Doug Bruns

The Philosophy of Groundhog Day

In Life, Philosophy, The Examined Life, The infinity of ideas, Thinkers on February 29, 2012 at 6:54 am

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.)

The idea of eternal return is central to Milan Kundera‘s The Incredible Lightness of Being, by the way. Here’s the concept as spelled out by Nietzsche biographer Julian Young:

“…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.

Class dismissed.

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  1. 1. Your blog inspired me to subscribe to Stone. I have seen it from time to time and always enjoyed.

    2. Just watched Nietzsche last night! A Facebook friend of ours posted it on his page: Philosophers’ Soccer, the Germans vs. the Greeks. I recommend it as good comic relief. It is also easy to google and find.

    3. The Stone piece meandered through the ups and downs of romantic love especially as related to time. It reminded me of a quip from Julian Barnes in his slim novel, ‘Sense of an Ending,” where he said something to the effect of….though I don’t agree, it has been said that marriage is like a long, boring meal and the pudding comes at the beginning.

    4. Does the “eternal return” of Nietzsche parallel the concept of karma? Seems like a way to see the same concept through a slightly different lens. “Whatever one did next would be repeated through all eternity” seems consistent with, what I understand as the concept of karma, that whatever one is experiencing now is the result of a prior intention or action.

    Yes? No? Is it Germans vs. the Buddhists? Or, are they all just kicking the ball down the field?

    And, was Nietzsche’s experience by the block of stone an enlightenment?

    • Lot’s here to discuss–as always. Thanks for that, Susan. Specific to your question number four. I’ll have to do a bit more research on N’s more complete thoughts of this notion. He built a lot of thought around it in Will to Power and Ecco Homo. But in general, I don’t think he’d buy into the karma notion. But I do think the Buddhists would buy into his notion.

      Karma, as I understand it, is eastern thought-talk for cause and effect. That is, every action is the result of another action. Specific to how that effects the individual is what we, in the west, usually think of when we think of karma. Specifically we focus on past and future lives being subject to karmic energies. (As an aside, this begs the question of that annoying comment so many people seem set on saying, that everything happens for a reason. According to theory of karma, that would hold true. But that’s usually not the context of the statement. They usually mean there is a purpose and direction behind all events, usually a divine hand at work. As an aside to the aside, it also means that an accident is not an accident. But that is another conversation.) Anyway, N wasn’t so much interested in past and future as he was in now. He wanted to figure how to live in a world where God did not exist and in a world where community and tradition were falling apart. (Sames themes, BTW, that DFW was so intent upon.) I think he’d push back and demand that we only figure out what to make of this existence, not fret as to karmic seeds. I read the test of eternal repetition as not a theory of circle of life, though like everything he said, you can find lots of instances where this is proven opposite. Rather, I think he was looking for a way to grow spiritually (he’d probably hate that word) in a vacuous existence. Hence his overman.

      Just my off-the-cuff thoughts.

  2. Well, lots to think about for off-the-cuff. I think the intersection of Western “thought” with Eastern mysticism has an interesting consistentcy, especially if one doesn’t completely buy in to the past and future lives of karma, but only holds them with a happy mind.

    • I agree. Each tradition has overlap. And some, like Harrison, would compel us to also consider indigenous cultures. The kicker of your comment, however, is the “happy mind.” Getting there is not so easy for some.

I welcome your comments. Thanks for reading.

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