Don’t get me wrong; I’m convinced of the eternal return of the same. I’ve been obsessed with the idea for years. As the concept asserts—at least in Nietzsche’s formulation—history not only repeats itself within a timeframe perceptible by humans, but our exact living conditions repeat, just as they are now, again and again, as the implausible conditions that brought us about are cosmologically inevitable to repeat given a long enough timeline.
It makes my head hurt, too.
In my reading of Thus Spoke Zarathustra and The Gay Science, Nietzsche’s concept of the eternal return of the same is an admission that, in order to avoid nihilism, one must not just accept, but affirm life’s most treacherous and painful moments. And be willing to relive them over and over again.
The Soul of America
From what I can tell, the “soul of America” is aggressive individualism, conspicuous consumption, and the pursuit of personal wealth at all costs. That seems to be the thread, and it’s led us to mass extinctions and, perhaps, an uninhabitable earth.
Jon Meacham, Pulitzer Prize winning author, has recorded significant portions of our country’s history, albeit focused on those in power and not as often those who deal with the consequences of that power, nor the impact of that history on climate.
Meacham’s The Soul of America: The Battle for our Better Angels bears a hopeful description: “Our current climate of partisan fury is not new, and in The Soul of America Meacham shows us how what Abraham Lincoln called ‘the better angels of our nature’ have repeatedly won the day.”
Have they? And how significant is “winning the day” if we regress decades later?
Meacham acknowledges this regression in his conclusion, writing, “A tragic element of history is that every advance must contend with forces of reaction.” Tragic, indeed.
He doubles down a few pages later:
The only way to make sense of this eternal struggle is to understand that it is just that: an eternal struggle.
In the same paragraph, Meacham quotes President Harry Truman:
The next generation never learns anything from the previous one until it’s brought home with a hammer.
Sounds right. But not comforting.
What is progress?
All of this leads us to an important question: how do we define progress, and what should we expect from progress?
Meacham writes, “In the main, the America of the twenty-first century is, for all its shortcomings, freer and more accepting than it has ever been.”
In some ways, I get it. Presidents and leaders of political and social movements—such as Martin Luther King, Jr.—are no longer assassinated on a regular basis. A Lincoln, JFK, or MLK assassination seems nearly impossible now. I suppose that’s progress.
Progress seems possible, except in reality we’ve simply relocated the venues and victims of such murders to schools, shopping malls (my wife was present for a shooting here in Oregon), and other public spaces, and we seem to have no way to prevent these shootings, and no political will to address the most obvious political problem: there are more guns than people in the United States.
Have we made progress? I don’t think we have. Any political stability we have left is contingent on our economic security, which is itself contingent on the stability of our markets and the resiliency of our environment. Relying on either of those is a dangerous gamble, the latter especially, as we inherit the consequences of our inaction.
What is progress, then? How do we measure it? Is the world truly better now than it has been throughout history? In the U.S., life expectancy continues to decline and climate change threatens mass extinction and the foundations of human civilization.
So, am I comforted by the fact that, as our nation turned to its worst impulses in response to economic and climatic pressures, it’s happened in some form before?
Unfortunately, I am not comforted.