“Was that Life? I want to say to death. ‘Well then! Once More!”


Ferdinand Nietzsche[1]

The works of German philosopher Frederick Nietzsche are unique in that, instead of engaging in a ‘critique of words by means of other words’[2], Nietzsche’s ‘true readers’[3] are implored by the author to engage in a cyclic effort of self-overcoming as means of attaining Amor Fati in preparation for confronting the concept of Eternal Recurrence and with it, a purpose to persevere a life of pain and suffering.

Nietzsche’s combined work coalesces into a singular question catharsis signifying the introduction of the concept of eternal recurrence which will coincidentally become our ingress into his work. ‘What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence’ … Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine’[4].

In initial observation of this question, it is worth noting that Nietzsche himself fails to specify the timing of the demon’s arrival. Naturally, such ambiguity opens the possibility to misreading’s alternate to those intended by the author. For example, at what point in one’s life will the demon make this proposition? If one were a mere child, happy and ignorant, there would be little hesitation to decline the offer. Having aged a little more, an adolescent’s response may show less uniformity. Highschool, after-all is not kind to everyone. On the eve of their entrance into real world, potentially by trade or through tertiary education, one’s prospects and ambitions, or regrets of a wasteful youth may beckon a more realized or hopeful response. Drawing upon the sum experience of a lifetime as evidence, a realized man in his approach to death reveals the most honest and founded answer yet. Hence, when the question is asked is of great importance. It yields alternate perspectives based upon which variant of self is poised to answer. Nietzsche claims that one makes acquaintance with the world in their own unique fashion, through their own perspective. This can either liberate or entrap them.

But Nietzsche’s motive in postulating this conundrum is still hidden. In delving deeper into his thoughts, he reveals himself as an educator of ‘predestined readers’[5]. His work scaffolds a blueprint of a life trajectory such that, it renders to one a preview of the eventuality of realisation dawned upon them in life’s one inevitability, death. As determined earlier, only those nearing it give their answer in complete certainty and with first-hand realisation. Having not yet attained this wisdom, his select audience, ‘higher men’ are foreboded of life’s nature. Selected for their existence in a perpetual state of complete and utter chaos. They are driven to self-destruction by warring internal drives attributed to fuelling this chaos. Such an individual should strive to ‘become [a] master of the chaos’[6] as it can lead them to newfound heights of achievement.

Diagram 1. A Graph of the Probability of Answering Yes Over Time. It appears somewhat reminiscent of the Dunning Kruger Effect.

Explained in more lay terms, David Bowie describes the need to ‘always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth and when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting.’[7] This approach becomes a means of evolving one’s work. Knowing that the unease of operating into a personal delta will guarantee a unique yield offers one a specific comfort and confidence in venturing into terra nullius. Unfortunately, this is not a luxury afforded by anyone. If one were uncertain as to the outcome of their directive, and perhaps the demon was to visit during the infancy of the task at hand, the possibility of failure, or potential fright of extrapolating one’s abilities may commandeer a rejection of the eternal recurrence. Consider the 18-35 age range in diagram 1. As one embarks into the world, they undoubtably collect a number of new experiences which they confront with little to no knowledge. For this reason, they appear uncertain of weather their efforts will become validated and if their suffering will bear fruits. It seems trivial that anyone would voluntarily place themselves in anguish with no sighting of a tangible, or intangible return.

Nietzsche warns of the dangers of embarking on this trajectory. As the higher man ventures into these uncharted depths the unease of his experience may drive him to seek comfort in the arms of the mediocrity of the masses. Every individual including the higher man exhibits a natural herd instinct which calls upon the individual to adhere to societal norms. Nietzsche claims that ‘morality is the best of all devices for leading mankind by the nose’[8] and conforming to mainstream cultural considerations of what is good and evil is rather unchallenging.  Those born into the mass are nurtured as per the scaffold of this thought structure and initiated into the herd at a young age. Some choose to question the integrity of their beliefs and hence ‘give [themselves their] own evil and [their] own good and hang [their] own will over [themselves] as a law.’[9]

Additionally, there is certain application of this proclamation upon its extension to the herds predefined cultural confines of what is considered art and science in society. The Société Anonyme Coopérative des Artistes Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs founded by early adopters of impressionism initially faced considerable backlash and rejection from the Salon de Paris. Ironically, from the 1870’s onwards, impressionism would become a mainstay. Even becoming commonplace at the Salon, the same place it faced its initial humiliation by the 1890’s.

The mental manoeuvrability of the herd is not as agile as that of the few or the individual higher man. For this reason, Nietzsche directs the higher man to ‘descend into the depths of existence with a string of curious questions on his lips: Why do I live? What lesson have I learned from life? How do I become what I am and why do I suffer from being what I am?’[10] Without the scrutiny of the public eye, and pressure of herd morality and mentality, one is able to grow as they see fit. This advice is debateable. Without the persistence of the Société, art may have never moved past the academia of École des Beaux-Arts. Perhaps exercising increased mental fortitude to remain vehement to one’s prerogative in the face of mass humiliation and criticism is more tempering than hiding away.

In proclaiming that ‘God is dead’, Nietzsche rejects the Church centred morality of the time. To evade the clutches of nihilist thought, he makes an alternate proposition in which suffering – wading just a little deeper into the water – is a precursor to achieving greatness, or ‘something interesting. Diagram 1 makes consideration of only the ‘higher man’ and is committed to representing the probability of one answering yes through overall personal development over time. Each dip in the probability represents this suffering. The subsequent peak signifies the greatness achieved. The intention of our life is hence revealed as a constant quest to validate suffering as cost of achieving greatness to ensure that our certainty in saying yes increases; Amor Fati, or love of fate. For Nietzsche, amor fati is ‘[his] formula for human greatness.’[11]

For this reason, Nietzsche’s work functions to pre-emptively heighten one’s awareness of the challenge ahead, hereby preparing them to accept their fate and hence build their sense of amor fati. Life is inherently filled with pain and suffering, but ‘from the deepest the highest must come into [his] height.’[12] Embracing this concept liberates one’s mind from the thought of pain ahead.

One takes comfort in their discomfort knowing well that the efforts of today will place them upon a peak tomorrow. This mentality pushes the higher man to seek his next peak in fuelling his compulsion to attain perfection and hence become the overman. Additionally, one’s response to this dilemma would distil into a case of simple arithmetic. Is the weight of their happiness greater than their sadness, or is it the other way around? For the herd, there is a potential domain centred at the 50%, glass half full half empty space where an individual may simply default to ‘cursing the demon’, as the slight delta in happiness is not worth nearly as much as the (potentially slightly) lesser level of despair experienced. For the higher man, the pain and sadness is seen as an opportunity to temper ones fortitude. Suffering is not dismissed but is seen as a necessary steppingstone to success and hence a component of it.

The meaning of life as described by Nietzsche is to seek joy in suffering knowing that it will continue to temper one towards becoming the overman. Pain is plentiful in life and finding the ability to weather it independent of herd mentality or morality liberates and separates the higher man. Joy in pain and joy in success enable one to meet the demon’s question with “Was that Life? I want to say to death. ‘Well then! Once More!”[13]

[1] Laura D’Olimpio, “Big Thinker: Friedrich Nietzsche,” The Ethics Centre, April 4, 2019, accessed May 16, 2021, https://ethics.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/freidnek-nietzsche-big-thinker-2.jpg.

[2] Frederick Nietzsche, Untimely Meditations, trans. Reginald J. Hollingdale ed. Daniel Breazeale (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 187.

[3] Frederick Nietzsche, The Anti-Christ, Ecce Homo, Twilight of the Idols and Other Writings, tran. Judith Norman ed. Aaron Ridley and Judith Norman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 3.

[4] Frederick Nietzsche, The Gay Science, trans. Josefine Nauckhoff and Adrian Del Caro ed. Bernard Williams (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 194.

[5] Frederick Nietzsche, The Anti-Christ, Ecce Homo, Twilight of the Idols and Other Writings, 3.

[6] Frederick Nietzsche, The Will to Power, tans. Walter Kaufmann and Reginald J. Hollingdale ed. Reginald J. Hollingdale (New York: Random House, 1968), 444.

[7] “David Bowie on why you should never play to the gallery,” YouTube Video, 0:47, posted by “Stuart Semple,” May 12, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cNbnef_eXBM

[8] Frederick Nietzsche, The Anti-Christ, Ecce Homo, Twilight of the Idols and Other Writings, 41-42.

[9] Frederick Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 45.

[10] Frederick Nietzsche, Untimely meditations, 25.

[11] Frederick Nietzsche , The Anti-Christ, Ecce Homo, Twilight of the Idols and Other Writings, 99

[12] Frederick Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 122.

[13] Frederick Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 258.