Nietzsche: Memory Roles

A discussion of what the different types of memory do in Nietzsche’s thought. This post is based on Chapter Three of my MPhil thesis.


For Nietzsche, memory roles are of the highest importance. They underpin many of his key ideas and are what make us human. However, his understanding of memory is radically different to our common psychological intuitions.

I will argue that the memory typology I have set out previously allows a new understanding of some of Nietzsche’s themes. Those themes are the early ones of Dionysos and Apollo and the Doctrine of Eternal Recurrence together with the linked topics of the Übermensch and the revaluation of all values. The first part of the Chapter, §3.1, is an examination the themes of Dionysos and Apollo. In §3.1.1, I discuss Nietzsche’s claims in BT on the topic, as they relate to memory. Then in §3.1.2 I show how an understanding of Nietzsche’s memory typology throws new light on the themes. In the second half of the Chapter, I will start by outlining the Doctrine in §3.2.1.

The Doctrine is difficult to accept. Many commentators have questioned it. So I will need to show that it is nevertheless important to Nietzsche. I will therefore address the question as to whether Nietzsche is serious about the Doctrine in that section. I will conclude that Nietzsche is serious about the Doctrine; while he does not necessarily put it forward as a truth claim, it can nevertheless be one of his important topics. It can be significant as a mythological test whether true or false, and irrespective of whether Nietzsche believes it. This permits us to take seriously Nietzsche’s claims that Z is his most important work containing his most important themes. Also if this is so, and a memory typology elucidates it, then that typology is all the more significant. I will then outline the concept of the Übermensch in §3.2.2. I discuss the importance of memory typology in understanding these themes in §3.2.3.

Von einem nicht irrenden Gedächtniß kann ebenso wenig als von einem absolut zweckmäßigen Handeln der Naturgesetze die Rede sein.

NF–1872, 19 [163]

3.1 Dionysos Versus Apollo

3.1.1 Nietzsche’s Claims In BT

BT is Nietzsche’s first published work. He wrote it when he was aged 26. He was still under the strong influence of Schopenhauer. It is possible then that his views on memory were different later in his career. I will argue to the contrary, by showing his memory typology is already informing his work in BT. Then I show that we can gain a new understanding of Nietzsche’s discussion of the Dionysian and Apollonian drives in BT by using the typology of memory that I have developed.

Nietzsche’s opening question in BT is posed in the new preface he added in 1886: he asks: “[w]hat purpose was served by Greek art?”.1 His response is that it served to distract the Greeks from the nihilistic threats he sees as ever-present and that always tend to produce paralysis. These nihilistic threats are the questions that seem to suggest themselves to everyone. They are almost the questions that cause philosophy to be done. For example, we all ask what is the point of existence and what is the source of value. The threat is that these questions seem to have either no answers or no answers which can be justified other than by simply choosing them. While we all act as if this were not the case, we do so largely either by pretending that the problem does not exist or assigning rather arbitrarily a certain value to various pursuits. This is the same ‘valorisation’ problem that I discussed previously.

These problems in ancient Greek society are of interest in themselves to Nietzsche, but his diagnosis is the same for modern society. Nietzsche’s also gives his answer in the new preface. His response to the problem of valorisation is, famously, that “only as an aesthetic phenomenon is existence and the world eternally justified”.2 Since Nietzsche values activity, he sees the avoidance of what we might term the ‘paralysis of pointlessness’ as central to the continued development of mankind. Only art can do this, as a “saving sorceress” needed precisely “at this moment of supreme danger for the will.”3

At the time of writing BT, Nietzsche was still under the spell of Wagner, and hoped that the art form which would distract and activate was music. By contrast, the particular art form that he thought distracted the Greeks and made them active was tragic art: the theatre or its precursors. Tragic art emerged from the synthesis of two opposed drives of central importance for Nietzsche. Again, while Nietzsche is in principle discussing ancient Greek society, his analysis of drives is timeless and so will apply to us as well. These drives were the Dionysian and the Apollonian; I discuss each in turn.

What is Dionysian? The Dionysian drive is “best conveyed by the analogy of intoxication”.4 We may understand this widely to include physical intoxication from psychoactive substances but also ecstatic self-obliterating mental states induced in behavioural ways. There are many examples of this. We see it in fields as varied as the military training that makes a group of persons like a machine to meditating communities of monks. In many such situations, the communal supersedes the individual.

Note that it is just an analogy with intoxication. Nietzsche is not suggesting that it is desirable to be frequently under the influence, but he does wish to recognise the creativity that can flow from a change to a wider perspective. In ancient Greece, the Dionysian intoxication and motivation came about via the tragic chorus. Nietzsche speaks of the dithyrambic chorus, which ecstatically sings songs in honour of Dionysos in a specifically frenzied fashion, in contrast with ‘solemn processions’ dedicated to other gods like Apollo. As Nietzsche writes: “[t]he chorus of Greek tragedy [is] the symbol of the entire mass of those affected by Dionysian excitement”.5 All citizens participate in the chorus. So they all are immunised from asceticism.

The Apollonian drive opposes the Dionysian in some ways and in others similar. The two are in a creative tension. Nietzsche links dreaming to the Apollonian. He writes: “let us think of [these two drives] […] as the separate art-worlds of dream and intoxication.”6 The use of the term art – which in Nietzsche means selection and creation – is significant. Both drives are ‘selectively artistic’, so they are both active. But they act in different realms. Dreams are the active operation of fantasy or imagination. Intoxication promotes activity by being uninhibitory. Nietzsche’s claim is that the Apollonian drives give line and form and “logical causality”7 to the unformed Dionysian frenzy.

The two together can result in a creative synthesis of energy and direction. We may see the opposition between the Dionysian and the Apollonian as similar to Schopenhauer’s division of the world into Will and Representation.8 The world on this view is really one and unified; the appearance of separation and individuation is illusory. The Apollonian illusions are form-giving. However, under Dionysian intoxication, there is a loss of the sense of being an individual.

The Greeks had art forms of both types. Choral dancing was Dionysian. Homeric epic poems were Apollonian, in that in their stories there was a proliferation of individuals, and it was the individuals who mattered: the poems had a hero. In this way, the poems moved away from unity and towards falsehood. Tragic art subsequently harmonises both and thus combines the Dionysian and the Apollonian. But Socrates requires reasons for acting, definitions, discursive individual characters. In short, he promotes deliberation over action.

The sequence of events is that “tragedy arose from the tragic chorus”9 and that both tragic forms result from a synthesis of the two drives. As Nietzsche writes: “every artist is an ‘imitator’, and indeed either an Apolline dream-artist or a Dionysian artist of intoxication or finally – as, for example in Greek tragedy – an artist of both dream and intoxication at once.”10 Here we see how the original synthesis of the two drives is creative, artistic and active. The creativity is qualified though, since it is held to be derivative or imitative. The lack of originality is not what concerns Nietzsche. Creating the new is not the source of value – as befits the author of the Doctrine of Eternal Recurrence. Creativity and activity are the keys to value for him.

This leads to the explanation of what went wrong if the Greeks had solved the paralysing problems of nihilism. Analysis does not provide the same reassurance as tragedy; and Socrates the theoretical man supersedes the tragic man. The theoretical man wants to retain all information. It might improve a theory. The tragic man however, wants to retain only some information. He wants to mould it with a view to its use.

The approach carries over from the theatre to life. An artistic selective approach is as useful and necessary for the playwright constructing a piece as for the ordinary Greek living his life – as literature – and for the same reasons. Since, as we said earlier, life and existence can only be justified as aesthetic phenomena, and selection is to be made on aesthetic basis, the victory of the theoretical approach over the tragic approach means the loss of this justification.

Nietzsche does not recommend that we dissolve ourselves into the Dionysian through, for example, being frequently intoxicated. There is nothing active about that. His call is for us to choose the tragic approach; to make an active choice to be active. Some choose to step into the tragedy.

3.1.2 Links To Memory

Nietzsche associates the Dionysian with forgetting. In a description of what occurs under intoxication or spring-inspired lust for life; Nietzsche writes that

“Dionysiac stirrings […] cause subjectivity to vanish to the point of complete self-forgetting”.11

Note that it is partial forgetting that is mentioned – only the individual is forgotten. Later, he writes: “the Dionysian state, in which the usual barriers and limits of existence are destroyed, contains, for as long as it lasts, a lethargic element in which all personal experiences from the past are submerged.”12

This suggests that Nietzsche means the process to be from the dissolution of the illusion that there is an individual self to the forgetting of the memories associated with that self. We might see the use of the metaphor of submersion in the river of forgetting as an indication that all Dionysian ‘individuals’ are submerged together; they forget their personal memories at the same time as they forget themselves because there is no longer an – illusory – individual self to which to attach those personal memories.

The particular way in which the ancient Greeks underwent self-forgetting in the chorus is also noted. Nietzsche writes:

“the dithyrambic chorus is a chorus of transformed beings who have completely forgotten their civic past and their social position; they have become timeless servants of their god.”13

The use of the term ‘timeless’ confirms that the Dionysian does not have a memory, as I discuss below.

A self-chosen identity is all-encompassing for the moment. Nietzsche – and Schopenhauer – will see this as approaching a truth by means of divestment of an illusion. We can easily recognise a phenomenon here that continues to be seen today. People constantly submerge themselves in groups: universities, families, churches, sports fans. They forget themselves in study, vicarious living, prayer, chanting.

Nietzsche describes the results of the Dionysian experience, and in particular the effects of returning to daily life afterwards. We may understand now as a return to memory, since the Dionysian state involves forgetting. He writes:

“as soon as daily reality re-enters consciousness, it is experienced as such with a sense of revulsion; the fruit of these states is an ascetic, will-negating mood”.14

Nietzsche describes this as ‘the lesson of Hamlet’, meaning that knowledge kills action.

This we may understand as ‘memory kills action’. More precisely, Passive Memory of at least the Inhibitory type kills action, as we discussed in §2.2.1. The use of ‘as such’ distinguishes the meaning of the sentence from what it would be without the inclusion of the phrase. Daily reality does not only produce revulsion. Its revulsion is enhanced by the fact that it is daily and thus inescapable. The problem is that action becomes repulsive for “it can do nothing to change the eternal essence of things”.15

The question, as mentioned above, is why we should act at all. Nothing fundamental will change. The results of everything we do will likely be minimal. It is hard to say what of significance would be different for the universe were the earth to be destroyed in a supernova. Some such dreary fate is doubtless the unavoidable destiny of the earth, which does indeed make Nietzsche’s question pressing: why do anything at all under such circumstances? Nietzsche must solve that problem because of the way he positively values activity. This threat is the same as the threat of nihilism that he is acutely aware of. The response is that existence is justified only aesthetically.

We may understand this to apply to our lives as well. What is required is an active artistic use of memory for selective purposes: as Nehamas suggests,16 life as literature. Nietzsche even gives us himself as an example. Again in the new preface, he describes his earlier self when writing BT as having had “a memory brimming over with questions, experiences, hidden things to which the name Dionysos had been appended as one more question mark”.17 This tells us exactly what the Active Memory prescription is in Nietzsche’s case.

Everyone must choose – actively – their own values. For Nietzsche, his artistically selected life will be one of asking questions. He will refuse to allow Passive Memory to paralyse him with the dull insistent repetition of the pointlessness of all questions, all questioning and all things – this doctrine is true but deadly. Dionysian forgetting, the intoxication of questioning, will push him forward. We must use our own memories actively to forget the pointlessness as well.

There is a further reference to the problem of Passive Memory when Nietzsche with some approval cites Schopenhauer, on the ‘lyrical state’ – this we may identify with Nietzsche’s Dionysian state. Schopenhauer writes that entry into this state provides a short period of peaceful contemplation from which “willing, desire, the recollection of our personal aims”18 will quickly remove us. This will be Passive Memory in its Imposed Memory form in accordance with the definition supplied on p. 17 – the rememberer is not choosing to leave the lyrical or Dionysian state but is forced to.

Schopenhauer’s solution is negation of the will, but it is this asceticism that is directly criticised by Nietzsche. The function is from will to desires to aims via memory: I will be tormented by the aims I have not achieved that are stored in my Passive Memory. Schopenhauer seeks to break the chain by negating the first step. Nietzsche sees the chain as unavoidable and indeed will promote the will, becoming as it does in his work the Will to Power, which is active and positively expressed. He will change the chain at the other end of the process – active selection of aims in Active Memory and the use of Active Memory to forget whatever is not useful for the process of goal-creation and self-creation.

A closing reference to the value of forgetting in BT emphasises the importance in the Dionysian of the active choice of what to forget. Nietzsche links Dionysian music with the tragic myth, and holds that in the tragic myth, one may “forget that which is most painful”.19 That which is most painful is the nihilistic sense that activity, life and world are all pointless. Note that this must be actively forgotten because it cannot be disproved – it is in fact true for Nietzsche. So the only possible approach is to develop accommodations which promote activity.

There is evidence in a late notebook, from 1888, that Nietzsche continues to consider the themes he addressed in BT. A section entitled “Basic insight: what is beautiful and ugly” ends with the summation “Art in the Birth of Tragedy”. Nietzsche writes: “[i]n instinct and memory a tremendous amount of material is piled up: we have a thousand different signs which betray to us the degeneracy of the type. Wherever there is an allusion to exhaustion, fatigue, weight, age, or lack of freedom, spasms, decomposition, decay, there speaks only our lowest value judgment: because man hates the ugly . . . What he hates here is always the decline of his type. This hatred is the whole philosophy of art.”20

It may appear at first as though Nietzsche means ‘type’ to refer anaphorically to ‘instinct and memory’ which are after all the subject of the sentence. Its import would then be that we have a thousand signs indicating the degeneracy of ‘instinct and memory’. A better interpretation is suggested however by the recurrence of the word type (“Typus”) later in the text to refer to the ‘type’ of humans i.e. a biological class.

So Nietzsche is here referring not to the degeneracy of instinct and memory, but to the degeneracy of the biological type of man that is demonstrated by the piling up of useless, inactive material in instinct and Passive Memory. The central message is that all of the various negative situations that Nietzsche lists are in fact negatively valued by us at root because they are all ugly or lead to ugliness. This reminds us that active selection in memory of the beautiful – which can also mean the functional or the artistic – is what Nietzsche recommends. Again we have a reference to the aesthetic justification of life. We can also see Organic Memory playing a role here since it is the physiological type – i.e. of mankind – that is in question. This is also indicated by Nietzsche’s ability to have instinct and memory together as the subject of his sentence.

The Dionysian and the Apollonian are two opposing forces of nature which express themselves in us as instincts, and that these were successfully unified in early Greek society to produce tragic art, which is way of dealing with the terror and horror of existence. The advent of Socrates was then a backward step, because the tragic understanding was replaced by a theoretical understanding. Winfree argues21 that the loss of tragedy takes place with the emergence of the book or novel, which has not only forgotten how to forget but has also forgotten this forgetting.

Nietzsche takes the view that the novel as an art-form originated with Plato. The novel is a passive form of memory. While tragic art is also a form of memory, it is a more active one. And the Dionysian participation in tragic art in the form of the chorus is most definitely active. Socrates supersedes Active Memory in the form of taking part in tragedy: this recalls Nietzsche’s insistence on the crucial importance of the chorus, which blurs the distinction between audience and actor to which we are now completely acculturated.

Nietzsche’s point is that in a mode of life in which Active Memory dominates, life is itself an ongoing element of the tragic art. Indeed, we may read the victory of the theoretical man over the tragic man as being a victory of Passive Memory over Active Memory or the victory of the state via imposition of Passive Memory over the active individual using Active Memory for his own ends.

It will be too quick to identify the Dionysian with forgetting and the Apollonian with memory; we have already noted that in fact an altered function of memory is common to both. In addition, there is evidence to associate the Apollonian also with forgetting. Winfree claims22 that in considering the Socratic decline that is the subject of BT, it is a matter of remembering that forgetting which is constitutive of the Apollonian, and which is forgotten with the advent of dialectic.

Here the reference to ‘that forgetting’ is equivalent to a confirmation that there are different types of forgetting and that not all of them are to be associated with the Apollonian. What is forgotten in the Apollonian state could be the knowledge that individuation is illusory – to this extent, the Apollonian is opposed to the Dionysian in which state we remember the primitive unity. It could not be, for example, a forgetting of conventional morality, because Nietzsche places that in the Dionysian column while ethics, measure and limit fall on the Apollonian side.

It transpires that commentators have implicitly identified both active and passive types of forgetting in relation to the Dionysian state, confirming we need the typology to understand how memory and the Dionysian interact. As Kaufmann usefully suggests,23 Nietzsche’s message in BT is that the horrors of history – i.e. the contents of memory in the individual – will have different effects on the strong and the weak.

The former will become active and creative (of beauty) while the latter will negate life. This is exactly our distinction between Active and Passive Memory. Kaufmann later conceives24 BT as already involving the supra-historical perspective Nietzsche discusses in UM, and defines that as involving the consideration of historical events and figures more for symbolic value – i.e. for activity promoting qualities – than for literal accuracy.

It will be useful to establish which aspect of forgetting commentators are associating with the Dionysian. There is an active aspect to forgetting which is a reflection of the operation of Active Memory. A decision is made which has the effect of forgetting, whether this is to remember something else instead or to adjust what is ‘retrieved’ in order to make it more useful or less harmful. Passive forgetting is less directed but nevertheless useful. It allows us to avoid retention of the large amounts of storable input that would otherwise be overwhelming. In addition, there will be decay effects where data that has not been used much will be more susceptible to loss than otherwise.

Acampora straightforwardly links25 forgetting to the Dionysian, with the implication that it is an active mode that is meant. Forgetting does not eliminate but grants experience, because too much remembering results in experience without pause and reduces the options for action. The fact that the absence of this active mode of forgetting removes possibilities for action links the Active Forgetfulness I discussed on p. 22 to activity itself. As argued previously, passive persons will not act as much as active ones, because passive persons do not use memory actively to foster activity while the opposite is true for active persons.

Acampora further illustrates26 the typology and the link with the observation that forgetting is an important condition for experience. Experience is made possible by taking some away and by encouraging some to fade. This amounts to an implicit specification of passive and active modes of forgetting: ‘to encourage’ something is to take action in relation to it while ‘taking something away’ allows for a passive, non-agential process in which the forgetting occurs without explicit active direction.

Gambino proposes27 a complex view of memory and the Dionysian, which we can disentangle using both the passive and active modes. There is a distinction between a fragile ‘poetic memory’ and a more robust type that can underpin the state’s requirements of who the individual should be. The state sees the imposition of memory as needed because the poetic memory needs reinforcement against the powerful Dionysian drive towards forgetfulness. The state plays a role in combatting this fragility. Gambino argues28 that it does so by constructing an Apollonian bulwark against the onslaught of forgetfulness. Unlike in the case of poetic memory, the state could use violence to reinforce the memory type it needs.29

We may understand this role of the polis as an imposition of either subtype of Passive Memory as in the GM account. The Apollonian is opposed to the Dionysian in terms of memory. It will be too simplistic though to align the Dionysian with forgetting and the Apollonian with remembering; not least because these oppositions are much more complex on our passive and active typology. Dionysian instincts threaten the polis as much as assist it. Gambino argues30 that the Dionysian is linked to the restoration of memory as well as forgetfulness.

This is because the Dionysian oneness recalls the concealed truth about the criminal and violent origins of the polis. There is a forgetting of the self in the Dionysian state. Since Nietzsche thinks the self and individuation are illusory, this will represent a closer approach to the truth or alternatively a renewed memory of the primal unity. Our conclusion from the views of these commentators can only be that we need to be aware of and consider both the active and passive modes of forgetting and memory to understand the Dionysian.

Thomas notes31 that “neither the Apollonian nor the Dionysian have a memory” meaning that when dreaming or intoxicated, we do not consider the consequences of our actions or even remember that there will be consequences. This will represent for Nietzsche a successful escape from the paralysis of Passive Memory. The way this works is that neither dreams nor the experience of underlying unity take place in time, they transcend temporality by excluding the past.

Thomas suggests that this allows for the emergence of ‘tragic time’ in which experience collapses into the present moment; this would be a disconnection of the entire memory problem. Since Nietzsche views the tragic outlook as superior, we can see again that the successful fusion of the Dionysian and the Apollonian is another way of addressing the paralysis induced by excessive Passive Memory.

Modern man following Socrates has forgotten how to forget: he has lost touch with both the Dionysian and the Apollonian – and also tragedy as their synthesis; he has also become a monster of Passive Memory. As mentioned above – see p. 44 – Socrates is the symbol of the theoretical man superseding the tragic man. Socrates is an appropriate adversary for Nietzsche in the field of memory. Socrates puts forward the doctrine of anamnesis, whereby all knowledge is recollection, as a “glorious truth”.32 The soul: “is able to call to remembrance all that [it] ever knew about virtue, and about everything”.33

Memory is also what makes the difference between true belief and knowledge in Plato’s account that that difference is akin to the fastening to a fixed location of moving statues.34 We also know that this means that for Plato,memoryis what provides the ‘account’ or logos that makes the same difference, so here we may recall Zarathustra’s saying he may not be asked for his reasons – see p. 56. Nietzsche’s account of memory and its best uses is set in opposition over against Plato’s. This all-encompassing, unselective, unartistic memory is an estrangement from nature. That is Nietzsche’s diagnosis of the diseased state of modern culture. So, since Active Forgetfulness is active use of memory, Nietzsche’s fundamental message is that lack of Active Memory is at the root of the problem of modern culture.

The claim finds support elsewhere. Wollheim sees35 Active Forgetfulness of the first remembered as a central therapeutic idea in the early stages of Freud’s thought. It is claimed that when Freud regarded memory as the pathogenic factor, therapy was for him the retrieval and dissolution of memories. This could also be seen as the recovery and then the forgetting of remembered events. This reminds us that the repressed is not the remembered and it must first be brought to light before it can be expunged. Such therapy is supposed lead to a healthy outcome. Poole notes36 that: “[f]or Nietzsche, this active form of forgetting is an expression of “robust health”.” Note that the form of forgetting is specified to be an active type – this confirms that Active Memory is at work.

3.2 Doctrine And Übermensch

3.2.1 Doctrine Of Eternal Recurrence

What Does The Doctrine Claim?

The Doctrine is the claim that we will all live our lives exactly the same in every detail an infinite number of times. This will include all of the painful and all of the pleasurable incidents inexactly the same way. The Doctrine first appears in GS where Nietzsche writes of an individual identified as Excelsior, or ‘the higher’, that he “will seek the eternal recurrence of war and peace”.37

This is one version of the idea that all events can only be wished for together, and that these events will be valued differently by us. Nietzsche’s point is that on his deterministic view, it will not be possible to wish for one element without also wishing for the others, since they all come together. Nietzsche regards the Doctrine as a kind of test of the psychological strength and health of an individual. If they are able to affirm the Doctrine, they are of the strongest and highest type.

Nietzsche returns to the Doctrine later in GS, this time emphasising the difficulty of accepting it. He writes of a demon approaching at a lonely hour that says: “[t]his life as you now live it and have lived it you will have to live once again and innumerable times again; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unspeakably small or great in your life must return to you, all in the same succession and sequence”.38

Here, the difficult aspects are specified as being the unlimited number of times that everything will be repeated; the fact that the minor, insignificant and boring will be returning as well and also that the pain will return as the inevitable concomitant of the pleasure. It is interesting that the demon also approaches during loneliness, because it suggests that social life may distract us from contemplating the Doctrine.

That leads to one of Nietzsche’s main aims with the Doctrine, which is to attempt to refocus us on the current world. Wicks sees39 the Doctrine as serving to draw attention away from all worlds other than the actual one, since eternal recurrence precludes escaping the world we are in. There is no otherworldly afterlife. We Slaves cannot accept torments here in the hopes of reward there: we must act here and now.

That section was the original end of GS, and Nietzsche then directs us towards Z by invoking the name of Zarathustra. Again in Z the difficulty of accepting the Doctrine is made clear. It is an “abysmal thought”40 which could not be endured by one less strong than Zarathustra. The section continues with an illustration of this in the form of a shepherd into whose throat a snake has crawled. The snake – which can bite its own tail – is the symbol of the Doctrine and the disgust associated with the event of its crawling into someone’s throat is the same as the disgust which would greet anyone who thought of the Doctrine, let alone affirmed it.

Disgust is the emotion that Zarathustra too experiences at the thought of the Doctrine. This disgust is for all existence, populated as it is by men great and small. The greatest men are too small, but they will return – there is “eternal recurrence even for the smallest! that was my disgust at all existence”.41

Although the Doctrine is difficult to accept, the claims it relies on, that energy is finite and time unlimited, are not themselves implausible. Magnus explains42 that the idea is that if those two claims are true, then all possible configurations must have arisen before and in fact must have done an infinite number of times. As an illustration, if a finite deck of cards is shuffled and dealt an infinite number of times, all possible sequences will occur an infinite number of times. As Zarathustra puts it, a “long, eternal lane runs back” as well as forwards; and “[m]ust not all things that can run have already run along this lane?”.43

So we have two ways in which the Doctrine is difficult to accept. It seems implausible as a scientific hypothesis, though defensible. Also, Nietzsche makes it clear that there is a great deal of emotional repugnance to it. This leads us to the question as to whether Nietzsche is serious about it – or more precisely, in what way is he serious.

Is Nietzsche Serious About The Doctrine?

The Doctrine is of the highest importance to Nietzsche’s writings. Magnus gives44 several Nachlaß citations to support the claim that Nietzsche regards the Doctrine as his most significant one. Nietzsche describes the Doctrine as the “most scientific of all possible hypotheses”, though that can be a double-edged sword in terms of being a compliment from Nietzsche. Nietzsche claims that all his later works including GM are “fish hooks” to draw readers to Z. Loeb notes45 that Z contains his most important ideas. Nietzsche tells us that Z is constructive and future oriented while other books

are destructive and present-oriented, which also suggests that Z supersedes the other books. Nietzsche begins his section on Z in EH by stating that the Doctrine is the “basic idea” of that work. We will need good reason not to take Nietzsche at face value when he makes these statements.

One reason that the Doctrine has not been accorded adequate significance in Nietzsche’s works is that it is not mentioned after Z. This may be explained though by noting that Nietzsche has chosen to write in Zarathustra’s voice because Nietzsche shares the decadence and weakness of his age – Nietzsche too is not strong enough to preach the Doctrine. All of this does not reduce the importance of the Doctrine; on the contrary it enhances it. Naturally, I do not claim that Nietzsche can avoid being a spokesman for his age – can avoid the limitations of which he himself complains – merely by writing as Zarathustra. Z is really an exercise in imagining a stronger philosopher in a stronger age who could affirm the Doctrine.

It might also be objected that Zarathustra is a somewhat ridiculous figure in some places. This however is of a piece with the general poetic nature of Z; one purpose also of Nietzsche’s, it must be remembered, is biblical parody. Zarathustra is an antichrist also in the sense that he shows how the mere writing of a book in obscure and hefty language and including a strange prophet giving prescriptions for moral lives is not an activity permitted only to those who wrote the bible. That serves to undermine any authority that text might pretend to over other texts. Making Zarathustra ridiculous is part of that purpose; Nietzsche is a subtle and confident enough philosopher to allow his most important principles to be voiced by an occasionally ridiculous figure.

Magnus points out46 that there is also a suasive significance to the Doctrine. Nietzsche has chosen its characteristics to capture some of the appeal of some religious notions. Nietzsche opposes religious motivation to seek an otherworldly – or indeed, any external – source of values. He is aware though of the power of eternity, and how much has been wrought upon humans by the fear of eternal damnation, a thought so terrible that even those who do not fully believe in it are nevertheless affected by it. On this plausible view, the Doctrine replaces a religious picture of an eternal afterlife and is intended to be as significant in the current world as that sort of world-view has been.

For all of these reasons, we must allow that Nietzsche is indeed serious about the Doctrine. By ‘serious’, I mean that he thinks it is an important notion, even if he may not think in fact that everything really returns. Therefore any links from the Doctrine to memory typology will support my general claim that memory typology is significant in Nietzsche’s writings. I will outline those links in §3.2.3, but since the explanation will also involve the Übermensch, I must first outline that topic.

3.2.2 The Übermensch

I will show in §3.2.3 how we need the memory typology to come to terms with the Doctrine and the Übermensch, for several reasons. There is an immediate question as to how, if everything returns, we cannot remember it. Also, memory is in fact the test of becoming the Übermensch who can use memory ‘in both directions’. This use of Active Memory allows the Übermensch to become maximally affirmative, an important test of value for Nietzsche. There are also important points to make about memory and transitions that Nietzsche describes in Z on the way to the Übermensch via camels, lions and the child. Before turning to these memory-related aspects, I will in this section briefly outline the relevant aspects of the Übermensch for our purposes.

Everything great must overcome itself, or seek to improve itself so far that we might say that the original no longer exists. The Übermensch is one of Nietzsche’s ideals in that “[m]an is something that should be overcome”47 and the Übermensch is what would result if man were able to overcome himself. Man is then a transitional state between the lower and the higher: he is “a rope, fastened between animal and Übermensch”.48 This is confirmation that the Übermensch is one of Nietzsche’s valued ideal types. The Übermensch is a product of Nietzsche’s view that all of the value of humans resides in its most successful specimens; in contrast to democratic or egalitarian views.

The Übermensch is no more easy to accept than the Doctrine of which he is the herald. The difficulty would lie in the decadence of our values and the radical difference of the values that the Übermensch would bring – and also the requirement to set our own values. Nietzsche writes that our souls “are so unfamiliar with what is great that the Übermensch would be fearful to [us] in his goodness!”.49 Note that it is his goodness, not ours.

Nietzsche’s central ethical project is the revaluation of all values. The Übermensch is able to complete this revaluation because he is able to set his own values. Nietzsche gives us a list50 of generally held values – reason, justice, virtue, pity – which he finds questionable. The Übermensch is described as the “lightning” and the “madness”51 that will inoculate against these unhealthy values. The Übermensch is able to set his own values because the Übermensch has gone beyond ordinary human weakness, and one form of that overcoming will be in having overcome the lack of autonomy in setting of values.

Stern plausibly suggests52 that Nietzsche sees our values as dependent on our contexts. Then, the Übermensch is able to overcome standard values by being the ‘child’ in Nietzsche’s three metamorphoses in Z from camel to lion to child. The camel bears existing values like a burden; the lion has the strength to deny existing values; but only the child/Übermensch can set new values. The importance of the link between the child and the Übermensch will be illustrated in the next section.

As discussed above, Nietzsche considers the Doctrine as providing a kind of test of the strength of an individual – one who can will to accept and affirm the Doctrine is a strong individual. The Übermensch is one of those who can so affirm the Doctrine. We see an immediate link between one purpose of the Doctrine and the Übermensch via values. This call to avoid looking to external sources – religion, society, customary morality – for the ‘value of values’ is Nietzsche’s central ethical project. This ‘this- worldly’ nature of the Doctrine shows how it is concerned with the call not to look outside for the source of values. The ability to affirm the Doctrine is the hallmark of the Übermensch and is the key to a successful revaluation of all values.

3.2.3 Importance Of Memory

An understanding of Nietzsche’s pluralistic conception of memory, I propose, is crucial to a full understanding of the Doctrine, which itself is central to his ethical project aimed at the revaluation of all values. The Übermensch is also closely involved here.

Loeb argues53 that the paired concepts of memory and humanity are to be regarded as ‘pre-emptively superseded’ by the concepts of the Doctrine and the Übermensch. The point is that Nietzsche writes Z before BGE and GM, and yet the analyses in those latter works are intended to lead (back) to the views expressed in Z. Zarathustra’s call at the beginning of Z is for the Übermensch to emerge from humanity as humanity emerged from animals, with memory playing a key role in both transitions.

One of several difficulties in accepting the Doctrine lies with memory: if it is true that we have all lived our lives an infinite number of times, we should be able to remember that. Commentators divide at this point. Some adopt54 the expedient of limiting the function of individual memory to each cycle within eternal recurrence, but that approach does suggest a difficult objection. We need to know how we can say the separate occurrences of an individual within each cycle are in fact the same individual in a meaningful sense, if common memory does not link those individuals.

One way would be to say that the lives can be identical even if they have no memories shared between them. Other commentators avoid55 this problem on the other hand by arguing for a more complex ‘self-cancellation’ of memory to produce a special type of forgetfulness. Memory must be turned against memory to produce what Zarathustra terms freedom and innocence. This view makes for a more comprehensible reading; and it requires there to be multiple types of memory because we cannot easily see how a single type could cancel itself. In fact, the view is the claim that Active Memory cancels out Passive Memory.

We defined Active Memory as being chosen and activity promoting – i.e. approximately the inverse of Passive Memory – on p. 21. This self-cancellation must be active since it is both internally chosen and not inhibitory: far from it, since freedom is paired with the resulting ‘innocence’, and freedom must mean freedom to act.

One question at this point might be as to how life can be identical if memory does indeed function across cycles. The solution is that ordinary humans cannot recover the memory of previous lives without becoming the Übermensch, for passing this test is definitional of being that entity. There the problem is solved because we know that Zarathustra, who envisions becoming the Übermensch, can use memory in ‘both directions’, as I will outline below.

We see a link between memory and the Doctrine when we examine what Zarathustra says on the topic of memory. He is asked why he said that the poets lie too much. He responds:

“I am not one of those who may be questioned about their Why. Do my experiences date from yesterday? It is a long time since I experienced the reasons for my opinions. Should I not have to be a barrel of memory, if I also wanted to carry my reasons, too, about with me?”56

Zarathustra is himself one of these poets, so the message here is that he is not to be taken as a source of values, because that would again fall into the religious trap of seeking values externally to ourselves. Both Zarathustra and Nietzsche claimed that they did not want disciples – this is not to be understood as meaning that they wish their works to be ignored, but that neither claim to be a source of values and that neither could be is the key message. We must make our own values. Also note how Zarathustra is using Active Memory in that he is deciding on what its contents shall be with a view to his aims.

His opinions are important – they are what will take him forward and make him active. He does not also need to use memory to store the reasons for his opinions. We would disagree with that, but that is because we have more Passive Memory and do not believe we have much control over what is stored there. We also feel we will constantly need to justify our opinions to others, and so being able to recall the reasons for them would be important. That type of herd behaviour is deprecated by Nietzsche.

It was mentioned above – p. 55 – how the Übermensch is represented by the child in Nietzsche’s three Z transitions, and how Nietzsche sees our values as context- dependent. This is important because of what is said about the child. It is “innocence and forgetfulness, a new beginning”.57 This is a link between the U ̈bermensch and the Active Forgetfulness that we saw as a feature of Active Memory on p. 22. Stern argues58 that the

“child spirit can create freely because it is forgetful: it has forgotten the context which would otherwise determine its values”.

The Übermensch is both free from the past and free to affirm the past as a result of Active Memory. We know that the Übermensch is active and affirmative because the child is a “self-propelling wheel” and “a sacred Yes”.59

Stern points out60 a potential conflict between the concept of the Übermensch and the Doctrine which bears on memory. The conflict is that those accepting the Doctrine must affirm all of the past to pass the test. Moreover this must be done on a specific basis i.e. each event in the past must be affirmed. This requires having a memory of each past event so that it can be affirmed. But we have just agreed that the Übermensch possesses forgetfulness.

So the Übermensch would not be able to remember each event, would not be able to affirm it, and would not be able to accept the Doctrine. Thus we have an apparent contradiction in Nietzsche’s views between Zarathustra’s hopes for the Übermensch and the Eternal Recurrence test. We can resolve this by recalling that the forgetfulness of the Übermensch is actually Active Forgetfulness, which as we discussed on p. 22 is actually a facet of Active Memory. This means that there is a choice made in Active Memory about what exactly to forget. It is also available to the possessor of Active Memory to decide when to actively forget it.

This must be the case if Active Memory is to be as useful for action as Nietzsche thinks it is. Thus, a process is possible whereby an event is recalled in Active Memory, it is affirmed, and then it is forgotten. The event itself need not be recalled once it has been affirmed; it must just be clear that it has been affirmed. It can then safely be forgotten because it has been dealt with – inpsychated, incorporated, digested, we might say . . .

Once memory has been acquired by humans, they are forced to recognise their lack of power: we cannot change the past; but memory can be used against itself to achieve a ‘second innocence.’ Loeb argues61 for this as above by noting that Zarathustra equates innocence with affirmation and forgetting. What has been forgotten cannot be affirmed unless it has first been remembered; this will then allow it to be properly, deeply forgotten.

This makes sense if we understand it as being the use of Active Memory against Passive Memory. The second innocence is distinguished from a first innocence in that the latter is the innocence of the young, merely a polite term for ignorance. The second innocence results from an active choice of what is to be retained and what to be eliminated as superfluous. We may associate the strength to perform this active choosing, to permit the dominance of Active Memory with the Übermensch. Weaker humans allow themselves to be driven into neurotic, self-harming behaviour through their domination by Passive Memory.

We are enjoined to “unfix” the past via the Doctrine, and avoid the tyranny of the ‘it was’. Under the Doctrine, with its infinite repetition of cycles, the past is as much the future. On perfecting faculties of memory and bad conscience, the human will becomes imprisoned by the new knowledge that the past is unchangeable and beyond the reach of the will. The solution is the affirming approach of the Doctrine: we cannot now avoid memory and the knowledge that the will cannot change the past so we must instead will the past. The Doctrine is merely the expression of this affirmation to a higher power – not only the affirmation of the past once as it was, but the same past an infinite number of times. Thus the Doctrine becomes the solution to the problem posed by memory and solves it many times over at once.

Loeb describes62 memory as the “messenger” of the Doctrine. Memory bears the news of the Doctrine to those strong enough to cope with the recovered memory of an infinite number of identical lives. Zarathustra’s Active Memory allows him to ‘live’ in the future. This means that under the Doctrine, the future is as much the past because it is merely the latter part of the previous cycle, and vice versa: from this point, the past will also be the future because the past part of this cycle will be the earlier part of the next cycle. Zarathustra is enabled to see this by the power of his memory, which recovers the past completely enough to also uncover the Eternal Recurrence. So we cannot allow that Zarathustra has much Passive Memory.

In sum, Zarathustra and the Übermensch will be dominant users of Active Memory and therefore active and creative. This is what is also recommended for us: if we had the strength to affirm everything that has happened to the maximum possible extent; we would have become active with respect to everything that has occurred; to everything that will occur, which is the same thing; we would have become the Übermensch.

Staten argues63 that this identification should be made by noting that saying yes to an event is becoming active with respect to it. Thus Active Memory will be involved in such affirmation, as the store of events to be affirmed and as the store of the act of affirmation.

Bertram observes64 that Zarathustra has the longest will and the longest memory, which distinctions enable him to affirm more of the past – and the future, if Zarathustra also becomes the Übermensch. The Übermensch is the ultimately positively evaluated being because he is able through the Doctrine Of Eternal Recurrence to use Active Memory to become active and affirmative in relation to all events at all times.


1Nietzsche BT [44, p. 4].
2Nietzsche BT [44, p. 8].
3Nietzsche BT [44, p. 40].

4Nietzsche BT [44, p. 17].
5Nietzsche BT [44, p. 44].
6Nietzsche BT [44, p. 14].
7Nietzsche BT [44, p. 19].
8Schopenhauer [45].

9Nietzsche BT [44, p. 36].
10Nietzsche BT [44, p. 19].
11Nietzsche BT [44, p. 17].
12Nietzsche BT [44, p. 40].

13Nietzsche BT [44, p. 43].
14Nietzsche BT [44, p. 40].
15Nietzsche BT [44, p. 40].

16Nehamas [47, passim].
17Nietzsche BT [44, p. 6].
18Nietzsche BT [44, p. 32].
19Nietzsche BT [44, p. 115].

20Nietzsche KSA [3, NF – 1888, 16(40)]. Nachlaß, my translation.
21Winfree [48, p. 60].

22Winfree [48, p. 60].
23Kaufmann [7, p. 143].
24Kaufmann [7, p. 153].

25Acampora [24, p. 159].
26Acampora [24, p. 159].
27Gambino [49, p. 420].
28Gambino [49, p. 421].
29Gambino holds that the type of memory imposed is a collective type, but I will deny in Chapter 4 that Nietzsche recognises such a type.
30Gambino [49, p. 429].

31Thomas [50, p. 123].
32Plato [51, p. 56].
33Plato [51, p. 57].
34Plato [51, p. 90].
35Wollheim [18, p. 227].

36Poole [28, p. 270].
37Nietzsche GS [20, §289].
38Nietzsche GS [20, §341].
39Wicks [52, §3].

40Nietzsche Z [53, p. 178].
41Nietzsche Z [53, p. 236].
42Magnus [54, p. 605].
43Nietzsche Z [53, p. 178].
44Magnus [54, p. 604].
45Loeb [27, p. 70].

46Magnus [54, p. 616].

47Nietzsche Z [53, p. 40].
48Nietzsche Z [53, p. 43].
49Nietzsche Z [53, p. 43].
50Nietzsche Z [53, p. 43].
51Nietzsche Z [53, p. 43].
52Stern [55, p. 305].

53Loeb [27, p. 76].
54For example, Magnus [54, p. 611].
55For example, Loeb [27, p. 83].

56Nietzsche Z [53, p. 149].
57Nietzsche Z [53, p. 55].

58Stern [55, p. 307].
59Nietzsche Z [53, p. 55].
60Stern [55, p. 309].
61Loeb [27, p. 83].

62Loeb [27, p. 86].
63Staten [26, p. 88].
64Bertram [12, p. 35].

Next Chapter: Does Nietzsche Support A Collective Memory Type?

By Tim Short

I am a former investment banking and securitisation specialist, having spent nearly a decade on the trading floor of several international investment banks. Throughout my career, I worked closely with syndicate/traders in order to establish the types of paper which would trade well and gained significant and broad experience in financial markets.
Many people have trading experience similar to the above. What marks me out is what I did next. I decided to pursue my interest in philosophy at Doctoral level, specialising in the psychology of how we predict and explain the behaviour of others, and in particular, the errors or biases we are prone to in that process. I have used my experience to write The Psychology of Successful Trading. In this book, I combine the above experience and knowledge to show how biases can lead to inaccurate predictions of the behaviour of other market participants, and how remedying those biases can lead to better predictions and major profits. Learn more on the About Me page.

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