Karl Löwith’s reading of Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence of the Same
Nietzsche’s Philosophy of the Eternal Recurrence of the Same is a strange book. And it is strange in the strictest sense. It has been a stranger in the corpus of books that are commonly used as interpretative tools to unveil Nietzsche’s work. There are several reasons for this strangeness, some of them are (were) political, some of them are (were) philosophical and some of them are just the fruit of chance; but among them there are neither the lack of quality nor the lack of profundity.
It can be argued that the role of Nietzsche in the history of Philosophy as well as his role in the history of Politics lay in the core of this book; although it is perfectly clear also that the essence of Löwith‘s reading of Nietzsche stands on its own strengths; and its value –when it was first published and today– is absolutely independent of its circumstances.
However, in order to fully understand what this book says and why it says what it says, in order to see why and how it has been in such a shadow of silence until a few years ago, it is necessary to begin this paper with a brief political and historical excursion. I am aware of the strangeness of an introduction to a paper Nietzsche that accounts for the history of a book that wants to interpret what is to be discussed hereafter. However, Nietzsche’s philosophy was so explicitly influential in the political life of Germany during the 1920s and 1930s that any book on his philosophy published amidst that convulsion must be understood as part of the conversation (or of the absence of debate) of the time.
Moreover, the controversy over the meaning of Nietzsche’s most famous claims, and the manipulation of them for political goals, become a crowded hall of mirrors that not only explains something about how a specific author –namely, Nietzsche– was understood; but, above all, they explain also both the roots and the consequences of his philosophy. This why I will begin this paper first by showing the political circumstances and, second, the philosophical circumstances of Löwith’s attempt, including differences and disagreements between Heidegger’s, the Nazi’s and Löwith’s interpretation of Nietzsche. Then, I will explain the main thesis of the book on the eternal recurrence of the same and the will to power. Along Lowith’s interpretation, I will explain my own view on his thesis.
The history of the book and its political circumstances
Karl Löwith was a German philosopher of Jewish descent born at the dusk of XIX century. In his book, published in 1939, My Life in Germany Before and After 1933, Löwith narrates the birth and childhood of cultural national-socialism in Germany from 1914 until its maturity with the rise of Hitler in 1932 through his own personal experience. Besides the widely known political evolution of the time, what is central to Löwith’s narration is the at first discrete and later raging persecution of Jewish scholars in German universities during the first years of Hitler’s rule. As Gadamer too has explained in his philosophical memoirs, the persecution was grounded in a cultural milieu that became more and more anti-Semitic, and ended up excluding Jewish scholars from all key positions in German universities. In the beginning, the process of exclusion was euphemistically pursued, while at the end, as everybody knows, even the word “persecution” sounds as an euphemism, considering the fate of all German Jews.
However, as Löwith’s autobiography shows, the growing presence of Nazism in universities was palpable in several details that not only aimed at banning Jewish scholars from their positions, but also pushed to establish a definitive interpretation of German culture, history and philosophy that found its hegemony thanks to direct or indirect (subtle or not so subtle) forms of censorship.
Löwith was one of the first intellectuals to see the danger and the ultimate goals of Hitler’s policies. He also understood their philosophical foundation, earlier than anybody else. While other Jewish scholars maintained their hope for a possible academic life in Germany, Löwith saw that the real problem was not for the scholars to be marginalized, but for the entire Jewish population’s survival and for the catastrophic path that his country was taken.
In 1934 Löwith was granted a scholarship by the Rockefeller Foundation and moved to Italy. Before leaving, his last courses in the University of Marburg were, precisely, on Nietzsche. Löwith saw in the hegemonic interpretation of Nietzsche one of the roots of Nazism –this was not a very difficult inference to make, given the published love of Nazi intellectuals for him. So, he used his last courses in defiance of the dominant interpretation of Nietzsche:
“I wanted to make clear to the students that Nietzsche prepares the way for, and at the same time represents the severest rejection of the present situation in Germany. Nietzsche is a “National Socialist” and a “cultural Bolshevik” –depending on how one maneuvers him. In opposition to this usage that is suited or perhaps unsuited to the times, I tried to establish the idea of eternity as the center of his philosophy”.
Once he left to Italy, he began writing Nietzsche’s Philosophy of Eternal Recurrence of the Same. By 1935 the book was finished and sent to different publishers, and Gerhard Bahlsen, the owner of the press “Die Runde” published it in Berlin. This was surely not an easy decision considering the situation: “The journal Kantstudien declined in 1935 to publish Löwith’s article on the relationship of Marx’s to Kierkegaard’s stance on Hegel –despite the editor’s having formally accepted the piece a year earlier –for ‘technical reasons”. As Löwith dryly observes in his memoir, the ‘technical reasons were that Marx was taboo in Germany and the author was not an Aryan.’ Also in 1936 Löwith could not find any German press for his book on Burckhardt, which was finally published in Switzerland.
Nevertheless, the book on Nietzsche was published without the Appendix, which is a set of twelve short reviews of divers interpretations of Nietzsche that include a strong criticism of Alfred Baecumler’s depiction of Nietzsche as the thinker of the “will as power” and also the at the time unpublished interpretation of Nietzsche by Löwith’s teacher, Martin Heidegger. Baecumler was the official interpreter of Nietzsche appointed by the regime, while Heidegger was –beyond his membership to the party– always considered essentially a Nazi by Löwith. Both reviews contained in the Appendix are explicit in their criticism of the nazification of Nietzsche. Löwith himself distributed the Appendix privately, and it was not until the second edition of the book in Stuttgart in 1956 that the reviews were made public –when its keenness was not even half useful– just some years after he taught at the New School for Social Research.
Therefore, it can be said that Löwith tried to recover Nietzsche from Nazi’s hands as much as he could. And, as we have seen in the quote about his last courses in Marburg, he did so by means of a philosophical interpretation of Nietzsche’s œuvre that privileges the eternal recurrence of the same as the core of Nietzsche’s thought, placing it above the will to power. This is not to say, however, that Löwith interpretation is expressly political, nor that he distorted Nietzsche’s philosophy in order to invalidate national-socialism either. On the contrary, Löwith main critique of other interpreters -both Nazi and non-Nazi– is that they use ideology or other external intellectual frames to interpret Nietzsche, reading into his published works and private letters their own biases. Ultimately they do not stay close to Nietzsche’s text. Löwith’s argumentation, on the contrary, is full of several long quotations from Nietzsche’s books, and is structured as an internal critique that looks for consistency –or inconsistency–in Nietzsche’s texts rather than for its accordance with ‘‘reality’’ or with the interpreter’s (unacknowledged) thought. Nietzsche’s Philosophy of the Eternal Recurrence of the Same is the work of a hermeneutician, neither the opinion of an adversary nor that of a cheerleader.
It is not strange, then, that Löwith’s book did not become a bestseller in 1930’s Germany. What is important, however, is that although his Jewish descent was an unsurmountable obstacle for the success of his book, Löwith’s interpretation of Nietzsche would have been politically incorrect anyway, even if he had been a non-Jewish party enthusiast. When the Nazi Party’s censorship of the Nietzsche edition that Heidegger was helping to prepare intensified in 1938, even Heidegger stopped working with the Commission that was chaired with the edition: In the famous Der Spiegel interview of 1966, (published after his death) Heidegger said: “Everyone who had ears to hear was able to hear in these lectures [the series of lectures on Nietzsche given from 1936 to 1940] a confrontation with National Socialism”.
By the time World War II was over, Löwith returned to Germany (persuaded by Gadamer) and published the second edition of the book. Löwith became a well respected figure, both for his memoir, and his philosophical work, especially his work in the area of Philosophy of History and his most celebrated book: From Hegel to Nietzsche, which includes some of the thesis of the book we are commenting, but under the light of a broader discussion on XIX century German philosophy, and its connections and evolutions. However, in the 1960s Anglo-speaking world, Heidegger’s Nietzsche volumes were dominant, and apparently, according to Berd Magnus, Löwith’s criticism of Heidegger and, especially, of Heidegger’s interpretation of Nietzsche, cast a cloak of silence and indifference over the book. Although Löwith’s interpretation of Nietzsche has gained increasing recognition in recent years, and has become one of the original poles of interpretation to fully understand Nietzsche, it is worth noting that the English translation was not published until 1997, the French translation not until 1994, the Italian translation not until 1996 and–although all other books by Löwith are already translated into Spanish–the one in question remains yet to be translated.
The Philosophical meaning of the context: Stefan George as a link between Nietzsche and Löwith.
In the 19th century–at the time Nietzsche is publishing– a set of difficult philosophical questions is raised at the culmination of early modern thought. This paper is not the place to develop these questions. A simple analysis of the discussion about exactly what questions were raised as a consequence of the philosophical debate of the 18th and 19th century would demand, at the very least, an entire paper. Assuming that any brief characterization of them would always be insufficient, we will, for the purposes of this paper, however, reduce these questions to a single problematic: Is there anything else beyond matter? The question of materialism, however, is expressed in many ways. Three useful answers to this problem in XIX century that will help us to understand the tension between Nietzsche and his interpreters, including Löwith, (especialy in what concerns the reception and meaning of the Eternal Recurrence of the Same), are materialism as economism, materialism as scientism and materialism as atheism. In fact the three of them are interrelated and constantly overlap. In this paper we will consider the relationship between materialism in general and nihilism. In order to not overlook the positive aspects of materialism, however, it is important to note that each form of materialism can be equally related to different spheres of life (Sloterdijk) as it can to a form of nihilism.
As for economism, XIX saw how liberal-capitalism developed its powers profusely. The awakening of technology, the yet to be developed public policies and the comparatively low taxes of the day, favored a situation in which a version of Smithian “free market” could carry the day, in which consumerism –although extremely limited– appeared and in which the bourgeois mentality burgeoned. At the same time, however, industrialism and proletarianism found its ideological consequences in dialectal materialism: Marxism and other forms of socialism. These two political and theoretical forces found their pulse in a conception of life and history that remained within the confines of “matter”, understood as goods, money or means to live.
As for scientism, it is also clear that XIX Century Europe witnessed the most astonishing development in science in all of history up until that point. As a result of the Renaissance, Enlightenment and modern empiricism, XIX century Europe was the century of the first reliable massive and popular results of the search for natural causes and the laws of nature that had been undertaken for, at least, two centuries, namely, technology. Some examples: 1832, Sauvage invents the helix; 1833, Faraday completes his experiments on electrolysis; 1835, Colt commercializes the first revolver; 1841; 1839, Daguerre: photography; 1846, Morton: anesthesia by ether; 1840, Liebig: chemical fertilizer; 1854: Barsanti-Matteucci: explosion motor; 1860, Lippis: torpedo, etc. Not to mention Plank, Ohm, Darwin, Joule or Mendel and their contributions to theoretical science. In a sense, Science became normal, that is, its significance entered into everyday practice. Scientific explanations of the world appeared as sufficient in praxis, giving it credence despite its contestable epistemological foundations. Philosophically, the outcrop of XIX century science and technology reinforced the fundamental question of natural determinism that had been addressed by most of the moderns, above all by Kant.
As for atheism, the process of secularization and the end of ecclesiastical authority started as early as the XIII century by humanists and reformists and, later on by Descartes, Hobbes and a long list of thinkers. It also found its normality in the XIX century Europe. Deprived of its essence, Christianity became just a beautiful liturgical form of hypocrisy and masquerade.
Philosophers of all kinds, and especially, German Idealists, devoted themselves to answer with different formulations, approaches and scopes the same question: is there anything else beyond matter? This question went behind the ivory tower concern of academia, but addressed the fundamental spirit of the times as what was once an exclusively a philosophical problem, namely, deterministic materialism, became a common belief for everyday survival.
Nietzsche’s thought is precisely an answer to this question. In his anti-Christian diatribes there is something more than a mere duel with God, there is above all a vociferating of the state of things: God is dead, and all metaphysical philosophies grounded on the Western (Judeo-Christian) tradition already condemned to failure. The fundamental lie of the West no longer has any purchase: As Nietzsche says of “truth,” “coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins.”
Western Judeo-Christian values and its voids, the tale about its origin and the promise of its goals, its ethical horizon and its conception of the world are no longer relevant. Its vision of the cosmos and its conception of Being have become, just like Christ’s tunic, after the crucifixion, the object of a wager, like the Roman soldiers who played a dice game on the shadow of God’s corpse. Nietzsche is the first to learn the true surname of the epoch and that of its offspring: nihilism. Nietzsche sees how at the peak of modernity the modern man does not know anymore where to go, or what is more, where “he” is going.
But as Nietzsche valiantly affirms, there is a certain kind of freedom in nihilism. The freedom of nothingness is, like Buridan’s ass, absolute immobility and a starving death. The modern man has been liberated from the fundamental lie of two thousand years of history, but has yet to find the new horizon, or the courage to live without horizons. Nietzsche’s vitalism, his return to the being to nature, his early positivism and biologism, his first formulations of his idea of the will, his call for self-overcoming, his return to pre-Socratic paganism and his embrace of Dionysus and ostracizing of Apollo, all of them conform a fundamental negation of the terms in which the question was asked, “is there anything else beyond matter?” Nietzsche accomplished an extremely powerful move to be able to change the question. Even his self-laudatory literature expresses the force of his desire: Nietzsche unbends the iron of his age to make the skeleton of his time fit for the future. The very premises of this question, for Nietzsche, are false: The question itself is posed within the very metaphysical horizon that is no longer viable. The new question is: “How can life self-determine its own determinism?” The path of the self-overcoming is ultimately a path of “coming” (back) to one’s own nature. This return to nature must, however, remain distinct from the lifeless naturalism of the material sciences. (We will come back to these issues later in this paper).
However, despite Nietzsche’s impact, he was not received as one of les philosophes; consequently, nor was his “philosophy” acknowledged as a systematic body of thought until much later –it is precisely Löwith who represents one of his first defenders in this respect, as he argues that his writings do indeed constitute a philosophy: the word “philosophy” in the title of the book in question is a vindication of Nietzsche’s philosophical character. Nietzsche was, nevertheless, considered a writer, a poet, a psychologist, a sociologist, a fool and a provocateur.
One of his first and most fervent admirers was the German poet Stefan George. His poetic interpretation of Nietzsche’s philosophy served as one of the most important links between what Nietzsche said and his impact in the German culture and politics. Löwith criticizes his interpretation (“pure Nazism”) in several works, including this one, but especially in his memoir above mentioned. In order to understand the role that Löwith’s interpretation played among Nietzsche’s reception during the 20th century, and his struggle against both biased and unconscious philosophical misinterpretations of the latter’s work, I argue that the figure of Stephan George is especially illustrating.
Stefan George (1868-1933) was the first to call Nietzsche “a prophet”. He saw in Nietzsche’s Übermensch the prophecy of an imminent overcoming of the category “man”, and in his own life he tried to embody that transformation. His poetry, strongly influenced by French symbolists, above all Mallarmé, is a call to Orphism, is a call to the (re)discovery of “spirit” in nature. He rejected both the “soft classicism” and the radical “naturalism” of the German literature of the time. George, following Nietzsche, wanted to retrieve pre-Socratic Paganism; and used to perform Dionysian rituals within his circle of disciples. The praise of strength, homo-erotic love and Heraclitean essential Polemos encompass his verses through the distinction between the nobility of certain men and the vulgar mass of the ignorant and the weak. He rejected all forms of political materialism and economicism, including both communism and bourgeois liberalism, his circle of disciples despised the intellect without blood and distinguished the “experience born from education” from “the originary experience” (i.e. force and aristocracy). George demanded a spiritual-pagan-orphic reawakening, a “new Reich”, and a new “Führer” that would stir he dormant German soul that had been suppressed for so long by Christianity:
I journeyed home: such flood of blossoms never
Had welcomed me … a throbbing in the field
And in the grove there was of sleeping powers.
I saw the river, slope and shire enthralled,
And you, my brothers, sun-heirs of the future:
Your eyes, still chase, are harboring a dream,
Once yearning thoughts in you, to blood shall alter…
My sorrow-stricken life to slumber leans,
But graciously does heaven’s promise guerdon
The fervent … who may never pace the Reich.
I shall be earth, shall be the grave of heroes,
That sacred sons approach to be fulfilled.
With them the second age comes, love engendered
The world, again shall love engender it.
I spoke the spell, the circle has been woven …
Before the darkness fall, I shall be snatched
Aloft and know: through cherished fields shall wander
Contrasting George’s spiritual mysticism with the mechanistic worldview of the Modern era, Heidegger writes:
“This type of [technological] thinking is about to abandon the earth as earth. As calculation, it drifts more and more rapidly and obsessively toward the conquest of cosmic space. This type of thinking is itself already the explosion of a power that could blast everything to nothingness. All the rest that follows from such thinking, the technical processes in the functioning of the doomsday machinery, would merely be the final sinister dispatch of madness into senselessness. As early as 1917, Stefan George, in his great ode “The war” written during the First World War, said: “These are the fiery signs –not the tidings” (Das Neue Reich, p.29).”
The circle around Stefan George was formed by a group of German intellectuals completely devoted to this new poet-leader. Among his followers were writers, painters, philosophers, linguists and politicians (Rudolf Fahrner, Karl Schefold, Karl Wohlfskehl, Friedrich Gundolf, Edgar Salin, Berthold Vallentin, Erich Kahler, Ernst Kantorowicz, Kurt Singer). His influence was tremendous: Both Gadamer and Heidegger acknowledged it. In his memoir, Löwith asserts that the circle around Stefan George played an important role to prepare the way for the Nazi ideology. Even Goebbels studied with one of the members of George’s circle. The linguistic basis for what would become the core of Nazi rhetoric and propaganda was almost entirely taken from George’s poetry.
Like Nietzsche, or following Nietzsche, George combined a cosmological vision with an anthropological one. The ring of the eternal recurrence of the same was expressed in George as poetic truth. His ritualistic performances and his pretended access to truth through beauty were parts of this sort of natural neo-pagan religion devoted to Dionysus. On the other hand, his denouncing of nihilism, and wars based on old dead disputes (namely, the First World War) instead of the war for spiritualization and self-overcoming, his seek for the new man, his circle of the noble and its esoteric knowledge, his “intellect with blood”, his demand for a “Führer” and a “Reich” that would destroy the senselessness of both communist and liberal-democratic states was his poetic and political expression of the “will to power”. Stefan George wanted to be Zarathustra.
According to Löwith, the ideology of George’s circle was a “pure Nazism”, and indeed when Adolf Hitler arrived to power, some of his followers thought that Hitler was the Führer they had all been waiting for. However, when the new regime offered George the chair of the German Academy of Poetry, hoping to gain his support, he refused and went into voluntary exile in Switzerland, where he died only a few months later, in 1933. The Führer was not the Führer-Superman he had been longing for. The project of the third Reich was not what he had in mind with his “new Reich”.
Notwithstanding George’s rejection of the Nazi party, Nazism too must be understood (also) as a response to the metaphysical crisis of XIX century. Its goal was to create a spiritual political system based on the idea of “will as power” and a conviction that a self-overcoming of man was able to master whatever came its way. Totalitarianism, dictatorship, racial supremacy and conquest occupied the space left vacant by religion. Nazism -slotted to prevail for a thousand years- was to overcome nihilism; it would lead the spiritual awakening of the German soul, the birth of the new superman and the binding force that would give meaning and purpose to the lost modern man. Liberalism and communism were the responsible for German decadence. Their modernity and their materialism were leading men to the pyre of despair and senselessness. Christianity and Judaism represented the enthronement of the lowest values, and the Jews especially were considered a plague. The will to power and self-overcoming were finally transmuted into decisionism. A pure unrooted immanent will became the absolute transcendence of the German soul. Will is power.
Why did George reject this pseudo-Nietzschean regime? Was it because of the Nazi’s way of embracing technology and science instead of the Nietzschean way of loving the Being of the World and nature? Apparently so. However, even if we consider that Löwith sees in George a form of “pure Nazism”, it is conceivable that, if George took Nietzsche seriously as “a prophet” and “believed” everything he said, he had necessarily to embrace as an essential part of Nietzsche’s “prophecy” the eternal recurrence of the same, which his poems themselves, in fact, suggest, instead of the “thousand-year Reich”, the temporal enslaving ideal of Nazism. Indeed, the official Nazi interpretation of Nietzsche the importance of the eternal recurrence, focusing exclusively on the will to power instead. Löwith is rather dry in the Appendix of Nietzsche’s Philosophy of the Eternal Recurrence of the Same when he analyzes Alfred Baeumler’s (“at the time of the Third Reich was the official advocate and editor of Nietzsche’s works”) interpretation of Nietzsche: “As a consequence of this arbitrary expurgation of the teaching of the return from the context of the will to power, Baeumler is forced to assimilate the ‘innocence of becoming’, which originally results from the eternal recurrence, into a will to power without an eternal recurrence and to see in the will to power only the “will as power”.
“Apparently Beaumler wanted to swing the sword with fresh and gay science, and because Nietzsche’s teaching of the eternal recurrence of the same […] did not suit that purpose, Baeumler had to devise a fitting interpretation of Nietzsche. The formula that Beaumler coins for Nietzsche’s worldview and that came into use in many variation is that of’ heroic realism.’”
Baeumler’s concept of the will does not “as in the case of Nietzsche, attempt ‘to turn’ irresponsibility into something ‘positive’ but only wants not ‘to accept responsibility’ any longer and is self-confident because it does not know what and why it wills at all. This will is at bottom nothing other than an explosion of force’”.
Even Heidegger found this interpretation remote to his thinking, and he attempted to reconcile the will to power and the eternal recurrence of the same. Yet, his interpretation tried to render them compatible to his theory of the forgetfulness of Being in Western metaphysics beginning with Plato and culminating in Nietzsche, that is, reading the will to power and the recurrence of the same as the traditional metaphysical distinction between existence and essence. Löwith criticizes Heidegger by claiming that he misunderstands Nietzsche when he makes “the will to power” prevail over the Eternal Recurrence, and when he turns the tension of eternity at the moment of “noon”, (the “new birth”) into a mere theory of values, a will that suffices itself, and a “Being” that is never a “Becoming” when the perfection of “authenticity” is repeated over an over.
“Despite Nietzsche’s express statement that the total Character of life and of the living world cannot be assessed and evaluated, Heidegger interprets Nietzsche’s philosophy as a ‘metaphysics of values’ and interprets value as a ‘point of view’, the simple meaning of which he artfully misinterprets. But the conception of the world that Nietzsche envisions […] is characterized by the idea that life as will to power cannot be devaluated because “in every moment” life is wholly what it is, and remains equally powerful and signifies the same through an alteration”.
What Heidegger does not see is that the critical repetition is the repetition of the “moment”, that is, the repetition of the becoming as necessity. (Löwith in fact seems to suggest that Heidegger willfully misinterprets Nietzsche here). The courage to love this fate implies loving the fatalistic ego under an understanding of the Being of the World as “perfected” in its fate.
“As an eternal recurrence of the same, Nietzsche’s eternity appears in Heidegger’s interpretation only in that he will to power –the vantage point from which he one-sidedly interprets the teaching of the return– secures the lasting continuance of itself for a willing that is ‘as homogeneous and regular as possible’”.
Here we see the decisive space that Löwith’s book occupies, and we finally can move on to his main thesis, which is both an extremely rigorous attempt to unveil Nietzsche’s system and in itself a courageous and lucid political response to Nazism at the dawn of 20th century tragedy.
Löwith’s main thesis
Löwith’s main thesis on Nietzsche’s work has two aspects: one formal and the other material. Both are already implied in the title of his book: Nietzsche’s work is a “philosophy”, i.e. a system of thought, and its content is the “eternal recurrence of the same”.
As we have seen both claims were not as wide-spread in 1935 as they are today. As for the formal side of Löwith’s claim, the two principal problems that any interpreter faces when she tries to systematize Nietzsche’s thinking are those of genre and unity. The problem of genre raises the question of who exactly Nietzsche is as an author: is he a poet? a novelist? a mystic? Or even if we consider his writings a system of thought: is he a psychologist? A sociologist? In 1935 the question was just beginning to be answered. The main obstacle was that Nietzsche’s writings did not fit neatly into any established, or, at the very least, his style was atypical among philosophers. The treatise in the modern era was almost the exclusive vehicle to communicate philosophical ideas in writing. Outstanding exceptions like Montaigne or Pascal, both of whom belonged to that ambiguous category of sui generis philosophers, are, in a sense, Nietzsche’s precursors. . The fact that Nietzsche’s writings are different suggest that his choice of style was deliberate. Just as Plato’s choice of genre (Dialoguea) in communicating his ideas (in a time when this genre was not common in philosophy) was not arbitrary but fully connected with the content of his philosophy. Nietzsche’s genre must be considered with respect to the message that he is trying to send. Hence, the difficult task of placing his writings in a concrete, well-established genre, (that is, a formal category that would allow the reader to know in advance what kind of discourse she is reading) forces the interpreter to look into the content in order to understand what the form means and how form and content are connected. The parallelism with Plato in this respect is suitable because both of them were committed to creating a new form of philosophizing, or, more accurately, a new form of thinking: the right one, so to speak. In their style there is a foundational moment. But, concerning Nietzsche’s form, which draws on evangelical narrative (In Zarathustra), aphorisms (his philosophizing “with a hammer”) and poems, the second question appears to be the most difficult to solve. The question of unity is essential in determing whether his writings form an amorphous set of unconnected sparks of wisdom, beauty and madness or a system of thought that aims at the “truth” or that attains some kind of “knowledge”.
Löwith’s first claim is that Nietzsche’s work is a philosophy and that his aphoristic form is intimately linked to the content of his enterprise and, secondly that the eternal recurrence of the same is what gives unity to the content, and the form, of his entire project:
“Nietzsche’s philosophy is neither a unified, closed system nor a variety of disintegrating aphorisms, but rather a system in aphorisms. What is peculiar about the philosophic form of theses aphorisms characterizes their content as well. The systematic character of Nietzsche’s philosophy results from the specific way in which Nietzsche sets about, persists in, and carries out his philosophical experiment; the aphoristic character results from the experimenting as such. The single meaning of Nietzsche’s multiple metamorphoses must be understood in terms of the fundamentally experimental character of his philosophizing”
What kind of experiment is he carrying out? And which is the object of his experimentation? Nietzsche departs from the idea of experimentation in the modern age, especially in its origins, that is, Leonardo’s and the Renaissance inquirers’. It is a form of experimentation based on a pure form of curiosity, but, according to Löwith, a form of inquiring that is already advancing nihilism. His early radical skepticism and acute criticism of values and culture demand that he set out on an experimental path of pursuing truth. Nietzsche-Zarathustra is a wanderer towards truth, but he has no basis, no roots, no original moment to come back to, and no basis for looking for a purpose when he is lost. In this sense, life is the experiment. Not just a passive reception of experiences: the philosopher-wanderer turns his life into an experiment that begins with a progressive letting-off, an increasing discharge of the burden of assumptions and lies of the tradition. The first step thus is that of an emptying-out of oneself. Löwith sees in Nietzsche’s “experimentation” both anti-dogmatism and the reason for his rejection of “phony” systematizations that are slated to discover knowledge. From this perspective, Nietzsche’s philosophy and life are one. His experiments are his aphorisms; and his aphorisms are his life. Not only nihilism, but also the overcoming of it and the self-overcoming through the will that accepts and learns to love the fate of the Eternal Recurrence of the Same are, according to Löwith, already contained in this experimenting-aphoristic-parabolic “method”.
“…because according to this teaching [eternal recurrence] the ‘lot of humanity’ has already ‘been there eternally’ and has long been decided, there is in human knowing, too, no capriciousness but only fate. Already in Nietzsche’s attempt to refrain from a system, there rules first and finally a necessity that compels him to develop as a system the idea of eternally recurring Being. And in the aphorism, which is seemingly the fleeting form of merely accidental ideas, Nietzsche wanted –in agreement with his philosophy– to mold not a transitory apothegm but a ‘form of eternity’”.
Therefore, it is already seen that this experiment, this wandering towards nothingness to end up with “truth”, is both a form of self-fashioning (an experiment with one’s own life), and also a path to let one’s own nature, (one’s own necessity,) emerge: the being of the wanderer is becoming what one is. It is already, then, a form of amor fati: the central tension of Nietzsche’s philosophy of which the Eternal Recurrence of the same is “the last experiment” that makes the whole project turn into a teaching.
Consequently, Löwith organizes Nietzsche’s work into three periods that correspond to two transformations. These transformations are experimental correlates of the phases of the self-overcoming taught by Zarathustra: that is, the movement from the “Thou shalt” to the “I will”, and from the “I will” to the “I am”: “Two critical metamorphoses justify the differentiation of Nietzsche’s writings into three periods: first, the transformation from the reverential disciple into the self-liberating spirit, and second, from the spirit that has been liberated into the teaching master”.
Further, these biographical metamorphoses lead to three periods of publication:
“The first period comprises, of the writings published by Nietzsche himself, The Birth of Tragedy, and the Untimely Meditations. The second includes the writings of the ‘plowshare’: Human, All-too-Human; The Dawn of Day; and the first four books of The Gay Science. The third period begins on the foundation of the idea of the eternal recurrence, with Zarathustra, and ends with Ecce Hommo. This period alone contains Nietzsche’s genuine philosophy”.
The first self-transformation is a metamorphosis from the “Thou shalt” to the “I will”. It is the tale of the liberation of reason turned into the way towards nihilism. This period in Nietzsche’s work is considered his “positivistic” period. However, Löwith claims that this is only so if we understand it from the standpoint of the later writings, that is, from the doctrine of the Eternal Recurrence of the Same. From this point of view, positivism is just a “disappointed romanticism” on the way to a “resolute nihilism”. It is the interim state that demands a total rejection of all ties: cultural, geographical, and metaphysical. It is the journey of the wanderer that goes from the old ties to the Thou shalt have free will, which is a relative freedom, a freedom that is, above all, eccentricity: a separation from the world of men. Later, however, this goalless path of the wanderer ends up in a moment of absolute nihilism in which only the will remains: all the rest has been erased. It is the moment of the “I will”. There is no more skepticism in the “I will”. Skepticism was the energy of the wanderer, a relative freedom that is only a form of doubt that asks for reasons at every stage. “Thou shalt doubt” is the motto of this interim wanderer. But, once the abyss of nothingness has been encountered, the wanderer does not doubt any longer, he is denying everything, except for his will. Once the absolute “no” has been formulated, then a space for the “yes” opens up, just as shadow and light are dependent on one another.
Nevertheless, Löwith sees the transitoriness of relative nihilism as a preparation for the eventual affirmation of the Eternal Recurrence. However the extreme point of nihilism at stage of the “I will” remains the no-yet-actualized possibility of loving such eternity:
“The very skepticism of the free spirit of the wanderer already has a hidden “will to wisdom”. And just as the “abyss” of extreme nihilism “speaks again” only when the opposite idea, that of the eternal recurrence, also wants to be spoken, so does the shadow, too, speak to the wanderer”.
This second metamorphosis is a self-transformation less dependent on the epoch or the weakening of the ties that once bound the wanderer. It is liberation from the “I will” to the “I am” of the Child of the world. The “I will” is not enough, “I will” only affirms one’s disposition, a negative freedom, amidst the nothingness. To be able to say “Yes” to the Being of the World is still necessary to affirm one’s own nature. It is necessary for Nietzsche-Zarathustra to remove the ultimate form of depreciating existence, namely, God, and to become one himself:
“This overcoming of being human ultimately occurs in the willing of the eternal recurrence. In the always recurring whole of Being that has always existed, the biggest objection against existence as such, against the accident of naked being-there, is removed. What the death of God liberates man’s existence for, is, however, at first not already the Yes to the eternal recurrence of the same, but nihilism, which in man is first a sickness and then a freedom unto death”.
This “I am” belongs to the “noontide”, an absolute quietness that ‘‘freezes’’ time and makes room for the acceptance of eternity and recurrence. It is at the same time the will to nothing and the overcoming of nothing. It is the path from the extreme “No” to the “Yes to Being”, that since it already says yes to fate, (the world as nature), it opens the door for the new-ancient cosmology. The decisive circumstance of this second transformation is the acknowledgment of the meaning of the death of the Christian God:
“Because all “Thou shalt” of the moral imperative is finally measured against the Christian God who commanded man regarding what he should do, the death of God is at the same time the principle of the will that wills itself in man. In the ‘desert of his freedom,’ man prefers to will the nothing rather than not will, for he is “man” –without God–only insofar as he also “wills”. The death of God means the resurrection of the man who is abandoned to his own responsibility and command, the man who finally has his most extreme freedom in ‘freedom towards death’. At the peak of his freedom, however, the will to the nothing inverts itself into the willing of the eternal recurrence of the same. The dead Christian God, the man before the nothing, and the will to the eternal recurrence characterize Nietzsche’s system as a whole as a moment first from “Thou shalt” to the birth of the “I will” and then to the rebirth of the “I am” as the “first movement” of an eternally recurring existence amidst the naturelike world of all that is”.
The path to the “noon” has been completed, the conditions for the acknowledgement and acceptance of the eternal recurrence have raised from a process of self-transformation that have led to a self-overcoming of human nature. “In the decisive, critical moment of the great noon –after the temporary noon of the philosophy of the morning –a cessation of time occurs. As the time of a unique decision, once and forever, the moment has –eternity.”
From the relative nihilism of the “Thou Shalt be free”, which was a form of eccentricity, to the negative freedom of the willing of nothingness in the moment of “I will”, until the last step, the affirmation of one’s nature as the Being of the World, an expression of the ineluctability of subjectivity that leads to the amor fati. At the peak of science’s own concept of necessity and repetition (i.e. the discovery of the laws of nature), scientific objectivity has failed to include a notion of the subject that (subjectively) wills necessity and repetition. The “I am” is godlike, and reverses the will of nothing (the moment of the absence of origin and telos), to the acceptance of the new cosmology of the Eternal Recurrence as the nature of the Being of the World:
“As the ‘most pious of the godless’, Zarathustra becomes Zarathustra-Dionysus, in whose name Nietzsche accomplishes the last metamorphosis, from the heroic principle of “I will” into the godlike principle of “I am”. This latter principle is like the gods because through it what was previously heavy and difficult becomes light and easy.[…] …because the Yes-saying liberates from the burden of being there, which has fallen to man like an accident”.
The essential unity of all stages is its aiming to the moment of “noon”, the moment in which the prophecy of the Eternal Recurrence can be vociferated and actively accepted, that is, loved.
However, from that moment of noon arises also a fundamental contradiction between the superman or ‘the will to power’ and the eternal recurrence of the same (nothingness). The teaching of the superman is the precondition for the teaching of the eternal recurrence, because only the man who has overcome himself can also will the eternal recurrence of all that is”. Therefore, to prove the reconcilability or irreconcilability of the eternal recurrence of the same with the “will to power” or “the superman” is the main task of all interpreters, and all interpretation. According to Löwith, it is necessary to acknowledge both, however, Nietzsche’s fundamental idea is that it is the eternal recurrence that prevails over the will to power and not the other way around. (“The will to the superman and to the eternal recurrence is Nietzsche’s ‘last will’ and his ‘last idea’ in which the whole of his experiment is systematically summarized”). Moreover, for Löwith, they are irreconcilable, because, after all, how can one will what will be anyway?:
“For on the one hand the idea of the eternal recurrence teaches a new purpose of human existence beyond human existence, a will to self-eternalization; but it also teaches the exact opposite: a revolving of the natural world in itself, a revolving that is just as selfless as it is goalless, and that includes human life. The cosmic meaning clashes with the anthropological meaning, so that the one contradicts the other”
Perhaps we can, with Löwith, reformulate this passage with the following questions: How can a more radical nihilism overcome nihilism? How can the ethical task of self- overcoming nihilism make any sense at all if the decision to transform one’s self and the moment of noon that opens eternity are contained in the necessity of the Being of the World, which itself follows a goalless necessity? The eternal recurrence of this same is its only content, so the wanting of it is the only real necessity. What is more striking is that a self-fashioning being and an extreme subjectivity are themselves indeed necessary. The superman is a necessary ‘becoming’ of the same that overcomes his thrownness (Heidegger) by withdrawing his own necessity from time. Nietzsche calls it fate and love: emptied or “atheized” forms of God and faith.
Löwith finds this tension essentially contradictory. Its irreconcilability is indeed irreducible. When Nietzsche says that the “most terrible” form of the idea of Eternal Recurrence is “existence just as it is, without any meaning or goal, but inexorably recurring, without a finale into the nothing: ‘the eternal recurrence.’ That is the most extreme form of nihilism: the nothing (the ‘meaningless’) as eternal!” Löwith sees that the kind of courage, or the kind of will necessary to walk this path through love, is far from an idea of the “will to power” based on domination or decisionism. The acknowledgement of this new cosmology as fact clashes with the idea of willing it:
“The willing human being is always mixed into the necessity of this game of the worlds. In the anthropological interpretation, the eternally same recurrence appeared as an ethical task, renewing itself in every moment, for the willing man for whom this teaching is to replace the Christian belief in immortality. In the cosmological interpretation, by contrast, the recurrence appeared not as a ‘plan for a new way to live’ and a ‘will to rebirth’ but as destruction and rebirth that happens by nature and that is completely indifferent to all plans made by man out of his thrownness”.
However, the Nietzschean cosmological formulations of the Eternal Recurrence of the Same suggest that a finite number of states of the world are destined to unfold in time, because time is infinite. Every state, every possibility, every combination, will be repeated an infinite number of times. If this exact moment, this exact me exactly writing this same sentence has been and will be repeated an infinite number of times, also all the other possibilities for this exact moment will as well. If all possibilities are repeated, what is really being repeated is the diversity of all possibilities. And this is too overwhelming for morality, because morality only makes sense for this moment. (Here one ought to consider morality unencumbered by the juridical forms of what Hegel calls Moralität). This is a necessity without content: the “same” means here also “different”. But, even a stronger form of necessity could be applied to the Eternal Recurrence that Nietzsche does not incorporate into his project: necessity in the Eternal Recurrence would be a concrete order of the repetition of all possibilities, a series of repetitions. If it is a random, senseless, repetition of all events, we cannot know among all possibilities which one we are being, that is, becoming. None of them must, as a matter of necessity, happen this time. The call for self-overcoming nihilism through the eternal recurrence, gives meaning to every decision as a choice for one possibility.
If one overcame oneself, and at the same time, overcame the nihilism of the absence of a metaphysical normativity, namely God, one would be oneself –that exact self– every time that that possibility is repeated: hence, one is giving life to this oneself in each moment. The “I” means a willful becoming of “oneself”. A self-fashioning. To love what you will be anyway makes no sense, it is just nihilism with mathematical combinations, so to speak, but from the point of view of the experience of the moment, the moment of questioning the Being of the World and the will, it does indeed make sense because in that “noon” one wants to be oneself, for ever. The question then is: which repetition do you want to be?
Löwith, on the contrary, claims that “put in moral terms: I am responsible for everything’s being there and being as it is, and there is no being there that would be responsible for its being as it is and its being there. The contradiction between both sets of assertions could only be nullified and brought to a non-contradictory correspondence if Nietzsche succeeded in flying beyond all going, going over, going under, into the innocence of heaven”.
However, then, the importance of Nietzsche’s idea of eternity is essential to understand what the modern world seeks, and how the powers of men are not enough to make them stand by themselves. The sheer will (to power or to whatever) is not enough. God was once the basis for these powers to work; now that modern man has murdered Him, a new transcendence is needed. Although, Nietzsche’s attempt was ultimately not successful in Löwith’s view: “What can be learned from his teaching is not ready-made results but rather the indispensability of certain issues of the philosophy of nature that result, historically, from the fact that the old, biblical God is dead for modern man’s consciousness. […] It is the result of the loss of a theological answer”.
All internal quotations are taken from Löwith, Karl, Nietzsche’s Philosophy of the Eternal Recurrence of the Same. Translated by J. Harvey Lomax. University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles, CA, 1997. Hereafter all other quotations from this work provide the acronym KL and page number.
From Hegel to Nietzsche is far more known than Nietzsche’s Philosophy of the Eternal Recurrence of the Same, and indeed it is part of that corpus. Hence, it is not Löwith himself who is a stranger, but this book in particular.