All of human existence, when viewed from the whole, is the eternal repetition of a three-fold cycle that we may call “suffering.” Within this cycle, human beings are thrust between inter-related stages of misery that constitute our lamentable condition of being-in-the-world. This primordial suffering, in turn, finds equal expression through the existential structure of lived time.
This cycle of suffering in turn is grounded in our being in time. Accordingly, it rests upon a necessary relationship with the type of beings for whom we are -in which we experience the subjectivity of our being-there grounded in (existential) temporality.
It’s no coincidence that the cycle of suffering shares a similar structure with lived time. This is necessarily so because it is our primordial relationship with our being-ness as expressed through time itself that invites us to suffer in the first place. Accordingly, the threefold cycle of suffering parallels the structure by which we exist in time, namely:
– Striving (future): striving refers to the type of suffering grounded in the individual’s concern for itself stretched through time, into an indefinite and temporal future. Human beings do not see themselves as merely existing in the present; rather, their being matters to them, and they take up this concern for existence through their own possibilities (projected into the future).
Thus, for each and every individual, it is his own future being that becomes primary. He is constantly re-affirming himself through his future possibilities; accordingly, his anticipation of the future determines his present course of action and disposition towards himself as he conceives himself, his past awareness of himself, and the world in which he always already finds himself.
It is the anticipation of future possibilities coming into actuality in which this level of suffering takes shape. Insofar as he anticipates a particular outcome or possibility, the individual must necessarily acknowledge a deficiency in his current being-in-the-world. If I set out to become a distinguished professor, it necessarily follows that I must acknowledge myself now as not a distinguished professor. Insofar as I make this my project, it becomes my meaningful commitment for my being. But, insofar as I remain unsatisfied in the completion of my project, I am less than the expectation that I set for myself.
The suffering of striving is increased by virtue of the fact that I never am my projects. One does not attain the rank of “distinguished professor” and then simply stop as if the mere recognition of status were simply enough; rather, one must continuously do what a distinguished professor does. If I do not write, research, have any students, or partake in the activities for which it means to be a distinguished professor — then I am not a distinguished professor.
Thus, the projects and goals for which we strive for are never truly “complete,” and thus we never attain the satisfaction of what we think it means “to be” that which we sought ought to become. Instead, we are suspended in perpetual becoming — never centered or grounded in our being but rather undergoing the arduous process of re-affirming our individual commitment to our defining projects. In short, I will never “be” a distinguished professor; rather, I will always forever find myself “becoming” a distinguished professor, despite the contrary conclusion which may be drawn from our ordinary usage of the verb “be.”
Likewise, striving always puts us at a grave risk for frustration, failure, and disappointment. In this sense, striving always puts the individual at the risk of not achieving that which he sought ought to become, giving rise then to feelings of disappointment, disenchantment, or other negative feelings towards one’s self and the world. With sufficient regularity, such disappointment or frustration can lead to a rejection of striving and total detachment from the possibilities that give rise to one’s meaningful relation to himself.
– Anguish (past): Anguish is the level of suffering centered in the past. It is the expression of disharmony or imbalance within the self and its relation to the world and/or its own self. However, it should be noted that anguish need not necessarily manifest itself as a form of suffering about or over the past, though it certainly is possible (as in the feeling of regret).
Rather, in anguish, there is a breakdown in the self’s reflective relation to its past as the defining source of the content of its own self and its correlative worth to itself. Insofar as I can know myself, it is to the extent that I am capable of seeing myself as having a definite past, in which I interpret as a whole that which constitutes and gives intelligible meaning to my concrete and individual existence. Thus, the “I” (insofar as this may be said to exist) is not merely the material constituent parts that make up my body as it “exists” in space and time; nor is it the “mental stuff” for which my personality, my experience, my interiority are merely objective manifestations of; rather, the “I” is the expression of my relation to my own self as it relates to itself through existential or lived time.
When I reflect on my individual past, I recall specific memories. For me, these are never general nor abstract, but always concrete; this is so because (to me) they did not happen to an amorphous “someone,” but rather the concrete me — a subjectively existing individual whose being matters for him. In this way, I am able to derive from my own relation to my past in lived-time that it was the same “I” that occupies my memories as the “I” that is thinking about those memories now.
This complex series of relations in which the very “mine-ness” of my own self is made possible is always vulnerable to categorical break-downs. It is in these “breakdowns” in the self’s relationship to itself that the suffering of anguish takes form. For instance, I may lose all connection to myself as a self, or perhaps never become aware of myself as a self (and thus not be a self); I may recognize myself as a self but reject becoming myself. In its concrete forms, anguish gives rise to moods focusing on hyper-reflection inwards and onto the self, such as despair, certain forms of depression, melancholy, and other acute or chronic expressions of discordant relations of the self.
– Boredom (present): Boredom, as the third form of suffering, is unique in that it generally is understood not on account of any particular content or attributes which distinguish it from the other levels of suffering, but rather, its form. Generally speaking, boredom is the withdrawal of the related meaningfulness of being-in-the-world.
Boredom itself can be sub-divided into three distinctive stages, all of which represent, to varying degrees of intensity, the aforementioned withdrawal of individual meaning — either meaning in the world, meaning within the self, or total collapse of all meaning into nothginess. For more on the specific levels of boredom, click here.
From his lamentable birth to his lonely death, all individual human beings are thrown about within this cycle, tossed between each stage with neither purpose nor reason. The relationship between time and the cycle of suffering is expressed trough the type of beings we are — for we are the type of beings who care about our being-in-the-world.
Accordingly we are always already immersed within this cycle due to the ontological structure of being itself. Thus, what Heidegger called the “Care” structure, may properly be understood as the “root” or “grounding” of existential suffering.
Furthermore, there is no “progression” or hierarchy of suffering; this is so because it is cyclical, not linear. One does not undergo any growth or transfiguration between striving and anguish; anguish and boredom; or boredom and striving. Each stage is itself both self-sufficient but at the same time co-related to the next, and human existence as such is destined to exist through each stage, forever repeating itself.
This three-fold cycle expresses itself through our disposedness to the world, or rather, our “moods.” Our moods disclose to us (and, when articulated, to others) how it’s going in the world. Our moods reflect our insights into our own being-in-the-world, and thus are never entirely interior or affective mental states.
Certain moods express more clearly which stage of suffering any given individual may be experiencing. For instance, anxiety or dread is an expression of striving (future); whereas despair and sadness are expressions of anguish (past). Moreover, the vast complex of moods can express a simultaneous overlapping of different levels of suffering. For example, general melancholy may be found primarily in anguish, but certain forms may express all three stages of suffering.
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).
The difference between man and other entities is the former’s sense of temporality. In other words, man’s own self-awareness of himself as existing — or, as Heidegger puts it: Dasein is the being for whom Being is an issue for it. Other entities, be it a dog, raccoon, elephant or a tea-pot, are incapable of projecting their being into the future; or recalling their own past. Lower species live exclusively in the present; for the very moment in which being finds itself. Only man can experience himself in time, and thus never truly static; but rather in a constant state of becoming himself through his finite possibility.
But possibility is understood in contrast to actuality. The traditional positing of the Self-as-substance (i.e., Descartes, Kant, substance ontology generally, etc.) places actuality over possibility; an emphasis of the present-now over the to be/becoming. Substance ontology, in turn, reduces the individual into little more than universalized substance — an entity (albeit, a thinking entity), composed of the same indistinguishable “stuff” (spirit; mind; soul; will to power; etc.). It was this aspect of traditional metaphysics that Soren Kierkegaard, and later Martin Heidegger, went to great lengths to overcome.
Above all, focusing on the present-substance completely misses what it means to be-in-the-world. This analysis simply ignores, or is incapable of taking account of the very fact that we are always in the world relating to it. Heidegger chooses to focus on our “average everydayness” because it is our situational mode of being in the world. In other words, the traditional metaphysical (substance-ontological) view reduces existence to presence; here-now. In the end, it attempts to ground essence without taking into account our existence is to completely disregarded the finiteness of being.
Thus, the temporal self is, in its existence, its own being-towards-possibility: actively involved and always ahead of itself for which its own being matters. We are constantly relating ourselves to the world through ourselves (the self-referential self). Thus, our existence, the relation in which our being is an issue for us. As self-relating entities, we are always encountering the future of possibilities — and if our existence is authentic — then it is our ownmost possibilities.
Properly understood, the Self is neither substance nor statically present — but rather, exists through itself as the positive relation to the world as a projection of constant change always already emerging into possibility [not actuality]. Thus, actuality is becoming possibility — always in a state of constant projection in which each individual Self is always a step in front of itself. It is in this process that each Self comes to understand its own Being: the Being of the Self is the disclosure of the “ability-to-be.” The ability-to-be one’s Self is thus the primordial task of any individual Self insofar as he is said to exists. Likewise, any “what” it means to be able to be must always already be preceded by the “who” that is answering it. To put it more succinctly, there can be no “what” I am without there first and foremost being a “who” I am.
But this is far from the end — for every Self, in its relation to itself through its possibilities, is always already undercut by an “ultimate” possibility — death. Death, understood not as mere cessation of biological life (what Heidegger called mere ‘demise’), but rather as world collapse. My death is my possibility of no more possibilities; my possibility of not being able-to-be. Coming to terms with one’s death as truly “my death” becomes possible when we experience certain existential orientations — fundamental moods that concern the “entirety of a person’s situated existence.” These moods highlight a breakdown of average everyday “being-in-the-world,” and include anxiety/angst, boredom, and despair. Whenever the Self is delivered over to one of these moods, the Self is confronted with the terrifying possibilty that all of its possibilties are subject to a vast and omnipresent vulnerability to total destruction and collapse. This is the revelation of the nothingness of the Self; the abyss of meaninglessness that every Self finds itself situated in while being-in-the-world.
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.