Laurence Hemming of the University of Lancaster presented the 2017 Truman G. Madsen Lecture on the Eternal Man. His remarks are entitled, “Eternal Return: Humanity After Eternity.”
I must begin with words of thanks: to the Wheatley Institute for this invitation to speak to you today. It is a great privilege and honour to be here. My thanks go also to Truman Madsen and the Madsen family for making this lecture possible at all. The publicity for this event speaks of its intent “to bring academic experts and civic leaders ‘to the fire’ at BYU.” For a Catholic, the historic resonances of being “brought to the fire” could be a little alarming. It is testimony to the generosity and gentleness of Mormon hospitality that such a resonance never once occurred to the organizers, let alone Truman Madsen, who, I assume, had coined the phrase himself.
I would like to begin this lecture with some preliminary remarks. Barnard Madsen’s biography of his father was hugely helpful: the man he introduced to me I would have enjoyed to meet. I feel I have met him in spirit, not least through the bearing and superbly intelligent scholarship of a number of Mormon academics I discover he taught, and whom I am already privileged to count within my acquaintance. It is unsurprising to find the names of Hugh Nibley and Jack Welch, two giants, within this circle.
I have witnessed more than once the peculiar phenomenon of non-Mormons, invited onto Mormon platforms, spelling out why we are not Mormon. My experience of the privilege you have accorded me has been rather different: I have learned much more about what it means to be a Catholic from speaking and studying with Latter-day Saints—things I could not have learned by any other means. I receive this experience as a gift, and come to this rostrum tonight in part in thanks for what I have received. There is so much we share, and what I want to offer to you tonight is in that spirit—I want to offer, here, for the first time, some questions concerning something that besets all of us who go under the name of Christian in these present days, especially in the West, and especially, but by no means exclusively, here, in the United States.
Before I open that discussion, a further remark. The little book Eternal Man, if brief, is very rich. It speaks with an encompassing voice. The book Eternal Man, forming as it does the basis of these annual events, is a unique and powerful combination of philosophical prowess and LDS spirituality. I do not wish to encroach upon the presentation it makes of the faith of Latter-day Saints. To be frank, you are better equipped than I am for that, and I look for points where we can meet—rather than focusing on where we might diverge. What would—or at least ought to—strike any Catholic reading this text is the extent to which the book, most deeply understood, is really a dialogue between Truman Madsen and Joseph Smith, his prophet. Catholicism is rich in religious founders: St. Benedict, St. Dominic, St Francis, St Theresa of Avila, to name but a few. Catholics naturally understand what it means to live in a tradition shaped by charismatic founders. We are shaped by those who founded the things we have come to know. I recognized the same thing in Mormonism as soon as I began to realize who Joseph Smith was. In the Catholic tradition, we speak of being, and of having been, shaped, not just by God and in Christ, but also by those in a particular tradition in which we stand. If we are a Benedictine monk, for example, by Saint Benedict. Every Mormon I have ever met is shaped, it seems to me, strongly in the spirit of Joseph Smith.
If Mormonism is one of the newest expressions of Christianity, it manages to accomplish what many Christian traditions increasingly forget to do, and it does so first in the writings and person of Joseph Smith. It reaches into the very soil of history and unearths precious things long hidden, but still at work, still—even when occluded—full of power. Mormonism, and Truman Madsen’s experience of it through his dialogue with Joseph Smith, reaches right back as an incipient expression of some of the West’s most ancient ideas. Incipient means: speaking now and all over again from the beginning, that foundational understanding that constitutes history itself. History, understood like this, is not the mere narration of events in their succession. It is altogether greater and other: it is how that beginning still conditions the experience of the whole, of all that we are. That is what I wish to touch upon, and be in dialogue with, tonight. Right there in the Preface to Eternal Man, Madsen quotes Joseph Smith: “by contraries . . . truth is made manifest.”1 No reference is given, but the quotation comes from a letter of Smith’s to Daniel Rupp of June 5, 1844, citing the prophet Jeremiah. Madsen may have been working from memory, for the exact words of the letter are “by proving contraries.” I take the modification to be important: nowadays we hear the word “proving” in the sense of geometrical demonstration, the resolution of a question of the operation of the mind. But this is not what is meant by “proof” in Joseph Smith’s letter; an older sense is intended: living, the “lived experience” of bearing out through the day-to-day, and holding in a place, these contraries, which is what it means to have a human life. Such a sentence could have come from any of those we call the pre-Socratics, the earliest thinkers in the West. The question is how and in whom are such contraries proved? That is one of the fascinating things about the way in which Joseph Smith reaches right in to the soil of Western thinking. That’s who we are. Just to annoy some of my students I tell them that I am completely and utterly Eurocentric, but I don’t mean it in terms of a hegemony. I mean it by what it means to be steeped in history. To be authentically who you are.
Joseph Smith reopens, actually by simply setting aside, the doctrine of creation ex nihilo, and in this simple gesture, he sets aside the unforgiving nexus of causality that has constituted the history of metaphysics, and defined the agonistic confrontation of necessity with free will in Christianity’s confrontation with Greek thinking. Madsen begins in this spirit by saying “there is no creation ‘from nothing.’ There is ordering of elements.”2 This could have come straight from the pages of the pre-Socratics.
Tonight I want to speak to you, not as a theologian, but as a thinker. One schooled, I could only wish more adequately, in the history of thinking and in philosophy. I want to present to you in a very preliminary form, and (for me) the first time, some ideas that have beset me over many years. I hope this will eventually be a more technical argument, but tonight it will take a very general form.
Why? The question of the eternal—the question of time as such—and the question of who “man” (or the human being) is, are, as Madsen clearly knew all too well, perhaps the greatest challenges in thinking that stand before us. The mere ability to measure time, time as it stands on the clock, the succession of “nows,” so much does not resolve the meaning of time as to cover over the possibility of its resolution altogether. Merely biological conceptualisations of humanity confuse, not only the meaning of “man”, but, as we stand on the threshold of huge medical advances so that there are those who are at least contemplating the possibility of humanity or some section of it standing in this present life with the possibility of it leading off into what might seem to be an eternity, these conceptualizations also confuse further the question of eternity itself. My title has a clear reference to Nietzsche’s doctrine (his word) of the eternal recurrence: one of the most neglected and misunderstood of the things of which he writes. For a people such as the Latter-day Saints, a self-consciously historical people, you will be well aware that we stand at present in the midst of a turning point, a genuine krisis, with respect to history itself. An emancipatory politics—through what has come to be identified in the phrase “identity politics,” but which increasingly comes to stand for “the political” in the West, has come to be marked by a hiatus, an absolute and decisive breach, wherein “we” (whichever “we” is posited, and so needing to assert itself) stand in opposition to, and are cut off from, every sense of the “from whence” the “from out of which” this “we” has come. We’ve been cut off from our history by many contemporary discourses in modern life.
For any “we” that finds itself like this, the past is constituted over and again as a place of injury and the occlusion of identity. I hope you recognize what I am talking about. There is very often more, much more, than superficial justification for the sense of injury, and the occlusion claimed. If you were to take for instance the issue of race, too few people in my country understand the extent to which my own nation in its industrial genesis was predicated on the slave trade. That’s the sense of injury I’m talking about. But in each case every attempt to constitute emerging identities within a wider whole is resisted or declared impossible. Often the establishment of the competing and agonised identities in question is marked by a mood of vengeance. The vengeance in question has nothing to do with a psychological state or outlook: it is in every sense a metaphysical vengeance (often taken up by people otherwise entirely peaceful, and whose intent is peace), an orientation demanded by what seems to be the moment itself, but it springs in fact from how the moment itself appears, from out of the whole. There is a great deal more that we could say here, for which there is not the time.
In each case like this, an overpowering will to power is exercised that demands a kind of satisfaction for past wrongs that can find no resolution. The past—as “history”—has no value, not because it has been devalued, but because no value dare be assigned it: “You can’t go there because we’re too hurt about what happened there.” History is without value because we become unable to know what its value has been. We are by no means at the end of this process; indeed, we stand at its beginning.
And if you are now bracing yourself from an onslaught of this kind from me, and wondering what my onslaught is and what “resolution” I have in mind, and who I must denounce in the process, you may, I hope, breathe easily. For in coming to the end of my opening remarks I want to ask, very simply, “In what way might we set all of this aside?” I hope you see the parallel that I am trying to make with Joseph Smith’s gesture of setting the nexus of causality, of freedom and necessity just to one side simply by abandoning the doctrine of creation ex-nihilo. I am asking, “Is it possible for us to do this in the political arena that is shaping up before our very eyes?”
Let me therefore begin all over again, with, because of the necessary brevity with which I must now speak, what will have to serve as a kind of allegory. I want this evening to undertake a reading of two poetic texts that each points to something far more ancient than itself, and points also to how we may set the will to power that I have named aside. In between the two poems, I will make some brief remarks about the doctrine of the eternal return, to which my title alludes. I begin, then, with a translation of a poem most often known in English as “The Horses of Achilles”, by a Greek author, C. P. Cavafy, written in 1910:
Patroclus: whom they saw in death’s darkness
He who was so brave, and strong, and young
The horse of Achilles started shedding tears
The deathless nature that was theirs
Grew indignant at this thing of death
They tossed their heads, and shook their long manes
Beating the earth with their hooves, lamenting
Patroclus, whom they knew to be without life—present, absent—
Destitute of flesh—his spirit lost—
Returned to the vast nothing by life itself
Zeus saw the tears of the deathless-divine horses
And was himself pained. ‘At the wedding of Peleus’
He said, ‘I should not have acted so rashly;
Better that we had not given you away! What business
Had you down there among the wretched race of men,
The playthings of fate? You whom neither death nor old age awaits,
Are yet tyrannised by ephemeral misfortunes. Men have embroiled you
In their troubles.’ Yet the two noble creatures went on
Shedding their tears for the everlasting calamity of death.3
Cavafy, it seems, presents us with an entirely conventional, modern view of the relationship of gods to humans, of the fate of humanity as tragic and concerned only with death, of the chasm between the deathless gods and the race of men. In this view, gods alone are eternal, there is no eternity in the life of man.
Cavafy evokes a remarkable juncture in the Iliad. For Patroclus is dead, and this is as yet unknown to Achilles. Homer says Patroclus is philos to Achilles: beloved; and more than that, hoi polu philtatos (οἱ πολὺ φίλτατος)—“by far the most beloved”. Who Patroclus was to Achilles has bothered scholars both now in antiquity. The bother takes the form of “were they/weren’t they/did they didn’t they?”—were they lovers, or just good friends? Plato has Phaedrus play with this in his Symposium, asking who might have been pursued by whom and challenging the suggestion in Aeschylus and Pindar that Achilles, though the younger man, was the one pursuing Patroclus—a most un-Athenian state of affairs. Xenophon took the opposite view: they were for him just good friends.
Modern interpretations line up with or against Xenophon, or Aeschylus, or Plato, always conditioned by their understanding or approval or rejection of the moral probity of such relations. Here we uncover the extent to which contemporary, especially historically Christian, prohibitions on extra-marital erotic love are persistently read back into what we perceive to be the life and mores of antiquity. In this, they miss the point. The schema of “lover” and “beloved” (erastēs and erōmenos) as explaining the sexual behaviour of ancient Greeks is entirely recent—unknown before the writings of Paul Veyne, Kenneth Dover and Michel Foucault. What the debate between Plato and Xenophon—carried out across the two texts of the same name, the Symposia of Plato and Xenophon—serves to indicate (to its contemporary audience and to us) is that attempting to comprehend the nature of the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus in terms of the mores of classical Athens—post-dating Homer by centuries—is to look in the wrong place. Homer’s name for the relation between them—they are to each other philos, “beloved” (of each, by far the most). This is as much he ever says, and it is therefore enough. “By far the most” suggests others to whom the adjective philos must also have applied. He says nothing of them either.
The privileging of the procreative relationship over other emotional relations between persons is a phenomenon not even of the whole of the history of Christendom, gaining full force only after the Reformation. Until then Christianity had privileged only the individual relationship with God. Marriage is low down in Christian priorities and its privileges historically late. St. Paul, almost unique in Biblical authors even to comment on it, says only that it is better to marry than burn with lust. Procreation as the primary purpose constitutive of the relations between persons assumes its most exalted position only in the eighteenth and nineteenth Centuries. In Hegel’s earlier Jena period, and in his Philosophy of Right procreation becomes the engine of production itself—the means by which humanity both perpetuates itself not in but as history as such, such that human production arises on the ground of the marriage relation as the cementing and exteriorisation of those resources (Vermögung) that constitute the “external” world and its progress. Toward the conclusion of his Logic of 1831, an immensely important book, Hegel makes a statement that shows the extent to which this understanding of production is grounded in his metaphysical understanding overall: Gattung ist Begattung. “Species”, by which he means the totality of all that is, world, as a whole, “species” is “reproduction,” reproduction in the sexually procreative sense. In this Hegel substitutes reproduction for any talk of death (“in copulation the immediacy of living individuality perishes; the death of this life is the emergence of Geist”4), and establishes eternity materially as the endless—biological—reproduction of the same. In this is the culmination of a centuries-long process: the extreme privileging of the sexual relation as the metaphysical ground of the procreative relation. The Marxist concept of work as the “proving” of the “essence of man” is only possible on the basis of this essentially biological interpretation of human reproduction.5
In a context where everything, to secure its existence, its reason for being, must at the same time justify its existence as one that is productive, every other form of human relating is relativized to the procreative relation. Moreover, and I can add this as no more than an aside, the confusions and contradictions of contemporary identity politics have not escaped the extreme instrumentalism, grounded in this metaphysics, that Hegel names here.
How, then, are we to understand the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus? Cavafy’s is a sensitive, but also cunning, reading of Book 17 of the Iliad. Nothing is as it seems, and as we shall see, something is left out. Homer actually has Zeus ask the question why?—why did he give these horses at the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, for them just to be miserable in the fragility of human affairs? Thetis was the mother of Achilles, and she was forcibly married to Peleus, despite that she loved Zeus. (In other versions of the legend the horses were a gift of Poseidon, not Zeus). Pindar names the prophecy of Themis that Thetis, goddess of the sea, was fated to bear a royal son mightier than his father, if she were mated to Zeus or one of the Olympians. Had Thetis borne Zeus a son, Zeus’s fate would have been that of Chronos (Xeus’s father) and in his turn, his father, Ouranos: each son overthrew his father. Not for nothing does Homer remind us, when Zeus laments his gift, that he is “son of Chronos.”6 Cavafy’s poem, and the Iliad itself, therefore shows not the metaphysical gap between divine and human being, but rather that Zeus’s power and continued rulership over the cosmos depends upon, indeed requires the actual and historical world in which Achilles’ existence, and fate unfold. Achilles is the reason that Zeus is still all-powerful, still the head among the gods. That’s why.
What do the horses of Achilles represent? Horses draw chariots, and no divine chariot is of greater significance than that which bears the sun across the heavens. These immortal horses signify the eternal passage of time, the passage of the day from sunrise to sunset and its night, and that this passage is eternally repeated: not as the passage of the hands of a clock across its face, but as the two faces, of eternal time—they reveal how time is visible to mortal men and women. These two are the moment in its “day”, and eternity, the endless repetition of days. The horses have come to a standstill before the body of the warrior beloved of Achilles. Time, and fate itself, the lawfulness of time, stand still in the gap between Patroclus’ death and Achilles coming to know of it. The horses, whom “neither death nor old age awaits” are the harbingers of cosmic time.7
There is in Cavafy’s account a further strangeness that overturns the average and ordinary presentation of the relation between the deathless gods and mortal men and women on which the poem seems to stand but actually does not. The title of the poem in modern Greek is: Ta aloga ton achilleōs (Τὰ ἀλογα τὸν Ἀχιλλεώς). Homer knows nothing of this word, alogo: his word for horses is hippoi. Why then does Cavafy, who quotes Homer at times, and who is skilled in literary, Katharevousa, Greek, choose a modern, demotic, word, alogo, for horse? The word alogo originally means “mute”, the horse as the wordless beast, contrasted to that creature of the word, man, ho anthrōpos, the one ordered to and given to the word. Divine, Olympian, law decrees that only man may speak. And yet, at Book 19, when these same horses stand still a second time, this time before Achilles, at a moment unlike almost any other in the whole of Greek myth, they speak. (I know of no other moment in myth when animals as animals, rather than gods in animal form, are permitted speech.) They repeat to Achilles the promise of his fate: “the day of doom approaches you Achilles, nor are we to blame for it, but a mighty god and all-ruling fate.”8 To which Achilles replies: “Why do you foretell my death? You need not at all.”9 And Hera then strikes them mute. The horses’ second moment of stillness signifies this time as a decisive moment. This moment, two full books later in the text, is the same as when the horses wept before the lifeless corpse of Patroclus. There are many hints in the text that this is so. The posture of the horses is identical in both passages, and speaks of mourning. The prediction made is the same: the death of Patroclus seals the final acceptance by Achilles of his fate—to be that one who will slay Hector and set in motion the events that bring the Trojan War to its end—to become the one, therefore, who will decide the fate of all Hellas. Why do the horses say something Achilles already knows? Or are we not, again, asking the wrong question and looking in the wrong place. What the horses say is unneeded because it is now decided, is what is needful of being said. And this moment is unlike any other: it stands apart and shows all the others in relief. A moment marked by things that never happen, as when two horses break the laws of all the cosmos and speak.
The moment becomes clear not because it is unique, but because it has returned: the horses have stopped a second time. The moment recurs. In returning, it brings a kind of a whole, a unity, to sight. It shows that time is not linear, but circular. It is in accord with that motion that measure time itself: the circular progress of the sun across the heavens and the seasons in turn with each other. It is the decision that is unique, momentary, singular: not the world in which it is decided; this turns and returns. The singular can only be seen, and be taken, from out of its manifold.
And now we know how to look in the right place. What passes between Achilles and Patroclus is of such a magnitude that it is capable of upholding and making visible such a singular moment, a moment of such decision. De-cidere is to cut-off, to split and separate. The question is not whether or not Achilles and Patroclus were lovers, but is of an altogether greater magnitude: what is the consequence of what is decided between them? The answer is: a world. They bring about a world, the world, of Hellas. The end of the Trojan War will bring about the world of Hellas. It is in this that the real meaning of the term philos can be understood, that each is beloved for the other ahead of every other means the world they bring about stands itself in philia, as philtatos, most dearly, foremost, highest. Philtatos signifies nothing merely romantic, or sentimental. There is nothing here of driving inner passion. It signifies how they constitute world: both for each other, and in relation to others, and—still more importantly—for many others too. Thus the phrase hoi polu philtatos—by far the most beloved—does not mean over against others, but for the very sake of others.
This in contrast to that other world, shattered, or rather whose fragility is revealed, by the perfidy of Helen toward her husband Menelaus and the adulterous liaison she contracts with Paris, and the strife—in Greek neikos—that follows. Even if we were to say that what was sworn through Tyndareus, the promise that all the parts of Hellas would come together to defend itself as a whole were Helen to be abducted—even if this is in a sense the promise of the making of a whole world, the restoration of Helen to Menelaus after her adultery could be nothing other than as a prize. What highest world could she possibly bring about? If Helen and Menelaus cannot guarantee the world of Hellas, who can? Now we understand the decisive character of what holds between Achilles and Patroclus. The moment of decision reveals what already stood and what will persist, death notwithstanding—indeed, not dented by death, and only from out of a death truly disclosed and made visible in its already having come to pass. The world Helen and Menelaus bring to pass in strife, Hellas, persists in those beloved. We can speak of it still; we are speaking of it even today.
Do we find here a prefiguration of eternal return? In what ways? My title speaks of humanity “after” eternity. By this I mean that eternity is a concern for men and women, but not in ways that are easy to resolve. We have to pursue the chase after it to seek out how eternity is to be found and by what means. I think this is what Joseph Smith’s own meditation on eternity is about and his meditation on eternity which founds a world for Latter-day Saints and, indeed, for those like me who can learn something of this. Every man and every woman is confronted with the question of what does eternity mean. Even if you turn away from it and think “But I am only mortal” and resolve to yourself that there is no eternity for you. Nietzsche’s “doctrine” of eternal return, as I have already suggested, is among the most neglected and misunderstood of the things of which he wrote. The phrase will to power for which Nietzsche is far more vividly remembered was of interest to him only for a short period, as the title of a book he for a while thought he wished to write, but never actually did. The book of that name contains material written by him, but in an arrangement he never made. Zarathustra, Nietzsche’s most important literary creation however, is described as the “teacher of the eternal recurrence,”10 a title Nietzsche also reserved to himself.
We have only a short time to ask what “eternal return” means. Almost all of Nietzsche’s commentators speak of how Nietzsche’s “references to this doctrine are enigmatic, and the exact interpretation of its meaning remains controversial”;11 other Anglophone authors, equally uncertain of their ground, speak of “what appears to have been Nietzsche’s attempt” with the doctrine.12 Others, like Gilles Deleuze, confuse eternal recurrence with the will to power and speak of it as an aspect of Nietzsche’s philosophy of subjectivity.13 Karl Jaspers provides a summary account of its elements, with little insight into its workings, and while admitting “it is for Nietzsche what is most decisive of his philosophising, even if the adoption of Nietzsche has for the most part sought to avoid it.”14
Yet there is nothing imprecise or hazy, nothing “attempted,” nothing confused in Nietzsche’s doctrine of eternal recurrence. It has, in itself, nothing to do with the will: so little, in fact, that it is only in consequence of the devastatingly impersonal weight of this thought of thoughts that it requires and demands that only the strongest will is able to bear it. In Nietzsche’s own words, “everything passes away, everything returns: eternally rolls the wheel of being,” again, “the ring of being.”15 Nietzsche’s thought of thoughts, the eternal recurrence, is a thought of being. It is unsurprising, therefore, that the one thinker who has inquired into the meaning of the doctrine of the eternal return as a thought of being is that thinker who has attempted to ask the question concerning being: Martin Heidegger.
Heidegger’s principal reading of the eternal recurrence of the same was undertaken in lectures given in 1937. An edited version of these was published in 1961. Heidegger’s confrontation with Nietzsche’s thinking, his engagement with the archive of material in Nietzsche’s remains, and his appreciation of Heidegger’s writing as a fundamental philosophical position and, together with the thought of Hegel as the consummation of Western metaphysics remain unparalleled in their depth and their far-reaching consequences in contemporary thought. Both Nietzsche and Heidegger would be far better known, and far better understood, if more Germans read them (and with sympathy), and if the most basic errors of thinking and translation were not endlessly repeated in English versions of Heidegger as if they were fact.
Nietzsche describes the eternal recurrence of the same as “der Ring des Seins,” the “ring of being.” Anyone even cursorily familiar with Martin Heidegger would recognise the words das Sein as “being,” “being itself,” that took public stage with Heidegger’s publication of his work Being and Time, Sein und Zeit, which asked die Frage, “the question” that goes out “after,” nach, being itself, dem Sein. It is remarkable, therefore, that, even as Nietzsche himself identifies eternal recurrence with das Sein, “being itself,” this word, Sein, makes almost no appearance in Heidegger’s discussion until very late in the text.
What Heidegger does discuss, in huge detail, is not das Sein, but das Seiende, and more specifically, das Seiende im Ganzen. Das Seiende also can be translated as being, and indeed should be: the phrase das Seiende im Ganzen intensifies this—it means “being as a whole.” It is often translated with a subtle difference: “beings as a whole.” When we distinguish beings from being we hear a distinction which focuses on the distinctness of beings, their objectliness over and against each other. In an age of objectification, we are drawn to understand beings as objects. But “being as a whole” means the opposite of this, namely the ground, the general or universal ground, of the things that actually are. In an age of objectification this will inevitably lead us to the objectliness of objects over against us as subjects, causing us to ignore the ground of objectliness, what gives us over to objectify everything that comes across our path, instead of drawing our attention to it. Heidegger tells, citing a fragment from Nietzsche’s notebooks, that when Nietzsche speaks of das Sein he means das Seiende im Ganzen “being as a whole.”16 Why is this distinction important? How are we to understand “being as a whole” or even “being”? Heidegger says “Nietzsche does not speak of being as a whole. We employ this phrase primarily to name all that is not simply nothing: nature (living and lifeless), history . . . God, the gods, and demigods. Being we name also what becomes, emerges and passes away.”17
Heidegger argues that it is through the doctrine of the eternal recurrence that being as a whole comes in to view all over again, as the underlying ground of Western thinking. It does so, however, in an entirely new and decisive way. In this sense, it itself returns, both all over again and utterly anew. At the point where Zarathustra speaks of the ring of being he adds “in each moment being begins.”18 If the ring indicates the eternity of recurrence, how is it grasped? Heidegger answers “this ring and its eternity are only grasped out of the moment.”19 The moment discloses the whole of being—or rather the moment and the whole of being are each time and for all time the same: what is present, what is “presently” present. Das Seiende means whatever is capable of being “present.” Even what passes away is present as what passes away. More importantly for Nietzsche, everything that is, must be as becoming. What he’s saying is that Nietzsche lets us see the whole of being. My point here is that identity politics, which denies the possibility of being as a whole because it concentrates on sectional interests within specified identities, nevertheless also has to rely on being as a whole. Madsen speaks no differently in Eternal Man.
If, in Hegel, this emphasis on becoming appears as an emphasis on the infinite in being, because the goal of absolute subjectivity in the infinite being of God, in Nietzsche and in the age of absolute nihilism becoming has a more completed character. In fact, even in Hegel the effect is not different, since the infinite God is complete in himself. Completion, fulfillment, perfection, is fulfilled in Nietzsche as, not infinity, but the finitude of being. Becoming is not a state of infinite progress (which for Hegel is only true from the perspective of the as yet incomplete and so as yet less than absolute subject), but is itself a finitude, being as a whole as completed becoming. Heidegger says that in the history of philosophy inasmuch as present being is, for Nietzsche it is as the fulfilment and permanence of becoming: thus “the essence of present being is becoming.”20 Both overall, as a totality, and as experienced through the moment, being, as becoming, is not infinite, but finite. Heidegger cites Nietzsche to show how he thinks this thought: “the measure of total-force is determinate, not ‘infinite’.”21 Heidegger comments, “because the being of the world force itself is finite, the world-totality itself remains finite, and indeed in the sense of a tight limitation, a limitation arising from present being (das Seiende) itself.”22 Heidegger concludes, “accordingly such a finitude of becoming makes an endless progress and advance of world-occurrence impossible. Rather the becoming of the world must run back on itself.”23
We still have not answered the essential question about this technical distinction. Because the world is perpetual becoming, and because everything that can be and has been and will be and is present is itself a totality and a finite one, what then is the perpetuity of becoming itself? Nothing other than eternity as such manifesting itself in the immediacy of the present through the passage of time. Indeed, Heidegger himself says this: “this real, infinite time [Nietzsche] grasps as eternity. Being (Sein).”24
We now understand the distinction that so many Heidegger commentators fail to make: between being as what can be present, both immediately and as a whole (das Seiende, das Seiende im Ganzen), and being as time (das Sein). There is one more thing to be said. Why for Nietzsche is the moment so decisive? Why, in Heidegger’s interpretation of Nietzsche, is the thought of eternal return of the same the most nihilistic of thoughts? Here we can give only the most cursory answer, but it is decisive for what I want to say next. For Heidegger, Nietzsche’s thought of eternal return was decisive not only because it allowed the whole of present being to become visible, but because it disclosed its manner of visibility, its “how.”
This “how” is only graspable, however, on the basis of the one grasping—on the basis of that one who thinks about the world and appears within it—the human being, “man.” This is what Heidegger’s understanding of the ring of recurrence means, that ring which, constituting the limit and limitations of the whole, becomes within it. How do we relate to the eternal return? As ones who (have to) become. Why? Because inasmuch as everything is becoming it is at the same passing away: it loses its value. It is this that led Nietzsche to understand the unfolding world as a nihilism. It is not that the same values repeat themselves over and over, but rather that everything that is becomes valueless. The eternal return brings us before the whole of present being as what has been, and is, and will be, but with the overwhelming threat of the valuelessness of all present being. This is the essential connection for Nietzsche of eternal recurrence with the will to power: we do not choose to exercise the will to power. Rather we are driven in to it by the eternal return to the valuelessness, the weightlessness, of the totality of being. Heidegger argues that in this the ring of being—time—the circle—plays a role, requiring that “man be grasped through the world and world through man himself.”25
I put this technical section in, and felt licensed to do so, because right in the middle of Madsen’s Eternal Man is a discussion of being and becoming. He clearly had come across the post-war American discussion of Nietzsche. It’s with being and becoming that being as a whole comes into view. But you remember I said that contemporary identity politics can’t allow this whole to come to the fore. It falls into the background. This is exactly how Heidegger interprets Nietzsche’s eternal return. We are able to see the whole, but only as something which can attain to no value. It falls back. It can’t attain to any value. It’s not that it’s valued less; it is a positivity. But we cannot find what the value is, and this is how for Heidegger, at least, Nietzsche connected eternal recurrence with the will to power. Because if you see the whole recede and therefore you see with that your history (history is part of the whole that recedes), you have to (as Nietzsche puts it) establish new values. You have to reestablish the meaning of yourself because your history has fallen into the background and cannot be reached. Its value cannot be told. Nietzsche describes this as a weight. He says it’s the weightiest of weights, and at one point he says this weight is such an unbearable thing it could even crush you. You should hear this in the modern sense of injury the discussion of identity politics and it’s real because there are real injuries in the past. I’m not trying to suggest for one second that there aren’t. But the problem is that we do not know what to do with them, so we enforce new identities and produce those. That is how Heidegger understood the phrase “will to power.” When everything recedes and can no longer attain to any value we believe our will to be called forward to enforce new values that will explain to ourselves who we are and overcome what appears to us as threatening, as a threatening invisibility and loss.
Contemporary philosophy, contemporary thinking, is very resistant to totality, to any suggestion that the whole has become, or indeed is even capable of becoming, visible. We have begun in the academy routinely to speak no longer of history, but of histories: no longer of identity, but of identities. Every possible posited unity is immediately fractured into multiplicity. For what reason? Often, we say, for the sake of representation: to prevent or restrict exclusion and to maintain the possibility of the most radical inclusiveness. This is, in itself, the moment of a most decisive recurrence of the same. Everything, to represent a plurality, must be capable of recurring in a different guise. History becomes “histories”: “it” is “multiple”. But without the originating unity, no similarity within the multiplicity is possible—this is elementary. If no two histories are alike, what constitutes them both recognisably as histories? The answer is a manner of seeing, namely, as a devaluing—or rather already seeing that they stand devalued, for the sake of a new valuation. Every assault on an originating unity within a finitude “makes way for,” makes space for, a revaluation of “the same” as now “other.” In each case, in each new forging, space is made within the totality for some new identity. Who or what revalues? That one who, seeing the devaluation already taking place, steps in to claim the justification, the right, of a new value. Some one. The ring of eternal recurrence demands, in the face of the valuelessness of all things, those ones who can assert new values. Heidegger points out that, for Nietzsche, the nihilism of valuelessness is not a dissolution into nothingness and the vacuous, but “something affirming positive, and, indeed, the manner in which the whole of being comes to presence.”26
To return to the present, to the politics of identity, of who we are—we see immediately that what Nietzsche explains is a world in which we are forced to assert identity, forced into the most radical individualism through a will to power, not because of an overweening hubris or a desire to exercise power, but through the constant threat of the loss of identity, of the collapse of representation, of the baleful abyss of recurrence, of the failure of power. The abyss is overcome in each case through the will to power, but it is the in each case that is decisive. Only an individualism, an overpowering individuality, strong enough to assert its values over the plenitude of the same (the valuelessness and devaluation that recurrence enforces) can posit itself in the face of recurrence. It is by seizing the moment and casting it through the strength of the overpowering self that an I overcomes the nihilism of eternal recurrence, and secures new values.
Or is it? The question is repeatedly asked “from where did Nietzsche derive the doctrine of eternal return?” The name Empedocles is offered, repeatedly. The question itself is, as Heidegger once derisively said, a shopkeeper’s question. Nietzsche’s knowledge of Empedocles was not strong. He lectured on Empedocles, but in a formula almost entirely derived from Diogenes Laertius, of little interest. But there is one other, whose reading of Empedocles is much more far-reaching, and whom Nietzsche references in an entirely covert way. Friedrich Hölderlin wrote three drafts of a play about Empedocles and his death, and Nietzsche had known these drafts since he was a schoolboy. We know this because he was reprimanded for reading Hölderlin by his schoolmaster, who commented that Nietzsche should have been reading “more German poets.”27 We presume Goethe was intended. At the age of seventeen he wrote (in a text known to Heidegger) of Hölderlin’s Empedocles as “this meaningful dramatic fragment . . . [written] in the purest Sophoclean language.”28 Lines from the drafts of the plays recur, in several places, especially in Nietzsche’s Zarathustra writings.
Empedocles is that one who describes how everything that is, returns, through an endless dissolving away and coming forth, not of the human being, but of the world (physis) as a whole. (What Empedocles says has strange resonances what with what Madsen describes in his dialogue with Joseph Smith, and this is why I refer to the setting aside of the doctrine of creation ex nihilo.) The two forces that drive this constitution of the world are opposites and as such, belong together. We have met them already in Homer. They are neikos, strife, and philia, belovedness. Empedocles sometimes speaks of storgē rather than philia, emphasising this generative character of belovedness is affective, rather than sexual. We have already seen in what manner strife and belovedness constitute a world, the world of Hellas.
Nietzsche also, early on (1870-72), drafted plans for a play entitled “The Death of Empedocles,” which he presses into the shape of his distinction between the Apollonian and the Dionysiac, and which remains far behind even his presentation of the doctrine of the eternal recurrence.
Nietzsche’s doctrine of the eternal recurrence explains and prepares the ground for the most extreme individualism, an individualism which restricts the whole of present being to the momentary strength of empowering of the subjectivity of the subject, and which isolates in the most devastating way the individuality of the individual so that each one, that one who strives for the empowerment of power must at the same wrest the moment from the whole of present being—tying into a momentary vengeful knot the entirety of past, future and eternal present. Nietzsche makes manifest how eternal recurrence occurs in the immediate moment, in this now.
Hölderlin, in contrast, and decisively, recapitulates something we have already glimpsed in Homer. For Hölderlin has Empedocles ascend the volcano, Aetna, in order, it seems, to die. His death is a suicide. This accords with an ancient tradition: there is no evidence Empedocles died in this way. Suicide in antiquity is a trope—signalling a transformation of being, from one state to another. Another, equally important poet associated with such a suicide is Sappho. Empedocles has with him Pausanias, a younger man, who is to him (according to Diogenes Laertius) “beloved.”29 Hölderlin has Empedocles reassert to Pausanias his love for him—Pausanias has already described himself to Empedocles as his heart’s “sole and final” friend—Pausanias is Empedocles’ highest love.30 As they struggle with what Empedocles will become: one for whom the future is open, “in steadfast league with powers of nature.”31 Empedocles is preparing, on Aetna, to become a god.
Pausanias is bound, lovingly, to Empedocles: the dramatic poem makes clear that this very binding is also his freedom, but only if Empedocles also attains to what he must become—a higher being. Empedocles asks if Pausanias will give him his life’s blood—but this question is repeated, clearly having been asked before. Pausanias replies “I say and must repeat it / this too, this too, is not a matter of today / when I was born it was concluded.”32 What is not a matter of only today, but is a matter of repetition (as the text asserts) is a matter of eternity: Pausanias was fated for this from the outset.
Pausanias is the lesser of the two men (when compared to Empedocles)—which he admits. And Apollo had told Patroclus, decisively, that he was the lesser of the two, when compared to Achilles. These two do not strive for equality with those to whom they are belovedly bound, but they nevertheless, in each case, are able to bring about, to sustain, a world, because this belovedness is itself the highest, greater than with others. It is Achilles, it is Empedocles, bound freely with another that alone allows each to be entirely who they are. Empedocles, bound up with all the powers of nature, attains a unity with the whole of present being. Because the whole comes in to view, and not just a fractured part, Pausanias is freed, as bound ever to him, and, for Hölderlin, Empedocles can now become a god.
Pausanias recognises who Empedocles is to become: a becoming born out of belovedness and strife. Through it Pausanias is also freed and still bound, and Empedocles will ascend. And Empedocles says, in words that anticipate Nietzsche, words noticed by Heidegger (who does not otherwise comment on Empedocles), words that free us from the will to power in the overpowering establishment of identities: “Go”, which means, “be bound to me for ever and be free”; “fear nothing”, which means, in your being free, there is no loss, nor am I less to you in freedom—because “es kehret alles wieder” “all things recur” and thus this freedom takes place within a finitude and unity of all there is: “what is yet to happen is already accomplished.”33
Hölderlin offers us another form of eternal return. Heidegger says: “‘Nietzsche and Hölderlin’: an abyss separates them both.”34 It is Heidegger who foresaw that eternal return is not an invention of Nietzsche, or either of Hölderlin, or even of Empedocles. Eternal return, returns, eternally. The abyss stands between, not present being and being as a whole (these are the same), but between now and eternity, and therefore between being and time. The ascent to deathless immortality is the how of this becoming manifest and visible: it requires the return of a god. Only after Nietzsche’s death of god can god and the gods return. And for Heidegger, perhaps for us, Hölderlin is their as yet unheard poetic summons.
What Truman Madsen’s little text helped me unfold, and what I hope I’ve unfolded for you, is that we need to be able to explain the whole of being, the whole of present being, the past present, in the future, in the whole of time. We need to be able to understand eternity, we need to understand the human relation to eternity, and we need to understand the human relation to God if we are to preserve the unity that is dissolving before our very eyes and the developments that are taking place in political discourse in our lives.
1. Truman G. Madsen, Eternal Man (Salt Lake City: Deseret book, 1966), xiii.
2. Ibid., 3.
3. See C. P. Cavafy, “The Horses of Achilles,” in C. P. Cavafy: The Collected Poems, trans. by Evangelos Sachperoglou (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2007), 23. I have substantially modified Sachperoglou’s translation.
4. G. W. F. Hegel, Wissenschaft der Logik (1832) in W.z.B. vol. 6, 486.
5. Karl Marx, Ökonomisch-philosophische Manuskripte (1844) in Marx-Engels Werke, Berlin, Dietz, 1990 (1932), 574.
6. Homer, Iliad 17.441.
7. Cavafy, 24.
8. Homer, 19.409–10.
9. Ibid., 19.420.
10. Friedrich Nietzsche, Also sprach Zarathustra, in Kritische Studienausgabe (KSA) 4, 275.
11. Glenn Most, “The Stillbirth of a Tragedy: Nietzsche and Empedocles” in Apostolos L. Pierris, The Empedoclean Κόσμος: Structure, Process and the Question of Cyclicity (Part 1) (Patras: Institute for Philosophical Research, 2005), 31.
12. Robert A. Yelle, “The Rebirth of Myth?: Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence and its Romantic Antecedents,” Numen vol. 47 (2000), 175.
13. Gilles Deleuze, Nietzsche et la philosophie (Paris: PUF, 1962), 77-81.
14. Karl Jaspers, Nietzsche (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1974), 350.
15. Nietzsche, 272–3.
16. Martin Heidegger, Die Ewige Wiederkehr des Gleichen (GA44), 97.
17. Heidegger, 24 f.
18. Nietzsche, 273.
19. Heidegger, 71; emphasis in original.
20. Ibid., 227.
21. Friedrich Nietzsche, Nachgelassene Werke (Leipzig: C. G. Naumann, 1894–1913, 19 volumes), vol. 12, Unveröffentlichtes aus der Zeit der Fröhlichen Wissenschaft und Zarathustra (1881–1886), 51, in Heidegger, 92.
22. Heidegger, 92; emphasis in original.
23. Ibid., 115.
24. Ibid., 95.
25. Ibid., 110.
26. Martin Heidegger, Nietzsches Metaphysik (GA50), ed. Petra Jaeger (1990), 31.
27. Martin Heidegger, Nietzsches Lehre vom Willen zur Macht als Erkenntnis (GA47), p. 43 f.
28. Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘Brief an meinen Freund’ of October 1861 in Nietzsche: Werke (5 vols.) ed. Karl Schlechta (Frankfurt: Ullstein, 1977), vol. 4, 96.
29. Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, 2.8.60.
30. Hölderlin, “III Stufe. Empedocles auf dem Aetna,” in Norbert von Hellingrath (ed.) Hölderlins Sämtliche Werke: Historisch-Kritische Ausgabe, vol. 3 (Berlin: Propyläen, 1943, 4 vols), 212, l. 5–6.
31. Ibid., 212, l. 25.
32. Ibid., 214, l. 1–3.
33. Ibid., 216, l5–16.
34. Martin Heidegger, Hölderlins Hymne “Andenken” (GA52), 78.