GURU, NIETZSCHE IS A BIT OF A bummer. He thunders against the safe and easy life. He advocates information restriction and the power of forgetting. He calls for the skillful exertion of our bodies against the world, even when we’d rather put our feet up on the coffee table and eat a pot of mac and cheese while watching cat videos on YouTube.

But just wait until you peer into the hellmouth of the “eternal return.” It is one of Nietzsche’s most famous and strangest and heaviest ideas. Which is saying something, coming from a guy who advocates suicide so that each of us can die on our own terms. The best-known version of eternal return appears in The Gay Science, book 4, section 341, as an aphoristic little story called—appropriately—“The greatest weight.”

What if one day or night a demon came to you in your most solitary solitude and said to you: “This life, as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live again, and innumerable times again, and there will be nothing new in it; but rather every pain and joy, every thought and sigh, and all the unutterably trivial or great things in your life will have to happen to you again, with everything in the same series and sequence. . . . The eternal hourglass of existence will be turned over again and again, and you with it, you speck of dust!”

Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke to you thus? Or was there one time when you experienced a tremendous moment in which you would answer him: “You are a god, and I have never heard anything so divine!” If that thought took hold of you as you are, it would transform you and perhaps crush you; the question with regard to each and every thing, “Do you want this again, innumerable times again?” would weigh upon your actions with the greatest weight! Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life, that you might long for nothing more than this final eternal confirmation and seal?

The idea is based on the conjecture that there are a limited number of states in the Universe; the number may be incomprehensibly large, but it remains finite. If the Universe itself is of infinite duration, however—as Nietzsche seemed to think it might be—every arrangement of matter and energy could eventually occur again. And again.

In his notebooks, Nietzsche tried to work out scenarios in which science might support the “eternal return” of all things. Scholars today argue about whether he believed in eternal recurrence as a physical reality, but I don’t find the question all that interesting. Whether he did or not, in his published works the idea operates as a thought experiment designed to make us look carefully at our own lives. In that sense it continues to have value today.

We often have fantasies of returning to some younger age. If only I knew then what I know now! The fantasies always imagine how much sharper our decisions, how much higher our self-confidence, how much better our hairstyles would be.

Nietzsche says “No!” to this habit of mind. We must accept and integrate the events of our lives even when they are not ideal; this is Amor Fati 101. This is difficult enough, but the idea of eternal return makes such acceptance so much harder. Not only do we have to accept our life, with all its imperfections and limits, once—we have to accept the same life an infinite number of times. Is the way I will spend my time today, this week, this year bearable were it to repeat forever? Can I truly say the ultimate Yes to every single action I am about to take?

If this sounds paralyzing, Nietzsche understands. What life could measure up? How could we make even the smallest of decisions with this as the standard? The eternal recurrence lies upon us like a tombstone slab. It is “the greatest weight.” And it can crush us.

Yet it can only crush us as we are, and Nietzsche has little interest in what we are; he wants to see what we can become. As we’ve seen, the self-overcomer, the transformed human, the übermensch becomes “well disposed” toward existence—and thus can embrace even the eternal recurrence.

Most of the time, I’m in the “throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke to you thus” camp when it comes to eternal return. The sheer cognitive load sounds exhausting. Trying to decide, each time I eat a bowl of chocolate ice cream, if this is an event I can accept an infinite number of times gives me a pain, which I alleviate by eating more chocolate ice cream.

But the “eternal return” remains a powerful—if occasional—positive stimulus. How easily we sink into the hot tubs of our lives and relax there for far longer than the posted 15-minute limit. Asking ourselves whether the lives we lead are lives we are proud of, whether they are lives in which we are growing into richer and deeper humanity, is a crucial question. It’s the one Nietzsche poses to us here.

“Do you want this again and innumerable times again?” whispers the demon. Some of us, should we cultivate the mental space required to hear our most solitary solitude, might answer: “No.” We have given too much power—too much time—to our screens, and it is hard to will the eternal return of the “last man.”

This book describes a Nietzschean alternative. But here, as we near the end of our contemplation, one thing needs to be faced: Change is going to hurt.

The Cure and the Disease

“Where are the new physicians of the soul?” Nietzsche asks in aphorism 52 of Daybreak.

He is looking back over the history of human need: our need for meaning, for transcendental purpose, for an explanation of suffering. He sees these longings as a collective sickness that we have battled for millennia. Animals appear free from it, yet we suffer mightily. The medicine we have used against this sickness varied widely: religion, philosophy, even the modern distractions of industrial consumerism or overwork. But these medicines, in Nietzsche’s view, too often encouraged us to seek “another world” in heaven, in Platonic Forms, in Socratic reason, in hedonism, in distraction. In different ways, the cures dealt with our hunger for meaning by pulling us away from the full reality of our place in this world—a risky place that we inhabit as embodied creatures with evolved emotions and instincts, but one where we can still overcome ourselves and advance the range of human possibilities. Such cures may actually make us more ill once their effectiveness wanes.

The worst disease of mankind has arisen from the struggle against diseases, and apparent remedies have in the long run brought about worse conditions than those which it was intended to remove by their use.

Men, in their ignorance, used to believe that the stupefying and intoxicating means, which appeared to act immediately, the so-called “consolations,” were the true healing powers: they even failed to observe that they had often to pay for their immediate relief by a general and profound deterioration in health, that the sick ones had to suffer from the after-effects of the intoxication, then from the absence of the intoxication, and, later on, from a feeling of disquietude, depression, nervous starts, and ill-health.

Again, men whose illness had advanced to a certain extent never recovered from it.

The obsession with which we use our digital devices—their omnipresence in so many waking lives—suggests that they are more than merely entertaining. Some deeply felt need is being met or perhaps avoided. We clearly see our devices as a remedy—for something.

Yet our “cure” often looks like acute dependency. Intoxicated and then anesthetized by screens, we depend on them to provide everything from friendship to sex to entertainment. Still, large numbers of people express at least vague dissatisfaction with lives mediated so heavily by screens. In the quiet of our “loneliest loneliness,” a life dependent on screens may feel too thin, like the ice on a frozen lake over which we have skated out quite a ways. Will it hold us? Then we look at all the other skaters on the ice, and we doubt our initial concern. Everyone seems to be having such a grand time. Perhaps if we just glide a little closer to shore, where the ice is thicker, we can keep skating as before.

Maybe we can. But Nietzsche’s final challenge to us asks whether a thorough re-fashioning of the self can be accomplished with only gentle tweaking around the edges.

Nietzsche got irritated about many things, from having to buy silk underwear for Wagner (really) to the number of thunderstorms that rumbled over Sils Maria in the summer. But his greatest source of agitation was the German culture he had left behind. In his view, Germany wanted to keep its traditional practices and habits of mind while abandoning the beliefs that had produced them in the first place. But this is no good. Old consolations and enjoyments must be surrendered; you can’t simply smuggle them into a new paradigm.

The digital paradigm active in many wealthy societies today stresses:

• constant entertainment

• physical safety

• control

• continual and worldwide connection with others

• unlimited information

• “another world” rather than my local, physical world

• mental stimulation over physical activity

If we become skeptical of where this paradigm has taken us, then our actions should reflect our changed beliefs. In some facets of our digital lives, moderation and sensible limits may be enough; that is, dialing back our screen usage by 30 percent and picking up the guitar might offer enough change to satisfy. But there might be other areas in which even moderated behavior still feels unhelpful—social media has been an area of common complaint, as have streaming video services. Perhaps podcasts take too much of your time; perhaps you read far too much online news about events and ideas that don’t really affect you. Some of these may demand renunciation.

Nietzsche recognized that such a life might not offer everything, but he thought it could offer enough. People too often let themselves be used by technology and by its creators: used not as human beings but “as the screws of a machine and the stopgaps, as it were, of the human spirit of invention.” This happens in part because people feel that they always need more money—and they need more money because they have “accustomed themselves to many wants.” But freedom can be found if we can “unlearn some of these wants!” To retain our independence from the world of the machine, we must rediscover “a philosophy in rags” and “the freedom of spirit of a man who has few needs.”

Rags and relinquishment. Whatever criticisms we might make of Nietzsche, he lived what he wrote. He gave up the bourgeois trappings of success. He walked away from his university chair. He lived modestly on a small pension, he never owned a home, he had almost no property. His books were his only children—and no one read them while he was sane enough to care. But living as he did allowed him to exercise his deep convictions about a life oriented to creative thought rather than to financial “productivity.”

I am not excited about the idea of wearing rags, even metaphorically, but Nietzsche is right not to let us off too easily with inspiring slogans and incremental tweaks. If we seek real treatment from new physicians of the soul, it can’t all be painless.

The Lightest Feet

How crushing all this can sound— the eternal return, our “most solitary solitude,” fasting, renunciation, the new physicians of the soul. To return for a moment to our metaphor of nutrition, is life itself nothing but kale and wheatgrass?

Nietzsche can be hyperbolic to make a point, and he is widely seen as a dour thinker whose painful life ended in madness. But Nietzsche was fundamentally convinced that joy was possible through a great Yes-saying to life. One cannot run away into other worlds, no matter how compelling such distractions may be, but to live in this world is not meant to be a burden. When he speaks of well-lived human lives, Nietzsche speaks often of dancing, laughter, and play.

“I know of no other way of dealing with great tasks than that of play,” he writes in Ecce Homo. “This is, as a sign of greatness, an essential precondition. The slightest constraint, the gloomy mien, any kind of harsh note in the throat are all objections to a man, how much more to his work!”

This attitude was not a product of his incipient madness; one sees it everywhere in his mature work. In his Zarathustra days, Nietzsche says he can “only believe in a God that would know how to dance. And when I saw my devil, I found him serious, thorough, profound, solemn: he was the spirit of gravity—through him all things fall.” What is true of gods goes also for men. “All good things laugh,” Nietzsche says. “The gait betrays whether one is truly striding along one’s own path: so watch me walking! But whoever is approaching his goal—dances.”

This is why Nietzsche named one of his books The Gay Science (sometimes translated as The Joyful Wisdom or The Joyous Science). He found a way out of his personal crisis after leaving his Basel professorship, and it was, despite all his sufferings, a way of joy—a way of Yes.

We can look to his personal life, however, to see that the real Nietzsche was much less rigid than the authorial voice of his books.

Take information overload. Nietzsche clearly delights in tweaking his former university colleagues with comments on how he avoids books, how he only rereads eight authors, and how reading prevents him from hearing his own voice. He certainly believed these things as general principles, yet he in fact read widely—and he did not limit himself to his small personal canon. This was how he discovered one of his favorite authors, the French writer Stendhal, who was discovered through sheer serendipity. “Stendhal is one of the happiest accidents of my life,” Nietzsche says, “for everything that marks an epoch in it has been brought to me by accident and never by means of a recommendation.” Nietzsche was not just about restriction and rereading; he had an openness to happenstance and luck.

Or consider his diatribes against sitting still. In reality, Nietzsche spent much of his time in a chair or on a bed, whether due to illness or simply to his love of conversation—when he could get it. On a visit to one of his few good friends, the church history professor Franz Overbeck in Basel, Overbeck’s wife says that Nietzsche would often drop by for “hours” at a time. He would eat nothing but “lightly brewed tea and a few English cakes,” and he would sit “on the sofa in my husband’s study or on a certain armchair in the living room, with his back to the white stove, looking at my husband, who sat opposite him, or at the dark curtain.”

Like Jesus, who told his followers to pluck out their eyes if those eyes led them astray, Nietzsche was a hyperbolist. His parables and aphorisms demand a response from readers, stir them up, provoke—but his attacks on old orthodoxies should not be read as new rigidities.

As we try new things, Nietzsche says, “we are always finally recompensed for our good-will, our patience, reasonableness and gentleness towards what is unfamiliar, by the unfamiliar slowly throwing off its veil and presenting itself to us as a new, ineffable beauty. That is its thanks for our hospitality. He also who loves himself must have learned it in this way; there is no other way. Love also has to be learned.”

Joy, dancing, laughter, goodwill, patience, play, and beauty. Nietzsche is not, in the end, a downer, and the things he wants from life are surprisingly upbeat. But before we close, there is one serious limit to his thought: Nietzsche was dancing and laughing and playing alone.

Forever Alone

Nietzsche’s father, Pastor Carl Ludwig Nietzsche, died in 1849. Friedrich was only 5 at the time, and his life became a cloistered one among a mother, a sister, and several live-in aunts. Later in life, he would write blistering letters to his mother and sister, at one point cutting off contact with them completely. He felt sick whenever they nagged at him or asked too many questions; he tried hard to shake free of their influence.

This need to pull away from others marks his whole life. In Ecce Homo, Nietzsche notes how far back in his biography it goes. “At an absurdly tender age,” he writes, “in fact when I was seven years old, I already knew that no human speech would ever reach me: did any one ever see me sad on that account?”

As with many statements that Nietzsche makes about his own feelings, this last one is impossible to take at face value. In his private letters, Nietzsche refers to himself as “the hermit of Sils-Maria” and complains repeatedly about the pain of isolation.

In 1876, when his friend Erwin Rohde got engaged, Nietzsche wrote about marriage. “Things are different with me, heaven knows, or, perhaps, does not know,” he says. “To me all this does not seem so necessary,—except on rare days.”

Those “rare days” were not all that rare; Nietzsche talks several times about suicidal feelings, including after his estrangement from the woman he loved most passionately, Lou Salomé. In 1882, after she ran off with one of Nietzsche’s friends, Nietzsche wrote the pair of them an extremely pathetic letter.

“Even if I should, by chance, yielding to some impulse or other, take my life, there would not be too much to be sad over,” he says. “Ponder on this very carefully that, in the last analysis, I am touched in the head, half ready to be confined to the lunatic asylum, totally confused by my long loneliness.” He took a tremendous dose of opium “out of despair.”

Ida Overbeck, the wife of Nietzsche’s friend Franz, saw Nietzsche shortly after the breakup, when he returned to Basel to lick his wounds. “So then I really am going into complete solitude,” Nietzsche told her when he left. He did not say it with relish.

And in 1884, when Rohde sent him a picture of his young daughter, Nietzsche replied with a note about his own lack of connections. “Oh, my friend,” he said, “what a frantic reticent life I am living! So alone, so very much alone! So without ‘children!’ ”

This isolation illuminates a key feature of his philosophy: an anger against others that leads to a disdain for society, for place, for rootedness. His philosophy of restless adventure comes, in part, from a place of pain. In 1885, Nietzsche told his mother and sister that he might visit them—but only if the meeting was not in his childhood home of Naumburg. The place “does not agree with me and has not a thing that finds response in my heart,” he wrote. “I was not ‘born’ there and never felt as if I were at ‘home’ there.”

In Human, All Too Human, Nietzsche erupts at the powerful internal awakening that comes when one turns one’s back on “home.”

“Better to die than live here,” so sounds the imperious and seductive voice. And this “here,” this “at home” is everything which it had loved until then! A sudden horror and suspicion of that which it loved; a lightning flash of contempt toward that which was its “obligation”; a rebellious, despotic, volcanically jolting desire to roam abroad, to become alienated, cool, sober, icy: a hatred of love, perhaps a desecratory reaching and glancing backward, to where it had until then worshiped and loved; perhaps a blush of shame at its most recent act, and at the same time, jubilation that it was done . . .

Nietzsche could not feel himself part of a community. All he could see was how such things hold us back. “Who today still feels a serious obligation to bind himself and his descendants to one place?” he asks, foreshadowing his own restless wandering about Europe. But Ida Overbeck saw the pain behind this imagery of strength with her insightful comment: “Nietzsche hated the normal person because he could not be one.”

Nietzsche writes like a man running away from something. As much as he wanted to say Yes to the world, he never found a people among whom he could be fully comfortable. In the end, he retreated into solitude—alone with his writing, where he could conjure up the world he wanted in place of the world as it was.

In the opening passages of Human, All Too Human, Nietzsche admits this; the “free spirits” of which he writes do not in fact exist, he says; he has been forced to invent them because of the friends he lacks.

Nietzsche’s visions are profound, but they skew individualistic and libertarian. They skew toward solitude. They skew, in an odd way, toward control. To follow wholly in Nietzsche’s footsteps would re-create some of the problems we see in our current technological moment: the danger of solipsism, alone with the tools we control, connecting to people more through words than through personal presence.

“Technology is seductive when what it offers meets our human vulnerabilities,” writes Sherry Turkle in Alone Together. “And as it turns out, we are very vulnerable indeed. We’re lonely but fearful of intimacy. Digital connections and the sociable robot may offer the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. Our networked life allows us to hide from each other, even as we are tethered to each other.”

Life online can take us anywhere. We can meet anyone; we can become anyone. This ability to remake ourselves can be especially valuable to marginalized or isolated people, but only if we find new communities with which to engage. We don’t always do this, though. Confronted with the uncomfortable, we can “ghost” friends and lovers, we can delete emails, we can click away to the next forum, the next chat room, the next Tinder match. Like Nietzsche, we may even celebrate our “freedom.” But “when people talk about the pleasures of these weak-tie relationships as ‘friction free,’ ” Turkle writes, “they are usually referring to the kind of relationship you can have without leaving your desk.”

The “herd” of humanity can cause us great suffering, as it did in the “chain sickness” Nietzsche felt when bound to his mother and sister. But creative risk-taking means continuing the search for a community of wholeness and health. Nietzsche couldn’t find it, and he seems to have given up on the idea. In a world driven mad by loneliness and isolation, we must not.

We noted in the first chapter that Nietzsche is worth thinking with—but not always worth rigid devotion. Seeing him alone up there on the “heights,” gazing down with contempt on the herd in the valley, we might feel a touch of compassion for the lonely dancer of the snows.

Nietzsche would have hated this—but he would have supported our right to critique him. As Nietzsche scholar Richard Schact notes in his introduction to Human, All Too Human, “Distinguishing between genuine insights and personal preferences, prejudices, over-generalizations, irresistible puns and other such inspirations is not easy. . . . But by precept and example [Nietzsche] invites us to subject him to the same sort of scrutiny to which he subjects others; and that is something many will want to do.”

Nietzsche himself said something similar in an 1878 letter: “Followers I do not want. May each man, or woman, be only his, or her, true disciple!”

In my view, the most productive way to read Nietzsche is Nietzschean. That is, we can accept many of his goals, such as creative self-overcoming, the restriction of other voices, and the need to engage the physical world with the body. I find Nietzsche both provocative and persuasive on these matters.

But if Nietzsche could see what many of us can’t, perhaps we can see something Nietzsche couldn’t: These goals are often accomplished in community. I could not live a life of creative struggle if I was cut off from my family and my children, my friends and my church, my culture and my country. Who would I be struggling for? Myself alone? My fellow solitary genius übermenschen? What a depressing thought.

Nietzsche correctly diagnosed the need for joy in an industrializing world, where life and work felt commoditized and flattened. He demanded something more human. He called us to “become who we are” and to say Yes to life. But his will to power wasn’t balanced by a will to love—which provides fuel for the healthiest kind of risk-taking.

Screens can too easily swallow our lives. They disrupt our local experiences tens or even hundreds of times per day. They pour information out in such quantities that we spend our working lives touching and tapping—and our resting evenings sitting and staring.

We will never extricate ourselves by simply saying No. Our screens are too useful for that. What we need to tame their overreach is a better Yes, and that Yes will involve the joy and the love found in intimate connections. Sex and friendship, shared meals and sweaty softball leagues, board games and beers, fishing with friends and family road trips—in remaking our lives, we would do well to remember the community that Nietzsche forgot.

The Eye of the Tiger

One step at a time, I walked away from that life which had become too small for me. I am still walking. Whether I will ever “arrive” feels less important than embracing the becoming-ness. It is a lesson that Nietzsche taught but which I have followed in my own way. He would most certainly not approve of my path, but he might appreciate the journey.

Nietzsche pushes us toward a goal-driven life of creative excellence, the use of attention to foster deep wisdom rather than superficial “knowledge,” and embodied life at play in the world. All this is to be done with the light touch of joy, not the great weight of duty.

Nothing said in this book should be construed as “against technology.” We cannot go back to some mythically wonderful pre-technological age, but we cannot go on as we have, either. As Nietzsche put it in a quote we saw in the first chapter:

We are faltering, but we must not let it make us afraid and perhaps surrender the new things we have gained. Moreover, we cannot return to the old, we have burned our boats; all that remains is for us to be brave, let happen what may.—Let us only go forward, let us only make a move!

As we say our Yes to the world, we will gain clarity about how our devices and services can be tamed for our health and the health of those around us. We don’t do this out of any hatred toward technology, but out of the sense that there are other goods in life being squeezed out by our inventions. As the philosopher Albert Borgmann writes in his 1984 classic, Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life, reforming the role that technology plays in modern life “does not stem from ill will toward technology but from the experience that there are forces that rightfully claim our engagement and truly grace our lives.” We cannot always access these forces through technology; indeed, to do so is often “to eviscerate them.”

Sometimes this reformation takes modest forms. But at other times, we must take more dramatic action. In the midst of true emergencies, we may find ourselves, like Nietzsche, philosophizing with a hammer. As we tap with increased force and urgency, sounding out the false idols in our lives and cultures, we should not be surprised to find ourselves, at least occasionally, breaking some glass.

As for me, it took time to read well once more—full-length books, on paper, with a pen in hand. Then I learned to reread. I gave away much of what I had previously gathered when I realized I had no need to go through it a second time.

I joined a group of friends who were deep into modern board-gaming, which was about as far from the Monopoly and Life of my childhood as it was possible to get. We gathered over kitchen tables for years, transmuting cards and cardboard into relationships. We took weekend retreats together. We shared new game discoveries like explorers back from strange lands.

I kept paper to-do lists. I bought a weather station. I muted my phone. I deleted most of my past email and half of my photos. I bought a used bass and a new acoustic guitar. I began composing music. I played flute and guitar duets with my daughter. I took up painting. I began to move: yoga classes, bodyweight training, long bike rides through sweaty summer nights. And I wrote this book.

But what I really learned from Nietzsche was the need for a well-risked life. Safety, in the end, won’t save you; to live your life well, you must be prepared to lose it. So my family and I risked that ease and comfort by selling our home and moving across the country to pursue new dreams and new communities. Were these the right decisions? Are there such things as “right decisions”? I have no idea. Yet they were risks taken with enough care that I can embrace them as Nietzsche embraced his own amor fati. The boats have been burned, and we can only fare forward.

I owe Nietzsche a debt of thanks, 125 years on from his own suffering, because I am no longer—well, not always—the “second-to-last-man.” On my best days, screens now take on a servant’s role; on my worst, they still command my gaze like an idol. But I find it slightly easier now to look at the world and not away from it. In small but important ways, I am rising from the couch and stepping back into a creative life—sporting the Eye of the Tiger.

Reader, will you join me?

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