Some very inspiring conversations lately make me want to write about Nietzsche, the 19th-century German philosopher, who declared in a famous vignette called The Parable of the Madman that “God is dead!” By leading with that reference I am not looking to conduct a big discourse on institutional religion at this time, but rather to create a context for exploring Nietzsche’s theory of Eternal Recurrence and its call to abide by an ethic of Amor Fati: love of fate. To see that all these things are completely connected in Nietzsche is to dwell very deeply in his personal vision of life and the human condition. To dwell there with him as a serious exercise about one’s own vision of life is Psychology at its best.
What was Nietzsche driving at with his assertion that God is dead? He was talking about the decline and disintegration of the moral foundations of late Western civilization. Oh, that. Stated alternately, he was calling attention to how human beings make moral claims and pointing out that people base those claims on questionable foundations. For Nietzsche, morality did not come into the world through infallible divine agency as an absolute and eternal standard to guide proper living, but rather arose out of the human agendas of the people curating the moral code, if not outright creating it in their own interest. By stating God is dead, Nietzsche was announcing about the moral climate in sway over western civilization since the rise of Christianity that humanity must move on to a new vision. He imagined that transition as a needful evolution for the species.
Such is the context for Nietzsche’s infamous portrait of the Ubermensch, a so-called over-man, who sees beyond the crumbling foundations of the morality around him and leaves them behind as useless and untenable, called instead to develop his own vision of proper living based primarily on personal truth. Taking on that challenge is the new road to authenticity and self-realization, according to Nietzsche. He preaches on its behalf through the visionary hero of his most prophetic and artistic work Thus Spoke Zarathustra, a new bible of sorts for an age losing its last one. The replacement, however, is not like for like, but a sea change of the highest order, involving maximum self-responsibility and personal reflection. That universality about truth and ethics is a fiction is only the starting point, leading powerfully inward.
It would not be a stretch to regard Nietzsche as an advance expression of many of the 20th century’s most revolutionary developments. Prepare for some bold claims in that regard. For instance, when Albert Einstein shifted Physics from its Newtonian center to a paradigm of Relativity, he was accomplishing a fundamentally Nietzschean coup, turning Time itself into something malleable. When we use the word Postmodern to capture the breakdown of any unifying structure binding culture together, we may just as plausibly say Post-Nietzschean instead, since he forged and landed that hammer. In Psychology, when we note that hierarchical models such as Freudian Analysis led to more egalitarian approaches involving client-centered emphasis, we are noting the influence of Nietzsche that authority resides within each subjective self only. Nor is there another or better home for it elsewhere.
For Nietzsche that discovery opened a thought experiment called The Eternal Recurrence of the Same. He imagined a situation in which a demon comes to you with the shocking factual pronouncement that you will live every detail of your present life over again into the future infinite times without the slightest variation in the details and that you have already lived it that way infinite times in the past. This airtight loop has the potential drawback that whatever you lament most about your choices and destiny are indelibly written into it and any longing for one iota to be otherwise is an impossible folly. In fact, that longing is the source of all suffering. Nietzsche imagines most people will gnash their teeth and fall into abject despair at this news. On the other hand, he also offers the radical invitation that what the demon has told you is the best thing you could ever hope to hear.
At this point personal psychology enters the situation. Why is the demon’s suggestion good news? How could it be? Because it positions the listener to reorient in the direction of maximum life and vitality. If, by Nietzsche’s reckoning, someone rejoices at the prospect of living the same life repeatedly without changing anything at all, that person is saying the most categorical Yes to existence. Such was Nietzsche’s vision of the best possible life: one which looks adversity in the eye and says I know and affirm your necessity too. I say yes to you to say yes to myself. Ostensibly the benefits of this attitude are the liberation of the deepest creative powers that humans can attain and a more thoroughgoing expression of one’s potential in the world. Of course they are. Through acceptance emerges craft.
Nietzsche’s commitment to this ideal drew him to the Latin phrase Amor Fati, a love of Fate. That word has many associations for people, such as the oppressive and often painful play of circumstances. For Nietzsche it meant turning that point of view on its head so that even the hardest part of one’s experience, or especially the hardest parts, are the forge from which to shape one’s best self. Imagine doing so for a moment. Try to see yourself saying Yes to every disagreeable feeling within you and all persistent obstacles you encounter and have encountered, not because you are helpless against them, but from real appreciation of their essential role in your highest development. Become the willing and active participant in your own evolution. Love your fate, not as a verdict against you, but in order to shape it. The more you love its muck, the more influence you will gain over it into the future.
As a final consideration, think about applying this vision on a wider basis, not only as a personal psychology, but also as a worldview. Try it out. Look at the world (or the whole universe) as the operation of necessity, as Fate. See about the world that absolutely everything is interdependent to such an extent that none of what you like about it exists without what you don’t. I’m not suggesting a resignation about the undesirable parts, but rather a genuine appreciation of them that goes infinitely further in quality and integrity than a sustained aversion and lopsided disposition ever will. From this new worldview, diversity becomes clearly inevitable and, if you can see it that way, very beautiful. Even that which contradicts the beholder’s natural subjective biases gains an exhilarating attraction as the ceaseless coming forth of creativity in life, affirming all creativity, including one’s own. The agent of Amor Fati affirms the world and the self as a unity.