In this post we will explore the meaning behind his second teaching, the Eternal Recurrence. Although it is mostly discussed in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, it first appeared in The Gay Science under the title “the greatest weight” and might be described as the event for the sake of which the whole book of Thus Spoke Zarathustra exists.
The eternal recurrence supposes that you’d have to experience the same life, with the same events and same experiences, repeated for eternity. Though he does not explicitly proclaim the eternal recurrence (a task which he saves for Thus Spoke Zarathustra), he raises the question of how you would react if a demon spelled it out to you.
“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!” 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.” […]
– The Gay Science, Book IV, §341
Nietzsche suggests that most people would consider this a curse and that it would require the most impassioned love of life:
“… to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal.”
– The Gay Science, Book IV, §341
His primary reaction is that no idea could be more gruesome, nevertheless, he takes it for the “most scientific of all possible hypotheses”, because it is the denial of any absolute beginning, any creation and any god. Scientific thinking for Nietzsche is not necessarily academic. He felt that any refusal to accept it because it is such as terrifying notion would be a sign of weakness. He discovers that there are moments that make this idea not only bearable but beautiful.
But to understand Nietzsche it is important to realise how frightful he himself found the doctrine and how difficult it was for him to accept it. He wrote in a moment of despair:
“I do not want life again. How did I endure it? Creating. What makes me stand the sight of it? The vision of the overman who affirms life. I have tried to affirm it myself – alas!”
– Musarion ed., vol. XIV, p. 121.
Evidently, he could endure it only by accepting it joyously, almost ecstatically. The overman or ubermensch is God’s successor, he is the “meaning of the earth” and is the type that would be able to accept the eternal recurrence gladly.
Nietzsche proposed finding a new set of values in this life, loving life and not just accepting the good, but also accepting that there is evil, suffering, pain, and annihilation. And that the best afterlife we can experience is none other than another repetition of the life we just experienced. The Eternal Recurrence is the ideal of the most high-spirited and world-affirming individual, who has learned not just to accept and go along with what was and what is, but who wants it again just as it was life after life.
But if everything eternally recurs, this includes that which is small in man. Confronted with this thought, Zarathustra is so sickened that he is unable to get up, eat or drink for seven days. After this period he abandons his disciples in a mood of profound misery, and this time for good.
Later in the book, Zarathustra stands up and accepts the eternal recurrence: he becomes a Yes-sayer, loving life as it is. This shows an acceptance of fate, or amor fati – a defining characteristic of the overman.