Toward Postmodernism

Variations on religious, usually Christian, views of death and immortality continued in the writings of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century philosophers, including most notably the idealism of Georg W. F. Hegel (1770-1831) and the atheistic pessimism of Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860). Not until a real break with modern thought occurred did genuinely novel views about the significance of death and the possibility of immortality arise. In the thought of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) many now find both the culmination of ancient and modern approaches to death and the transition to a postmodern worldview. And it is certainly true that in Nietzsche's various writings, one can find many different historically grounded and historically transcendent approaches to the problem of death.

While still a student, Nietzsche read Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Idea(1819). Profoundly moved and deeply disturbed, he sought escape from Schopenhauer's pessimism and atheism, and saw the task of philosophy as overcoming the former while taking responsibility for the latter (Ecce Homo, 1888). Physical pain and mental suffering were lifelong companions; staring into the abyss of despair and coping with the guilt of killing God, Nietzsche tried a number of different strategies for finding life worth continuing.

Through classical studies and art, Nietzsche supposed, one might escape the profound misery of existence (The Birth ofTragedy, 1872). The consolations of beautiful dreams soon faded, however, and Nietzsche turned to a detached, critical search for knowledge, and the "interesting illusion of science replaces the beautiful illusion of art" (Choron, p. 201).

Objective knowledge, or its semblance, proved unsatisfying as well, and Nietzsche then began to develop the idea of the superman as the disciplined Dionysian man capable of living a pain-filled life with full creativity. Truth is painful and, to all but the superman, unbearable. Above all, one must love fate (amor fati), which becomes possible with the Eternal Recurrence of the Same:

Everything goes, everything returns; eternally rolls the wheel of existence. Everything dies, everything blossoms forth again; eternally runs the year of existence ... All things return eternally and we ourselves have already been numberless times, and all things with us. (Also Sprach Zarathustra, 1891 quoted by Choron, p. 202)

At least Heraclitus's voice seems to recur here.

How such a view of the one life we have and the one death we experience, albeit endlessly repeated, solves the problem of death is not clear. Sometimes Nietzsche suggests that recognizing the Eternal Recurrence of the Same should lead us to passionately embrace and affirm life, to live with as much conviction and determination as we can muster, for life might otherwise be all the more miserable for its endless repetition. But Nietzsche, who attempted suicide three times, must have been terrified at the prospect of such recurrence. It is the ultimate test of the superman to love fate while recognizing precisely what fate has in store.

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