Jul 14, 1997, Vol. 2, No. 43 • By MARK BLITZ
Forty years ago, few American professors of philosophy or political philosophy read Friedrich Nietzsche or took him seriously. Healthy common sense rebelled against paying much attention to effusive and unsystematic writers; it also rebelled against careful study of authors linked to the Nazis. Today, however, a new book about Nietzsche seems to be published every month. And many of these treat Nietzsche not as a figure in an intellectual wax museum, but as a thinker with something true, or uncommonly significant, to say. At the least, many authors worry that others will believe this.
Is this attention to Nietzsche good or bad? One alternates between morally decrying Nietzsche's nihilism, with the implication that he should not be allowed to corrupt his readers, and intellectually decrying the assimilation of Nietzsche's teaching to easygoing relativism, with the implication that his democratic readers should not be allowed to corrupt or debase him. The study of such an explosive figure requires a sober and serious guide.
The virtue of Karl Lowith is that he is such a guide; his limitation is that he is not at the same time a sufficiently passionate or even playful one. Lowith was a contemporary of Leo Strauss, Hannah Arendt, and the other young students who worked with Martin Heidegger after the end of the First World War. Although Lowith lived and taught in the United States for a decade (he returned to Germany to teach at Heidelberg during the 1950s and died in 1973), his influence here has never been especially great. From Hegel to Nietzsche and Meaning in History were once widely read, and they are still studied. But the student who will recognize the names of Arendt and Strauss may not recognize the name Lowith at all.
Harvey Lomax's fine translation of Lowith's Nietzsche's Philosophy of the Eternal Recurrence of the Same will deservedly give Lowith renewed attention here. Lowith's book was among the first to take Nietzsche seriously as a philosopher, and was almost alone at the time in trying to uncover what Nietzsche himself intended to say. "This book does not impose an interpretation from without," Lowith writes, "but rather extracts it from the Nietzschean texts."
For Lowith, what is most significant in Nietzsche is his effort to overcome the nihilism he believes to be at the core of the West from Socrates onward. The heart of Nietzsche's attempt to overcome nihilism without flinching from it is his doctrine of the "eternal recurrence of the same." What is eternal return? Nietzsche argues that everything that is, high and low, will return just as it was innumerable times. He believes this, or wishes to believe this, for two reasons. One is his claim that the combination of infinite time and a finite number of physical events means that everything sooner or later must reappear identically. Instead of helping to offset nihilism, however, this teaching seems to exacerbate it by making human effort pointless and empty. Nietzsche tries to turn this apparent difficulty into an advantage. For if one could make oneself responsible for what recurs by willing and affirming it, one would be justifying and embracing all that is otherwise meaningless. So, Nietzsche argues, believing the truth of eternal return is, in fact, necessary if nihilism is to be surpassed.
Lowith discusses at length the various formulae or images through which Nietzsche attempts to clarify the possibility of willing eternal return, largely by explaining various scenes and images in Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra. In Lowith's judgment, Nietzsche's efforts are unsuccesstul.
One difficulty, which Lowith does not emphasize, is that because the value of eternal return is affirmed arbitrarily but not discovered reflectively, it cannot in the last analysis be the serious guide that choice and meaning require. What one knows to be a willed assertion can be replaced by a different assertion at another time. Like a light in a tunnel, a willed affirmation can show the way ahead, but it will never be able fully to block out the broader illumination that reveals its limits.
It is true that love, or acquiescence to one's heritage, is part of what gives direction to a family or a people. But such "irrational" attachment to what guides us also includes a view that our pursuits are reasonable and worthwhile, and not merely the product of our tradition or our inexplicable decisions. In any event, such local attachments would be insufficient for Nietzsche. He seeks a "philosopher of the future" able to overcome what is comfortable and immediate and to affirm not just this or that thing but all things, despite the lack of rational or transcendent standards.
Lowith's main argument is that if one believes eternal return is a demonstrable scientific truth, the decision to affirm any and every event as something that will reappear again and again in all its glory and misery hardly seems necessary. The affirmation does not make one "responsible"; it just means that one is acknowledging a fact. Lowith, however, leaves it at pointing out this problem; he does not try to engage Nietzsche by seeing how he might overcome, or might be made to overcome, the difficulty.
One may conclude from these issues that affirming the recurrence of each event as eternally necessary is, finally, an act of insincerity: It can never take the place of pursuing goals that attract our passionate attention and whose nature we seek to uncover and understand. Rather than overcoming nihilism while still affirming the death of what is transcendent, the attempt to will eternal return shows the continued need for, and in this sense the continued allure of, the unchanging ends that nihilism denies. For Nietzsche, the possibility of affirming eternal return is inseparable from the arguments through which he tries to show that nihilism is the dominant truth of contemporary life. Therefore, if the act of affirming eternal return is neither morally nor logically authentic, one is justified in questioning the primacy and inevitability of nihilism.
Mark Blitz is the Fletcher Jones Professor of Political Philosophy at Claremont McKenna College.