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The idea of eternal return or eternal recurrence has existed in various forms since antiquity. Put simply, it’s the theory that existence recurs in an infinite cycle as energy and matter transform over time. In ancient Greece, the Stoics believed that the universe went through repeating stages of transformation similar to those found in the “wheel of time” of Hinduism and Buddhism.
Such ideas of cyclical time later fell out of fashion, especially in the West, with the rise of Christianity. One notable exception is found in the work of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), a 19th-century German thinker who was known for his unconventional approach to philosophy. One of Nietzsche’s most famous ideas is that of eternal recurrence, which appears in the penultimate section of his book The Gay Science.
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The Gay Science is one of Nietzsche’s most personal works, collecting not only his philosophical reflections but also a number of poems, aphorisms, and songs. The idea of eternal recurrence—which Nietzsche presents as a sort of thought experiment—appears in Aphorism 341, “The Greatest Weight”:
“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!’
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“Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.’ If this thought gained possession of you, it would change you as you are or perhaps crush you. The question in each and every thing, ‘Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?’ would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight. Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life?”
Nietzsche reported that this thought came to him suddenly one day in August 1881 while he was taking a walk along a lake in Switzerland. After introducing the idea at the end of The Gay Science, he made it one of the fundamental concepts of his next work, Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Zarathustra, the prophet-like figure who proclaims Nietzsche’s teachings in this volume, is at first reluctant to articulate the idea, even to himself. Eventually, though, he proclaims that eternal recurrence is a joyful truth, one that should be embraced by anyone who lives life to the fullest.
Oddly enough, eternal recurrence doesn’t figure too prominently into any of the works Nietzsche published after Thus Spoke Zarathustra. However, there is a section dedicated to the idea in The Will to Power, a collection of notes published by Nietzsche’s sister Elizabeth in 1901. In the passage, Nietzsche seems to seriously entertain the possibility that the doctrine is literally true. It is significant, however, that the philosopher never insists on the idea’s literal truth in any of his other published writings. Rather, he presents eternal recurrence as a sort of thought experiment, a test of one’s attitude toward life.
Nietzsche’s philosophy is concerned with questions about freedom, action, and will. In presenting the idea of eternal recurrence, he asks us not to take the idea as truth but to ask ourselves what we would do if the idea were true. He assumes that our first reaction would be utter despair: the human condition is tragic; life contains much suffering; the thought that one must relive it all an infinite number of times seems terrible.
But then he imagines a different reaction. Suppose we could welcome the news, embrace it as something that we desire? That, says Nietzsche, would be the ultimate expression of a life-affirming attitude: to want this life, with all its pain and boredom and frustration, again and again. This thought connects with the dominant theme of Book IV of The Gay Science, which is the importance of being a “yea-sayer,” a life-affirmer, and of embracing amor fati (love of one’s fate).
This is also how the idea is presented in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Zarathustra’s being able to embrace eternal recurrence is the ultimate expression of his love for life and his desire to remain “faithful to the earth.” Perhaps this would be the response of the “Übermnesch” or “Overman” who Zarathustra anticipates as a higher kind of human being. The contrast here is with religions like Christianity, which see this world as inferior, this life as mere preparation for a better life in paradise. Eternal recurrence thus offers a notion of immortality counter to the one proposed by Christianity.
Sources and Further Reading
Nietzsche, Friedrich. “The Gay Science (Die Fröhliche Wissenschaft).” Trans. Kaufmann, Walter. New York: Vintage Books, 1974.
Lampert, Laurence. “Nietzsche’s Teaching: An Interpretation of Thus Spoke Zarathustra.” New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 1986.
Pearson, Keith Ansell, ed. “A Companion to Nietzsche.” London UK: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2006.
Strong, Tracy B. “Friedrich Nietzsche and the Politics of Transfiguration.” Expanded ed. Urbana IL: University of Illinois Press, 2000.
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