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The Eternal Recurrence of the Same

Karl Lowith’s (1897-1973) "Nietzsche’s Philosophy of the Eternal Recurrence of the Same" was surprisingly published in Berlin in 1935 during the rise of National Socialism which increasingly glorified certain aspects of Nietzsche’s thought as the Third Reich wore on. Lowith was Jewish. Lowith was also a former student of Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), who was already a card-carrying Nazi at the time Lowith’s book was published. Heidegger spent much of his time during the Third Reich researching Nietzsche (1844-1900) to prepare the iconoclast’s controversial style of proverbial aphorisms for National Socialist consumption. Lowith was also sympathetic to Nietzsche, but for different reasons. While Heidegger failed to ‘bring into line’ Freiburg University into the orbit of National Socialist education in 1933-34, Lowith was forced to leave Germany in 1934 – first for Italy, secondly to Japan, and then off to America. He returned to Germany in the 1950s.


In 1941, Lowith became professor at Hartford Theological Seminary thanks to much help coming from American existentialist theologians Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr – both of whom were deeply influenced by German theological existentialism. Lowith too was an existentialist of sorts, as was Heidegger. Friedrich Nietzsche, following Arthur Schopenhauer, was certainly one of the founders of European existentialism. What they called “Being” was at the very heart of their thought. Each of them tried to disinherit Judeo-Christian transcendence, metaphysics, and/or heavenly values through an emphasis upon existential ‘Being’ which they presumed had plagued western philosophy even going so far back as Plato. Existential Being, as opposed to transcendence and metaphysics, was thus the basis upon which they tried to build what one might consider an anti-transcendental philosophy purified of unwarranted abstractions bereft of life. Lowith suggests one may call such existentialist teaching as a metaphysics of the physical.


Lowith received his doctorate under Heidegger’s tutelage in 1928 studying Nietzsche. They were close friends up until his master teacher took upon himself the Nazi banner in the early 1930’s which caused them to become estranged. Though Heidegger later became critical of National Socialism, he never repented of his loyalty to the regime that lasted throughout the entire history of the Third Reich. As such, Lowith increasingly took a critical view of Heidegger’s philosophy. Lowith even concluded in his Appendix of the book a critical appraisal of Heidegger’s interpretation of Nietzsche in which the most outstanding philosopher of the 20th century claimed that Nietzsche was not grounded in “Being” nearly enough.


Here, Lowith counters that grounding oneself too much in “Being” invariably leads to nihilism, which Nietzsche expressly wrote to overcome. Nietzsche famously warned his readers to read him slowly, deeply, and cautiously, which Lowith rebukes Heidegger for not doing. Lowith even labels Heidegger’s philosophy of being as an ‘essence’ of nihilism, which is the biggest insult one can use against a committed existentialist who routinely declares holy war against any and all forms of transcendence and/or abstractions. Lowith concludes, “Despite Nietzsche’s express statement that the total character of life and of the living world cannot be assessed or evaluated, Heidegger interprets Nietzsche’s philosophy as a ‘metaphysics of values’ and interprets values as a ‘point of view,’ the simple meaning of which he artfully misinterprets.”


Yet, Lowith acknowledges that in spite of Nietzsche’s commitment to existential aphorisms which comprise much of his writings, the iconoclast himself does contradictorily have a transcendental ‘view’ which indeed puts his teaching into the classical philosophy department after all – the last great philosopher according to Lowith. Once one does his homework on Nietzsche properly, the ‘essence’ of his ‘philosophy’ is the namesake of Lowith’s book where the title includes the phrase, “The Eternal Recurrence of the Same.” Lowith spends much time throughout his book developing this theme that Mr. Nietzsche was thus the philosopher of the “Eternal Recurrence of the Same.” The longest chapter in the book is chapter three where Lowith entitles it accordingly, “The Unifying Fundamental Idea in Nietzsche’s Philosophy.”


At this juncture, Lowith begins by showing how the forced moral conformity of the Judeo-Christian worldview summarized as “Thou Shalt,” is now being replaced by a new European order of “I will” according to Nietzsche. Religious morality is in the process of being replaced by existentialism where the human will itself shall determine what is to be valued rather than be subjected to an outmoded theology or philosophical religion which modernity does not know which way to turn. This crossroads has been reached because reason and rationality has killed the Judeo-Christian God so that modernity now needs to find a new direction.


According to Nietzsche, since God is, for all practical purposes, dead, men must overcome themselves without God. In so doing, they will become supermen in order to legislate a new set of values for the future based on what is willed to be rather than upon western rationality and ethics so that a new postmodernity can avoid the dangerous meaningless of nihilism which Europe has since entered into with the collapse of the Judeo-Christian worldview. Since Nietzsche believed the weakest part of man was his rational consciousness, and that things like the physical body, willpower, and instinct were his strengths, such a new set of values rooted in the latter would necessarily need to govern the future by transcending the Enlightenment and redeeming the sickness of mediocrity and weakness bequeathed upon Europe thanks to religion and superstition.


The process of Nietzsche’s secular redemption or recovery from the death of God, and then from nihilism to superman, can thus be easily characterized as an European eschatology of sorts which changes and progresses from “Thou Shalt” to “I will” to “I am.” Man thus needs to get away from the gods and God in order to overcome those divine interferences which prevent his proper growth. Yet, with divine transcendence now murdered, nihilism has taken over Europe in Nietzsche’s day, which is potentially dangerous and destructive.


European nihilism is the “interim condition,” even an “advent” in between a religious past and a superman future, a present dispensation that is described as a fork in the road where there is now a choice to overcome or not. What comprises the interim condition of nihilism is romantic pessimism and scientific positivism that had completely permeated the 1800’s of Europe. This nihilism now needs to be overcome, “What must necessarily arise after the decline of the Christian interpretation of existence is the problem of the value of existence as such. For what is the purpose of being-there if no more purpose is available and will of existence is goalless.”


Incredibly, Lowith further writes, “A superman will of the man of the future, a will that creates itself and the world as its own, takes the place of God, who creates Being out of nothing.” To state it more nakedly, “The will is actually the ‘principle’ of faith, because the man of faith does not will himself.”


Yet, Europe is still in its present interim state, and needs to move on to the new will which has replaced the will of God murdered by Reason. Europe is thus at the crossroads and needs to move on to a willing of its own will so that the last metamorphosis can be accomplished in the future which Lowith describes as going “from the heroic principle of ‘I will’ into the godlike principle of ‘I am.’” Lowith then shows how Nietzsche’s will to power is directly related to the eternal recurrence of the same which is the final destiny of the superman, “Nietzsche characterizes himself as the teacher of eternal recurrence, and he knew this – his authentic – ‘teaching’ as his ‘destiny.”


Nietzsche’s eschatology is thus a counter-eschatology as he presumes that since divine transcendence is dead, this must require a replacement of Christian eschatology where history is seen as a straight line heading for a progressivist goal of salvation. The eternal recurrence of the same thus will become the new ‘philosophy’ of history for the European superman. Lowith points out, “The teaching of the superman is the precondition for the teaching of the eternal recurrence because only the man who overcomes himself can also will the eternal recurrence of all that is.”


For Nietzsche, the man who wills himself as such, wills himself in such a way that he has no regrets, and hence would do it all over again. As European man overcomes his nihilism through the death of Christian eschatology, the prophecy of eternal recurrence becomes a new resurrection of sorts, rooted in the ancient Greco-Roman historical consciousness known as “Eternal Return,” yet without the superstitious transcendence of its gods. Fittingly, Nietzsche’s “philosophy does not, in principle, go beyond this prophecy. The will to the superman and to the eternal recurrence is Nietzsche’s ‘last will’ and his ‘last idea,’ in which the whole of his experiment is systematically summarized.” The main point of Nietzsche’s philosophy, it seems, is therefore to replace the Judeo-Christian historical consciousness and eschatology with his own eternal recurrence of the same.


Yet, in the process of so doing, Nietzsche inextricably ties himself in knots trying to escape what he claims has already died. Both Heidegger and Lowith thus unsurprisingly claim that Nietzsche was never able to free himself of the Judeo-Christian tradition in spite of his mad drive to do so. Nietzsche became insane during the last decade of his life before he finally died in 1900 at the relatively young age of 56. The Fuhrer also died at the age of 56. Many have rightfully presumed that he too was insane when he shot himself at the end of the war in which the "Thousand Year Reich" National Socialist "Triumph of the Will" came to an apropos catastrophic end.

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