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Eternal Recurrence

By Matthew Yglesias  

"Eternal Recurrence"

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I mentioned David Brook’s column this week on what makes people happy in order to pound my hobbyhorse about congestion pricing, but as Emily Yoffe brings out his post was actually about something else:

I flunked David Brooks’ test today on whether, if I were Sandra Bullock, I’d rather have that Oscar or have my husband back. I immediately went for the Oscar, which means, according to Brooks, I am “absolutely crazy.” He says an Oscar may signal having arrived at the top of one’s profession, but everyone knows a successful marriage translates into deep, enduring happiness. The reason I chose the Oscar is that if I actually were Sandra Bullock, it would mean that I had chosen to marry a sleazeball. Given that, it would be inevitable he would cheat, so the Oscar seemed more enduring.

You can also see some thoughts on this from Jill Filipovic that are worth considering.

But I think another issue here that Brooks is papering over is what Nietzsche drives at in his “eternal recurrence” thought experiment:

What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your live will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence–even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!” Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: “You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.” If this thought gained possession of you, it would change you as you are, or perhaps crush you.

One of the things this highlights is that there’s more to life than being happy. There’s something to be said for extraordinary achievement as a goal apart from its hedonic value, and there’s something a bit perverse about the idea of saying that Tolstoy shouldn’t have wasted so much time working on Anna Karenina because at the end of the day having a warm relationship with your kids is more conducive to happiness than producing a literary classic. Quality time with the family doesn’t meet the eternal recurrence test, achieving preeminence in your field perhaps does.

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