Do you read The Stone, the weekly New York Times column on philosophy? It’s not so much about philosophy, as it is a column written by contemporary philosophers, using the tools of philosophy. Here’s how the Times’s header puts it: The Stone features the writing of contemporary philosophers on issues both timely and timeless. The column by-passes much of the modern tedium that has smothered the discipline. You won’t find a discussion on analytic philosophy or logical positivism, fortunately. Rather, as in today’s column, you might find a discussion on the philosophy behind Groundhog Day, the movie.
The film was invoked in today’s piece because the author was exploring the relationship between love and the future. The idea being that for love to flourish there must exist trust in the potential of the future. “The intensity we associate with romantic love requires a future that can allow its elaboration,” writes Todd May, of Clemson, in today’s column, Love and Death.
The column begins with an idea I’ve been revisiting recently. Early in the piece, while on the topic of the movie, Professor May writes, “It seems that the Nietzschean test of eternal return, insofar as it is played out in Punxsutawney, yields not an overman but a man of decency.” It’s this “test of eternal return,” that I keep kicking up and want to talk about. (I briefly touched on this subject in a previous post, Da Capo.)
Here’s the back-story: It is the summer of 1881 and Friedrich Nietzsche is reaching the maturity of his thinking. He has an epiphany. He calls it The Test of Eternal Return. He said this about that moment:
…the basic conception, the idea of the eternal return, the highest formula of affirmation that can possibly be attained,…was jotted down on a piece of paper….I was that day walking through the woods….I stopped beside a mighty pyramidal block of stone which reared itself up…It was there that this thought came to me.
As an aside, note that the thought came to him while he was walking. Walking, in my study of the history of ideas, triggers more profundity than any other activity. Want to be a genius? Go for a stroll. (I develop this thought in an essay, Metaphor : On Walking, published at The Nervous Breakdown.)
“…were one to come to believe that whatever one did next would be repeated throughout all eternity the result would be to attach incredible importance–‘weight’, ‘gravity’–to each and every action one performed. If one responded this way to eternal return the effect would be to eliminate all cowardice, compromise, and evasion. One would begin to live with incredible intensity.”
The goal of existence, as Nietzsche saw it, is to “become what one is.” (Freud, who admired Nietzsche, hi-jacked this notion.) The tool to becoming what one is, is the test of eternal return. With a nod to Bill Murray, the challenge of life is to be found in the test of repetition. Does this action or thought or activity or behavior hold up to the challenge of living it repetitively through all eternity? No? Yes? I think of the test as a filter through which only authenticity can pass.