Friedrich Nietzsche: Saying, “yes, yes!, YES!!” to Your Life
“Toti se inserens mundo” is how Seneca described someone who lives life to its fullest (Ad Lucilium Epistulae Morales Letter 66). Pierre Hadot analyzed this passage from Seneca and translated this phrase as “plunging oneself into the totality of the world” which meant “to go beyond the self, and think and act in unison with universal reason” (Hadot 207-208). In a sense, this is a challenge and a call to the individual who would strive in life, to feel the anxiety and challenge of living the best life he can, and not be timid, but “out of joy [plunges his soul] into chance” (Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra 167). Nietzsche contends that this striving to overcome all is at the root of every human’s desire and is the will to power. He further offers a tantalizing thought experiment, known as the eternal recurrence, which the individual can use to spur himself to constantly question if he is living the best life. If the individual can exclaim “yes” to his fate and his challenges in life, time and time again, then he is overcoming all and exerting his will to power. As Nietzsche writes in The Gay Science, “all in all and on the whole: some day I want only to be a Yes-sayer!” (157).
The concept of the will to power certainly is varied and complex. But there is one thread which is woven throughout Nietzsche’s works: the power to overcome – to exert one’s will. One scholar of Nietzschean philosophy cites The Anti-Christ in explaining what is good or bad in Nietzsche’s philosophy. “What is good?—All that heightens the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself in man. What is bad?—All that proceeds from weakness. What is happiness?—The feeling that power increases—that a resistance is overcome.” (Wilkerson).
The author further explains that exerting one’s will to overcome is as much an effort at self-mastery and is a matter of who the individual obeys and to whom he listens. If one can command oneself, then one exerts his will to power (Wilkerson). This concept of self-mastery is further bolstered by Nietzsche’s ideas on “strict schooling at the proper time” (Nietzsche The Will to Power 516). He is a proponent of a strict education, but also notes that without it, some men are still fortunate to have the school of hard knocks teach them in “the form of a long, lingering illness, which demands the utmost will-power and self-sufficiency; or in the form of a calamity which suddenly befalls him and his wife and child at the same time, forcing him to take action in such a way as to restore his energy and resilience, strengthening his 'moral' fibre and his will to live” (516). In sum, the common theme in the will to power is the idea of the individual assuming radical self-discipline, “to be capable at any time of taking the lead; to prefer danger to comfort,” to say “yes” to any trial or challenge life throws at him and to be the one who both commands himself and obeys himself (516). And while the individual’s will to power relies on self-mastery, one must also recognize his place in the world, a place which Nietzsche calls “a monster of energy, without beginning or end” (585).
This world, according to Nietzsche, waxes and wanes and is “forever changing, forever rolling back, with enormous periods of recurrence” and eternally self-creates and self-destroys and “has no aim if it does not lie in the happiness of the circle” (585). He concludes this passage by explicitly stating “This world is the will to power – and nothing besides! And even you yourselves are this will to power – and nothing besides!” (586). The eternal recurrence is another topic intertwined throughout Nietzsche’s philosophy. In the preceding passage, he connects the idea of the will to power for the individual with the will to power for the world. On another occasion, he uses the idea of eternal recurrence to prod the individual to question whether he is using his will to power to create the best life possible for himself.
Nietzsche describes the “idea of eternal recurrence” as “the highest formula of affirmation that can possibly be attained” (Stolz 188). As described in The Gay Science, he asks the reader to imagine a demon confronting him with the proposition of living his life repeatedly for eternity, in all aspects – “every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unspeakably small or great … in the same succession and sequence” (Nietzsche 194). What would his reaction be? Would he exclaim “Yes!” or would he be “crushed” by the thought (194)? The experiment and one’s reaction to it is meant to spur one to action and evaluate their state of life to the point of affirming they love their life or to the point of making profound changes.
The thought experiment of eternal recurrence is meant to be “the great cultivating thought” which reveals “’what one is’ now (being), and who they could become (becoming)” (Stolz 192). It is meant to be a “weapon” or “hammer” to crack open the shell of the individual raised in “the herd animal status quo” and prompts them to “become strong in character through the revaluation of all values” (192, 197, 193). Much of this work ought to be developed “in a state of solitude” precisely in order to unlearn what one has been taught in school systems and colleges or “sites of student conformity into animal consciousness” (196, 198). Furthermore, as one repeats this thought experiment often through their life, they must apply discerning self-inspection, heeding how they feel about their character, and then committing to discard undesirable qualities and vowing to enhance those they wish to strengthen (195). Through a life-long process, their life becomes a “singular work of immortal art” as a “plan to express their superiority” (194). Their lived philosophy turns into a “YES!!” in response to fate.
In conclusion, Nietzsche contends that striving to overcome all is at the root of every human’s desire and is the will to power. He further offers a provocative thought experiment, known as the eternal recurrence, with which the individual spurs himself to constantly question if he is living the best life. If the individual can exclaim “yes” to his fate and his challenges in life, time and time again, then he is overcoming all and exerting his will to power. He can confidently judge his life thus:
“Have you ever said Yes to one joy? Oh my friends, then you also said Yes to all pain. All things are enchained, entwined, enamored -
– if you ever wanted one time two times, if you ever said ‘I like you, happiness! Whoosh! Moment!’ then you wanted everything back!
– Everything anew, everything eternal, everything enchained, entwined, enamored, oh thus you loved the world –
– you eternal ones, love it eternally and for all time; and say to pain also: refrain, but come back! For all joy wants – eternity!” (Nietzsche Thus Spoke Zarathustra 263).
Hadot, Pierre. Philosophy as a Way of Life : Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault. Edited by Arnold I Davidson, Translated by Michael Chase, Blackwell Publishing, 2017.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Gay Science. Edited by Bernard Williams, Translated by Josefine Nauckhoff, Cambridge University Press, 2001.
---. The Will to Power : Selections from the Notebooks of the 1880s. Translated by R Kevin Hill and Michael A Scarpitti, Penguin Books, 2017.
--. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Translated by Adrian Del Caro, Cambridge University Press, 2006.
Seneca. “Ad Lucilium Epistulae Morales.” Artflsrv03.Uchicago.edu (PhiloLogic4), University of Chicago, artflsrv03.uchicago.edu/philologic4/Latin/navigate/249/7/4/. Accessed 17 June 2023.
Stolz, Steven A. “Nietzsche, Eternal Recurrence and Education: The Role of the Great Cultivating Thought in the Art of Self‐Cultivation (Bildung).” Journal of Philosophy of Education, vol. 55, no. 1, 2021, pp. 186–203, https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9752.12488.
Wilkerson, Dale. “Nietzsche, Friedrich | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, iep.utm.edu/nietzsch/.