Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Nietzsche's Eternal Return of the Same

As we mark the beginning of a new year, we might stop to consider that time is measured by marking out intervals on a circle. The face on a mechanical clock is round. A digital clockface measures by marking numerical intervals in a continually repeating cycle. Differing intervals of measurements like seconds, minutes, hours, and days, weeks, months, and years require that circles be embedded within circles, but the comprehensive principle remains the same.

The fact that humanity is constrained to measure time with the aid of circles has led some to conclude time is essentially cyclical. Now the measuring stick need not be equated with the thing measured; but for the sake of argument, let's consider a relatively recent restatement of that ancient conviction. Nietzsche's doctrine of the Eternal Return of the Same expresses the point. Here is a small piece from the Third Part of his enigmatic Thus Spake Zarathustra:
    "Look at this gateway!...it hath two faces. Two roads come together here: these hath no one yet gone to the end of.
    This long lane backwards: it continueth for an eternity. And that long lane forward--that is another eternity.
    They are antithetical to one another, these roads; they directly abut on one another:--and it is here, at this gateway, that they come together. The name of the gateway is inscribed above: 'This Moment.'
    But should one follow them further--even further and further on, thinkest thou...that these roads would be eternally antithetical
    "Everything straight lieth...All truth is crooked; time itself is a circle."
To be sure, this is a rather colourful way of saying the present lies between past and future--and, to say that if you go far enough into the future, you will find yourself back  in the past. There is more, however, to the quotation than meets the eye. Look at the gateway, we are instructed. Think about the present moment; think about the past running like a road up to the gateway and the future running from the gateway. This is not an objective description of the nature of time insensitive to the peculiarities of the human situation.

You an I, we stand, so to speak, in the present moment. Our conscious awareness is anchored to a body situation, a spatial here and temporal now. There is no being both here and there, nor being both now and then. On the other hand, we are also aware of bodily existence beyond the here and now. Memory of the past and knowledge of a wider world mean that our conscious awareness may transcend its bodily situation. For example, I remember travelling around England a number of years ago, though I am presently in Canada.

Memories are usually accompanied by a sort of temporal marker. This happened before that, and that before that, and so on into the dim reaches of our mental record of the past. Even if you have run out of memories to string along this mental trajectory, it may be hypothetically extended with a mental gesture to an infinite horizon. Something similar occurs when you 'peer' into the future, though the depth of your temporal perception is much shorter, its accuracy of your projection much more tentative, and the horizon much closer.

Bodily existence constrains Nietzsche to peer, with his mind's eye, from the present moment into the past and the future. But that same constraints would also seem to call into question whether 'time itself is a circle', since that would entail being able to peer beyond the mind's horizon.

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