Why is there something and not rather nothing? Or, as Heidegger posed the question more precisely in his lecture Existence and Being, “Why is there any being at all and not rather Nothing?” (221). In fact, Heidegger grants this question as the “basic question of metaphysics”. This question is not one that is merely conceptually asked and that can be merely conceptually answered. It is a question that is not merely posed through language, but it finds its roots in our personal and existential experience of this Nothingness. In other words, this question can only be asked because it is first existentially experienced.
It is this abyss that we are able to come existentially face to face with. The Nothingness that constantly stands before us in our being is what allows us to face the uncanny experience of existence. This “Nothingness” is a constant theme and impetus for Nietzsche’s emphatic affirmation of life throughout his work. It is also this “non-being” that is central to Heidegger’s undertaking of a “fundamental ontology” in Being and Time.
The primary focus of this essay will be the shattering topic of “Nothingness”, and will approach the astounding points of convergence on this subject from the work of Heidegger and Nietzsche; especially focusing on Nietzsche’s notion of “The Eternal Recurrence of the Same” and the affirmation of existence found therein. To use the term of the neo-orthodox theologian Rudolph Bultmann, there will be an attempt to “de-mythologize” Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence in order to better link it with the work of Heidegger as found primarily in Being and Time.
Part I: De-mythologizing Nietzsche’s “Eternal Recurrence”
The doctrine of Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence is exactly what the title would suggest. Nietzsche claims, “Everything becomes and recurs eternally—escape is impossible!” (545). That is, this exact life, as it is experienced now, will eternally recur with exactly the same events as are experienced. No event of this life will be altered in the ‘next life’ but will happen precisely as they have happened in this life. In a modern and scientific age, it is difficult to take this doctrine into literal account with a high degree of serious consideration. In a world in which the influence of scientific investigation is so heavily relied upon, we simply do not accept this doctrine that our lives somehow “eternally recur”. But, is this the primary intention of the doctrine—to convince us that our lives carry on through eternal repetition? Of course the answer is no. The thoughtful reader may find in this doctrine a meaning that is ever so applicable to the modern scientific man, and perhaps all the more applicable because of this rigid scientific culture.
Nietzsche exclaims the emphatic reinforcement of his doctrine of “eternal recurrence” in this bold passage:
A certain emperor always bore in mind the transitoriness of all things so as not to take them too seriously and to live at peace among them. To me, on the contrary, everything seems far too valuable to be so fleeting: I seek an eternity for everything: ought one to pour the most precious salves and wines into the sea?—My consolation is that everything that has been is eternal: the sea will cast it up again (548).
This passage, at first glance, would seem to carry with it mythological connotations. Nietzsche speaks of ‘seeking an eternity for everything’. He claims that he is ‘consoled’ by this notion of eternality. But, if this is what is focused on as the fundamental meaning of the passage, we have failed to see Nietzsche’s message of the affirmation of a meaningful existence.
Here we see Nietzsche’s address to the notion that the world is ephemeral. It seems as though it isn’t the affirmation of “things” that Nietzsche is looking for, but rather the affirmation of being; this life is the life that Nietzsche longs to celebrate and affirm. In so doing, everything in the world around us becomes precious, carrying its own light, and the temporality of the world is waylaid by our primordial experience of being.
The analogy that Nietzsche sets forth about the “salves and wines” being cast into the sea can be seen as an analogy of the preciousness of this life and its redemptive value. Nietzsche asks the question of whether or not to pour our “most precious salves and wines into the sea”. It is apparent that the answer is no but the next sentence is an extremely important one in uncovering the message that Nietzsche is conveying. He claims that everything is indeed eternal and that “the sea will cast it up again”. In other words, it is this life that offers us redemption for that which we have cast away ‘into the sea’. It is this life in which we are to appreciate all that is part of us, and this life that we are to treasure.
Later in Eternal Recurrence, Nietzsche seems to defend his doctrine further by saying:
This conception is not simply a mechanistic conception; for if it were that, it would not condition an infinite recurrence of identical cases, but a final state. Because the world has not reached this, mechanistic theory must be considered an imperfect and merely provisional hypothesis (549).
The notion of the “final state” is what Nietzsche is attempting to avoid and through this avoidance, he is affirming the possibilities that we all have the potential of realizing. The term “final state” seems to carry with it a nihilistic notion because it is a state of being where the world may go no further; there is no room for progression. Nietzsche adamantly and avidly despises this nihilism.
Focusing on whether or not Nietzsche’s notion of an “infinite recurrence of identical cases” ought to be taken literally is a matter of indifference in uncovering the underlying message in the doctrine. If life did indeed ‘literally’ repeat itself an infinite amount of times, would this not mean that we ought to attempt to live this life choosing the best of our possibilities? If we lived an infinitely repeatable life, and were cognizant of this infinite repeating, we surely would want to choose the best for ourselves so that we may live the ‘next life’ in the best manner possible.
The last section of the Eternal Recurrence writings suggests the most pronounced declaration of existence from Nietzsche. Nietzsche states:
This, my Dionysian world of the eternally self-creating, the eternally self-destroying…my “beyond good and evil”, without goal, unless the joy of the circle is itself a goal…do you want a name for this world? A solution for all its riddles? A light for you, too, you best-concealed, strongest, most intrepid, most midnightly men?—This world is the will to power—and nothing besides! And you yourselves are also this will to power—and nothing besides! (550).
This proclamation is a call to the progression of human existence, or what Nietzsche would call the ubermensch or overman. It is an assertion of life in the face of a nihilistic existence or in the face of Nothingness. Man, as we know him today, must be overcome. The somnambulistic state of man must be overcome through an emphatic affirmation of our existence in the face of Nothingness.
Here Nietzsche is going “beyond good and evil” without a “goal” or an end, unless, as he suggests, the “joy of the circle is itself a goal”. Again, it matters little whether or not this is a ‘literal circle’ because the true meaning would be veiled over by talk of its ‘literal’ significance or lack thereof. The “joy” is to be found here and now, in this life and in no other. The significance and meaning is to be established existentially here and now and not in the lofty—and often nihilistic—notion of a qualitatively better afterlife.
The question of ‘naming’ this world is a vital part of this passage. Nietzsche’s question implies the existentiality, and consequently the personal experience of this life, which cannot be summed up in a name. By saying that this world “is the will to power” Nietzsche has not applied a title to the world, but has made a statement of being and becoming. The conjugation of the verb “to be” in the form “is” shows us this assertion of being. The “will to power” is not a decisive act but is an existential event that must constantly be re-chosen and that is constantly in a movement of willing. It is a “willing” rather than some moment that has been willed. Our power must constantly be in a motion of willing.
Are we then to believe in a literally recurring life in order that we may fully participate in our being? Are we to believe that the only true appreciation of life comes from an understanding that it will eternally repeat itself just as it happens now? Certainly, we cannot be expected to believe this doctrine to be a literal account of the cycle of our lives. But rather, what we ought to gain from this ‘doctrine’ is the vital message of the affirmation of our existence. We existentially and individually experience the personal phenomena of death, or non-being, and this is ultimately what brings us a meaningful existence. That we exist at all must be seen as precious and worthy of our care.
Moreover, this allegory is not an attempt to offer some alternative to the notion of “heaven” that spawns from the Christian tradition. If understood literally, it certainly offers no promise of a ‘better life’ after this one. In fact, it would mean that every single detail of this life would be repeated over and over again which is certainly not an enticing or comforting thought for many. There is nothing qualitatively better about this than the traditional after life of heaven. Nietzsche rejected this notion of heaven as nihilistic because the focus on this life is undermined by a lofty vision of a better one. Why should we not better this life? By suggesting an eternally recurring life, Nietzsche has shown us that this life needs to be the focus of our energies, and it ought to be considered precious because our existence in this life is the only existence of ourselves that we can truly affirm.
Although this previous section is a rather rudimentary acknowledgement of Nietzsche’s prolific work, for the purposes of this essay it is safe to move forward to Heidegger’s notion of Being-towards-death and the significance it brings to life. To do so, we will focus primarily on Heidegger’s work as seen in Being in Time, and we may later compare this to Nietzsche’s “eternal recurrence of the same events”.
Part II: The Possibility of the Affirmation of Being in the Face of our Ownmost Death
Because Heidegger is dealing with what he deems a “fundamental ontology” in his work Being and Time, he has chosen to stray from the terms ‘human being’, ‘humanity’, etc. This is done in order that he may set forth a structurally sound ontological assessment of Being while not trapping the phenomena of Being under an inadequate title. “Dasein” is the term designated for ‘that being for which being is a concern’. Or more precisely, “Dasein” signifies, as literally translated from the German text, either “Being-here” or “Being-there”. Because of Dasein’s radical temporality, its Being-here is always its Being-there. In other words, we are constantly projected into the future and are called to choose from our ownmost possibilities of our future. Dasein is ‘here’ in its own ‘present time’, but Dasein is also ‘there’ because it is a “Being-towards-death”. We are existing—literally “standing out”—in a mode of being where we are able to come face to face with our ownmost death.
Each Dasein must face his own death. This death is a truly individuating factor of each Dasein. As Heidegger phrases it, “as a potentiality-for-Being, Dasein cannot outstrip the possibility of death. Death is the possibility of the absolute impossibility of Dasein” (294). Death is an event that Heidegger terms as “distinctly impending” for each Dasein. There are many things in the world that may be considered as impending upon our existence, but the distinctness of death is that Dasein cannot flee from it or have some other Dasein “die his death” for him.
It is in the face of our ownmost death that we are able to see our ownmost possibilities. “Being-towards-death”, when experienced as such, is what allows Dasein to realize his ownmost possibilities of his future, and resolutely choose his own authenticity. In the face of our ownmost death, we are then able to realize that we exist and that we can choose to exist authentically, and we are freed from the burdens of everyday modes of being. The anxiety that Dasein may experience through Being-towards-death is a moment when Dasein is brought out of his everyday existence, or brought out of what Heidegger calls the “they-self”. The “they” signifies everyone, yet no one in particular. Dasein is, for the most part, lost in the world of the “they” and is under the dictatorship of the “they”. “They say this and that”; this is precisely why Dasein is not its authentic self until it is called out of the “they” and into the anxiety of Being-towards-death.
Being-towards-death offers Dasein the possibility of being individuated from the dictates of the “they”. Heidegger states:
Anticipation reveals to Dasein its lostness in the they-self, and brings it face to face with the possibility of being itself, primarily unsupported by concernful solicitude, but of being itself, rather, in an impassioned freedom towards death (311).
Here we may see an emphatic affirmation of being in the face of Nothing. Heidegger states that this Being-towards-death is an “impassioned freedom”. It is the void of death which brings to us the potential of realizing the possibility of a full and authentic existence. By coming face to face with death, Dasein is able to see its lostness within the “they”, and is consequently able to freely choose his own authentic existence. This is a radical freedom that, for Heidegger, is not experienced daily and, in fact, may never be experience by some because many choose to flee from this anxious state of Being-towards-death. This is a radical realization of the utter freedom that each Dasein may become through the resolute choice in the face of his ownmost death.
Here too, as with Nietzsche, Heidegger phrases this phenomena using a statement of being. He states that Dasein is faced with the possibility of “being itself”. Because we are radically temporal, we are constantly “Being-towards-death”, and we are able to anxiously come face to face with this Nothingness and experience that we do indeed ex-ist. As the word “exist” etymologically denotes, we are literally “standing-out”. We are standing-out towards our ownmost possibilities for ourselves because we are also Being-towards-death.
Part III: The Synthesis of “Being-Towards-Death” and “Eternal Recurrence”
In Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence we have seen a bit of an enigmatic approach in the affirmation of being in the face of Nothingness. Nietzsche does not offer a structural approach, nor does he attempt to categorize this affirmation of existence under a set of names or titles. Rather, Nietzsche chooses to tell the story of the “eternal recurrence”. As previously stated in section two, whether or not Nietzsche intended this ‘doctrine’ to be taken literally as an explanation of the life cycle is irrelevant to the underlying meaning that he ostensibly intended to display. The liveliness of this work is found when we recognize Nietzsche’s call for the assertion of our existence in this life and no other.
Heidegger took a structural approach or what he called a “fundamental ontology” in Being and Time. Later, Heidegger criticized this title of a “fundamental ontology” in Existence and Being by saying, “this title, like any title, is soon seen to be inappropriate” (219). This self-criticism is a result of Heidegger’s realization that our radical temporal being cannot be placed under any title because it is not a thing, concept, or even a being. Despite this critique, Being and Time offers us a structural analysis of our Being in the face of nothingness. Heidegger chose to call this a “Being-towards-death”, which would seem to be the most accurate language applicable to the basic state of the Being of Dasein.
The styles of discourse differ greatly in the contrast of Heidegger and Nietzsche, but the common element to both is the affirmation of being in the face of non-being or Nothingness. This assertion of an “authentic” or meaningful existence has been the basis of a great deal of thought since their inception, including the basis of such neo-orthodox theologians as Paul Tillich, Rudolph Bultmann, and Schubert Ogden. These theologians have based much of their interpretation of Christianity on the basis of Heidegger’s prolific work, and they have broken from the Greek-based tradition.
The affirmation of our existence is the assertion that “man is not a thing”, and that our being is more than what is encountered everyday in the world. We are constantly under the overcast of Nothingness and, in the face of this, we are able to see our own possibilities because we do indeed exist. The experience of Nothingness can be followed through to an authentic existence if we do not brush it off as a merely fearful moment of some sort. Rather, this Nothingness is what allows us to realize our freedom as finite Being-toward-death, and we are then freed from the world in order that we may be freed for the world and to exist in it as fully and authentically as possible.
Jacob Graham is a Senior at Ferrum College with a Major in Philosophy.