"The horror! The horror!"
Many have speculated about what inspired Colonel Kurtz to utter those famous last words. The answer lies in what he realised just before he let out his last breath. In that moment, he understood that past, present, and future were all illusions. No moment in time is ever lost. Everything that happens exists for ever.
That meant his impending death would not be the end. His life, once lived, would always exist. And so, in a sense, the life he had lived would be lived again and again, eternally recurring, each time exactly the same and thus with no hope of learning, of changing, of righting past wrongs.
Had Kurtz made a success of this life he could have borne that realisation. He could have looked upon his work, thought "it is good," and gone to his grave serene in his triumph over death. The fact that he instead reacted with horror testified to his failure to overcome the challenges of mortal existence.
"The horror! The horror!" Would you react to the thought of eternal recurrence any differently?
Sources: Thus Spake Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche, 1891; Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, 1902.
Baggini, J., The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten, 2005, p. 205.
Lest anyone think otherwise, Baggini admits in his discussion of this that:
"As literary criticism and as metaphysics, this interpretation of Kurtz's dying words, from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, is at best complete speculation and at worst pure speculation. I am not aware of any textual evidence that this is how we should understand Kurtz's enigmatic last words. And the idea of the eternal recurrence, although seemingly believed in earnest by Nietzsche, is not considered by most commentators to have marked his finest hour."
My own commentating agrees with that. During my reviews of the survival of the fittest philosophers, I filed Nietzsche's ideas on the eternal return as having "gone extinct." Here specifically is what I said in my blog post Shed a Tear for Nietzsche:
Nietzsche's view on eternal return is similar to that of Hume: the idea that an eternal recurrence of blind, meaningless variation - chaotic, pointless shuffling of matter and law - would inevitably spew up worlds whose evolution through time would yield the apparently meaningful stories of our lives. This idea of eternal recurrence became a cornerstone of his nihilism, and thus part of the foundation of what became existentialism. Nietzsche contemplates the idea of eternal recurrence as potentially horrifying and paralyzing, and says that its burden is the heaviest weight imaginable. The wish for the eternal return of all events would mark the ultimate affirmation of life. To comprehend eternal recurrence in his thought, and to not merely come to peace with it but to embrace it, requires amor fati, a love of fate. It is not clear if the universe is finite or infinite, but even if it were infinite, Nietzsche misses the other logical outcome of an eternal multiverse - that not only would our own stories come true, but all other possible stories would arise as well. Any and every possibility could be repeated eternally. This does not doom us to accepting or loving our fate, but rather to choose wisely for the life we know.*
(* As a reminder, these fittest philosopher reviews stared with wikipedia-researched summaries in italics, and were followed by my own analysis of that summary in plain text.)
It's fair enough that Nietzsche settled on the idea of eternal recurrence because it had already been around for a very long time. He would have read about it from several thinkers in both Eastern and Western traditions, and the cosmology of his time, as understood by the latest science from physicists, held that the universe was eternal in time, but finite in matter. If that were true, eternal recurrence would have to be true as well. But in the 1920s, astronomers discovered that galaxies are flying apart. The universe, they realised, is expanding, and this ultimately led to our current best understanding that the universe started with the Big Bang and as yet has an unknown but likely finite destination. Because of these new scientific findings, and also because Nietzsche's interpretation of the scientific facts of his day were narrowly pessimistic, the horror of eternal recurrence just doesn't have any force behind it any more.
Baggini deftly morphs Nietzsche's old and weak consideration into something with more relevant strength though by focusing on Kurtz's inability to change the past, saying "in a sense, the life he had lived would be lived again and again, eternally recurring, each time exactly the same and thus with no hope of learning, of changing, of righting past wrongs." This is certainly true for us all, and it's a fact of life that requires us to respond in two ways: 1) we must always accept that what is done is done; and 2) we must strive to live well from now on so as not to reach the end of our lives and have only shame and regret to look back upon about things that can no longer be changed. Kurtz's horror is our own teachable moment.
If you've read my writings on how to Know Thyself, you'll remember that I broke down the way to analyse thyself according to basic elements of time. Where Did I Come From? considered the past; Where Am I? and What Am I? considered the present; and Where Am I Going? considered the future. We have to know the past and present, but we can only make changes going forward, so as I considered that journey through Life, I wrote:
There are six time perspectives you can have on your life: 1) past - positive events; 2) past - negative events; 3) present - hedonism; 4) present - fatalism; 5) future - goal oriented; 6) future - worry oriented. Recognize the benefit of focusing predominantly on 1 and 5 with some 3 for energizing enjoyment. Learn from 2 when it happens. Do not believe in 4; it is irrational. When 6 arises, use 5 to make a plan, and 1 to believe you will achieve it.
On his deathbed, it's obvious Colonel Kurtz had not done this properly. He lived a life only in the moment, full of 3) hedonism, or 4) fatalism, so that he arrived at the end and only had the horror of looking back on 2) negative events in the past. He (and we) would do much better to live a life focused on 5) future goals so that our own deathbeds are comforted by 1) positive events of the past. What kind of future goals? Which ones will turn out to mean the most? In my Response to Thought Experiment 52, I explained that this is...
...one of the very biggest philosophical questions—what is the meaning of life? I recently finished an excellent book by philosopher John Messerly on this topic called The Meaning of Life: Religious, Philosophical, Transhumanist, and Scientific Perspectives. It is an excellent summary of the best modern answers to this question from all the major philosophical positions. In the book, Messerly notes that none of these positions have generated an accepted viewpoint yet, but his analysis along the way caused me to generate my own thoughts on the question, which I shared with him in a private exchange. I wrote:
When asking the question, “what is the meaning of life?”, a fundamental clarifying question must be “for whom?”. Wants and meaning must be applied to someone. The "universe" doesn't want anything, and nothing is meaningful to it. This is why searches for "ultimate meanings" are senseless. They look for emotionally-led oughts where there can be no emotion. But life does want. So life ought to live. (See my ASEBL Journal article.) The scope of the universe is too large for one human life to have an impactful meaning upon it. Our imagination scales infinitely though, so we can imagine that we could. The story of life in general, however, is big enough to have meaning in the universe. And our role in the story of life could actually be quite large. Even if individually a life were not very important, we've evolved to feel pleasure at the scale we can affect life, so our lives can still feel quite meaningful when we accept the size of the role we've inherited. We don’t long for the role of a stellar nursery giving birth to stars, nor are we satisfied with the accomplishments of a mayfly. The 'big freeze' or the 'big crunch' are still possibilities for universal death within this universe, which would render everything meaningless, but maybe those outcomes can one day be affected by life within this universe. Maybe dark energy, dark matter, or something else altogether unknown can be manipulated in such a way as to balance things for survival. Until we can do that, that is a goal which gives meaning to life. We may not be able to answer any ultimate questions now of why the universe and life exist, but maybe someone will be able to someday. It is our job to do what we can to get to that. Survival and scientific progress are prerequisites along that path. Just as Renaissance people (to take one example) could be said to have found meaning in supporting a society that lead to the growth of the scientific method, which helped us get this far, we can find meaning today by doing our job to support a society laying the groundwork for future knowledge explorers too.
Messerly turned this into a blog post on his wonderful site Reason and Meaning, where he quoted my response and then said:
I think the reader has it about right. The only way our individual lives have objective meaning is if they are part of something larger. We hope then that we are links in a golden chain leading onward and upward toward higher levels of being and consciousness. The effort we exert as we travel this path provides the meaning to our lives as we live them. And if our descendents, in whatever form they take, live more meaningful lives as a result of our efforts, then we will have been successful.
And there you have it. Baggini closed his thought experiment with perhaps the most important question for us there is: how do you live your life so that it does not end in horror? I've found an answer that gives me comfort. Does it give comfort to you?