Belief in reincarnation is one of the oldest and most durable of human traits, so old and persistent, in fact, that the psychologist C. G. Jung went so far as to call it an archetype. “Rebirth,” Jung wrote, “is an affirmation that must be counted among the primordial affirmations of mankind. These primordial affirmations are based on what I call archetypes.”1 This meant for Jung that regardless of its truth or falsity, the idea that we have lived previous lives and will, after our deaths, return in other lives, is somehow ingrained in our psyche.
We are, to use computer-speak, programmed to think it, and although not all of us accept the idea, it seems to share prominence with other fundamental ideas about the meaning of death and what, if anything, happens to us after it.
These ideas seem to be surprisingly few. There’s the possibility of reincarnation or rebirth, as mentioned, with the belief that eventually one will have worked off one’s karmic debt and so have escaped the wheel of lives; one is then absorbed in some way into the all. There is also the idea of an afterlife in some “other” realm, whether the heaven of Christianity, the paradise of Islam, the Valhalla of Norse legend, or the Elysian fields of ancient Greece. I should point out that not all afterlives are desirable: fire and brimstone await the wicked in Christianity’s hell, and the Greeks, perhaps the greatest lovers of earthly life in history, regarded the idea of a shadowy eternity in the underworld with abhorrence. In any case, all these scenarios posit only one life on earth. Once we get through it, depending on how we conduct ourselves, we then go to our just reward or punishment, as the case may be.
The pagans believe that once we die and our bodies decay, the matter they are made of returns to Nature along with the spirit or soul. We may then possibly enjoy a kind of afterlife as flowers, trees, or grass.
There also is the belief that once we are dead, that’s the end. We no longer exist; our beliefs, ideas, feelings, values – everything important to us – are obliterated when the brain stops working. In this view, our present life is all there is, and after it is nothingness. Many associate this view with modern science, but its roots are in fact very old. The ancient Greek philosopher Democritus, who proposed an early version of the atom, argued that everything was made of little bits of matter that he called atoms (meaning “indivisible”). When we die, he suggested, the atoms that make up the self disperse.
To these classic ideas about death we may be tempted to add one very new one: cryonics, the practice of freezing ones diseased body with the hope that in the future medical science will have discovered a cure for the illness. One can then be thawed, repaired, and brought back to life. On consideration, however, this seems to indicate less idea belief about what happens after death than a faith not only in modern medical science but in the robustness of the cryonics companies offering the service. Surely, as you lie in the freezer awaiting resurrection, the one pressing worry is whether the company keeping you on ice will stay in business. And if it doesn’t, what then? Unless you buy the notion that is hyped periodically that science will one day soon “conquer death,” this seems to me more of an attempt to put off facing death than any kind of engagement with it.
My own feelings about death and what may possibly transpire after it fall into the camp of the agnostic. I simply don’t know – which isn’t to say that I don’t recognise the importance of having some idea about it. In truth, I’ve always been partial to the view presented by the playwright George Bernard Shaw in Back to Methuselah. Here Shaw argued that human beings die not from disease or old age but from discouragement, from loss of purpose and the will to live. Decades later, in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, the psychologist Victor Frankl corroborated this insight in the gruesome setting of a Nazi concentration camp, when he observed that the prisoners who had something to look forward to survived, while those who gave up hope were often the first to perish.
Shaw argued that our present life span was far too short, because it is only toward the end of a long life that some people begin to have a glimpse of its value. To die at eighty just when you are beginning to have some insight into the whole affair seems pointless. Shaw envisioned the possibility that some people might learn how to live longer, so long that, barring accident, they might reach the age of three hundred. This, he thought, would allow them the time to put to some use the insights the rest of us take to the grave.
I should point out that Shaw’s long livers – whom he calls the Ancients – gain their longevity not through any technological or chemical means, nor through following a strict healthy regimen, although Shaw himself, who lived to be ninety-four, was a vegetarian. They accomplish this through their sheer will to live – and their willingness to fulfil the purposes of what Shaw calls “the life force,” a kind of evolutionary drive that compels life to understand and transcend itself. In his earlier play Man and Superman, Shaw spells out the philosophy of his “life force worshippers” in dramatic and comic detail, and for a time after reading Back to Methuselah I became fascinated by accounts of writers, artists, and thinkers who lived well into old age. There was Shaw himself. There was also the novelist John Cowper Powys, who died at ninety-one, the literary critic and philosopher Owen Barfield, who died at ninety-nine, the German novelist and essayist Ernst Jünger, who died at 101, and many others, including the composer Jean Sibelius, and the philosopher Bertrand Russell, whom lived into their nineties.
In his science fiction novel The Philosopher’s Stone, Colin Wilson – a Shawian himself – suggested that there was some connection between the pursuit of ideas and longevity. His insight was that an interest in objective values – mathematics, philosophy, and, in a similar way, the kind of impersonal beauty that we find in, say, Sibelius’s symphonies, with their deep feeling for nature – is in line with the designs of “the life force,” which urges us to transcend our all too limited personal and subjective aims and goals. Someone who could perceive the objective beauty and “interestingness” of reality and sustain this would, Wilson argued, never be bored and hence have every reason to want to go on living.
Now, whenever I’ve mentioned this idea to friends or acquaintances, the usual reply is something along the lines of “Three hundred? God, who would want to live that long? Wouldn’t you get tired and want to move on?” This is interesting, because I get a similar response whenever I bring up another idea that, for better or worse, has always had a strange appeal to me. Rather than reincarnation, which has us returning to earth again but in a different body and as a different person in a different time (though somehow with the same soul or spirit), ever since I first came upon it as a teenager in the writings of the philosopher Nietzsche, I’ve had an odd interest in the notion of “eternal recurrence.” This idea suggests that we have, as Rudolf Steiner calls them, “repeated earth lives,” but instead of different lives, we have the same one, over and over. This means that I have sat down in front of my computer an infinite number of times in the past to write this essay and that you also have read it an equally infinite number of times, and that both of us will continue to do so ad infinitum. I will be born to my parents again, go through the same childhood traumas and delights, leave home and have the same experiences, the same failures and successes, eventually die – and the whole wheel will turn around to the beginning and start again.
Most of us on hearing this will reject the idea, wincing either at some past incident we would very much want to avoid or, more generally, at the prospect of eternal boredom such a notion offers. The idea of coming back to earth again as a different person seems much more appealing, and even the notion of complete annihilation seems preferable to going through the same round over and over again. I understand this perfectly, and I’m in no way arguing that eternal recurrence is true or preferable to reincarnation or to other ideas of what, if anything, happens after death. But I have to say that coming back to my books, friends, children, joys, and sorrows does strike me as more appealing than the eternity of blissful contentment spent floating amid cherubs and clouds that some forms of afterlife offer.
I have to admit that one reason (and not the most important one) I’ve remained partial to this idea of eternal recurrence is precisely because of the reactions it elicits from others. Several years ago I worked at a metaphysical bookstore in Los Angeles. Among the fads and crazes of the time – crystals, the goddess, neuro-linguistic programming – one of the most popular was the idea of exploring one’s past lives. Among the many people interested in this who came to the store, I was surprised to discover that all of them seemed to have had infinitely more interesting lives before their present one. No one ever said, “God, how boring that past life was,” or “Gee, I’m glad I’m living this life now.” There were also a good number of people who, if not famous in their past lives, were still somehow important. Priestesses in Egypt, magicians in Atlantis, kings, queens. Not many tailors, butchers, or farmers. Sadly, whatever the truth about reincarnation, many of the people who spoke about it seemed to regard it as a way of making themselves more interesting in this life. So when I remarked that I was always more attracted to the idea that there is only this life and we live it countless numbers of times, I received looks implying that I was either crazy or lying. Despite the incredulous reactions it causes – or perhaps because of them – Nietzsche’s philosophy of recurrence deserves consideration.
Far from some Machiavellian figure, Nietzsche was most troubled by the problem of human suffering, which I think he rightly saw as the central question from which the great religions emerged. Through poor translations and tragic appropriations by racist thugs like the Nazis, Nietzsche acquired a reputation as a philosopher of cruelty and tyranny, his übermensch or superman popularly depicted as a muscular fascist, lording it over the masses. In reality, however, Nietzsche was a very gentle, considerate, even timid man, so shy that he had to ask a friend to propose marriage for him to the woman he loved (not surprisingly, she declined). In fact, Nietzsche was burdened with an almost morbid sensitivity to suffering, whether human or animal. This fact is enshrined in a famous story of his final collapse, which occurred when he was already suffering from what scholars suppose was late-stage syphilis. In this story, Nietzsche saw a coachman whipping a horse. Tears in his eyes, he threw his arms around the neck of the poor creature, trying to comfort it. He then fell to the ground and when he awoke was no longer sane.
Nietzsche didn’t believe in an afterlife in any form, and especially not the heaven of the hypocritical Christianity he attacked in one of his last books, The Antichrist. He did, though, have a powerful appreciation of the meaning and beauty of this life, a poignant, almost mystical sense of the value of our present world, an insight into its drama and mystery that most of us lack. In fact, Nietzsche believed that all ideas about an afterlife were really the product of an inability to face the uncertainty and sometimes terrifying facts of this life; they were, he felt, a kind of slander against life, a rejection of what, to him, was precious and almost painfully valuable. Rather than accept the conditions of life – which include pain, suffering, and tragedy along with beauty – and make something of it, Nietzsche believed that many preferred to consider it worthless, when compared to an ideal “other” world that we would enter after death. In many ways, ideas about an afterlife were, to him, a kind of sour grapes.
In his notebooks – published after his death – Nietzsche did try to prove that recurrence was a fact, drawing on the science of the late nineteenth century and the enshrined law that matter can be neither created nor destroyed but only transformed. His arguments, however, are not very convincing. Given a limited amount of matter and energy but an eternity of time, he tells us, the universe will necessarily go through its astronomical but ultimately finite number of combinations. After this, it will start repeating itself, and the arrangement of forces that led to my writing this essay and you reading it will eventually recur. Subsequent philosophers have shown where Nietzsche confused things – he was never good at math – but the force of his ideas about recurrence doesn’t lie in these proofs, and, in any case, Nietzsche wasn’t really interested in devising some explanation for the mechanics of the cosmos. What appealed to him about recurrence was its poetry, the insight that such an idea invested life with a new and dramatic meaning. It was this sense that led the novelist Milan Kundera to draw upon Nietzsche’s ideas in his book The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
The thought of recurrence, Kundera believed, gives weight to our existence, a gravity without which it is in danger of floating away in inconsequence. This is so because the idea that our actions will recur again prompts us to consider them differently. Is what I am doing now something I wish to do for eternity? Nietzsche believed that the thought of recurrence could act as a kind of test, a challenge to determine one’s attitude toward life. Think of your own life. How does the idea that it will return in all its details strike you? Are you, Nietzsche asks, crushed by the thought, meaning that your life has been such a burden that going through it again would seem the worse kind of punishment? Or have you instead experienced moments of such joy and fulfilment that you would accept the times of suffering, embarrassment, or just plain boredom in order to experience them again? Nietzsche’s view was holistic: everything was linked, part of the great chain of fate, and to say yes to one joy, he tells us, necessitates saying yes to all the pain and discontent that accompanied it.
In The Gay Science, written in 1881 – the title refers to the kind of philosophy he proposed, light-footed and able to dance – Nietzsche summed up this idea in a motto. Amor fati, “love of fate,” was, for Nietzsche, the test of one’s character. “I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things; then I shall be one of those who make things beautiful. Amor fati: let that be my love henceforth.” In his brilliant if unusual autobiography Ecce Homo, written just before his final mental breakdown, Nietzsche put it more forcefully. “My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing other than it is, not in the future, not in the past, not in all eternity. Not merely to endure that which happens of necessity… but to love it.”
For Nietzsche to arrive at such a philosophy was no small achievement. Throughout his life he suffered incessantly from an assortment of ailments: migraine, near blindness, and intolerant digestion are only a few. He also was one of the loneliest of men, living in poverty and forever moving from one cheap pension to another, constantly in search of the right climate, to possibly gain some brief respite from his condition. He was practically friendless and for the most part unread. Today he is one of the most discussed thinkers of the nineteenth century, on a par with Darwin or Marx, but during most of his lifetime he was unknown or ignored. That someone with such an experience of life should embrace the idea that it will be repeated eternally gives one pause.
Other thinkers have taken up the idea of recurrence. The Russian writer P. D. Ouspensky, for example, made it the theme of his novel Strange Life of Ivan Osokin. Ouspensky looked at recurrence rather differently than did Nietzsche, and his ideas influenced another “time haunted man,” the writer and playwright J. B. Priestley. Priestley’s popular plays I Have Been Here Before and Time and the Conways are perhaps the most accessible treatments of the idea. Where Nietzsche argued that everything in our life recurs exactly as it did before, Ouspensky offered some hope of change, suggesting that in each life there are slight variations and that through these we have a chance to alter things for the better.
In a sense, if we think about it, Nietzsche’s insistence on the exact recurrence of each detail actually leads to the conclusion that all we really have is this moment. If everything recurs exactly as it did – if it is, as he also called it, “the return of the same” – then each recurrence is really only this moment. The next recurrence and the previous one were exactly like our present one, and so there is really no means of distinguishing one from the other. And so, in a practical sense, all we ever experience is now. Ouspensky’s version is somewhat closer to reincarnation, in that he posits the possibility that with each recurrence we have the chance to make some changes for the better and so can develop ourselves and eventually escape the treadmill.
Nietzsche would have thought Ouspensky’s theory simply another attempt to escape the demands of life. My own feeling is that while it may be interesting to debate the two, in the end they really serve the same function. Personally, I don’t think we can ever prove recurrence one way or another. And in any case, if it is true, and if it ever was proven, then by necessity it always was. The real value of the idea for me is the meaning and significance it can give to our lives. Granted, a paranoid take on it could have us worrying about every little action, concerned that it may be the start of some infinite series of mistakes. But then, we could also say that if something is happening now, it must have already happened. In that case, we might fall prey to Kundera’s feeling of inconsequence: what does it matter what we do, if it has already been done countless times before?
For myself, however, the idea that my life might not be merely so many years of meaningless activity but might instead have some connection to the vast eternal scheme of things is at times encouraging, even inspiring. I may or may not have been here before, but I can act as if I have. Recognising this, I can look forward to another visit.
This article is reprinted with permission from Quest Magazine, Journal of the Theosophical Society, www.theosophical.org, March-April 2006, pages 57-60.
1. Cranston, Sylvia and Joseph Head. Reincarnation and World Thought. New York: Julian Press, 1967.
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