How to Test Whether Life is Worth Living (Test Two: The Recurrence Test)

In part one, I went through Smuts’ article on certain tests on what makes life worth living. I went through Camus’ Suicide Test and showed Smut’s argument on why it fails.

In this post, I’ll look into the second test from Smuts: The Recurrence Test from Schopenhauer and Nietzsche.


To start, Schopenhauer has a pessimistic view of the world: it’s better to have never existed in the first place.  Anyone who looks at the realities of the world would see that one would not want to live again if one had the opportunity:

No man, if he be sincere and at the same time in possession of his faculties, will ever wish to go through it [life] again. Rather than this, he will much prefer to choose complete non-existence. The essential purport of the world-famous monologue in Hamlet is, in condensed form, that our state is so wretched that complete non-existence would be decidedly preferable to it. (The World as Will and Representation, Vol. 1, p. 324)

For Nietzsche, he uses what is famously known as the “eternal recurrence” passage as a test to see if life is worth living:

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 life 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!” (The Gay Science, Section 341)

We can easily gather two principles from Nietzsche’s prescription, namely that life is worth living if one would choose to live it again.

Weak Recurrence Test: Life is worth living for a person iff that person should will to live an intrinsically qualitatively identical life over again.

According to this test, if one is willing to live life L1, then one is willing to live life L2.  Moreover, L1 and L2 are qualitatively identical.  Since it would have the same qualitative life, the only difference is that L2 comes after L1.  Thus, it would be weird to say that L1 is worth living but L2 is not.  However, we run into a problem.

Problem: If L1 is worth living, then L2 is worth living.  Moreover, if L2 is worth living, then L3 is worth living since according to the weak test, one is willing to live it again.  And if L3 is worth living, then L4 is worth living.  And so on.  There is no way to stop this regress; thus one must be willing to live this life for eternity.  Let’s move to the next test.

Strong Recurrence Test: Life is worth living for a person iff that person should will to live an intrinsically qualitatively identical life over and over again eternally.

Problem 1: Just because a life is worth living, it doesn’t follow that we’d want to repeat it.  I  don’t mind running in place on the treadmill, but not forever.  Likewise, we may not want to repeat our lives (even a worthy life) indefinitely.  Imagine that you could live forever.  While you may take advantage of gaining new knowledge and experiences, it seems that the worth of such a life is diminished because it wouldn’t end.  Suppose you wrote a great story that has a lot of worth, but you constantly have amnesia and so you write the story again indefinitely.  Overtime, writing the story for the 100th time just seems to have less of an accomplishment.  Writing it the first time, however, makes the accomplishment and worth greater.

Problem 2: Another problem has to do with the worth of L1 and L2.  Suppose that L1 is barely worth living, but it doesn’t cross the threshold to repeat it to have another life, L2.  Thus, L1 may be worth living, but a person may not will to live it over again since L2 may not be worth living.

Problem 3: Finally, the last problem deals with past lives: we wouldn’t remember them according to Nietzsche’s hypothesis.  Would our lives be the same?  Is L1 really the same as L2?  Here we reach a dilemma:

Dilemma 1: If we can remember our previous lives, then L2 is not qualitatively identical as L1 and so the recurrence test isn’t really a recurrence, but more of a eternal reliving.  If so, then we fall back into problem 2 that eternally living seems to lose its luster, and the worth of a life diminishes.  Moreover, if I’m just reliving my life repeatedly and I can’t change it, and I know what’s going to happen next, then this doesn’t seem to be worth it.  In fact, it would just be maddening to repeat my life again and again for all eternity knowing what I’d do next for all eternity.  It’d be like Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day, except you don’t escape it.  That doesn’t seem to be a life worth living.

Dilemma 2: If we can’t remember our previous lives, then why do I care what happens to me in L2?  Indeed, is it really me?  In fact, suppose that this life I’m living is L1, but what if it was L2, L5, L234, or L235,343?  Either way, I can’t remember my previous lives, nor my future lives.  Why would I care about my previous lives or my future lives if I can’t remember it?

As a way to push this idea, imagine Bill Murray’s character (and everyone else) in Groundhog Day reliving their lives but no one remembers reliving it.  Everything is exactly the same, and they don’t know that they’re repeating lives.  My intuitions tell me that they wouldn’t care about their previous lives (nor their future lives if somehow they gained knowledge of their future lives).

While I see Smuts’ motivation, I would like to offer another interpretation of Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence and see how Smuts would respond.

What if the eternal recurrence was a test of your yes-saying?  Would you say Yes! even to everything in the world around you?  In other words, this eternal recurrence is a trial of strength. If you can say yes to this, then you’re a strong person.  We should strive to make each moment of life one that we would want to repeat over and over again for eternity.  Not literally, but a way where you live L1 and live it as if you would want to live it for eternity.  If you can’t see yourself doing that activity for eternality, then change it!  This is the test then: esteem your life, as you are living it right now. Would you be willing to relive it for eternity, or are there some things that you want changed?  

There have been many moments in our lives where we go through mundane and boring moments in our lives.  We may say to ourselves, “man, I wish I was doing something else, like skiing or surfing the waves somewhere.  Anywhere but here.”  These fantasies might be consoling to us, but we invent them only because we can’t bear that this is all there is.  By having these fantasies, they are just that: fantasies.  We don’t do anything to make these fantasies come true.  Thus, our fantasies are signs of weakness.  This whole thing means that Nietzsche is challenging us to something simple, but at the same time not easy:  Make this fantasy a reality.  Imagine repeating your life in every single detail—including these boring moments—and how much of it you could bear.  And because you must say Yes! to life, any resentment, remorse, and regrets suggests that you are unwilling to live your life again, exactly as it has been.

In short, then, we live our lives as if we could live it eternally, and if we can’t imagine it, nor would we want to live our life for eternity, then we must change our life so that we could say Yes and then will to live for eternity, even metaphorically.

I could imagine Smuts responding like this.  Even if this is true, this is using the eternal recurrence as a motivation to describe a worthy life.  Thus, this may be a starting point of a worthy life.  However, the project was to test what makes a life worth living, not to find the criterion or a test on what a worthy life is.

Fair enough!  Again, as before, I think that these tests that Smuts puts forward motivates one to find criterion for a worthy life, even if using that worth as a test to make life worth living doesn’t work.

In the next post, I will look at Smuts’ next test: Cicero’s and Hume’s Extra Life Test.

About shaunmiller

I have just completed a visiting position as an assistant professor at Dalhousie University. My ideas are not associated with my employer; they are expressions of my own thoughts and ideas. Some of them are just musings while others could be serious discussions that could turn into a bigger project. Besides philosophy, I enjoy martial arts (Kuk Sool Won), playing my violin, enjoying coffee around town, and experimenting with new food.
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3 Responses to How to Test Whether Life is Worth Living (Test Two: The Recurrence Test)

  1. Pingback: How to Test Whether Life is Worth Living (Test Three: The Extra Life Test) | Shaun Miller's Ideas

  2. Pingback: How to Test Whether Life is Worth Living (Test Four: Preferring Not to Have Been Born Test) | Shaun Miller's Ideas

  3. Pingback: How to Test Whether Life is Worth Living (Test Five: Pre-existence Test) Along with Objections, and Conclusion | Shaun Miller's Ideas

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