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4.2 Nietzsche’s Eternal Return of the Same

Learning Objectives

  1. Define Nietzsche’s eternal return of the same.
  2. Show how the idea of the eternal return provides guidance for professional life.
  3. Consider the advantages and a drawback of the eternal return.

Responding to Cultural Relativism by Leaving Common Morality Behind

If, along with cultural relativists, you accept that rules distinguishing right from wrong shift around from place to place and time to time, it becomes difficult to keep faith in morality. It’s difficult because verdicts seem flimsy and impermanent, and because this hard question seems inescapable: Why should I go out of my way to do the right thing today if what counts as the right thing might change tomorrow?

One response to the question is to give up on morality, disrespect the whole idea by labeling all the customary regulations—don’t lie, don’t steal, strive for the greatest good for the greatest number—a giant sham. Then you can live without the inhibiting limits of moral codes. You can go beyond any idea of good and evil and lead an unconstrained life exuberantly celebrating everything you want to do and be.

Wallace Souza: TV Reporter, Politician, and Dealer

Some careers are more vivid and alive than others. TV crime reporting is intense work, especially the action-type shows where the reporter races to the scene, interviews witnesses, and tracks down shady characters. Politics is another throbbing life; the adrenalin of crime chasing isn’t there, but you get the brimming confidence and energy that comes with power, with deciding what others can and can’t do. Drug dealing excites too, in its way, with thrilling danger and the pleasures of fast money. People, finally, who want to live exuberantly, who prefer risk to caution and find it easy to say things like “you only go around once” are probably going to find something attractive in these lines of work and may opt for one or another.

Then there’s Wallace Souza. He opted for all three. At the same time. The most visible of his roles—TV reporter—also yielded the most visible success. His program aired from the Brazilian state of Amazonas, a jungley place far from cosmopolitan São Paulo and touristy Rio de Janeiro. Known as a haven for cocaine cartels, and as a training ground for revolutionary militants charging into neighboring Columbia and Venezuela, it’s a natural spot to bring cameras and look for dramatic action. A number of reporters were stationed in the region, but none seemed so uncannily skilled at reaching scenes first and getting video over the airwaves than Mr. Souza. In fact, on occasion, he even reached scenes before the police.

The dogged TV reporting, along with Souza’s editorializing complaints about the region’s jaded criminals, made him a popular hero and sealed his bid for a seat in the local congress. He didn’t allow his state capital work to interfere with his TV role, however. Actually, the two jobs fit together well: one day he was reporting on the deplorable free-for-all in the jungle and the next he was in the capital meeting with high-ranking police officers, reviewing their strategies and proposing laws to fix things.

The perfect image began to crack, though, when it was revealed that the reason Souza so frequently reached the best crime scenes first is that he was paying hit men to assassinate local drug dealers. He wasn’t, it turned out, just the first to know about the crimes, he knew even before they happened. In an especially brazen move, during one of his last TV programs, he put up pictures of several notorious criminals and asked his viewers to phone in and vote on which one they’d like to see killed.

At this point, Souza seemed like an overzealous crusader: he was drawing vivid attention to the crime plague and doing something about it with his hit men. You could doubt his methods, but his dedication to his community’s welfare seemed noble—until it was revealed that he was actually also a major drug dealer. And the criminals getting killed and shown on his program weren’t just random outlaws; they were Souza’s drug-trade competitors.Dom Phillips, “Brazil Crime Show Host ‘Used Murder to Boost Ratings,’” Times, August 13, 2009, accessed May 12, 2011, http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/us_and_americas/article6793072.ece.

What Is the Eternal Return of the Same?

One report on Souza’s exploits included the suggestion that his willingness to cross every moral line—to lie, traffic drugs, order killings, whatever—fit him for the title of the Antichrist.Danny Gallagher, “Brazilian Crime Show Host Kills for Ratings?,” TV Squad, August 14, 2009, accessed May 12, 2011, http://www.tvsquad.com/2009/08/14/brazilian-crime-show-host-kills-for-ratings.

That title, as it turns out, was one Nietzsche enjoyed assigning to himself. It’s definitely also a fit for Souza in the sense that he seemed to live without shame, fear, or regard for good and evil. What’s notable about Souza’s business ventures is that they pay no heed to the very idea of morals. It’s not that they skirt some rules or follow some guidelines while disobeying others; it’s not like he’s trying to get away with something—it’s much more like morality doesn’t exist. Now, bringing this back to Nietzsche, who shared the sentiments, the question Nietzsche asked himself was, if morality really is canceled, then what? How should we live? The answer was a thought experiment called the eternal return of the sameA thought experiment in which you imagine what you would do if the life you chose to lead now will have to be repeated forever..

Imagine, Nietzsche proposed, that every decision you make and everything you feel, say, and do will have to be repeated forever—that is, at the end of your life, you die and are immediately reborn right back in the same year and place where everything started the time before, and you do it all again in exactly the same way. Existence becomes an infinite loop. With that disturbing idea established, Nietzsche converted it into a proposal for life: we should always act as though the eternal return were real. Do, Nietzsche says, what you would if you had to live with the choice over and over again forever. The eternal return, finally, gives us a reason to do one thing and not another: it guides us in a world without morals.

How Does the Eternal Return Work?

Start with the eternal return as it could be applied to an altruist, to someone dedicating life to helping others. One way to do altruism would be by working for a nonprofit international organization that goes to poverty-wrecked places like Amazonas and helps coca farmers (the coca leaf is the base for cocaine) shift their farms to less socially damaging crops. This would be difficult work. You might figure on doing it though, getting through it, and feeling like you’ve done some good in the world. But would you do it infinitely? Would you be willing to suffer through that existence once and again forever? Remember, the world would never get better; every time you’d just go back to being born on earth just the way it was before. Obviously, people can make their own decisions, but it seems fairly likely that under the condition of the eternal return there’d be fewer people dedicating themselves—and sacrificing their own comfort and interests—to social well-being.

What about some other lines of work? Would there be fewer snowplow operators, long-haul pilots, teachers willing to work in troubled schools? What kind of professional lives, Nietzsche forces us to ask, would be too hellish, bothersome, or exhausting to be repeated forever? Those lives, whatever they are, get filtered by the eternal return; they get removed from consideration.

If certain careers and aspirations are out, then what’s in? What kind of existence in the economic world does the eternal return recommend? One possibility is Wallace Souza. The question is, why would his career trajectory fit the eternal return?

The job of a reporter is fast and dramatic, the kind of thing many imagine themselves doing if they weren’t tied down by other commitments. People with children frequently feel an obligation to get into a safe and conservative line of work, one producing a steady paycheck. Others feel a responsibility toward their aged parents and a corresponding obligation to not stray too far just in case something goes wrong. So trekking off into the Brazilian jungle in search of drug operations may well be exciting—most of us would probably concede that—but it’d be irreconcilable with many family responsibilities. One thing the eternal return does, however, is seriously increase the burden of those responsibilities. When you sacrifice something you want to do because of a sense of obligation, you may be able to swallow the loss once, but Nietzsche is demanding that you take it down over and over again. Family responsibilities may count, but at what point do you say “enough”? Can anyone oblige you to sacrifice doing what you really want forever?

Taking the next step into Souza’s amoral but dramatic career, assuming you do decide to become a crime reporter, and you’re inside the eternal return where everything will recur infinitely, then aren’t you going to go about making your reporting work as exciting and successful as possible? Probably, yes. So why not hire some hit men to fire things up a bit? Normally, of course, our moral compass tells us that killing others to get ahead isn’t really an option. But with all morality canceled, it becomes an option, one just like any other. Be a banker, be a reporter, be a killer, there’s no real difference. Just choose the one you’d most like to do repeatedly without end.

Souza also chose to be a drug dealer. Again, this is one of those jobs many would find exciting and satisfying. Thrills and easy money are attractive; that’s part of the reason Hollywood produces so many films about traffickers and their lives. Most of us wouldn’t actually do something like that, though, at least partially because dealing drugs feels morally wrong. But inside the eternal return, that shame factor falls away; when it does, the number of people entering this field of work might well increase.

It’s critical to note that Nietzsche’s eternal return is not the idea that you should go off and be a crime-reporting, hit man–hiring drug dealer. Instead, Souza’s life just exemplifies one thing that could happen in the world of your career if you accept Nietzsche’s proposal of living beyond any traditional moral limit. Regardless, what the eternal return definitely does do is force you to make decisions about your professional life in very different terms than those presented by traditional ethical theories. There’s no consideration of sweeping duties; there’s just you and a simple decision: the life you choose now will be repeated forever, so which will yours be?

What’s the Reward of Morality?

One of the strengths of Nietzsche’s idea is that it forces a very important question: Why should I want to be morally responsible? Why should a salesman be honest when lying could win her a healthy commission? Why should a factory owner worry about pollution spewing from his plant when he lives in a city five hundred miles away? Now, a full elaboration of this question would be handled in an airy philosophy class, not an applied course in business ethics. Nietzsche, however, allows a taste of the discussion by puncturing one of the basic motivations many feel for being virtuous: the conviction that there’ll be a reward later for doing the right thing today.

The certainty of this reward is a critical element of many religious beliefs: when you die, there’ll be a final judgment and you’ll enjoy heaven or suffer punishment at the other extreme, depending on how you behaved on earth. A similar logic underwrites Hinduism’s concept of reincarnation: the life you are born into next will be determined by the way you live now. This discussion could be drawn out in more directions, but no matter what, Nietzsche spoils the idea that you take the moral high road because you’ll be repaid for it later. Within the eternal return, there is no later; all that ever happens is exactly the same thing again.

Advantages and a Drawback of the Eternal Return

One advantage of the eternal return is that it adds gravity to life. Forcing you to accept every decision you make as one you’ll repeat forever is compelling you to take those decisions seriously, to think them through. Another connected advantage of the eternal return is that it forces you to make your own decisions. By getting rid of all guidelines proposed by ethics, and by making your reality the one that will repeat forever, Nietzsche forces you to be who you are.

The disadvantage of the eternal return is Wallace Souza. If everyone is just out there being themselves, how are we going to live together? How can we make peaceful and harmonious societies when all anyone ever thinks about is what’s best for themselves forever?

Key Takeaways

  • The eternal return is a thought experiment in which you imagine that the life you choose will repeat forever.
  • According to the eternal return, when faced with a dilemma in the business world—what career should I choose, should I kill (or maybe just lie or cheat) to get ahead?—you should imagine living the decision over and over again forever.
  • The eternal return maximizes individuality but does little to help individuals live together in a community.

Review Questions

  1. In your own words, what is the eternal return?
  2. Why might the eternal return be considered a reasonable response to cultural relativism?
  3. Write down some factors leading to a significant decision you’ve made. It could be about choosing a field of study or a career path. Now, can you walk through each of the factors within the eternal return? Are there any decisions you made that you’d take back and change?
  4. If you knew the eternal return was true, could you still make the reasonable decision to choose an altruistic profession? Why or why not?