The Flame of Eternity, Krzysztof Michalski’s last book before his untimely death in 2013, is about Nietzsche. James Dodd considers the nine essays contained within a volume that does not limit itself to interpreting Nietzche's text, but uses it as a starting point for a wider meditation on time.
A Commentary on Flame of Eternity
By James Dodd
The Flame of Eternity, Krzysztof Michalski’s last book before his untimely death in 2013, is about Nietzsche. It is composed of nine essays, each organized around a reflection on time. The main argument is that the question of what time is, how time is interwoven with everything that is, how it determines the very meaning of life and death, is Nietzsche’s central concern. More generally, however, the argument is that time is an essential theme for philosophy as such, its most profound source of questioning. For Michalski, the reflection on time, on what time is, provides philosophy a ground from which to illuminate essential aspects of the human condition, including its paradoxes and inherent ambiguities.
Accordingly, the line of thinking in The Flame of Eternity does not limit itself to the interpretation of Nietzsche’s text. In fact, Michalski’s book is perhaps best described as a philosophical meditation on time, one that is certainly situated within an interpretation of Nietzsche’s thought, but which does not forsake itself the freedom to follow various tributaries along the way, often motivated by insights and problems that depart from what one usually finds on the agenda of contemporary Nietzsche scholarship.
This remark is not meant to minimize the significance of Michalski as an original interpreter of the letter of Nietzsche. For in fact time, above all eternity, is clearly central to Nietzsche’s philosophy, and The Flame of Eternity offers the reader a masterful account of how the thread of the problem of time binds together the basic concepts of Nietzsche’s thought—nihilism, value, knowledge, life, history, will to power, to name the most central. Michalski’s reading culminates in what is perhaps the most difficult and important of Nietzsche’s ideas, the “eternal recurrence of the same,” which is the subject of the last essay in the book (Chapter IX), its longest and most complex chapter. Instead, I only wish to emphasize that, as a meditation on time, Michalski’s book is also a philosophical essay, and one of the first order; more, and perhaps more importantly, it is also a deeply personal book. As such The Flame of Eternity is more a book in which Michalski articulates through Nietzsche and for his reader his own understanding of life, of what it is to live, than an attempt to understand Nietzsche on terms defined by the conventions of academic scholarship.
The result is not a seamless whole—there is much in Nietzsche that contrasts, even conflicts with the results of Michalski’s reflections, perhaps the question of the ultimate meaning of Christianity being the most obvious example. I will have more to say about this in what follows. For now I only want to suggest that, in reading a philosopher, something that should not be confused with reading a scholar (even if the two often come in combination, each in turn sometimes obscuring, or perhaps providing cover for the other), one should embrace such tensions, contrasts, and contradictions as potentially of great value. They promise to show us something about the philosopher, and thus merit reflection. For why on earth should anyone settle with books that only proffer neat clarifications and explanations anyway? Today too much of our philosophical discourse, especially our writing, limits itself to a facile scholarship capable of expressing little more than the shallow indifference of a false objectivity. We’ve simplified our tastes in philosophical writing to the delights of verification and the vanities of erudition, thereby domesticating something that should be a much more dangerous affair.
This trend towards a more studied indifference in academia belies the fact that Nietzsche’s influence has always depended more on his power to inspire, or perhaps to provoke, than to convince. A recent historical study of the reception of Nietzsche’s thought reproduces a telling comment from an American post-doctoral student in Berlin at the turn of the last century: “It was quite the usual thing to observe the German student enter the class room with a small volume under his arm, which he would open whenever the lecture failed to interest him. In every case, it was a volume of Nietzsche.”That little volume used to provoke, wake one up, but above all to be interesting. Now Nietzsche’s books are an acceptable topic for the lecture itself, and their migration to the other side of the podium has sometimes been accompanied by a diminishing of their power to inspire, subjected to a kind of willful boredom that douses their fire. But sometimes also, as was the case with Michalski’s lectures and writings on Nietzsche, they fall into the hands of someone seeking to rekindle their flame.
The goal in what follows is to elucidate what I take to be the guiding idea of Michalski’s book, its basic philosophical gesture, which is enacted through a reading of Nietzsche’s concept of the eternal recurrence of the same. It begins with a preliminary reflection on two concepts essential to any account of Nietzsche’s thinking, namely nihilism and the will to power. It then moves to an analysis of Michalski’s interpretation of the concept of the eternal recurrence as it is found in Nietzsche’s text. My intent here however is not to assess Michalski’s interpretation of Nietzsche, nor to submit it to a “critique.” Instead my goal is to present, in a way both sensitive and critical, Michalski’s particular reading of Nietzsche as a philosophical gesture in its own right, one that has its own specific motives and inspirations. I believe this can be done (and this is the final part of the essay), through a juxtaposition with a very different philosophical gesture found in the work of the Czech philosopher Jan Patočka, a gesture that leads Patočka to a very different assessment of the meaning of Nietzsche’s thought. There is a shared philosophical pathos that marks the reflections of both of these thinkers of the human condition, and given this common basis, makes their disagreements all the more interesting.
There is a personal dimension here as well: Patočka was one of Michalski’s mentors, and a fellow spirit during a dark time for philosophical life in Eastern Europe, just as Michalski was entering academic life, and just before Patočka’s death in the hands of police interrogators. Though the present essay is not biographical, it is a reflection on a philosophical perspective that insists on a thick presence of life, life as we live it, in all of our reflections, as the inalienable source of the meaning of whatever we say.
There are two ideas, two concepts that are essential to any reflection on Nietzsche’s concept of the eternal occurrence of the same, Michalski’s being no exception. These two ideas are nihilism, and the will to power. Each, Michalski argues, can be unlocked in terms of a reflection on time.
That the problem of time lies at the core of nihilism and the will to power can only become clear once we answer the question of what time is, or how it is that time as passage needs to be understood, or better: what form this understanding takes. For part of the ambiguity of time is the fact that our experience of time takes many forms. Time is understood in many ways, each of which serves as an index regarding our lives, or the condition in which we find ourselves. These forms are not simply given, nor are they arbitrary, but are related to how we actively shape our existence. Accordingly, the intuition is that nihilism is rooted in our interest in time, the passage of time, taking a particular form, in order to be able to live a particular kind of life. Another way to express this is to say that, fundamentally, the problem of time has to do with the meaning of the passage of things, of events and experiences, of life, into the past—thus the meaning of the difference between the past and the future, between what was and what will be.
What is, then, the meaning of the passing of time, for us? One response is that the passage of time is a process, a movement, thanks to which things become manifest as having a certain definite unity of meaning, or sense. Time’s passage allows for understanding, for seeing, because time is the horizon in which anything understood, anything seen, becomes established, and thus real for us. This means that the passing of the moment is not a simple loss, but the establishment of a connection with the present (and the future) according to the form of a process of determination: things become determinate, even individuated as identities encountered in the world of things, thanks to time. In this sense time, the passage of the moment, means the ordered addition and subtraction of content to a given unity of sense or meaning; and since time is always a process, it always results in a net gain of unity, of some kind of coherence thanks to which things appear as what they are, comprehensible and predictable.
This answer to the meaning of time is not just one possible answer among many; it is one to which we are, to the extent that we live the way that we do—namely in the world, among things and persons, pursuing an understanding that orients us according to the exigencies of the moment—fundamentally committed. It is because the passage of time is also the process of the determination of meaning that we understand things at all, why the sun makes the flowers bloom, why it is so important to make arrangements today for what will happen tomorrow. In short, from this perspective human life just is time, and time human life. This means that the very question of the meaning of the difference between past and future can only be addressed to human life, which alone has the power to differentiate the past from the future. This is one of Michalski’s fundamental motifs:
Time does not flow out of itself; it is human life that makes the past differ from the future. Or, rather, the past differs from the future in what we do, and it is only here, in human life, that the difference between past and future has meaning. Time absent its reference to human life is an empty concept—and, on the other hand, human life in fact depends on separating the past from the future: human life is essentially time. […] Human life, according to Nietzsche, is essentially the power to open the past and the future.
This power of human life to open the past and the future is also involved in the meaning of concepts. Concepts articulate, express what we have come to see; they also in turn project a given order into the future as the space of the promise of its completion. Concepts are premised on a continuity between what we have come to see, the articulated past, and the promised order of its completion, the meaningful future. They are simply expressions of this continuity, or of continuity as the meaning of the difference between past and future. Since this is a continuity that we are always already committed to, that belongs to the form of our lives as such, concepts are not optional. They are essential to a life committed to continuity, committed to the stability of a whole emerging in the course of time—the whole that we ourselves, as those who live lives, are.
This commitment to the continuity of time also determines the kind of whole that the world is. Something like a world, a context in which life acts, finding its orientation among things experienced, pursued, hoped for and lost—something like that is at all possible only given the potential for time to make being manifest as a unity, as something that endures. Or at least that it endures to some extent, true to some measure. For the form of time at issue here, the understanding in which our lives take shape, is also a posture, an orientation to the possible. It is an anticipating seeing that seeks the measure in things, seeks to cleave close to the sense in which an order is something that can be encountered “in the world.”
This commitment, one could say, is self-perpetuating. That unity arises at all in time, the unity of things, of ourselves, and of the world, pulls us into life, into both its past and its future. Time in this way makes possible the ground of our familiarity, of our capacity to explore and to be open to new experiences, and in this sense to our relationship to our very selves. It also makes us vulnerable. Our commitment to continuity makes us dependent upon being able to judge whether things are going well or badly; we become dependent on the world again and again conforming to its promise of being meaningful—life is sustainable in no other way. We need to know—know that we will continue to be loved, that our abilities will not fail us, that our resources will not dry up, that life is not lived in vain. The world, one could say, just is this promise, and our vulnerability just the other side of its (unthinkable, terrifying) fragility. Life in this way fastens itself to itself, it holds on to itself, and struggles at its core to never let go—for to let go, to really let go, would be to let go of the very promise of the world.
Yet we, or rather something in us, sometimes suddenly, sometimes after a long period of suffering and torment, do let go. Sometimes this is cloaked in a reason, sometimes not; it does not really matter, because letting go is not about reasons. And when it happens, it hurts, as Michalski emphasizes again and again throughout the book, as in this characteristic passage:
Maybe a snake can painlessly shed what had been its skin. Not us. It hurts us. It hurts to throw away one’s world, to throw everything that is familiar and beloved, to toss away our habits, including those I can’t get by without, to throw away everything I know. This isn’t merely an outfit, not merely a mask, behind which there’s the real me: it is me, me as I really am, my own skin, an integral part of my body. Stripping it off hurts.
So we cling to ourselves, as we do to our own skin. And we do so neither without success, nor without the promise for continued success. The form of the meaning of time heralded in the first answer to the question of its sense allows for at least the promise of unity. This is to some measure established enough so as to make this promise real for us, even the reality of our very skin. Time allows for the promise of a world in which things occur in conformity with measures, articulated through the understanding with its concepts. And more: that this is the case, that we seem to be able to stitch a life together with the use of measures, tempts us with the possibility of making one final effort at unity, thus at taking stock of the world as a whole. Understanding the meaning of time seems to put us in the position of measuring “what is” in general against the promise of a final unity, a continuity fixed once and for all, a kind of ultimate agreement of the world with itself secured within the comprehension of a measure.
This promise is not merely intellectual in character, driven by a theoretical interest in explaining everything; it is the promise of being safe in one’s own skin, of replacing risk with reconciliation, partial and fragile with complete and solid meaning.
This measuring of the world, holding it accountable to the promise of unity in an ultimate form, evaluating it with respect to a summation of its becoming that will reveal its ultimate being, its ultimate truth—this is the origin of nihilism. Michalski: “This is the core of nihilism, the answer to the question of what’s wrong with the values that give birth to nihilism: it is their claim to assess, to evaluate, the world as such, life as such.” Nihilism is inseparable from this evaluation of the whole, for such an evaluation of the whole, Michalski’s Nietzsche argues, can only be nihilism.
Why is this the case? Why is any evaluation of the whole, of the world, nihilistic?
First we need to say something more about what this “world” is, or how in the passage of time the world becomes manifest to us. “Manifestation” here is meant in a sense broader than mere presence of observed objects. The world is not, Nietzsche argues, a spectacle that emerges for the benefit of a pure seeing, a mere witnessing of what appears as it passes by us in time. Thus it is not the case that we first see, observe, become attached to things, and only then find that we do not want to let go. Our seeing, our understanding, and with that our concepts, are indistinguishable from our acting, our living as such. Things have value at all, in other words, only thanks to this living of life. Or rather, in Nietzsche’s terms, things have value only because life is power, because life has the strength to create those conditions under which the passage of time is never the simple loss of being into the non-being of the past, but precisely something secured, or at least something that takes some form or shape. A unity of meaning, or a value, has no sense independently from the capacity of a life that “wills” it—even in the form of a truth independent from the will. Life for Nietzsche thus does not simply follow given tracks of value, it imposes value; life asserts and dominates in order to guarantee a unity of meaning. The “world,” manifestation as such, is thus only possible in reference to the life that lives the promise of the unity of time, of the continuity of what it gives, and which is in this sense a “will to power.”
There is thus a fundamental connection between nihilism and the will to power. The evaluation of the whole, the attempt to measure the world against the standard of its “truth,” against what is comprehensible and thinkable—this too, Nietzsche argues, is an example of a will to power. Specifically, in the will to an ultimate measure of the whole, the will takes the distinctive form of submitting everything, without exception, to the measure of the thinkable; the will to power is thus here above all a will to truth, a will to knowledge. Thus the will to power, which just is life, life as a force of value, as will to truth—this is the origin of nihilism.
To understand why this is so, why the will to truth, to the evaluation of the whole, leads to nihilism, Michalski argues, we need to again reflect on the question of the meaning of time. Above all, we need to return to the first answer to the question of the meaning of the passage of time, and recognize that this answer is in fact fundamentally limited, even if not altogether false. That is, time is not only the promise of unity, of order (thus of a world). Time is more than the mere distribution of an articulation of meaning, the mere movement of understanding, even an understanding that unfolds according to a logic that would have negation at its core, as its driving force (as in Hegel, a frequent foil, along with Marx, in Michalski’s book). There is, in other words, another answer to the question of the meaning of time, and it is one that stands in contradiction with the first, but which is equally in force within life as will to power. Namely time, the difference between the past and the future, is just as much the potential for discontinuity as it is for continuity; the moment is just as much the risk of loss, of breakup and breakdown, of separation from all that was, as it is the promise of the fulfillment of a pattern, or the forward projection of a movement.
This means that the will to power, the force of life, is in its very willing also the risk of tearing the moment away from the past into something fundamentally unknown, fundamentally unanticipated, just as much as it is the willing of meaning, of unity and sense. This is part of the meaning of our vulnerability emphasized earlier. There are thus two sides to the will to power, according to Michalski’s interpretation, both of which come together in the paradox of time. First, the will to power, as the force of life, is the origin of the creative shaping of life into an enduring form, an enduring world of value—the force that “stamps being on becoming,” as Nietzsche expresses it. But this same force, this same creative act of life, is at the same time what puts being at risk, what at every moment inserts itself as a party of pure becoming—time as pure rupture with the order of time.
This means that the very origin of the establishment of order, the source of its force and meaning for us, entails an irrevocable diversity that perennially lies in tension with all established sense or meaning. This is also why concepts are ultimately stupid, as Michalski was fond of putting the matter: “[…] concepts as such are empty and therefore stupid; if they say anything, if we understand anything through them, it is only thanks to the sensibility of the lives we live.” That is, concepts have meaning at all, only thanks to the force of a life that lives them for its own. Concepts faithfully mark out the forms and patterns of what has been accomplished, from the highest to the lowest, the most fundamental to the most trivial; but they retain their sense, they endure, only to the extent that life imposes a continuity on itself, only to the extent that its force secures a tomorrow that stands in a meaningful relation with today, just as today is supposed to with yesterday. Yet this same will to power upon which concepts depend also entails at every moment the possibility of a disruption of sense, of meaning, a possibility to which concepts can only stand in a passive, mute relation—for there is no concept that can anticipate in advance the radically new, the creative. Concepts move in a light borrowed wholly from established life and its creative accomplishment; but when life disrupts itself, when it is instead a darkness that unexpectedly intercedes between itself and itself, concepts can do no more than retreat into mute stupidity.
If time is more than the mere unfolding of the event of determinate meanings, if the force of life always risks an explosion that tears the moment away from the past and the future, rendering all concepts meaningless—then the whole of life, the whole of the “world” is more, and always other, than whatever “measure” can be employed to “evaluate” it. Any such measure of the whole, in other words, can only ever be ultimately directed against the whole of life, to the extent that it runs contrary to this essential other to the life of the world, of commitment, of solid meanings—that is, the essential other that is the becoming of the whole itself, the “value” of which falls beyond any capacity of time to evaluate it. Nietzsche:
Becoming is of equivalent value every moment; the sum of its values always remains the same; in other words, it has no value at all, for anything against which to measure it, and in relation to which the word “value” would have meaning, is lacking. The total value of the world cannot be evaluated […].
There is no measure of the world “as a whole,” on Michalski’s reading, because the dimension of risk, of the rupture of time, is as much a part of the force of life itself (thus its “will to power”) as is the order that emerges thanks to time. Life only has force, thus is only able to value at all, in relation to this dark horizon of the risk of the radically new that launches us beyond everything we are. If so, then any attempt to “evaluate” the whole would necessarily entail a rejection, a refusal of this risk that belongs to the very possibility of the force of value. Rejecting risk as meaningless, the evaluation of the whole is thus an attempt to evaluate beyond the conditions of value, and in this sense beyond life. It is the attempt to value, to will, as if there were no irremovable risk, no inevitable discontinuity, no unmediated diversity, nothing at stake but the objective success or failure of the given world to conform to an ideal, a measure.
For Nietzsche, such an evaluation of the whole, the attempt to submit the whole to a measure antithetical to the openness of life to discontinuity, is an example in which the “highest values” (highest in the sense of totalizing, accomplished, the truest of the true) “devalue themselves,” that is, devalue themselves by cutting into the force of life, which is the only possible ground for any value being imposed. This is the result of a peculiar kind of revolution of concepts in which life, instead of deploying concepts in order to stamp being on becoming, thus projecting order into the world, instead absolutizes the world as pure being, forsaking radically the dark character of existence as becoming. Instead of an ordering projected into the world, the order becomes the world, the only acceptable world—it is as if we have pulled out of the world all the value we had projected into it, setting it up as a freestanding existence over and against life, secured by its comprehensibility alone. Nihilism results when we realize that this “true” world of ultimate comprehensibility, the world as a “unity,” the “aim” or goal of life, itself has no force, and with that no existence; all that remains of existence is a now valueless world, one can find no harbor in a true world of “aim,” “unity,” “truth.” Nietzsche:
What has happened, at bottom? The feeling of valuelessness was reached with the realization that the overall character of existence may not be interpreted by means of the concept of “aim,” the concept of “unity,” the concept of “truth.” Existence has no goal or end; any comprehensive unity in the plurality of events is lacking […]. One simply lacks any reason for convincing oneself that there is a true world. Briefly: the categories “aim,” “unity,” “being” which we used to project some value into the world—we pull out again; so the world looks valueless.”
Another way to think about nihilism is that it represents the revolt of life against itself, one that takes the form of an organized action against the threat of discontinuity that lies at the heart of the passage of time. Nihilism amounts to a partisanship for unity and stability “at all costs”—even at the cost of diminishing the force of life, of power itself. Thus in nihilism life systematically weakens itself in an effort to suspend the threat of the disruptive potential of its own force, its own creativity. It narrows its horizon in order to remain within the strict limits of the thinkable, the measurable, the manageable, thus seeming to fulfill the promise of remaining in strict continuity with itself even as it inaugurates profound experiences of meaninglessness. Nihilism represents the tyranny of consistency, where the very stupidity of concepts proves to be the greatest asset against discontinuity, for in their stupidity concepts institutionalize an indifference to the meaning of risk, thereby leveling all meaning, all possible meaning, down to what is already known, and with that comfortably in place. Concepts are in themselves empty; but nihilistic life lives precisely for the sake of this emptiness, within the circular rotations of ever more empty forms. Nihilism is to live for what ultimately expresses or makes manifest nothing. But for all that, even in the most extreme forms of nihilism, life is still life, it is still will, for as Nietzsche puts it at the beginning and end of the third essay in the Genealogy of Morals: the “human will […] prefers to will nothingness rather than not will.”
Thus nihilism is inconceivable without power, without the power of human life to open the past and the future. It is not, however, the sudden discovery of a once hidden meaninglessness that destroys us, or that would motivate us to embrace an alternative; it is instead a particular historical form of our commitment to ourselves, to the continuity of our being. That a secured finalized continuity is experienced as ultimately meaningless is in a perverse way its ultimate source of strength. For if the ultimate commitment of human beings is to the constancy of form, then the more vacuous the forms are, the better; the least effort required for their sustenance, the greater the chances of success. It is the very meaninglessness of our existence that allows us to remain locked within the bounds of comprehensibility, and thus seemingly insulated from the risk that comes with all efforts of life, with all attempts that would invariably take comprehensibility into the darkness.
The most famous literary figure for such a form of nihilistic life is perhaps the “last man” from the Prologue to Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. The last man is nihilistic, not out of some anarchist commitment to destroying values, but rather out of a kind of cultivated sensibility to the valuelessness of all values for which ultimately nothing is worth the pain, the threat of the new, the effort of living. Life lived for nothing but the form of its mere continuation, until it becomes too much trouble, then a peaceful death which itself should be experienced as little as possible, lest the numbing fog of intoxication characteristic of the life of the last man be lifted.
Thus for Michalski it is not nihilism, the last man, that appears as a sickness, but rather an inalienable element within us that pushes beyond us, or that even pushes beyond the manner of human being that has accrued around the radicalization of continuity and security: the Übermensch. Nietzsche: “All signs of the overman appear in man as symptoms of a disease or madness.” And Michalski, commenting on this passage:
The overman: the internal tension of human life, the tension between what is and the dark, the unknown, the alien, the new: that which outgrows life. Life overcoming itself, life shattered from within.
Nihilism and its counterpoint, the overman, and the human being, the “bridge” between the two, are constituent moments of Nietzsche’s diagnosis of the spiritual situation of Europe; and they are thus, at least on one level, historically contingent forms. But on Michalski’s reading they also, and more importantly, embody tendencies constitutive of the human condition as such. This means that one cannot simply read nihilism as a current crisis or predicament from which we might ultimately be able to extricate ourselves. Perhaps in some sense that is the case, but does not free us from the deeper meaning of nihilism, which has to do with a tendency that belongs to our fundamental commitment to ourselves, to our own skin. There may be something else, something other than us that will come out of us, that will ultimately shape the meaning of the future, but that changes nothing of the deeper meaning of the overman as that in us which is always beyond us, whoever or whatever that “us” might turn out to be.
In this way Nietzsche’s analysis of the current historical situation is seen as providing the basis for a reflection on the human condition, on the condition of life as such, and for Michalski this means a reflection on its time. And it is with the eternal recurrence of the same that, for Michalski, Nietzsche’s reflection on time reaches its climax.
Yet before turning to the topic of the eternal recurrence, there are two things that should be emphasized. First, Nietzsche’s conception of time, as Michalski interprets it, is a distinctively physiological notion. A reflection on time is also a reflection on the body, on the different ways that the body extends itself outward as a force, and with that as an opening of a “world.” How time passes, how a moment in time plays a function in our lives, is a matter of the health and sickness, the perishing and overcoming, the strength and weakness of the body. To abstract a temporal structure as a mere succession of moments of time from the life of the body thus fundamentally distorts a proper apprehension of its reality. For Michalski, whatever eternity is going to mean for Nietzsche, this fact is as true for it, as it is for time as the passing of the present into the past:
Eternity, for Nietzsche, is thus a physiological notion; the concept that succinctly expresses the temporality of our lives is that of “the body.” If eternity comes to the fore in time, then it is precisely our bodily presence in the world, “the body,” that must be its expression.
Second, the paradox of time just outlined, the two answers to the meaning of time interpreted as the bodily expression of life, explains how it is possible that life cuts into itself, how life can live against its own potentiality as life. Or, in Nietzsche’s idiom, how life is possible as “spirit.” Time and its contradictions is the ground for how life is more than life, or for how it is that life desires more than just more life, whether as an increase in life or as its mere continuation. This lies at the heart of Nietzsche’s critique of Darwin: life does not love life, life loves power—and a fundamental dimension of power, of its exercise and increase, is risk and danger, even at the expense of continued life, or mere survival. Again the essential theme of our vulnerability, of the ultimate limits to our commitment to ourselves; for life is something ultimately paradoxical, bodily at war with itself, something that often demands that we, the living, take sides in a fight we cannot win, but can only go under—incipit tragoedia.
We can now turn to Michalski’s interpretation of the eternal recurrence of the same. On Michalski’s reading, it has to be understood in terms of Nietzsche’s development of precisely the role of time in the way in which life wars with itself.
A central passage in Nietzsche’s works for any interpretation of the eternal recurrence of the same is found near the beginning of Part III of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, in the section that bears the title “On the Vision and the Riddle.” In his discussion Michalski also includes a reading of “The Convalescent,” which can be found in Part III as well. In each passage, the figure of the eternal recurrence of the same is introduced in a dramatic context. This is not arbitrary, Michalski argues, but essential to understanding Nietzsche’s thinking: for the eternal recurrence is not a “doctrine,” something that could be just as well expressed in propositions, but is only approachable at all in the context of a life, in a reflection on its movement. Thus if Zarathustra, or Nietzsche for that matter, is the “teacher of the eternal recurrence,” it is not as one spokesperson among others on behalf of a theory, but as a life in tension with itself, overcoming itself, that gives birth to the “thought” of the eternal recurrence of the same. Its interpretation, therefore, must find its bearings in the narrative of this conflict, or the life that defines who Zarathustra is; and by extension, one might add, remain within its horizon, and not seek a way to distill its message into some kind of take-away slogan.
Equally essential, however, is a more basic decision any interpreter of this text must make, in anticipation of what is at stake in the narrative of Zarathustra’s struggle. For Michalski, what is at stake is the very meaning of time. This means that the eternal recurrence is not understood as a response to some idle (or serious) interest in the way things are, nor the results of some cosmological rumination (or research program) from which we might (or might not) deduce a moral teaching. Instead, Michalski argues that the narrative of Zarathustra is driven by a problem, one basic to life understood as a will to power, namely: “What am I to do with the past?” For whatever continuity there may be between the past and the future, whatever figure of understanding here seems to rule, time nevertheless only flows in one, irreversible direction. Thus when it comes to the past as such, the past as the inexorable loss of the fruits of continuity, the will seems to encounter nothing but a radical check to its power. Nietzsche (this from “On Redemption,” toward the end of Part II of Zarathustra):
Willing liberates: but what is it that puts even the liberator in chains?
“It was”: thus the will’s teeth-gnashing and loneliest tribulation is called. Powerless against that which has been done, it is an angry spectator of all that is past.
The will cannot will backwards: that it cannot break time and time’s desire—that is the will’s loneliest tribulation.
The will cannot be indifferent to its powerlessness over the past. This lies at the core of our experience of loss, and is the source of the melancholy that pervades the realization that what “was,” “what has been done,” is no longer subject to our will to meaning. So what are we to do? How can something be meaningful for us, if it stands just beyond the limit of the power of life to create meaning? Michalski:
If this is so […] if the essence of human life is will to power—which means that life surpasses, necessarily, all possible bounds—if human life is creative and cannot be anchored within any concept, if our lives are the source of the meaning of all reality, then how are we to understand the fact—so hard, so difficult to bear—that I will never return to my father’s arms, that I will never see my dead friend again?
Time has only one direction, suspending the generation of meaning just as it puts it into place. What “understanding” could possibly mean here can, again, only be expressed by following the narrative of Zarathustra’s struggle, to which we now turn.
At the beginning of Part III, which was originally planned to be the conclusion of the book, Nietzsche introduces us to a very different Zarathustra from the initial prophet-like figure of the Prologue. Then Zarathustra had then come down from the mountains to carry his “fire into the valleys,” and to proclaim the Übermensch in the town square of the Motley Cow. Zarathustra in Part III is a more troubled figure, more secretive, more inwardly turned, if also still that overflowing spirit comparable to the sun, as Michalski emphasizes. He is above all in the process of being transformed by a thought, a thought that brings his abyss to the surface. This “heaviest thought,” what Zarathustra calls his “abyssal thought,” is of the eternal recurrence. The transformation effected by this thought is slow, and it works from the depths; Zarathustra carries the thought with him like a secret, even from itself. The thought thus burrows within him, and he shrinks back again and again from the arduous task of bringing it to the surface.
This subterranean abyss of a thought is expressed, indirectly on Michalski’s reading, in Zarathustra’s recounting of a dream that he gives, not to his disciples (with whom he has already parted ways at the end of Part II), but instead to a group of sailors on board a ship. The audience is appropriate, given that Zarathustra is “a friend to all who make distant voyages and do not like to live without danger.” More, Zarathustra’s account of his dream is full of imagery, and is thus fit only for those, again like the sailors, who are “riddle-drunk,” who “hate to calculate” where they can “guess.” It is important to appreciate the fact that “On the Vision and the Riddle” does not move beyond guessing at riddles and interpreting visions. Nor for that matter does the rest of the book, at least with respect to the meaning of eternity. The abyssal thought, though seemingly stated directly enough in the course of the dream, in fact always remains beneath the surface, even if that surface is slowly becoming transformed. The subterranean presence of this thought progressively torments Zarathustra; when it finally comes closest to the surface, it leads to Zarathustra’s immediate collapse, followed by him slow recuperation in his cave, accompanied by his animals (“The Convalescent”). The thought is never, however, fully brought to the stable light of day, much less to the servile stability of concepts.
Such is the basic outline of the narrative of Zarathustra’s struggle. The dream Zarathustra recounts to the sailors also contains its own dramatic structure, which in important ways supplements the overall narrative.
In the dream, Zarathustra is walking with a companion—a lame creature, half-mole, half-dwarf who sits on his shoulder, tormenting him by “dripping lead” into his ear, and “thoughts like drops of lead into my brain.” Zarathustra associates the dwarf-mole with the “spirit of gravity,” a complex figure in Zarathustra that expresses the weight, the burden on life imposed by what we saw above as the commitment to continuity, to the comprehensibility of things and the rejection of creative diversity. The spirit of gravity accompanies, even demands the unfolding perspective tying all to all, all to an order, with a suffocating seriousness of purpose and hatred of the exception that echoes the “meaning of ascetic ideals” from the third essay of On the Genealogy of Morality. Here the spirit is endeavoring to tie Zarathustra down, or at least to bring him down from his heights: his lightness, his flight, the dwarf tells Zarathustra, will ultimately be brought down, tied to everything else just like everything else: “O Zarathustra, you philosopher’s stone, you sling stone, you destroyer of stars! You threw yourself so high—but every thrown stone—must fall!”
His ear and brain filling with such leaden thoughts, Zarathustra loses his patience, turns and confronts his little tormentor: “Dwarf! You! Or I!—” Nietzsche being, after all, a man of the 19th century, it is hard here not to be reminded of a duel, and to expect that the next step will be a choice of weapons. And so it is. Zarathustra’s weapon of choice is an idea, or better an image, the scene of an idea. Accordingly, in the dream, the duel begins when he and the dwarf-mole are immediately transported into this image-scene of their contest.
This scene is the “vision” named in the title to this section of Zarathustra. In it, Zarathustra and his tormentor stand before a gate that opens onto two paths, extending in two different directions, each of which is infinite: “no one has yet followed either to its end.” Above the gate is written the word “moment.” The paths, representing the past and the future respectively, do not meet, but contradict each other in the moment: “they offend each other face to face,” as Zarathustra puts it. The moment itself is thus neither past nor future, but the annihilation of both; thus the moment, the “now” in which Zarathustra and his companion are now “present,” is effectively suspended between the past and the future.
If so, Zarathustra asks the dwarf-mole, does this mean that this moment, which we perceive here standing before this gate, is exhausted by this contradiction, making the difference between the past and the future irreversible? And if we were to follow either path, into the past or into the future, would this contradiction, this irreversible difference be “eternal”?
No, of course not, replies the dwarf-mole: “Everything straight lies. […] All truth is crooked; time itself is a circle.” Time is a circle—everything that has happened will happen again; everything that will happen, has happened already. This means that a moment of time, any given segment of the cycle of the world, is never really lost, but retains a future (and a past) with which it is not in contradiction. This means that the moment ultimately belongs to an order, a process or a cycle of nature that is always the same, always “returns” to what it only seems to have left behind. The passage of time, in other words, the contradiction of the moment, is only an apparent annihilation; in truth the movement of time does not bind the now to difference, it does not move straight ahead in a passage to a future in which the past is always irrevocably lost, but instead affirms the place of the now within a cyclical repetition that guarantees its solid position within an order, and with that guarantees its meaning.
The dwarf-mole here articulates, as Michalski points out, an ancient idea—one that can be found in various versions in Plato, Epicurus, and the Stoics, but also in many ancient religions. Michalski cites Genesis 8:22, where we find Noah proclaiming: “While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.” True time, the time in which things are what they really are, is the time of cycles and repetitions, of seasons replacing each other in turn, according to a definite rotation. Time, in other words, is more of a recurring dance of forms, than any loss or destruction implicit in the sense of the unrepeatable.
And, of course, and perhaps most importantly with regard to reading Nietzsche, it is an idea memorably articulated by Schopenhauer in The World as Will and Representation, in a passage that Michalski also cites: “We can compare time to an endlessly revolving sphere; the half that is always sinking would be the past, and that half that is always rising would be the future.”
Michalski argues that, in all these cases—from Noah to Plato, from the Stoics to Schopenhauer—the cyclical character of the moment of time is either implicitly or explicitly bound to a particular perspective:
Moments pass only from the vantage point of my current experience—only insofar as (Schopenhauer argues) I fail to extricate myself from the ‘here and now’, insofar as I fail to look upon this moment from a distance. If I do manage just that, when I look upon what I am experiencing from a bird’s-eye view—from the perspective of time as a whole—I will see that there is nothing special in the moment I am now experiencing, that it is not unrepeatable, but that it is like the others and therefore repeatable. And thus it does not pass, it does not fade into nothingness once and for all. I will then understand that ‘to pass’ means essentially the same thing as ‘to return’.
The key to Michalski’s interpretation of the eternal recurrence lies precisely in the role played by this ever present but often unacknowledged looking from a distance basic to the meaning of the eternal return. It is only from the perspective of this distance, this bird’s eye view, that “to pass” appears to have the same meaning as “to return.” It is only from this distance, in other words, that I can hope to see how the moment inevitably becomes assimilated into a pattern, a cycle, and thus a certain “whole.” This distance also makes possible a particular modality of the reflection on time: to reflect on time from this distance offers a chance to reduce the difference between the past and the future to a phase of a cosmic process, which only itself is real, and the passage of time only a relative aspect or feature, which is thereby rendered unreal and illusory.
And it is precisely this distance, Michalski suggests, that Zarathustra struggles against, even rejects when he angrily cuts the dwarf short as they gaze upon the gateway of the moment: “Do not take it too lightly! Or I shall leave you squatting where you are, lamefoot!” Likewise, on Michalski’s reading, it is the same distance that irritates Zarathustra when, during his convalescence, his animals, trying to comfort their ailing companion, set the image of the eternal recurrence to a tune: “O you jokers and barrel organs!” Zarathustra responds.
This rejection of distance, however, also unsettles Zarathustra’s own articulation of the idea of the eternal recurrence in response to the dwarf-mole that he offers in the scene of the vision. His own statement in this section does in fact differ from the dwarf-mole’s, but the meaning seems to amount to the same thing. In Zarathustra’s version the emphasis is not so much on the image of a cycle or a wheel, as on the infinity of both the past and the future, and the relation between this double infinity and what is possible. The idea is that, given that both past and future are figures of infinite possibility, all that could possibly happen must have happened already, and in turn all that could possibly happen must happen again in the future. The two thus map one onto the other: the infinite past and the infinite future each exhausts possible being, everything possible has been, and will be again. Including this moment:
Must not this gateway already also—have been?
And are not all things closely bound together in such a way that this moment draws all coming things after it? Therefore—itself too?
So, for all things that can run: also in this long lane forward—it must once more run!
All of this is not quite what the dwarf-mole said, but the result seems to be the same: either infinite repetition, or the repetition of the infinite, could certainly be read into the dwarf’s description of time as crooked. There seems to be no difference between the two—in spite of Zarathustra’s insistence that there is. Michalski’s thesis is that this is because Zarathustra’s presentation of the idea in the vision is infected by the same distance that marks the perspective of the dwarf-mole: in the image-scene of their duel, they are both looking at the moment in a vision that lies outside of the moment, from a bird’s-eye view in which the internal movement of the moment is obscured. This distance is dramatically embodied in the image of the two travel companions standing before the moment, as if on the verge of just entering into time, as if we could ever experience the passage of the moment in the form of being just on the threshold of entering into it—and as if the contradiction between the future and the past could, from this threshold, have any real meaning. Yet it is only from the pretense of such a distance that it could ever make sense to speak of an infinite becoming assimilated into an order, articulated in terms of a cycle of possibility and actuality: whatever is possible has already been, and will forever be, recurring.
The difference between the dwarf and Zarathustra, Michalski argues, cannot be perceived in terms set by this distance—which is why the dream shifts away from the vision to the riddle. The dwarf-mole disappears altogether, perhaps indicating that, saturated with the spirit of gravity, he can only be a creature who stands at a distance from life, from the flame of the moment.
The riddle is articulated in a much more violent and disturbing image than that of the vision of standing before the gate of the moment: a young shepherd, writhing in agony, is struggling to pull out of his mouth a large, black snake that has crawled down his throat and bitten fast. Zarathustra, failing to pull the snake out of the shepherd’s mouth, screams, or rather a scream comes from within him, to bite off the head. The shepherd chooses just that, and once freed lets loose what Zarathustra describes as an inhuman laughter: “Never yet on earth had a man laughed as he laughed! O my brothers, I heard a laughter which was no human laughter […].”
With this riddle Zarathustra’s recounting of his dream ends, and he cajoles his fellow shipmates to explain what it means: “You enoyers of riddles! Solve for me the riddle that I saw, interpret for the vision of the loneliest!”
Michalski argues that the key to understanding, or even just engaging, Zarathustra’s “abysmal thought,” the thought of the eternal recurrence, lies in the contrast between the riddle of the shepherd struggling with the snake, and the vision of the moment of time as the gate between past and future. The contrast between the two is necessary, and expresses the fundamental contradiction in time that we have already met when discussing the relation between the will to power and nihilism. It is the contradiction between continuity, as the origin of an order of meaning manifest in each and every moment, and the moment itself as we live it, within it. Characteristic of the former is precisely the attempt to maintain a distance, one of understanding and mediation, in which whatever the moment brings is compared to some measure that seeks to establish continuity, and with that security. Characteristic of the latter is the encounter with the incomprehensibility of an irrevocable difference at the heart of the moment, one that does not yield to the distance of understanding, even if at the same time it provides its ground. The unyielding moment, the moment that does not succumb to being integrated into a cycle of an order of moments, disturbs from within any final continuity of the future and the past, cutting short its hold on us like the young shepherd biting the head off the snake.
Unyielding to both the future and past, or to the order of being which together they conspire to cultivate and sustain, the moment is in this sense “eternal.” And it is an eternity that lies at the heart of every moment; every moment is the same contradiction between time and eternity, between the establishment of order and the irremediable diversity of things.
Like the figure of the Übermensch, the eternal recurrence of the same is being interpreted here as something basic to the human condition. It is something that cannot be unambiguously expressed in concepts, since the eternal recurrence arises originally from an anxiety, a restlessness that announces itself in the incapacity of concepts for a life that is nevertheless radically dependent on them. “Eternity” is precisely the name for that rupture in our lived fabric of meanings, our skin, that in turn is nothing less than the inexorable movement of life as will to power. Michalski:
There is a thorn in life’s side that cannot be removed; without it, the anxiety that we call life would not be possible, since it is because of this thorn that life goes on. This thorn is eternity.
Eternity is thus not a salve, but a spur, making impossible life settling into itself; it is in this sense a kind of sickness (the way love is a sickness)—it is the origin of the disgust, nausea, horror, and anxiety that are not mere arbitrary states, but the being of life itself. Again Michalski:
Life is manifest in this very nausea, in this horror, in the fragility of concepts, a fragility they themselves indicate, in anxiety that does not allow us to reconcile ourselves to any of the conditions of our life, in the inhuman joy of liberation—and in this way only. In the sickness of life, in its internal struggle. In its nihilism.
The consoling effect of the thought of eternal recurrence described by Schopenhauer is thus absent here, and this absence is dramatically embodied in the suffering of Zarathustra. Nevertheless, the “return” for Michalski does have the sense of a kind of liberation: eternity as the spur in which life liberates itself from all forms, without ceasing to be creative, without ceasing to be enmeshed and consumed by what it creates, without ceasing to be us. Yet what is thereby liberated is only life itself, which is not the same as the consummation of the promise of individual continuity:
But this is not the liberation of myself, as I am today; none of my features or characteristics, nothing that is mine, passes the test of passing. No content returns. And yet ‘something’ in me does return. Or, rather, everything does. In every moment my entire life is placed under a question mark: I am born anew, I become a child, with no past, no worries about the future, no wish to hold on to anything that passes. This is why my identity will never be closed.
It is here that Heidegger’s influence on Michalski’s reading becomes evident. Consider the following passage from Heidegger’s 1937 Nietzsche lectures:
That which is to come is precisely a matter for decision, since the ring is not closed in some remote infinity but possesses its unbroken closure in the Moment, as the center of the striving; what recurs—if it is to recur—is decided by the Moment and by the force with which the Moment can cope with whatever in it is repelled by such striving. That is what is peculiar to, and hardest to bear in, the doctrine of eternal return—to wit, that eternity is in the Moment, that the Moment is not the fleeting “now,” not an instant of time whizzing by a spectator, but the collision of future and past.
Michalski, one could say, is trying precisely to think what is hardest in the thought of the eternal recurrence of the same, and so to understand Nietzsche’s assertion (the second quote of Nietzsche that appears in the book): “Eternal life is no other life: it’s the very life you are living.”
And yet there is something more here than yet another philosopher influenced by the legacy of Heidegger. Consider for example the issue of Christianity. Heidegger’s writings are of course replete with religious themes, but nothing comes close to Michalski’s attempt at a more thorough rapprochement between philosophical reflection and a distinctively religious sensibility. This is what in fact draws him to Nietzsche’s writings, as paradoxical as that may sound to some. But it shouldn’t be surprising. Nietzsche’s work is saturated with allusions to Christian themes and passages from the Bible. However, if Michalski is right about his interpretation of the eternal recurrence of the same, then the often emphasized critical distance Nietzsche takes with respect to Christianity as a whole is significantly mitigated. Michalski himself explores this throughout The Flame of Eternity, perhaps most powerfully in the comparison of the death of Socrates and the crucifixion of Christ in Chapter VI, “The Death of God.”
That the eternal recurrence is a Christian problem is also clear. The account of it given by the dwarf-mole that Zarathustra rejects, the idea of the eternal as the cyclical character of time, thanks to which the difference between past and future is absorbed into a repeating order, bears an obvious relation to the notion of apokatastasis rejected by Augustine in the City of God and branded anathema by the second Council of Constantinople. For Augustine, what was problematic about the notion of apokatastasis was that it contradicted the singularity of Christ, and with that the unrepeatability of the event of Christ’s sacrifice and his resurrection. “If we understand Christ’s death and resurrection as unrepeatable events,” as Michalski puts it, “as events within an unrepeatable, individual, absolutely unique life, then time’s cyclicality is impossible.”
In other words, for the event of Christ to make sense, including his sacrifice and resurrection, “eternity” has to mean something different than the natural ordering of time; the break the eternal represents with passing, with the passage of time as irrevocable loss, has to mean something different. Michalski takes this to be a fundamental challenge of early Christianity, expressed, for example, in Paul’s exhortations of the urgency of the moment, as well as the pronouncements of Christ demanding a total break with the world, the willingness to leave everything, even what is closest and most precious. It is also a structuring moment in a long tradition of understanding the relation between love and time as essentially anarchic in character, the topic of another chapter in the book (Chapter VIII, “Eternal Love”).
Michalski takes this conception of the eternal, or of an eternity other than order that touches us through and as a disturbance of time, to be fundamental to understanding Zarathustra, and in this way he situates the problem of Zarathustra within the orbit of a specifically Christian reflection. For in Michalski’s view both figures—Zarathustra and Christ—express the struggle of life that is always moving beyond itself, always pitted against its own immobility, always sick with something that pulls it out of any constraints of possibility. For both, life is not simply the incorporation of one form or another, assimilating what happens into what has already been; life is also the risk, basic to the structure of every moment, of becoming a completely new life, something completely other and unanticipated. And both struggles are characterized by an equally powerful pull of a life of order, that flight into the security of a dependency on concepts, of stable meanings that promise to protect us from dangers and allay our fears.
Yet at the same time it is clear that it would be going too far to ascribe a theology to Nietzsche, or to Michalski for that matter, either in the traditional sense of a rational theology or in the Kantian sense of a moral theology. Heidegger is again an important influence here, but again there is something more to Michalski than Heidegger.
I would like to suggest that a comparison to some strands of reflection found in Jan Patočka’s 1977 “On Masaryk’s Philosophy of Religion” can perhaps help us to understand better where Michalski stands philosophically. This is not so much the case because Patočka offers a different interpretation of Nietzsche’s teaching of the eternal recurrence of the same (which he does), but rather in that he offers us a way to approach the question of what is existentially at stake in Nietzsche’s concepts of nihilism, time, and power that we have been following in reading Michalski.
The question of the meaning of Nietzsche’s thought is an important common denominator in Michalski and Patočka, but their respective assessments vary considerably. Patočka offers us a critique of Nietzsche that unfolds along rather familiar lines: he understands Nietzsche’s concept of power in literal terms as force and domination (of peoples, of the planet), and the will to power as the metaphysical essence of a new humanity that, having broken free of the illusions of “otherworldly” truth and morality, has become completely “this worldly,” and thus “sets to the task of becoming master of the earth, of submitting the planet to the will to will.” Patočka then reads the doctrine of the eternal recurrence in straight metaphysical terms (here as well we see the mark of Heidegger) as an expression of a radical materialism (a bodily materialism, thus metaphysical anthropomorphism), one characteristic of the image of the overman as the force of technological domination:
This mechanistic metaphysics is something in which one can believe, it does not contradict any idea essential to technological science, which itself expresses the world in terms of the force that we comprehend in a more essential manner “from the inside” as will to power. The truth of the technological universe is thus ultimately time, which forms a circle; the moment where the future and the past merge, where the infinity of successive nows traditionally called eternity is replaced by a new time, a time of freedom and of a decision about everything as a whole.
My interest here lies not in directly contrasting these different readings of Nietzsche in order to weigh their relative merits; each has its roots in Nietzsche’s text, and more importantly, each has its roots in a deep reflection on the meaning of Nietzsche for philosophy as such. I wish instead to emphasize some general themes of the latter, that is, of Nietzsche’s meaning for philosophy (which really just means for us, the spiritual inheritors of the 20th century), themes that can be articulated by way of a reflection on the phrase at the end of the passage just quoted, namely: “a decision about everything as a whole.” This is an essential theme in Patočka’s essay, one that comes to a climax in a powerful appeal to the thought of Heidegger towards its end. It is also a theme essential to Michalski’s meditation on Nietzsche, but its genuine sense for Michalski will, I want to suggest, represent more of a departure from than an embracing of Heidegger’s thought.
To show what I mean, let me begin by pointing out some of the salient aspects of Patočka’s essay. Patočka begins with another example of a “decision about the whole,” namely Kant’s moral theology. The main task Patočka sets for himself is to explore the legacy of Kant’s moral philosophy with reference to its critics, including Masaryk, of whom Patočka is in turn extremely (and truth be told perhaps uncharitably) critical. Of course Nietzsche plays a prominent role among the critics of Kant, but so does Dostoyevsky, whose thought Patočka explores as a vehicle for articulating his own position.
Central to Kant’s moral philosophy that is under fire from all these different camps is the doctrine of postulates: those rationally elaborated grounds for confidence that morally determined action is not “in vain,” that the world of practical interests, of life, has an ultimate purpose or aim in a “highest good.” The postulates amount to a decision made about the whole, one that takes the form of a moral vision that, in the place of a rational theology that sought to make the relation between human beings and God comprehensible, instead renders the whole meaningful in a way that is relative solely to human life in its being lived. The moral vision of the world articulated in the postulates is meant to assure us that the world in which we live out our lives is ultimately meaningful, that how one behaves counts, and that an ultimate harmony between respect for the moral law and happiness is the proper object of a rationally justified hope.
Like Michalski, Patočka recognizes that such a moral vision of the world seeks to satisfy a deep human need—for order, for peace, for a continuity that stands as a bulwark against what unsettles us; it is our railing by the torrent (to borrow a striking image from Zarathustra). But unlike Michalski, Patočka also insists on describing this as a need for an absolute, non-relative meaning, one that is the ultimate origin of the moral vision of the world—as if the decision about the whole Heidegger spoke of in the passage above must take the form of an ultimate decision:
We are certainly entitled to speak here of a philosophy concerned with the meaning of life [vis-à-vis Kant], of a metaphysics of meaning, if it is clear that no human action is possible without meaning, and if on the other hand it is true that without an absolute and total meaning all sense making collapses.
A key issue is of course the meaning of “meaning” when it comes to the whole. Clearly it must be non-relative, given that there is no outside to the whole in Patočka’s sense, no source that could provide it with a justification. That it must also be absolute, if not total then at least positive, is also being affirmed here as a common basis with Kant. What Patočka takes exception to, and what in turn brings his reading into close proximity to Heidegger, is his resistance to a fundamental thesis of Kant’s, namely that the whole of human life is meaningful in the sense of a purpose, and end the affirmation of which must accordingly entail a rejection of its essential finitude. The “absolute,” “total” meaning of the whole, spoken of in the passage above, needs to be understood in another sense, one that is commensurate with the limits of any sense or meaning to exhaustively determine human existence.
Patočka’s aim is thus to articulate a meaningful relation to the whole of what is that is not determined by an ultimate purpose or end. To get us there, Patočka pursues a critique of the Kantian “moral vision of the world” through a reading of Dostoyevsky. At issue is the significance of hope, or more precisely, the temporality of hope: for the postulates ultimately take the form of an aspiration, a grounded expectation of what we can hope for in how things turn out in the course of life. Thus ultimately the weight of our conviction about the moral purpose of the world falls on the future, on what is to come, and not on what life is now. But this means that the order hoped for, since it can only be posited in the form of the “not yet,” carries with it the recognition of the factual reality of evil, of suffering, of an existence that falls short of the harmony of morality and happiness “to come.” Is this not, Patočka asks, implicitly an affirmation of the necessity of evil—that is, if the world has a purpose, an ultimate end, then the evils of its unfulfilled state must belong to the same overall meaning, and therefore must be accepted for what they are?
Patočka, in some of best lines in all his writings, interprets Dostoyevsky’s character Ivan Karamazov in The Brothers Karamazov as the expression of a fundamental resistance to this putative necessity, thus implicitly embodying a critique of Kant’s doctrine of postulates (whether or not Dostoyevsky had actually read Kant, but that is another story). The main gesture Patočka finds in Ivan is his effective rejection of the necessity of the moral purpose of the world by arguing for its hypothetical character—that is, moral purpose, and the current evil it affirms and makes necessary, is for Ivan “necessary” only on the condition that we want to act at all. But do we unconditionally want to act, to take part in the moral drama of things as its active participants, if that means implicitly embracing the necessity of evil?
It is here that Ivan asks a question that we can compare to Michalski’s fundamental question regarding time discussed above, namely his “What am I to do with the past?” Ivan asks: Those who have not chosen to act, those who are innocent, such as the little children—what are we to do with them? What moral meaning could their suffering possibly have? Ivan: “I am not talking about the suffering of grown-ups, they ate the apple and to hell with them, let the devil take them all, but these little ones!”
Michalski’s question may appear on first blush as more abstract and conceptual, Ivan’s more concrete and emotionally visceral. Yet both speak to that same fundamental experience of something that does not link up, that has no acceptable or even possible connection to anything, thus which seems to stand outside of any possible regime of continuity. It is the experience, in other words, of something that does not, and cannot make us whole, and which refuses to leave us in peace. The differences between the two begin to come into focus when we reflect on the orientation of the one to the past (the impossibility of ever returning to my childhood, to the sphere of my father’s gentle protection, to the friendship suddenly lost to an irrevocable past), and the other to the future (the impossibility of seeing how anything at all could come out of the suffering of this child, other than the awful fact of bare suffering itself).
The essential thing in both cases is how they disturb us, how they unsettle us from within the movement of our lives. This is the key to Patočka’s interpretation of Ivan: the point is not to express the moral conscience of someone standing on solid ground, protesting against an objectively outrageous affront, but rather to describe an outrage that wells up from the heart of one’s own decided commitment, shattering it from within with doubt and skepticism. For Ivan, as Patočka emphasizes, is fully committed to the “moral vision of the world”: he remains committed to the hope that, in the end, accounts will be reconciled, that the future will come in which everyone gets what they deserve. Again to quote Ivan himself: “All religions of the world are based on this desire [for reconciliation], and I am a believer. But then there are the children, and what am I going to do with them?” (Interestingly, Patočka also detects in this discussion between Ivan and Aloysha a rejection of the spirit of vengeance that echoes Nietzsche; again Ivan: “What do I care if they are avenged, what do I care if the tormentors are in hell?”)
It is because of this inner disturbance that makes Ivan’s own convictions, own commitments unlivable that, Patočka argues, makes Ivan an example of an “underground man.” Such a figure is fundamentally in the throes of a nihilism in which meaning has become unacceptable, even impossible. Either there is an alternative meaningfulness as yet undiscovered, thus some way out of the spiritual torment of nihilism, or there is no meaning at all, “everything is permitted.”
In Dostoyevsky’s literature this state of crisis is often described in terms of the underground man’s relation to others, as well as the experience of a profoundly unsettling hyper-sensitivity to the emptiness of things that continually throws him into inner torment. Accordingly, the underground man experiences an increasingly radical dependency on others, on the world, but it is a fully alienated world in which others are not subjects of a community of sense, but only vehicles for the underground man’s introverted self-torture that becomes increasingly impossible to escape. These experiences of escalating alienation and torment constitute a mode of consciousness, awareness, even self-knowledge: unlike the “normal,” those who are indifferent to or oblivious of their emptiness, the “underground” know their emptiness, they realize that their nothingness makes up their very substance, that their skepticism yields a kind of negative truth. As Patočka expresses it:
The underground man is alienated and he knows it, but this knowledge is sterile, morbid, simply a way to lacerate oneself, forced to revel in itself and to find its content or balance in this self-torture. […] The skepticism in which he lives is in fact a negation, a negation of the possibility of a common, unifying meaning other than diffusion into reciprocal dependence.
On Patočka’s reading, however, such characters in Dostoyevsky’s literature are not condemned to endless torture. There is a way out of nihilism. Against other interpretations of Dostoyevsky (not to mention the self-interpretation of the author), Patočka’s account of this possibility does not cast it as an embrace of an older, simpler, more honest and above all less intellectually charged religiosity. He believes instead that an alternative possibility is also in play, even if only implicit, and can be discerned in a reading of Dostoyevsky’s short story from A Writer’s Diary that bears the title “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man.”
The “ridiculous man” is another figure of the underground type, but the sensitivity to others and the gaze of others is even more extreme. The story is of a man obsessed that the image others have of him is that he is ridiculous; he internalizes and intensifies this image of himself, proving it to himself to be true time and again, to the point at which he becomes completely enslaved to ubiquitous patterns of ridicule that he believes to be universally directed at him. This intensification, this torment, reaches a breaking point, inaugurating a state of profound boredom: a state of non-interest, non-sensitivity to anything anyone thinks of him or anything else, as if “everywhere on earth nothing mattered,” even to the point where it is as if nothing at all even existed.
Suicide—a central theme of Masaryk’s, as it was for Dostoyevsky, but I will not get into that here—is the only option left, and the ridiculous man accordingly prepares to take his own life. Yet before committing the act, the ridiculous man has a dream. He dreams of his own suicide, a bullet through the heart, and the experience of nothingness that follows in its wake—a nothingness that is in its essence identical to the nothingness of things, of interests and concerns, constitutive of boredom, but which now finds its affirmation and embrace in the act of suicide. And it is here that, for Patočka, the ridiculous man experiences something that gives us a clue about the possibility of an escape from nihilism. At the moment of absolute nothingness, the ridiculous man undergoes a “conversion,” as Patočka describes it, though it is a peculiar one that takes the form of the culmination of a nothingness which, instead of causing even more torment or indifference, opens human existence to the presence of an unexpected positivity. Patočka:
One only feels as if somehow this nothingness, this lack of all meaning able to speak to us and thereby give us life, has shifted. It has turned us back, risen up between us and all things, between us and all beings of the same kind as us. As if inviting us to enter, as if fascinating us with the horror of its emptiness, forcing us to let go of that last branch to which we cling desperately. And yet something has opened with this invitation!
Patočka’s interpretation of this openness, this invitation of nothingness, is explicitly Heideggerean: at the limit of sense, when all things and others lose their meaningfulness, when there is “nothing” between us and between things, this nothingness itself invites us to stand out in the difference between Being and beings, open to a positivity through which all meaning, positive or negative, draws its very possibility. Again Patočka:
Being appears as that by virtue of which everything opens up: It takes place as the wonder that everything is. This opening up of the whole, just at the moment where nothing remains of the initially isolated ‘why’ and ‘wherefore,’ shows what always still remains, what always again opens up the present and, with it, all of what can be gathered, which leads us toward this whole.
“This wonder,” Patočka goes on to say in the following lines, “one may thus designate with the word ‘love.’” Conversion and love here thus coincide in what is at first a familiar pattern; yet the former cannot be an embrace of the moral view of the world, just as little as the latter can be identified with the rational hope articulated in Kant’s moral postulates. It is a union of a fundamentally different kind than the harmony of purpose and meaning. And it is absolute, since there is no outside; and it is always, though now in the sense of what always again opens up the present and “leads us towards” the whole.
It is the precisely the absence of a union of this kind, or “love” in Patočka’s sense, in Michalski’s reflection of eternity that, I would argue, is important to understanding his thinking. There is no landscape altering conversion operative in Michalski’s reflections in the sense that one finds in Patočka’s Dostoyevsky; there is no saving union with Being in the abyss of meaninglessness; there is no unexpected “positivity” or fullness of truth as the flipside of the nothingness at the ground of our finitude; there is no unconditional openness of human existence set into movement by a relation to the difference between Being and beings. Where in Patočka human openness to truth is ultimately an openness to the “fundamental gift of meaning”—to the absolute meaning of the whole—in Michalski there is no gift of meaning, only the gift of fire: the volcanic undercurrent of eternity that prevents any meaning, any concept from becoming self-enclosed, self-sufficient.
We can sum up this short comparison by contrasting two passages that, I believe, point to the contrast I am trying to suggest can illuminate for us a fundamental difference between these two thinkers. The first is from Patočka’s essay I have been citing, in which he articulates the kind of spiritual posture necessary for modern humanity if it is to overcome nihilism, if it is to experience in the closure of its nothingness the potential for a renewed human openness to the gift of meaning:
Man faces a tremendous challenge, namely not to claim meaning for himself, not to attempt to lay hold of the meaningfulness of the universe for his own benefit but, on the contrary, to comprehend himself as a being existing out of meaning and for meaning, living for what gives rise to a world full of meaning, sacrificing himself so that the meaning whose foundation “is” outside of beingness can take root, make a home, and grow in him. To understand oneself as the one destined for an unshakable gift to which nothing relative can be compared […]
And the second is from Michalski, speaking on behalf of Nietzsche but expressing just as much his own conviction, which offers a very different assessment of the human condition. Here it is not so much a question of a challenge of humanity to once again receive its being, to live towards a union with that which is “outside of beingness,” but instead to indicate, to point to that within us that strives beyond us—meaning in other words as overcoming, not as union:
[…] overcoming nihilism cannot be a program of action; “beyond good and evil” is not a slogan that points out where humanity is supposed to go. Nietzsche does not exhort us toward immorality, nor does he propagate some ideal of man or society. Overcoming nihilism is the meaning of our lives, life as a constant, unlimited—and in this sense one that potentially exceeds all that is human—effort to begin anew. The effort to return to one’s innocence, which was never a real state in our lives. The effort to break free from time. The effort to transform our lives into limitless possibility.
Michalski here takes us back to Nietzsche, and with that to an embrace of the figure of human striving, and the “thorn of eternity” that continually goads the human being into living life. This is the fundamental gesture that organizes all the reflections in The Flame of Eternity. Though Michalski at least implicitly recognizes the suspicion that the Nietzschean themes of striving, power, and the will always threaten to commit us to the metaphysical gesture of an empty techno-domination of beings, he is not wholly convinced. They can also lead us, Michalski insists, to a deeper appreciation of the metaphor of the fire of eternity, which is ultimately something much closer to us than any “union of Being” or even “gift of meaning” could ever be.
And yet it would be a mistake to drive this possible wedge between Patočka and Michalski too insistently. It would be premature—Michalski’s book represents only the beginning of the mature expression of the thinking of a philosopher, one that will unfortunately not have a sequel. Perhaps we could say that, at most, Michalski takes us to a revived appreciation of a host of Nietzsche’s metaphors, and not just that of fire. Another such metaphor, one that might serve to begin a new chapter in reflecting on the contrast between Patočka and Michalski, is that of lightness., or what Michalski towards the end of his book describes as the “unearthly lightness of life that is hidden behind all content.” Lightness is, of course, at the center of that other metaphor of the child, of play. That we could somehow think of this lightness as union with anything, thus attend upon it, orient ourselves to it, stretch our hands out to receive it, appeal to it in order to set everything else into place, would miss the point of just what innocence means for us.
But again even this thought would only take us so far—at least as far as to be drawn again into the promise and risk of yet another Nietzschean metaphor (Zarathustra the “dancer” comes to mind). All we have here are beginnings, and we cannot say in advance whether, following through with all the reflections in The Flame of Eternity, one might not in the end be convinced that Michalski was in fact moving in the direction of Patočka’s philosophical vision, not to mention Heidegger’s.
In the end, Michalski’s philosophical work remains unfinished, the beginnings of questions, saturated with a deep sense of their necessity, expressed in an idiom that is deeply personal. To read such a book one must read it as one would read an initial gesture meant to open the way for reflection; critique is a necessary tool for such a reading, but unfinished works such as this also require a combination of imagination and generosity difficult to muster in today’s academic world.
This is however in no way a weakness of Michalski’s The Flame of Eternity. After all, why only read an author who has finished something? Would that not be among the most stupid of criteria? Are not the questions more interesting when the opposite is the case, when, like Zarathustra in his cave sitting amongst a pile of half-written tablets, the philosopher leaves us a work that cannot hide its limitations, and that accordingly forces us to question anew?
And does not questioning remain the true vocation of the philosopher?
James Dodd is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research and a former visiting fellow at the IWM.
Krzysztof Michalski, The Flame of Eternity. An Interpretation of Nietzsche’s Thought, trans. Benjamin Paloff (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012). [Hereafter Flame] Krzysztof Michalski (1948-2013), was the founder of the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna and Professor of Philosophy at Boston University.
Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, American Nietzsche (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), p. 34.
And so I should at least note that the present essay on Michalski is also personal: he was my teacher, one to whom I owe an enormous intellectual debt; he was also a friend, for whom I have always had great affection and admiration. Whether or not we agree on Nietzsche, however, is another matter.
“To imprint upon becoming the character of being—that is the highest will to power.” Friedrich Nietzsche, Writings from the Late Notebooks, ed. Rüdiger Bittner (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), p. 138.
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, trans. Walter Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale (New York: Vintage, 1968), p. 378; partially quoted in Flame, p. 10. Cf. Nietzsche, Notebooks, p. 212.
Nietzsche, Will to Power, p. 13; quoted in Flame, p. 5. Cf. Nietzsche, Notebooks, p. 219.
Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality, trans. Carol Diethe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), p. 72.
Nietzsche, Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe, ed. Giorgio Colli, Mazzino Montinari (Berlin: de Gruyter), vol. 7.1, p. 221. [Hereafter KGA]
Flame, p. 7: “In the nihilism of the historical situation in which he finds himself, Nietzsche wants to uncover the nihilism of the human condition, which is in his view the necessary link between nihilism and its overcoming.”
See Zarathustra’s speech “On the Famous Wise Men”: “Spirit is the life that itself cuts into life: by its own agony it increases its own knowledge.” Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, trans. Clancy Martin (New York: Barnes and Noble, 2005), p. 91.
Michalski does not deal in any systematic way with other passages in which the eternal return appears, such as in §341 at the end of Book IV of the Gay Science, or in several notes from the end of Nietzsche’s life. See Martin Heidegger, Nietzsche. Volume 2: The Eternal Recurrence of the Same, trans. David Farrell Krell (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979-1987), pp. 9-81. Michalski’s reading owes much to Heidegger, as will become clear below, and thus invites comparison on a number of points that I will not, however, develop in detail.
Nietzsche, Zarathustra, 121; quoted in Flame, 177. (Michalski quotes from the Kaufmann translation of Zarathustra, but the Martin translation often captures the sense of the original better, so I will rely on it in what follows.)
Nietzsche, Zarathustra, 134; cf. 164-167.
See Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality, III, section 11.
Nietzsche, Zarathustra, p. 135.
Nietzsche, Zarathustra, p. 135.
Nietzsche, Zarathustra, 136; cf. Flame, 178.
Quoted in Flame, 152; also see Mircea Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return, Or: Cosmos and History, trans. Willard Trask (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974), which Michalski in part relies upon here.
Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, volume 1, trans. E.F.J. Payne (Mineola: Dover, 1969), p. 279; cited in Flame, 153.
Nietzsche, Zarathustra, p. 136.
Nietzsche, Zarathustra, p. 187.
Nietzsche, Zarathustra, p. 136.
Nietzsche, Zarathustra, p. 137.
Nietzsche, Zarathustra, p. 159.
Heidegger, Nietzsche, Vol. 2, p. 57.
Flame, 154-155; see Augustine, The City of God, trans. Henry Bettenson (New York: Penguin, 1972) 488-489.
Jan Patočka, “On Masaryk’s Philosophy of Religion (1977),” trans. Jiří Rothbauer, revised by James Dodd, Christina Gschwandtner and Ludger Hagedorn, in The New Yearbook for Phenomenology and Phenomenological Philosophy, vol. XIV: Religion, War, and the Crisis of Modernity: A Special Issue Dedicated to the Philosophy of Jan Patočka, ed. Ludger Hagedorn and James Dodd (London: Routledge, 2015), pp. 95-135. This is a translation of “Kolem Masarykovy filosofie náboženství,” the second of Dvě studie o Masarykovi, in Sebrané spisy Jana Patočky, vol. 12: Češi I (Prague: Oikumene, 2006), pp. 366–422.
Patočka, “On Masaryk’s Philosophy of Religion,” p. 122.
Patočka, “On Masaryk’s Philosophy of Religion,” p. 123.
Patočka, “On Masaryk’s Philosophy of Religion,” p. 99.
Patočka, “On Masaryk’s Philosophy of Religion,” pp. 126-127.
F. M. Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. and annotated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (London: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2004); Patočka’s analysis begins at “On Masaryk’s Philosophy of Religion,” p. 100f.
Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, p. 242.
Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, 244.
Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, 245; Patočka, “On Masaryk’s Philosophy of Religion,” pp. 102-103.
Patočka, “On Masaryk’s Philosophy of Religion,” pp. 103, 104. Cf. Dostoevsky, Notes from the Underground (1864), trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Vintage, 1994).
Dostoevsky, “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man: A Fantastic Story (April 1877),” in A Writer’s Diary, vol. 2, pp. 942–964; Patočka, “On Masaryk’s Philosophy of Religion,” pp. 104f.
Dostoevsky, “The Dream,” p. 943.
Patočka, “On Masaryk’s Philosophy of Religion,” p. 106.
Patočka, “On Masaryk’s Philosophy of Religion,” p. 108.
Patočka, “On Masaryk’s Philosophy of Religion,” p. 131.
Patočka, “On Masaryk’s Philosophy of Religion,” p. 130.