Philosophy for medical students – Part I: Nietzsche and the Life Recurrent

Nietzche_Placebo Blog 1-7

Written by Shan Leung, Photograph by Aixin Liu

Philosophy for medical students – Part I

This entry is the first in a four part series that will explore the value of philosophy to medical students, using the works of specific philosophers as examples. It will aim to be equal parts thought-provoking, accessible and concise.

Nietzsche and the Life Recurrent:

Your whole life, like a sandglass, will always be reversed and will ever run out again …. And then you will find every pain and every pleasure, every friend and every enemy, every hope and every error, every blade of grass and every ray of sunshine once more.”

  • Nietzsche, Notes on the Eternal Recurrence

The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche lived a relatively short life, from the end of the Industrial Revolution to the turn of the 20th century. He was a contemporary to the likes of Louis Pasteur and Marie Curie, and a former friend to Richard Wagner. Nietzsche’s writings are notable for their quotable phrases and impassioned style.

A key element of Nietzsche’s philosophy is eternal recurrence: the belief that every moment in the universe repeats itself an infinite number of times. Nietzsche may predicate this belief on the idea that there are only a finite number of atoms in the universe. If there are only a finite number of atoms in the universe, then there are only a finite number of forms those atoms can take. And, given infinite time, each form will come again.

If this confuses you, picture yourself in front of a pack of cards numbered sequentially from one to five. Each time you shuffle and deal out this pack, there are more than hundred possible outcomes. The first time you shuffle and deal out this pack, the cards might present as 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. The second time you shuffle and deal out this pack, the cards might present as 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. The third time you shuffle and deal out this pack, the cards might present as 3, 1, 5, 4, 2. Given infinite time, however, even a small probability becomes an absolute certainty. If you shuffled and dealt out the deck an infinite number of times, you would produce every possible combination an infinite number of times.

So, where does that leave us?

If each moment in the universe recurs eternally, then each moment becomes instilled with new importance. It is not enough to say, “this too shall pass,” when every instant will be relived forever. Nietzsche’s challenge for us is to live in such a way that we can embrace this fate – embrace each moment as worthy of eternal recurrence.

And what should medical students take from this? Simply put, in the pursuit of medical school, many of us have lived “no” lives.

No, I cannot go out tonight.”

No, I cannot have a relationship right now.”

No, I cannot start a new hobby.”

No, I cannot learn a new skill.”

But if we live in a universe where every moment repeats indefinitely, we cannot afford to be so complacent. We must take the time to provide a firm, Nietzschean “yes!”

1 thought on “Philosophy for medical students – Part I: Nietzsche and the Life Recurrent”

  1. I enjoyed this post and especially the analogy to dealing out five cards an infinite number of times. But the part about diminishing the value of the phrase “this too shall pass” I somewhat disagree with… I actually think that it carries more merit to it if the universe we live in is identical to the one described by Nietzsche.

    Maybe it is a matter of misunderstanding the meaning behind the saying, but to me “this too shall pass” is meant to emphasize the importance of dealing constructively with difficult situations. If we accept that every possible outcome to a situation will occur an infinite number of times, then I would argue that it is important for one to remember the relative insignificance of the outcome being experienced in one’s reality if it is unpleasant. I think that keeping this schema in mind would provide a method (albeit somewhat abstract) for the Nietzschean thinker to deal with stressful situations… Such as studying for a particularly loaded CAE 🙂

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