The test of the eternal recurrence

Nietzsche's idea of the eternal recurrence first appears in The Gay Science:

What if some day or night a demon were to steal 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 again and innumerable times again; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unspeakably small or great in your life must 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 over 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 power over you, as you are it would transform and possibly crush you; the question in each and every thing, 'Do you want this again and innumerable times again?' would lie on your actions as the heaviest weight! (341)

Unless one has already read Thus Spoke Zarathustra and consequently had the understanding that Nietzsche's idea of the eternal recurrence is a cosmology, there is no way one would read Nietzsche as suggesting anything cosmological here. What Nietzsche presents here is, as Bernard Williams puts it, "an entirely hypothetical question, a thought-experiment" ('Introduction' to the Cambridge edition of The Gay Science). Our responses to the thought-experiment reflect our attitudes towards our lives. The thought-experiment can thus be seen as a test of whether one affirms one's life: if one answers 'yes' to Nietzsche's question ('Do you want this again and innumerable times again?'), then one passes the test of the eternal recurrence, that is, one affirms one's life. The answer 'no' may not be outright nihilistic, but it is at least unsettled and dubious.

However, even understood merely as a thought-experiment rather than a cosmological doctrine, the idea of the eternal recurrence still invites a host of questions. Will I remember 'my' past lives? The answer is presumably 'no', for otherwise the lives in the eternal recurrence will not be identical ("all in the same succession and sequence") because of the ever-increasing extra knowledge in later lives. But if I don't remember those prior lives, what makes them my lives? Or, to put it reversely, if the later person will not remember my life, what makes his life a recurrence of mine?

Even if I can put these questions aside and understand the recurring lives as all mine, I may not have reason to care about any of them except this one. Since my recurring lives have to be identical, in each of them I do not know that it is a repetition of prior lives. The lack of such knowledge in each life logically follows from the fact that in the very first life of the series I do not have such knowledge. But if in each life I do not know that it is a repetition, then what reason do I now have for minding that my life will be repeated? If my later selves won't mind, why should I mind for them? And if I don't, and won't, mind the repetitions, how can the eternal recurrence be a good test for the affirmation of life? (Note that for the thought-experiment to be coherent, if I ask the demon whether my life is already a repetition, the demon will have to either always answer 'no' or erase my memory of having met him.)

None of the above questions should be dismissed lightly, because what the test of the eternal recurrence requires is not our hasty judgments or knee-jerk psychological responses but our considering Nietzsche's question, in Williams's words, "seriously and in the fullest consciousness". Hasty judgments or knee-jerk psychological responses are not sufficient for the affirmation of life.


Nietzsche's looseness

John Searle recounts, in his engaging and entertaining article "Oxford Philosophy in the 1950s" (Philosophy 90 (2015)), what Bernard Williams told him about Nietzsche:

Bernard tended to admire philosophers who were outside the mainstream. He discovered Nietzsche when he was already well advanced in philosophy, and though he was contemptuous of Nietzsche’s looseness at first, he became as much a follower of Nietzsche as he was capable of being of any other philosopher. He once said to me about Nietzsche that he thought it was ‘about 80% true’. I cannot imagine any other philosopher of whom Bernard would say that. I think he especially liked Nietzsche’s cynicism about mainstream academic life and academic philosophy. (p.188)

What intrigues me the most is certainly Williams's claim that what Nietzsche says is "about 80% true". That's an unusually strong claim for any philosopher to make about any other philosopher. Another fascinating fact here, and a related one, is that Williams "was contemptuous of Nietzsche's looseness at first". What the phrase "at first" implies is not that Williams ceased to think Nietzsche's thinking was loose after he became a follower of Nietzsche; rather, it implies that he was not contemptuous of Nietzsche's looseness anymore. Williams admired Nietzsche in spite of his looseness.

I did not consider the possibility that Williams ceased to think Nietzsche's thinking was loose for the simple reason that Nietzsche's looseness is conspicuous. Beyond Good and Evil 267 is a perfect example:

The Chinese have a proverb that mothers even teach children: siao-sin  "make your heart small!" This is the characteristic fundamental propensity in late civilizations: I do not doubt that an ancient Greek would recognize in us Europeans of today, too, such self-diminution; this alone would suffice for us to "offend his taste." 

"Siao-sin" is presumably a transliteration of the Chinese expression "小心". Not only does it not mean "make your heart small", it is not a proverb either, and hence not "a proverb that mothers even teach children". Although "小" means "small" and "心" means "heart", "小心" does not mean "small heart"; it means "be careful", which does not seem to have anything to do with "self-diminution". Such a mistake could have been avoided easily.

But perhaps Nietzsche simply didn't care  it's just a mistaken example; he's not using it as evidence to support his view. If he was right about "the characteristic fundamental propensity in late civilizations", i.e. self-diminution, it would not be difficult for him to find correct examples. For Nietzsche, insights first, examples later.


A little knowledge

I've just come across an intriguing remark by Nietzsche in Human, All Too Human:

A little knowledge is more successful than complete knowledge: it conceives things as simpler than they are, thus resulting in opinions that are more comprehensible and persuasive. (578)

Let us put aside the question whether anyone can have complete knowledge of anything, for what Nietzsche says won't be affected much if "complete knowledge" is replaced with "adequate knowledge" or "sufficient knowledge". First of all, note the "it" in "it conceives things as simpler than they are", which refers to "a little knowledge" rather than to the knowing agent. This sounds strange, because "a little knowledge" does not have a mind and cannot think. The German original is "es kennt die Dinge einfacher, als sie sind", and the literal translation of "es kennt" should be "it knows". Of course "it knows" does not sound any less strange than "it conceives", but I think what the whole expression means is "this is knowledge of things as simpler than they are". The "it" in "it conceives" or "it knows" is a dummy pronoun.

So, a little knowledge is knowledge of things as simpler than they are. Or more precisely, a little knowledge of X is knowledge of X as simpler than X really is. But why does "a little" imply "simpler"? This is because what is involved is knowledge of X rather than knowledge of part of X. If one's knowledge of X is little in the sense of being knowledge of merely part of X, then it is not necessarily simpler --- one's knowledge of part of X can be as complex as it (i.e. the part) really is, while the knowledge is still little compared to knowledge of the whole X. However, if it is knowledge of the whole X, it cannot be both little but not simpler.

A little knowledge results in "opinions that are more comprehensible and persuasive". Here the opinions are obviously opinions of the knowing agent --- the opinions are more comprehensible and persuasive to the knowing agent. But why are the opinions more comprehensible and persuasive to him? Well, because they are based on knowledge of things as simpler than they are. It is the simplification that makes the opinions comprehensible and persuasive. If the agent sees things as they really are, the complexity involved will perplex and humble him.

Nietzsche says "[a] little knowledge is more successful than complete knowledge". Successful in what sense? I can think of only one answer: successful in the sense of being treated as knowledge. The more one knows, the more one is not sure that one knows.