From Annihilation to Immortality

I admit to having been baffled by Nietzsche’s references to the doctrine of “eternal return” in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. What did he mean when he asked how believing in such a doctrine would impact our lives? What difference would it make, I wondered, if I occurred once or a million times? From the perspective of eternity, is an identical repeat any kind of return at all? It seems no different to me than living once in eternity.

Ironically, I like that old Stoic doctrine of eternal return and conflagration. I guess I just like the idea that God just torches everything every once in awhile and starts afresh. But I do get the feeling that this doctrine worried many Stoics with respect to its impact on notions of personal immortality. How? I suppose many of them feared that their souls would burn up with everything else, and that couldn’t be much fun. One Stoic proposed that souls are spared. I suppose that many didn’t mind the spiritual burns so long as they got to come back.

Who am I to say, but I think they might have been missing the point.

The whole thing seems to have started with Heraclitus, who was big on fire as a primal substance, and also liked to stress the periodicity of things. But he may have meant fire as a fundamental political substance, or perhaps a fundamental moral substance. We cannot be certain that he was the material philosopher that some of his Ionian contemporaries were.

I like to think of the Logos of Heraclitus as a metaphor for political, spiritual, moral, and physical reality. I think it applies quite nicely.

One of the great strengths, I think, of Heraclitus is that he used the fire of opposition to deny all duration and individuality, to the point that all is so ephemeral that all individuality melts into a singular, universal Unity. This is similar to the principle of emanation in Neoplatonism, but it hinges upon an oppositional, harmonic dynamism not present in Neoplatonism.

Heraclitus criticizes the poet who said, ‘would that strife might perish from among gods and men’ [Homer Iliad 18.107]’ for there would not be harmony without high and low notes, nor living things without female and male, which are opposites. —Aristotle

People do not understand how that which is at variance with itself agrees with itself. There is a harmony in the bending back, as in the cases of the bow and the lyre. — Heraclitus

The critical difference between Heraclitus and Plotinus is that Heraclitus took unity a step further. He saw all things in harmonious opposition, such that their most essential characteristics could not be extracted or isolated from anything else. A neoplatonist might see himself as a unique emanation of God, whereas Heraclitus seems to have seen existence as without such a center. We are not mere emanations, but equally central aspects of reality. Taking this thought the distance, “we” are ultimately one and the same.

Listening not to me but to the Logos, it is wise to acknowledge that all things are one. — Heraclitus

That is a form of immortality that I can hang my hat on. Of course I still fear death and value my needs over the needs of others, yet I find in Heraclitus an unsurpassed philosophy for counteracting the pangs of self and change.

In this sense, conflagration can have a unifying, immortalizing influence on thought, but it really seems that the Stoics were altogether too dogmatic about it, and lost what seems to have been the spirit of Heraclitus to that dogmatism.

But then again, who are we to correct the Stoics on Heraclitus? They must have been much more familiar with him than we are. Is it possible that they were not as dogmatic as they seem from two millennia away? Perhaps Heraclitus was more dogmatic than he seems to me. Hard to know. Still, it is enough that those words of his that have survived the ages have inspired these kinds of reflections in others, and given us one of the great philosophical terms of antiquity: Logos.