We are all familiar with objective, or “clock” time. But beneath this – in fact, what makes our perception of objective time possible in the first place, is our underlying reflectiveness of existential or “lived” time. Existential time is our self-awareness of relational time. It’s the feeling as though time is racing when we’re parting with a loved one at the airport; where every second seems as though it is only a fraction of itself, and we find our self “out of time;” or, on the other hand, it’s the sensation that time has come to a near-complete halt as we impatiently await our turn in the waiting room at the doctor’s office.
Existential time is primordial; it is our temporal way of being in the world. The three-fold structure of time itself (past, present, and future), is the horizon upon which the Self is able to become aware of itself as a self. Indeed, the entirety of the landscape of our being is so inter-connected that without it we could not even have the most basic or pre-ontological understanding of our own being.
Existential time is always experienced as relational. In this sense, we can think of our past as always changing. In one sense, we represent our past to ourselves in the form of memories… some may stick with us forever, while others are nearly forgotten and distant. Yet, my relation to these memories has a definite and direct impact on my mode of being in the world. How I interpret my past will play itself out in my comportment towards the world and the Others. Yet at the same time, I am constantly re-interpreting my past as a result of simply existing.
Kierkegaard makes reference to this phenomenon when he describes the experience of feeling “eternity in Time” in the “Instant.” This refers to the “Instant” (which should not be confused with any definitive measurement in objective/clock time) when an individual commits himself to his own defining commitment, which in turn gives his life meaning to him. From that point forward, the individual not only sees his present and future possibilities through his defining commitment – but he also reinterprets the collective moments of his past through the lens of his new-found defining commitment. To illustrate, when one falls in love with someone, and that other person becomes their defining commitment, they re-define themselves through their commitment, including their own past, which may now look as though it was all meaningless and pointless up to the point in time they fell in love.
As the Self experiences the new possibilities of being the world, it re-interprets itself, and is always already engaged in a continuous process of “becoming itself.” Accordingly, one’s own reflective awareness of existential time is constantly changing on account of the fact that the Self, which is always anticipating itself ahead of itself into the future, is living through the possibilities disclosed through attunement and expectation. In this way, we commit ourselves to having certain expectations and “hopes” with respect to the future on account of our mood or attunement towards the past which in turn shapes our perception of future possibility.
The doctrine of the “eternal recurrence of the same” (also known as eternal return of the same) remains one of the most peculiar and enigmatic features of Nietzsche’s philosophy. Indeed, commentators and Nietzsche scholars have published dozens of books, articles, and essays speculating as to how seriously Nietzsche took the doctrine to be a literal metaphysical understanding of reality, as well as how it fits into the broader scheme of Nietzsche’s body of work, particularly in relation to the Ubermensche and the Will to Power.Among the more popular, and somewhat banal, interpretations of eternal recurrence is that of an existential thought experiment. One is supposed to imagine that he or she will repeat this life exactly as it is over and over again — with all its pain, sorrows, tragedies, and disappointment. The point of eternal return as thought experiment is to induce us to examine our lives and take control. If we’re doomed to repeat this life exactly as it was and will be forever, then we ought to take responsibility for living our life as an experimental aesthetic narrative. Presumably, only the Overman would be strong enough to affirm the continuous recycling of this life — for only he is capable of looking at life square in the face and proclaim, “yes!” This interpretation can be seen as an extremely important part of Nietzsche’s overall project of developing a philosophy that would both overcome the nihilism of the modern age AND at the same time bring about the affirmation, rather than denial, of this life. Under this view then, the doctrine of eternal recurrence represents Nietzsche’s ultimate break from his predecessor and “educator” Arthur Schopenhauer, despite the heavy influence the latter played on Nietzsche’s development and thought.
The doctrine of eternal recurrence may also be understood as a means of bringing into question our preconceived notions of progress, universality, and objectivity as byproducts of a linear conception of time. Modern man takes for granted that he understands (ontic) time as a linear progression of “nows” leading from past, to present, and future. Even contemplating time as cyclical casts a shadow of doubt over our unquestionable commitment to progress and objectivity. If time is cyclical, then the very notion of “progress” as we understand it becomes necessarily impossible. The very notion of progress assumes time as linear. Only if we see time as occurring as a “stream” from then-to-now, and from now-to-yonder can such evaluative change take place. Yet, if everything were to exist in complete transience only to begin again — the idea of permanent progress is untenable. What is perceived as an overcoming of the past (say, scientific or technological advancement) is only tentative and ephemeral: for if it is all to end and begin again, there can simply be no constancy. Without constancy then, the notion of overcoming and ascending beyond what was, along with the hope of transcending the now with the hope of an even better tomorrow, must be cast aside. So too would our belief in objectivity. Objectivity presumes something eternal; it deals not in substance but form — specifically, a form that exists beyond the realm of time and space. Something that is, in and of itself, existing eternally and thus always in a static state of being. Cyclical time renders the static state of being an impossibility, as well, for if everything that was is to come again, and the now for which I see myself as experiencing will again recur, the very grounding for the “objective” is stripped away. Cyclical time undermines being in favor of continuous becoming. The “is”, as we perceive it, is only an illusion; a derivative and mistaken experience for the perpetual “will be.” The “will be,” then, is always already what it “was,” and forever “will be”, all of which is confined to the sameness of the repetitive cycles of the ever-recurring. Even hypothesizing on the eternal recurrence raises important questions concerning that which we take for granted about what it means to “be” human. It provides grounds for questioning time as linear — and so too the correlative notions of progress and objectivity which derivative of such conceptualizations of linear time. It also forces us to question the metaphysical traditions pertaining to the constancy of the “self,” as well as the metaphysical dualism of “mind” (eternal) and “body” (temporal).
Who am I, if not the sickly embodiment of my own temporality? The so-called “human condition”: that ultimately vain and ineffectual interruption of not-being, is a cruel dialectical joke; a pointless and irrevocable mistake brought about by a birth in which we had no say.
Imagine if, in the fetus stage, we possessed the power of foresight; the ability to see life as it is and all that awaited us– would we have been so repulsed, so indignant, and so disappointed at the grim prospects of existing as such that we would turn away and simply say, “nevermind!”?
That we cannot undo our birth is truly tragic. That we cannot step outside our own temporality — equally so; but this is all made worse in light of the fact that one cannot step outside one’s own conscious relation to temporality itself.
If we must have been born, would it not have been better to enter this world as a lower-form of life? To partake in the rapture of existing sans consciousness of our own temporality — that which grabs hold of the paradoxically absurd relationship between our own finite being contra infinite possibility and becoming?
Our existence is the most disconsolate, dreary, and disappointing. For we are the wretched slaves of time itself — forever caught in its indifferent whirlwinds – tossed about aimlessly between an unfortunate birth and an untimely death. The only solace is beyond our reach: to have never been at all.
Temporal structure of the Self:
My facticity: I am always already thrown into a world; I always already was what I am.
My possibilities: I am always ahead of myself in such a way that I am the projection of my ownmost possibilities ahead of me.
My existence: I am always already in the world, always already what I am/was/will be, and always ahead of myself projecting my own self onto my own possibilities.