Todd May in the New York Times:
How do we relate to our past, and what might this tell us about how to relate to our future? One of the most provocative approaches to this question comes from Friedrich Nietzsche, whose doctrine of the eternal return asks this: “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’”? To ask myself the question of the eternal return is to wonder about the worth of what I have done, to inquire whether it would stand the test of being done innumerable times again.
There is, however, a more disturbing worry underneath this one. For me to be able to ask the question of the eternal return already supposes that I have come into existence; and the question may arise of whether I should affirm the conditions that brought me into existence, not innumerable times but even once. To see the bite of this worry, let me share a bit of my own past. Had Hitler not come to power in Germany, the Holocaust and World War II would not have happened. Had World War II not have happened, my father would not have signed up for officer’s training school. Had he not signed up, he would not have gone to college, majored in economics, and then moved to New York for a job. And so he would not have met my mother. In short, without the Holocaust I would not be here.
We need not look very deeply to see how many people’s existence requires the occurrence of the Holocaust. And as Peter Atterton has argued recentlyhere, all of us can trace our existence back to some mass atrocity or another (if not the Holocaust, then perhaps to slavery or to the Crusades).
How, then, might we relate to the past, and specifically to the fact that we owe our existence to one or another historical atrocity (or, for that matter, to a host of other events: weather patterns, feelings of lust, etc.)?