From the G-File on The Dispatch
It’s Groundhog Day!
Though, for most of you, it won’t be by the time you read this—unless today repeats itself on an endlessly recurring loop.
Which reminds me, 19 years ago, I wrote an essay for National Review about what I still consider to be one of the greatest movies ever made. Whatever you think about my argument, it’s definitely one of those pieces that I am most associated with among longtime readers. And I’m good with that. It’d definitely make that “Best of” anthology that I will probably never get around to putting together.
Nietzsche again, and again, and again …
There’s no point in rehashing what I already wrote. But it’s a good “news” peg for this “news”letter. I’ve been on a bit of Nietzsche kick lately. So it’s serendipitous that today is Groundhog Day given that the movie—not the “holiday”—is one of the best expressions of one of Nietzsche’s central ideas: Eternal recurrence—or eternal return of the same. Nietzsche didn’t invent the idea, but he really made it his own.
It first comes up as a thought experiment (and I would argue it remained one). In the Gay Science, Nietzsche asks what your reaction would be if, at the moment of your “loneliest loneliness,” a demon informed you that you’d repeat your life all over again the exact same way. Would you consider it a blessing or a curse? That’s a paraphrase, you can find the whole passage here (Section 341).
The idea gets most fully fleshed out in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, but you get it. It’s tied up with Nietzsche’s understanding of amor fati—love of fate, or more accurately, love of your fate. As he writes in Ecce Homo: “My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it—all idealism is mendacity in the face of what is necessary—but love it.”
Now I have my quibbles about what Nietzsche is saying—or what I think he’s saying. Specifically, I think that bit about idealism being mendacity in the face of necessity strikes a slightly false note, depending on how you read it. But heck, Nietzsche scholars—and I am not one!—have different takes on all of this stuff so I have no problem admitting that my reading could be a misreading of what he intended. That’s fine. I’m just using this thought experiment to make my own points—not Nietzsche’s.
The redemption of Phil Connors.
But with all that in mind, let’s look at Groundhog Day for a moment. At the start of the movie, Phil Connors (Bill Murray) is a fairly wretched guy. Not evil. Not cruel. Just arrogant and cynical. Much closer to Nietzsche’s Last Man than his Super-Man (though Bill Murray did play Superman once, and Dan Akroyd played Die Uberman).
In some respects, Phil Connors represents what a lot of critics of modernity hate about, well, modernity. He’s materialist, vain, obsessed with status, cheap sex, and the creature comforts of consumerism. He is the sort of soulless self-satisfied cog of “late capitalism” that the post-liberals of the left and right think our system produces.
But when he’s forced to relive the same day over and over again, he slowly sheds the carapace of his wretchedness. He goes from being self-directed to other-directed. On his last day in his temporal purgatory, he spends his whole day doing kindnesses—small and large—to others and pursuing personal excellence and self-improvement: at playing the piano, reading literature, and who knows what else. And this makes him happy with his fate.
We don’t know how long it took. In the movie, he repeats 34 days, but it’s implied to be many, many more. Harold Ramis—the director and co-author of the screenplay—said that in the original script Connors was trapped in Punxsutawney for 10,000 years. But as I wrote for reasons I can no longer remember, I think it’s probably closer to 10. Regardless, we don’t know how many of those final days he repeated endlessly before finally doing one last good deed before God(?) springs him for time-served.
We don’t even know whether it was one last good deed that did the trick. He could have spent countless days helping old ladies with their flat tires, feeding a homeless man, catching a falling kid, buying WrestleMania tickets for young newlyweds, etc., exactly the same way over and over again without any deviation. Maybe what really got him sprung was simply his decision to love and embrace his fate without regret—giving up wanting to escape his fate in the first place. Maybe it’s when he finally “wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity,” as Nietzsche put it, that he has earned his freedom from eternal recurrence.
Or maybe it’s not actually freedom from eternal recurrence at all. If the idea is a way to think about how to live your life, then he hasn’t been freed from the idea, he’s become equipped with it, blessed with it, for the rest of his life. Regardless, if Nietzsche’s demon had asked Phil early on if he was cursed or blessed by his predicament, he’d have said cursed. At the end, he’d clearly say blessed.
I don’t think Groundhog Day is a purely Nietzschean tale, there’s too much Christianity and comedy alone, to make that case. Plus, I’m pretty sure Nietzsche would totally tell Punxsutawney to drive angry.
But I think there’s a profound, surely unintended, conservatism—and (classical) liberalism—to be found in the movie.
As I’ve written many times, I think one of the key ways to distinguish between left and right is in their fundamental conceptions of the purpose of politics and government. As I put it in Suicide of the West, discussing the different approaches of the French Enlightenment and English/Scottish Enlightenment:
Yuval Levin argues that you can see the differences in these two worldviews in the metaphors the two camps used in explaining what the state should do. The French strain emphasizes movement. The state is there to deliver the people somewhere, advance the “wheel of history,” etc. In the English version, the state is there to create a zone of liberty for people to choose their own direction.
One of my favorite illustrations of how this is as much a cultural disagreement as a philosophical one can be found in the differences between French and English gardens. For instance, the French gardens at Versailles, with their ornate, geometric, nature-defying designs, illustrate how the gardener imposes his vision on nature. Nature is brought to heel by reason. The classic English garden, on the other hand, was intended to let nature take its course, to let each bush, tree, and vegetable achieve its own ideal nature. The role of the English gardener was to protect his garden by weeding it, maintaining fences, and being ever watchful for predators and poachers.
(Hey, if I can’t repeat myself on Groundhog Day, when can I?)
Phil Connors finds meaning, real meaning, next-level amor fati meaning, in a little garden of a town, a kind of Brigadoon outside of time and space. He finds meaning not by changing everyone around him but by helping them be and do the things they want to do. Connors is not some Nietzschean ubermensch who imposes his will on others or overthrow conventional morality. He doesn’t redefine or remake Punxsutawney. He learns to love Punxsutawney for what it is. He doesn’t revolutionize traditional morality, he embraces it. Which is why, at the end of the movie, he decides he wants to live there.
While I think I could spin out an extended metaphor of Connors as the symbol of the night-watchman state or the English gardener-state along the Burkean model, that’s not my aim. Because Connors isn’t the state. He’s just a man who realizes that being a good man is its own reward. And that’s what liberalism—not progressivism, Marxism, or New Right post-liberalism—is supposed to do. In this sense Connors isn’t a metaphor for the liberal state, he’s a metaphor for what the liberal state is supposed to make possible for individuals in a free society. He’s a free man consigned to live the same day over and over again, until through a process of trial and error, he figures out what is really important in life, for himself. And what he discovers what’s important is doing things for others.
All forms of unapologetic statism, on the other hand, start backward: They start with an article of faith of how people are supposed to live and think they can impose it from above. It’s an aesthetic approach: making society look like the ideal has priority over convincing people to live up to the idea.
This is as true for theocrats as it is for technocrats. The theocrat knows how the righteous are supposed to behave and seeks to make them behave that way—conform to the abstract ideal—first. Making them understand why they should behave that way comes second, if at all.
The Iranian goons night-sticking girls with uncovered heads or skirts above the knee want to force compliance to the appearance of righteousness, not cultivate actual righteousness. Totalitarians do want to change hearts and minds but, again, their program begins with the conclusion and works backward: Force people to behave as if they conform to the ideal first and hope that fear and the habit of conformity will eventually lead the masses to like it. Fake it until you make it.
It never works that way, not at scale. For every partial or temporary success Communists had at creating Soviet Man or Maoist Man, they created thousands of brutalized prisoners who, like all inmates, looked first to securing survival or selfish advantage. Because the apparatchiks responsible for delivering social transformation were accountable not to the people but to their superiors, they prioritized orchestrating the appearance of success rather than the reality of it.
The same holds for technocrats. They start from invincible confidence about how many tanks or tons of steel the factories must produce. They begin with a number on a piece of paper for how much corn or wheat the peasants must produce, and if they fail, it cannot be because the perfect system on their drawing boards or spreadsheets is wrong. It’s because the people have not sufficiently surrendered themselves to the master’s plan. The round hole makers are right, the square pegs made from the crooked timber of human nature must be made to fit.
This mental habit of starting with conclusions about how others should live and then reasoning backward is everywhere these days. The quota games of DEI bean counters start from the proposition that society and all of its institutions should “look like America” with a perfectly proportional distribution of whites, blacks, women, Hispanics, etc. And then they skip whatever steps they need to in pursuit of this aesthetic conclusion. The inequality of result gets called racist, according to Critical Race Theory, not because of any detectable racist inputs or motives, but solely because the end of the process doesn’t look the way it’s supposed to (It’s a bit like Critical Trump Theory, where any rule, fact, or institution is deemed to be “anti-Trump” based solely on the conclusion that Trump can’t be wrong).
Even the distribution of footnotes must conform to ideas of what they should look like. Citing lots of white men, Jews, etc. isn’t a reflection of the individual contributions of specific white men or Jews but failure to conform to what footnotes would look like in some hypothetical “perfect” society. Similarly, the whole idea of merit strikes people as unjust because it mucks up the picture of how society should look.
I’ve written a lot about the idiocy of all the word-policing that passes for serious intellectual work on college campuses. The secular Pharisees don’t look upon society and see words that actually give offense in the real world. They look at words and concoct reasons why they could give offense and then set about instructing people that they should give offense. No one was triggered or aggressed by the term “master bedroom” until pinheads drunk on thimblefulls of power told people to take offense at them. The desire for power and status, which is ingrained in human nature, is the eternal driver of illiberalism. And utopian ideas are the most common rationalizations for indulging our desires.
Getting your Phil.
This has always been the danger of utopianism in politics. Utopianism is the ultimate form of starting with the conclusion and working backward: “This is how everyone should live, think, be,” the utopians declare. They hold up an abstract conception of the perfect like a yardstick and find the present falls short. The conservative, including traditional liberals, measure the present against the past and the past against what came before it. For a utopian, the American founding is uninspiring and fatally flawed when measured against the perfection of the ideal future. For the anti-utopian, or the eutopian (“eutopia” means good society), the founding was glorious for its astounding improvement upon what came before it.
Tom Sowell describes this as the difference between the constrained and unconstrained visions. The constrained vision sees progress as a process of trade-offs, trial and error, and incremental improvements in the realm of the possible. More importantly, the constrained vision understands that reality is “far too complex to be comprehended by any given mind” and therefore people and communities need autonomy and agency to navigate their slices of reality. The unconstrained vision believes reality can be captured in a mental snapshot or a master plan or manifesto. The unconstrained see liberal democratic capitalism as a failure because of how far short it comes from the perfect. The constrained vision sees liberalism as a brilliant hedge against the far worse alternatives. The unconstrained visionary—whether it’s George Bernard Shaw or Robert F. Kennedy —says, “There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?” The constrained visionary has good answers to both questions.
It’s a common observation, including by Sowell himself, to say that the unconstrained vision is “tragic” based on the imperfect and imperfectible reality of human nature. Technically this is true. But I also think it’s too dour.
For all of our problems—and we have many—most are better than the problems we faced 50, 100, and certainly a 1,000 years ago. Most of the problems once considered central and definitional to man’s miserable existence have been solved, though not uniformly or universally to be sure. Slavery, serfdom, starvation, horrifically high levels of maternal and infant death, tyranny, torture, the “right” to rape, religious persecution at the point of a sword, the myriad terrors inspired by superstition and illiterate ignorance, and the sort of poverty that makes today’s poor look rich, have been put in the rearview mirror in advanced liberal democracies. That is not the stuff of tragedy.
And how did it happen? By slow, incremental, trial and error. By learning lessons about how to best hedge against the terrible we’ve built up a conception of the good. We’ve carved a garden out of the timeless jungle of Hobbesian nature without recourse to the sort of Leviathan Hobbes thought necessary. Call it tragic if you like, but I think that’s worth celebration and, yes, gratitude – even though the jungle is always trying to grow back.
Which brings me back to Phil Connors. As I said, he’s not the state in my metaphorical reading of Groundhog Day. He’s us. Every generation is a Phil Connors, tasked with figuring out, through trial and error, what is the right way to live. Every generation gets it wrong in some regards and right in others. But over time the right choices accumulate and the wrong ones become more apparent and eventually fall away. Alas, since every generation is born ignorant, the learning process is messier than it is for Phil who is blessed with the memory of his mistakes each morning. But these memories, these lessons of trial and error, are available to us as a society. And so long as we pay heed to them, liberalism—liberty—affords us the ability to achieve what Phil Connors achieved at the end: a conception of the good life. Everyone’s will be a little different, but they will have more in common with Phil’s understanding amor fati than not.
There is no eternal return in the way Nietzsche meant it. But there is something like eternity and there is something like return. Every generation may start from scratch as individuals, but not as a society. Babies return to humanity’s original position on the board. But the board gets better, slowly, unevenly, and with occasional, and occasionally infuriating, backsliding. But if we give it time, we’ll get closer and closer to being our versions of Phil Connors at the end of Groundhog Day. It won’t be a Utopia by any master-planner’s vision, because the best version of Phil Connors will still be different than the best version of you or me. But that’s okay—perfection, like real progress, is a process towards an unattainable idea, not a destination.
Various & Sundry
Note: I have some work travel next week and then I’m off on vacation. We’re gonna try to put some extra Remnants in the can, but I’m not sure there will be G-Files. If I can, I will. But I kinda need the break, so no promises.
Canine update: Zoë continues to question her life choices. A renowned killer and alpha dog, she finds herself a near toothless bodyguard to spaniels and various yappers. Like a brooding Conan on his throne, the great white trash hunter from the swamps of South Carolina, Zoë cannot understand how it is she cannot chase foxes out of her kingdom. Indeed, just this morning we spotted a fox on our morning walk, she rose up on her hind legs trying to get free of her leash. Poor Pippa joined the chase only to realize that Pippa didn’t also have a leash. Sometimes it looks like Pippa has an Invisi-Fence collar requiring her to stay in proximity to Zoë. Both start running after rabbits or foxes, but Zoë is stymied by her real leash and it’s only when Pippa realizes that she’s going in solo that she stops short, zapped not by her collar but the fear that Zoë won’t be doing the real wet work. Speaking of collars, her glow collar made her look like a demon spaniel the other morning. But it was an optical illusion, she remains the silly sweet lapdog, belly rub demander, and waggling tennis ball obsessive she’s always been. Gracie, meanwhile, is doing her part in being a lap cat and object of Chester’s desires.
And now, the weird stuff