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The Eternal Return of the Overhuman: The Weightiest Knowledge and the Abyss of Light

From: The Journal of Nietzsche Studies
Issue 30, Autumn 2005
pp. 1-21 | 10.1353/nie.2005.0015

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The Journal of Nietzsche Studies 30 (2005) 1-21

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The Eternal Return of the Overhuman:

The Weightiest Knowledge and the Abyss of Light

University of Warwick
The overhuman lies close to my heart, it is my paramount and sole concern—and not the human: not the neighbour, not the poorest, not the most ailing, not the best.
—Z:4 "Of the Higher Man" 3
In the long run, it is not a question of the human at all: it is to be overcome.
—KSA 10: 24[16], 1883–84

The purpose of this essay is to provide a reading of Nietzsche's first sketch of the thought of the eternal return of the same in order to illuminate some crucial, if often neglected, aspects of his figuration of the Übermensch, which I prefer to translate as 'overhuman'. This sketch from August 1881, which has consequences for our reading of some crucial parts of Nietzsche's oeuvre, foregrounds the specific set of problems that inform Nietzsche's conception of a new, postmetaphysical humanity and that gets played out in The Gay Science and Thus Spoke Zarathustra. It is possible to identify in Nietzsche's texts several configurations of the overhuman. I will focus on the following two. The first is the figuration we find at work in the free-spirit trilogy (1878–82), where the overhuman denotes the change in the human that is called for with respect to the new tasks that confront modern humanity, such as the incorporation of truth and knowledge (GS 110), the purification of our opinions and valuations (HH 34, GS 335), and the renunciation of the first and last things of metaphysics (HH chapter 1, GS 285). The second is the figuration we find in Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883–85), where the overhuman denotes the human being that stands in a new temporal relation to existence and the earth (the first figuration continues to be fully at work in the text). When Nietzsche posits the overhuman as the 'meaning' (Sinn, sense and direction) of the earth, he has in mind a postmetaphysical human being. The extraordinary nature of this being is what we encounter in Nietzsche's first sketch of the thought of eternal return.1

The Weightiest Knowledge

The doctrine of the eternal return of the same is always bound up in Nietzsche with the fundamental problems that need to be addressed concerning the fate of [End Page 1] modern human beings. We see this clearly at work in the first sketch he composed of the thought, which occurs in the notebook known as "M III, 1," and which runs as follows:

The Return (Wiederkunft) of the Same.
  1. The incorporation of the fundamental errors.
  2. The incorporation of the passions.
  3. The incorporation of knowledge and of renunciatory knowledge. (Passion of knowledge)
  4. The innocent one. The individual as experiment. The alleviation of life, abasement, enfeeblement—transition (Übergang).
  5. The heavy new burden: the eternal return of the same. Infinite importance of our knowing, erring, habits, ways of living for all that is to come. What shall we do with the rest of our lives—we who have spent the majority of our lives in the most profound ignorance? We shall teach the teaching—it is the most powerful means of incorporating (einzuverleiben) it in ourselves. Our kind of blessedness (Seligkeit), as teachers of the greatest teaching.
Early August 1881 in Sils-Maria, 6,000 feet above sea level and much higher above all human things!—
On 4) Philosophy of Indifference (Gleichgültigkeit). What used to be the strongest stimulus now has a quite different effect: it is seen as just a game and accepted (the passions and labours), rejected on principle as a life of untruth, but aesthetically enjoyed and cultivated as form and stimulus; we adopt a child's attitude towards what used to constitute the seriousness of existence. The seriousness of our striving, though, is to understand everything as becoming, to deny ourselves as individuals, to look into...