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Kain, professor of philosophy at Santa Clara, 2007

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Kain, professor of philosophy at Santa Clara, 2007

[Philip J., “Nietzsche, Eternal Recurrence, and the Horror of Existence,” Journal of Nietzsche Studies 33 (2007), 49-63]

Why is it best never to have been born? Because all we can expect as human beings is to suffer. Yet, still, this is not precisely the problem. As Nietzsche tells us in On the Genealogy of Morals, human beings can live with suffering. What they cannot live with is meaningless suffering—suffering for no reason at all (GM III:28). In Nietzsche's view we are "surrounded by a fearful void . . ." (GM III:28; cf. WP 55). We live in an empty, meaningless cosmos. We cannot look into reality without being overcome. Indeed, in Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche even suggests that "it might be a basic characteristic of existence that those who would know it completely would perish . . ." (BGE 39; cf. WP 822). And it was not just intellectual reflection that led Nietzsche to a belief in the horror of existence. He lived it himself.2 In a letter of April 10, 1888, he writes: "Around 1876 my health grew worse. . . . There were extremely painful and obstinate headaches which exhausted all my strength. They increased over long years, to reach a climax at which pain was habitual, so that any given year contained for me two hundred days of pain. . . . My specialty was to endure the extremity of pain . . . with complete lucidity for two or three days in succession, with continuous vomiting of mucus."3 In Nietzsche contra Wagner, he tells us how significant this suffering was for him: I have often asked myself whether I am not much more deeply indebted to the hardest years of my life than to any others. . . . And as to my prolonged illness, [End P0age 49] do I not owe much more to it than I owe to my health? To it I owe a higher kind of health, a sort of health which grows stronger under everything that does not actually kill it!—To it, I owe even my philosophy. . . . Only great suffering is the ultimate emancipator of the spirit. . . . Only great suffering; that great suffering, under which we seem to be over a fire of greenwood, the suffering that takes its time—forces us philosophers to descend into our nethermost depths. . . .  (NCW "Epilogue") Nietzsche's belief in the horror of existence is largely, if not completely, overlooked by most scholars.4 I hope to show that it had a profound effect on his thought, indeed, that he cannot be adequately understood without seeing the centrality of this concept. To begin to understand its importance, let us consider three different visions of the human condition. The first holds that we live in a benign cosmos. It is as if it were purposively planned for us and we for it. We fit, we belong, we are at home in this cosmos. We are confirmed and reinforced by it. Our natural response is a desire to know it and thus to appreciate our fit into it. Let us call this the designed cosmos. Roughly speaking, this is the traditional view held by most philosophers from Plato and Aristotle through the medievals. And for the most part it has disappeared in the modern world—few really believe in it anymore.  The second vision backs off from the assumptions required by the first. This view started with Francis Bacon, if not before, and it is the view of most moderns. Here the cosmos is neither alien nor designed for us. It is neither terrifying nor benign. The cosmos is neutral and, most importantly, malleable. Human beings must come to understand the cosmos through science and control it through technology. We must make it fit us. It does not fit us by design. We must work on it, transform it, and mold it into a place where we can be at home. We must create our own place. For these modern thinkers, we end up with more than the ancients and medievals had. We end up with a fit like they had, but we get the added satisfaction of bringing it about ourselves, accomplishing it through our own endeavor, individuality, and freedom. Let us call this the perfectible cosmos. The third vision takes the cosmos to be alien. It was not designed for human beings at all; nor were they designed for it. We just do not fit. We do not belong. And we never will. The cosmos is horrible, terrifying, and we will never surmount this fact. It is a place where human beings suffer for no reason at all. It is best never to have been born. Let us call this the horrific cosmos. This is Nietzsche's view. Nietzsche simply dismisses the designed cosmos, which few believe in anymore anyway (WP 12a). On the other hand, Nietzsche takes the perfectible cosmos very seriously. He resists it with every fiber of his being.5 For Nietzsche, we must stop wasting time and energy hoping to change things, improve them, make progress (see, e.g., WP 40, 90, 684)—the outlook of liberals, socialists, and even Christians, all of whom Nietzsche tends to lump together and excoriate. For [End Page 50] Nietzsche, we cannot reduce suffering, and to keep hoping that we can will simply weaken us. Instead, we must conceal an alien and terrifying cosmos if we hope to live in it. And we must develop the strength to do so. We must toughen ourselves. We need more suffering, not less. It has "created all enhancements of man so far . . ." (BGE 225, 44; WP 957; GM II:7). If we look deeply into the essence of things, into the horror of existence, Nietzsche thinks we will be overwhelmed—paralyzed. Like Hamlet we will not be able to act, because we will see that action cannot change the eternal nature of things (BT 7). We must see, Nietzsche says, that "a profound illusion . . . first saw the light of the world in the person of Socrates: the unshakeable faith that thought . . . can penetrate the deepest abysses of being, and that thought is capable not only of knowing being but even of correcting it. This sublime metaphysical illusion accompanies science as an instinct . . ." (BT 15). In Nietzsche's view, we cannot change things. Instead, with Hamlet we should "feel it to be ridiculous or humiliating that [we] should be asked to set right a world that is out of joint" (BT 7; cf. TI "Anti-Nature," 6). Knowledge of the horror of existence kills actionwhich requires distance and illusion. The horror and meaninglessness of existence must be veiled if we are to live and act. What we must do, Nietzsche thinks, is construct a meaning for suffering. Suffering we can handle. Meaningless suffering, suffering for no reason at all, we cannot handle. So we give suffering a meaning. We invent a meaning. We create an illusion. The Greeks constructed gods for whom wars and other forms of suffering were festival plays and thus an occasion to be celebrated by the poets. Christians imagine a God for whom suffering is punishment for sin (GM II:7; cf. D 78). One might find all this unacceptable. After all, isn't it just obvious that we can change things, reduce suffering, improve existence, and make progress? Isn't it just obvious that modern science and technology have done so? Isn't it just absurd for Nietzsche to reject the possibility of significant change? Hasn't such change already occurred? Well, perhaps not. Even modern environmentalists might resist all this obviousness. They might respond in a rather Nietzschean vein that technology may have caused as many problems as it has solved. The advocate of the perfectible cosmos, on the other hand, would no doubt counter such Nietzschean pessimism by arguing that even if technology does cause some problems, the solution to those problems can only come from better technology. Honesty requires us to admit, however, that this is merely a hope, not something for which we already have evidence, not something that it is absurd to doubt—not at all something obvious. Further technology may or may not improve things. The widespread use of antibiotics seems to have done a miraculous job of improving our health and reducing suffering, but we are also discovering that such antibiotics give rise to even more powerful bacteria that are immune to those [End Page 51] antibiotics. We have largely eliminated diseases like cholera, smallpox, malaria, and tuberculosis, but we have produced cancer and heart disease. We can cure syphilis and gonorrhea, but we now have AIDS. Even if we could show that it will be possible to continuously reduce suffering, it is very unlikely that we will ever eliminate it. If that is so, then it remains a real question whether it is not better to face suffering, use it as a discipline, perhaps even increase it, so as to toughen ourselves, rather than let it weaken us, allow it to dominate us, by continually hoping to overcome it. But whatever we think about the possibility of reducing suffering, the question may well become moot. Nietzsche tells a story: "Once upon a time, in some out of the way corner of that universe which is dispersed into numberless twinkling solar systems, there was a star upon which clever beasts invented knowing. That was the most arrogant and mendacious minute of 'world history,' but nevertheless, it was only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths, the star cooled and congealed, and the clever beasts had to die" (TL 1, 79). Whatever progress we might think we are making in reducing suffering, whatever change we think we are bringing about, it may all amount to nothing more than a brief and accidental moment in biological time, whose imminent disappearance will finally confirm the horror and meaninglessness of existence. The disagreement here is not so much about the quantity of suffering that we can expect to find in the world but, rather, its nature. For proponents of the designed cosmos, suffering is basically accidental. It is not fundamental or central to life. It is not a necessary part of the nature of things. It does not make up the essence of existence. We must develop virtue, and then we can basically expect to fit and be at home in the cosmos. For the proponents of a perfectible cosmos, suffering is neither essential nor unessential. The cosmos is neutral. We must work on it to reduce suffering. We must bring about our own fit. For Nietzsche, even if we can change this or that, even if we can reduce suffering here and there, what cannot be changed for human beings is that suffering is fundamental and central to life. The very nature of things, the very essence of existence, means suffering. Moreover, it means meaningless suffering—suffering for no reason at all. That cannot be changed—it can only be concealed. 

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