One of the most important and least popular lessons taught by the history of ideas is that every attempt to answer the big questions—where did we come from, why are we here, where are we going, and so forth—gets whatever support it has from two distinct sources. The first of these is the factual evidence, if any, that backs it; the second is the emotional appeal, if any, that it offers to those who embrace it. Habits of thinking hardwired into contemporary culture treat the first of those as though it’s the only thing that matters, and react to any mention of the second with the same sort of embarrassed silence that might greet a resounding fart at a formal garden party. Since human beings aren’t passionless bubbles of intellect, though, the second source of support is fairly often the more important and the more revealing of the two.
The flurry of apocalyptic predictions that surrounded December 21, 2012 makes as good an example as any. The factual evidence supporting the idea that anything unusual would happen on that date was—well, to call it dubious is by no means a minor understatement: the entire furore was based on misinterpretations of the Mayan calendar that wouldn’t have survived fifteen minutes of unbiased research, but which were accepted as gospel and padded out by industrious true believers into a magpie’s nest of arbitrary speculations, misquoted or invented prophecies, and scientific hypotheses yanked out of context and hammered into shape to support the preexisting 2012 narrative. Those of my readers who tried, as I did, to question that narrative will recall the reaction from believers: talk about the facts and you could expect an endlessly shifting assortment of justifications for belief; talk about the narrative, its parallels in previous apocalyptic fads, and the tangled emotional drives that all too clearly lay behind it, and you could expect a furious insistence that bringing up such matters is irrelevant and unfair.
Questioning the modern faith in progress, on those rare occasions when such questioning happens at all, is a good way to observe a similar species of handwaving in its native habitat. As mentioned in last week’s post, the concept of progress has no content of its own, no single measurement by which it stands and falls. Thus no matter how many things are pretty clearly regressing—and these days, the list of things that are regressing is getting quite long—believers can always find something or other that appears to be progressing, and use that to defend the narrative. When that fails in turn, as it generally does, there’s always something else, even if that turns out to be no more than the pious hope that the regress will turn out to be a temporary hurdle over which, as the myth of progress demands, humanity will sooner or later leap. Move the discussion to the narrative of progress, its parallels among other triumphalist narratives, and the emotional drives that lie behind it, though, and you’ll get the same sort of angry denunciation that came from believers in the 2012 narrative.
It’s going to be necessary to risk that reaction, and a variety of other unhelpful responses, in order to glimpse a shape of time better suited to the realities of our present situation than the dead straight Joachimist line of progress or the Augustinian U-shape of apocalypse that runs from Eden to the fallen world to the cataclysmic arrival of the New Jerusalem, however renamed. The route past those overly familiar alternatives requires attention to the emotional dimensions of the shapes we give to the inkblot patterns of time, and in particular, to a distinctive emotional payoff that the narratives of progress and apocalypse share in common.
Therapists call it provisional living: the belief that life will become what it’s supposed to be once x happens. What x might be varies as wildly from case to case as the diversity of human psyches will permit. Among individuals, it might be losing twenty pounds, being promoted to that supervisor’s position you’ve always wanted, getting a divorce, or what have you, but it always has two distinctive features. The first is that x serves as an anchor for a flurry of unrealistic fantasies about the future that will supposedly arrive once x happens; the second is that x never happens, and is more or less chosen—subconsciously or otherwise—with that outcome in mind.
It’s precisely the fact that x never happens that makes provisional living so tempting. Most of us are aware on one level or another that the choices we prefer to make do not reflect the values and beliefs we claim to hold, and are not going to bring us the lives we think we ought to have. Confront that reality head on, and the message that the statue of Apollo said to Rainier Maria Rilke—"you must change your life"—becomes hard to ignore. The avoidance of that reality is therefore the cornerstone on which most dysfunctional lives are built.
Provisional living is among the most popular ways to engineer that avoidance. The pounds you can’t lose, the promotion you won’t get, the divorce papers you never quite get around to filing, or some other x factor becomes the villain you can blame for the failure of your choices to reflect your ideals and bring you the life you think you should have. Meanwhile the dreams that pile up on the other side of the change that never happens can get as gaudy as you like, since they never have to face the cold gray morning light of reality. Not all those dreams are happy ones; people are almost as likely to put fantasies about suffering and death on the far side of x as they are to stock the same imaginary space with wealth, power, and plenty of hot sex. It all depends on the personal factor.
Progress and apocalypse, in turn, offer the same payoff on a collective level. The imagined world of the future, whether it’s the product of business as usual or of the cataclysmic repudiation of business as usual, becomes a dumping ground for every kind of fantasy, and those fantasies never have to stand up to the test of reality because the x event that’s supposed to make them real never quite gets around to happening. This allows believers in progress and apocalypse, like other practitioners of provisional living, to put a wholly imaginary world at the center of their emotional lives. This makes it relatively easy for them to ignore the depressingly ordinary world in which they actually live and, more to the point, the role of their own choices in making that world exactly what it is.
The imaginary future worlds conjured up by the mythologies of progress and apocalypse, in turn, are pallid reflections of an older and more robust conception, the belief in a heaven of immortal bliss to which the souls of true believers ascend after death. That conception is so thoroughly hardwired into Western culture that it can take quite a bit of research to grasp how much chopping and stretching had to be done to older ideas of postmortem existence in order to make them fit a heaven-centered narrative. It’s indicative that when the concept of reincarnation came back into circulation in alternative circles in the Western world in the 19th century, it was at first denounced in incandescent terms. What made it "disgusting" and "repulsive," to note only two of the heated labels applied to reincarnation in that long-forgotten debate, was precisely the suggestion that human souls after death would cycle right back to the same world they had just left and live with the consequences of their own choices.
It’s at this point that we return to Nietzsche, for one of the central themes of his philosophy was an edgy analysis of the creation of imaginary "real worlds" by the human mind as a way of devaluing the world we actually inhabit. That was an even bigger issue in his time than it is in ours, with approved versions of 19th century Christian piety claiming that the proper response to every injustice was to wait patiently for payback in heaven, and a philosophical milieu in the universities in which airily abstract speculations about the Absolute had all but replaced meaningful attention to the realities of human existence. The phrase "provisional living" hadn’t been invented yet, but the practice was central to the social morality of the Victorian era, and it formed one of the central targets of Nietzsche’s grand project for a revaluation of all values that would take life itself as its touchstone.
That project had for its core theme the affirmation of existence as it actually is—in Nietzsche’s own phrase, a yes-saying to life that would counter more than two thousand years of naysaying morality, philosophy and spirituality. As he developed his critique of the conventional wisdom of his time, his insistence on saying yes to life as it is became increasingly forceful. That journey reached its final destination in August of 1881 on a walk around Lake Silvaplana in the Alps, at a roughly pyramidal mass of stone that still stands beside the lake: "six thousand feet beyond man and time," as Nietzsche wrote excitedly on a scrap of paper at the time.
If, as Nietzsche thought, the only ideas that matter are those conceived while walking, it may be useful to spend a few moments strolling along the path that led up to his formula of affirmation, not least because its early course seems to have escaped the notice of contemporary scholarship on Nietzsche. A classical philologist by training, he applied a specialist’s familiarity with ancient Greek thought to the more immediate problems of philosophy and Western culture that concerned him in his major works. Most of his core conceptions can thus be traced back at least in part to one particular school of Greek and Roman philosophers, the one such school that affirmed life as it is with as much verve as Nietzsche himself: the old Stoics.
Mention the word "Stoic" to most people these days and you might, if you’re lucky, get some sort of vague sense of gritted teeth and unwillingness to crumple under the impact of pain. Off past that dim misunderstanding lies one of the most challenging adventures in human thought, a sustained effort to sort out human life on the basis of what we actually know about the world. The Stoic school of philosophy was founded around 300 BCE by Zeno of Citium, and became one of the major systems of classical thought, retaining a lively presence across the Mediterranean world until the long night of the Dark Ages closed in. Its core insight was that human beings can control only two things—their own choice of actions and their own assessments of the things they experience—and that sanity consists of recognizing this fact and refusing to make any emotional investment in those things that aren’t subject to the individual will.
In any situation, said the Stoics, the job assigned to human beings is to recognize the good and act accordingly. Nothing else matters, and the point of Stoic spiritual practice is to get to the point where, in fact, nothing else matters. The radical affirmation of the world as it is was one standard element of the Stoic training: from the Stoic perspective, the world is what it is, and though the Stoic may freely choose to fling himself into a struggle to change some part of it for the better, and unhesitatingly lay down his life in that struggle, no power in heaven or earth can make him whine about it.
The Stoics took that formula of radical acceptance to an extreme that few later thinkers have ever been willing to contemplate. Most philosophers in the classical world accepted the theory that the motions of the planets and stars shaped events on Earth, and speculated that after an immense length of time, the heavens will repeat the same patterns of movement and bring about a corresponding repetition below. Stoic philosophers embraced that theory, and built up a worldview in which the whole universe moved through endlessly repeated cycles from one ekpyrosis—"Big Bang" would not be an inaccurate translation of this bit of technical Greek—to the next, with every single event duplicated down to the last detail in each repetition. It’s one thing to accept the present moment, and another to accept the whole of your life; it’s quite another to imagine that same life repeated endlessly through infinite time, and accept that as a whole, without wishing a single thing to be different. That’s the state to which the most extreme Stoics aspired.
That was the vision that came crashing into Nietzsche’s mind as he stood beside the rock by Lake Silvaplana. Suppose, he said, we engage in a thought experiment. Scientists tell us that there is a fixed quantity of matter and energy in the cosmos, and no sign that the universe has a beginning or an end. (This was all accepted scientific opinion in the late 19th century; the Big Bang theory was still far in the future.) Given a finite amount of matter and energy and a fixed set of natural laws working over infinite time, every event any of us experiences here and now must have happened an infinite number of times before, and will happen an infinite number of times again, in an eternal recurrence that admits of no variation. As you consider your life, past, present and to come, can you face the prospect of infinite repetitions of that same life? Can you joyously affirm that prospect—can you will it?
It’s hard to imagine a more all-out assault on provisional living, or a more forceful challenge to live up to one’s ideals. As he passed through his few remaining years of sanity, though, Nietzsche seems to have convinced himself that his thought experiment was in fact a reality, that every moment of his life had in fact happened countless times before and would be repeated countless times again. I sometimes wonder if that’s what finally pushed him over the edge into madness. Like most thinkers whose work makes a fetish of ruthlessness, Nietzsche was obsessively kind and gentle in his personal life. As he stood there on the Piazza Carlo Alberti, hearing the thump of the teamster’s stick and the terrified cries of the horse, growing more agitated by the moment, it’s all too easy to imagine the voice whispering in his mind: can you joyously affirm this, over and over again, from eternity to eternity?
A moment later he was sprinting across the piazza, flinging himself between the drover and the horse. It was a classically Stoic thing to do, and I suspect that if he’d known that what was left of his sanity wouldn’t survive the moment, he’d have done it anyway. Fiat justicia, ruat caelum, said the old Stoics: let justice be done, though it brings the sky crashing down. That it was his own mental sky that came crashing down was, as the Stoics also liked to say, a matter of indifference.
It was Nietzsche’s great misfortune, and a central flaw of his philosophy, that he never quite managed to grasp that the opposite of a bad thing can also be a bad thing.To challenge oneself with the vision of eternal recurrence as a thought experiment is one thing, and I recommend it to my readers as a useful exercise. If that vision were in fact the literal truth, could you give the rest of your life a shape and a purpose that would give sufficient meaning and value to everything you have already been and done and suffered, so that when you add it all up, you can joyously affirm the whole pattern—and what would the rest of your life need to become in order for you to do so?
To pass beyond that, though, and to try to inhabit a cosmos in which everything is fixed by fate, in which everything revolves through the same series of events endlessly from eternity to eternity, and in which the only freedom open to the will is to affirm that sequence joyously or vainly reject it, is to court Nietzsche’s fate for no good reason. Insisting on a cosmos in which everything is fated to remain exactly as it has always been is as useless, in practical terms, as insisting that one fine day in the not too distant future, the march of progress or the arrival of apocalypse will transform the cosmos into whatever you think it ought to be.
Both these extremes, Nietzsche’s just as much as the one he so forcefully rejected, impose a shape on time that can’t be justified on the basis of our own immediate experience of time. The rigid lockstep of the eternal recurrence is just as hard to find in the course of our lives and the course of history as are the invincible upward march of progress or the satisfyingly sudden full stop of apocalypse. It would take a later thinker, drawing on Nietzsche’s insights but avoiding his habit of countering one extreme by going to the other, to trace out a shape of time that reflects the world of human experience—or, more specifically, the world experienced by human beings who happen to be living at the peak of modern industrial civilization and have begun to glimpse the long road down on the peak’s far side. We’ll discuss that vision in the next post in this sequence.