Nietzsche posited the eternal recurrence, the idea that our life will come back to us exactly as it was for eternity, as a kind of thought experiment:
“The greatest weight.– What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence – even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!” Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus?… Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?”
The demon comes to us in our ‘loneliest loneliness’, at a time when we are defenceless against being overpowered by the thought. The answers we give to its questions, if we reply honestly, reveal our attitude toward the lives that we lead. If thinking about our lives as our eternity makes us afraid then we are wasting them. Of course, each of us has regrets, has made mistakes that we would undo if given the chance. Yet, if our life as a whole seems empty then it falls on us to make the decisions that would correct this, in order to be able to affirm it if it came back to us exactly as it was down to the smallest detail. The challenge then is to live in such a way that you could smile at this prospect.
By severing our ties to a life other than this one across eternity Nietzsche asks us to think hard on the choices we make in our personal infinity. If there is no afterlife and the heaven and hell of the idealist pale in comparison to this life, the only reality, then all that is left to us is to focus our attention on it and live it as well as possible in view of the fact that it is all there ever will be. Thinking of the eternal recurrence prevents us from imagining that we can be saved from this life to find redemption in the next.
Considering the thought encourages us to take decisions and act in such a way that we could desire the eternal return of what we are about to do. The greatest weight is placed on our actions because whatever choice we elect to take forms part of our personal infinity. The aim of the thought experiment is then to overcome the life-denying attitude of the idealist to encourage us to affirm this life. If it is all there is then there can be no excuses for failing to live it fully, one stands to lose everything if they look beyond it.
To avoid being crushed by the thought we must change so we can bear our fate, by becoming so well disposed to ourselves and our life that we want nothing other than its eternal recurrence. The ideal is to become the kind of person who would consider the demon’s message divine. This means resting the weight of eternity on each of our actions in order to make certain that what we are about to do can be affirmed eternally. The effect of the thought of eternal recurrence depends on it overpowering us and exercising mastery over our lives. If it takes root and has personal significance it holds the transformational power to make a life-changing impact insofar as it challenges us to create a life that we wish to repeat eternally.
It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, that is poor
Many of us buy into the idea that the richer we become and the more things we can get, the happier we will be. Yet, everytime we finally get a hold of that one thing which we were certain would change our life, once it is no longer new, it falls down in our estimation to become just like all our other possessions. What seemed so enticing to us, what we were certain we could not live without, loses its pull the moment it comes into our hands. For a while we may cherish it but there will inevitably come a time when it no longer attracts us, and another thing we don’t have will catch our eye. This cycle repeats incessantly so that each time we gratify our desire, soon another will take its place. Until we can escape the need for more we will never be satisfied, because what we own will never be enough.
In the west, in our consumerist culture, this chronic dissatisfaction usually lasts a lifetime. Few even recognise the trick they play on themselves, and those that do rarely overcome their own addiction to buying what they have no need of. The fact is that it feels good when they get themselves what they covet, it is only much later that what they had their eye on becomes just another thing they possess, at which point they will seek yet another object to lust after. In this way, most of us continue to purchase the things we assume will make us happy, and never learn to be satisfied with what is ours now. In our society it seems that being grateful is a sin, for each day we are reminded by the media that the thing we don’t have is the very thing we need. These messages convince us that our happiness is to be found in material things, especially the ones that we don’t own, so that we feel compelled to go after them in order to fill our lack.
Nevertheless, it does not matter what we get, however valuable it might be. If we rely on getting more things to feel happy sustaining this feeling will mean there will always be one more thing that we need to get. As much as we try to convince ourselves that it will be the last time we spend carelessly, that it is the only thing we need, this habit of buying will continue because there will never come a point at which we will be satisfied. That was denied us the moment we failed to be satisfied with what we have now, because until we learn to be, there will always be one more thing that we ‘need’ and the project will go on to infinity.
How many times do you recall being truly satisfied with what you have, not wanting more? Until we no longer need more to feel better about ourselves and our lives, there can never be happiness without constant spending. Only by being content with our lot, whatever it may be, can we begin to be rich in possessions. Indeed, it can be argued that wealth is a relative notion, that depends on how satisfied a person is with what they own. That is, the rich man would be the one who is satisfied with his possessions, who feels he has more than enough to be happy. Having a great deal of money and assets relative to our needs would then be enough to be wealthy. The poor man would be the one who is dissatisfied with his lot, who feels he needs more to be happy. Generally, someone is poor if they do not have enough to live comfortably in society. But this depends on their own view of their situation such that even if they have little, but can live on it and remain satisfied, they are happier with their situation than some ‘rich’ people that feel they need a bigger house to find happiness. Of course, this means that to be rich is to be satisfied with what you have, while to be poor is to crave more such that whatever our physical wealth might be, until we overcome the need for more we remain beggars.
Truth is a pathless land. You have your way and I have mine – as for the correct way, it does not exist. The way of life we choose is our own affair and there is no objective duty to which it must tend. There is no fundamental meaning which we can all live by; truth is a lie, an illusion each prophet claims to possess. We look to them for answers they cannot give – the truth we affirm must be uniquely our own. Until we realise that no one is coming to save us, that this life is our own to shape, we will continue to look outside of ourselves for redemption. However, it is our responsibility to create our own meaning, to find our own truth so that this life can be experienced fully on our terms. Everything is within, there is nothing outside of us that could give us purpose. Thinking for oneself is the only way to discover our reason for living.
Every day is a life, each night is a death. We wake up as new people, with the previous days experiences marking our consciousness and our bodies restored. We begin each day as an infant might, clinging to sleep, refusing to do anything other than rest. We eventually throw off the blanket and reach adolescence only to remain stuck there the whole day, doing nothing more than what pleases us and wasting our time with games. We focus on what is fun and procrastinate around what matters, finding later that we have wasted our lives by refusing to aspire to maturity. Few reach adulthood and act as a human being should, rising to the acts of someone worthy of our species, and working for himself and others. We would prefer to do what comes easily but this denies us fulfilment and in the end we waste our lives.
Treat each day as if it were all you had left, for it is, until you die a little death. If a single day can seem unimportant, then every subsequent day becomes less sacred. Of course, we live a day at a time so each is as essential as the last. It follows that the day constitutes our lives, and all that we are or will be that remains in conscious control lies within it. To throw it away would be to waste a life. How many lives have we wasted so far? How many can we afford to waste before we really die?
Science is what we know. Philosophy is what we don’t know – Bertrand Russell
Philosophy concerns itself with the big questions in life; it is the study of the nature of knowledge, reality and existence. The etymology of the word itself comes from ancient Greece where ‘philosophia’ meant ‘love of wisdom’. This seems apt, the first philosophers were not content to accept the explanations afforded them. Instead they took it upon themselves to understand the world and provide workable theories for the laws of nature, even attempting to explain the universe at large. That some solutions were naive is a matter of indifference. The desire for truth and understanding embodied by these philosophers and those since has been crucial to our reaching what is today the pinnacle of knowledge. This attitude toward learning has lead to progress across every sphere in society.
The scope of philosophy is so broad that it extends across a wide range of disciplines, sharing a link to almost every other subject where, in many cases, it provided the foundation from which they were later derived. It has enjoyed a rich history in which it has been at the forefront of academia for milennia. Philosophy is at the root of most of what we know. In modern times however it has become somewhat unpopular and those studying it are, on some views, resigning themselves to lifelong unemployment. There is a feeling that it does not offer us much, that it has no real usefulness anymore. The problems raised by philosophers seem to obscure what we know and complicate matters whereas other subjects provide us with new information whose application is usually evident.
This is perhaps the problem. If we go by appearances philosophy seems to be at the periphery of any advances in knowledge. It tends to concentrate more on abstract thought, on positing theories and formulating problems, rather than actually proving and solving them or so those who scoff at philosophy suppose. The sciences take most of the credit, while philosophy languishes in the shadows, picking up the scraps it is left. Presently, it seems to be contributing little to the body of knowledge we are amassing. On account of this impression people feel justified in relegating it to a lesser subject, one of little or no meaningful consequence. However, on closer inspection, it becomes clear that this is merely an illusion that is prima facie tangible.
The reality is that once something positive can be said about a thing it ceases to be a part of philosophy. What was formally a theory that belonged to philosophy will, once factually proven, become a part of another specialised subject such as physics, psychology, or economics. Indeed, many of these have their origin in philosophy and were the consequence of the work of people who were initially philosophers. Psychology was the result of Wilhelm Wundt separating philosophy from theories that were shown to be true through the scientific method. Adam Smith, the father of economics, studied social philosophy at Oxford. A few centuries prior at Cambridge a certain Isaac Newton studied natural philosophy. Science itself was included in philosophy until the 18th century.
Why then is philosophy no longer esteemed as much as it was? To be a philosopher today is seen as eccentric and almost invariably invites ridicule from those who champion what they suppose are the important subjects. Philosophy is for many people a thing of the past, formerly useful, but no longer worth inquiring into. This shift is perhaps best related by the inevitable question ‘Why are you studying philosophy?’. This is usually followed by a friendly smile which seems to invite an answer, when in truth any provided will be fleetingly considered but ultimately ignored. That it is asked is itself revealing as those doing mathematics or physics will rarely be met with that question or, if they are, never with the same air of condescension. Those studying philosophy are expected to offer a justification for their choice and interrogated as if they had acted wrongly in making it.
The sciences are deemed practical because the use of research is usually obvious and the benefits of technology can be quantified and measured. The effect of philosophy is not so easy to interpet. Philosophical output consists in ideas whose impact is inferred indirectly, through the person espousing them. A philosopher works within the realm of ideas, objectively assessing the cogency of any views and theorising their own. Philosophical speculation is a preliminary to later knowledge but, because its truth or falsity is uncertain, it deals with what we don’t know. Science takes over where philosophy leaves off, when theories are proven true and become something that is known to us. A hypothesis, once verified, is said to belong to science and philosophy is deprived of the credit.
As a result, some question the point of the inquiries philosophers engage in as these, because science lays claim to any definite knowledge, seem to lead nowhere. The common view of a philosopher is of an individual who raises problems and questions everything, almost out of compulsion, but fails to provide any answers. They have in mind a sceptic who argues that it is not reasonable to accept that he exists until this is absolutely certain. Such doubts fail to explain life and deny it instead of shedding new light on it. To those interested only in practical affairs the debates occasioned by these doubts represent trivial pursuits and, associating philosophy with this, they feel that it is itself likewise unworthy of attention. They regard it as an intellectually stimulating yet fruitless pastime, to be distinguished by the discussion of trifles.
Nonetheless, these inquiries seek to show what we really know and suggest what might be through the generation of new ideas and theories which offer novel ways in which to understand the world. The outline for knowledge is sketched out for science to eventually fill in when it is capable of doing so. The ancient Greek philosopher Democritus postulated the existence of atomic constituents of matter in the 5th century bc but this theory was ‘philosophy’ until the 19th century because it was purely hypothetical. Atomism only led to the atomic theory and became ‘science’ when no doubt could be had about the interaction of atoms, when it was no longer conjecture. Nevertheless, this is only one example. In this way much of philosophy has been spirited away to the sciences and other branches of knowledge. This begs the question; if not in the theories posited by philosophers, where are we to look for the value of the subject?
Whereas science aims at an end outside itself, the end of philosophy is itself. The value of philosophy lies in a way of thinking. Its merits are to be sought primarily in what it offers those who take it up. The student of philosophy adopts a cast of mind that encourages them to think for themselves and to analyse and communicate ideas lucidly and persuasively, both orally and in writing. During the course of study they learn to construct logical arguments and come up with solutions to problems. Proficiency in critical thinking and inductive reasoning is also inculcated in students, alongside the ability to self-motivate.
The versatility these skills grant allow graduates to work for practically any type of employer in the public and private sectors. It is not uncommon for philosophy graduates to move into business, law, journalism, marketing and media. We might then answer the earlier question about the point of a philosophy degree with ‘I’ll be able to do just about anything with it’. It is a non-vocational degree after all and those studying it are essentially given free pick of a career as a reward for the transferable skills they acquire. The employability of philosophers is, on average, better than that of most degree holders. However, this is only incidental to the worth of philosophy, representing nothing more than a recognition of the benefits of undertaking its study.
Ideas are behind everything we do. They inform our actions, direct our businesses and structure our societies. To leave them unchecked without casting a discriminating eye over them is to give ourselves up to problems that could be avoided. Prudence would then consist in deliberating over our ideas and resolving upon the best way in which to either revise or apply them, a decision that is reached through structured argument. This a philosopher is taught to do.
To ponder the questions that have puzzled humanity since the beginning of civilisation is itself fulfilling. To speculate at what might follow death and consider the place we hold in all existence, to think on what man lives for; philosophising about these questions keeps alive a sense of wonder. The love of wisdom leads one to reflect on the entire scope of life and the vastness of the universe. It takes the whole of reality and existence as its object and it is this, the greatness of what it contemplates, that sets it apart. In the pursuit of knowledge of such themes as the meaning of life and truth, I took to philosophy.