The eternal recurrence is a central notion of Nietzsche’s thought. In Ecce Homo, he states:
“I now wish to relate the history of Zarathustra. The fundamental idea of the work, the Eternal Recurrence, the highest formula of a Yes-saying to life that can ever be attained, was first conceived in the month of August 1881. I made a note of the idea on a sheet of paper, with the postscript: “Six thousand feet beyond man and time.” – Ecce Homo, “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”
As Nietzsche was walking through the woods alongside a lake, he encountered a huge rock that towered aloft like a pyramid. It was here where the thought struck him.
The eternal recurrence supposes that you’d have to experience the same life, with the same events and same experiences, repeated for eternity. It makes its first appearance in The Gay Science, under the title “The greatest weight”, where Nietzsche raises the hypothetical question of how you would react if a demon spelled it out to you.
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, §341
The idea is horrifying and paralysing as it carries the burden of the “heaviest weight” imaginable. However, it is also the ultimate affirmation of life, it is the rock the fills the emptiness and weightlessness void of nihilism.
To comprehend and embrace it, requires amor fati, the love of fate and the acceptance and affirmation of the events of life.
The idea of the eternal recurrence does not suggest there to be an eternal afterlife, but rather an eternal repetition of what constitutes existence in the present world.
It is important to realise how frightful Nietzsche 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.
His primary reaction is that no idea could be more gruesome. However, he discovers that there are moments in life that make this idea not only bearable but beautiful.
Sickness and convalescence is an important theme throughout Nietzsche’s writings, and reflects his personal fight with constant illness. He refers to the critical time in which out of sickness great health is born as “the highest time”, pain and pleasure are therefore closely tied together. He states:
“But what if pleasure and pain should be so closely connected that he who wants the greatest possible amount of the one must also have the greatest possible amount of the other, that he who wants to experience the ‘heavenly high jubilation’ must also be ready to be ‘sorrowful’ unto death?”
– The Gay Science, §12
This quote shows the harmony between opposing forces that Nietzsche has not only discovered or perceived in a theoretical way but has known how to experience first-hand as the most intense pain and the most effusive joy, reaching a feeling of joy worthy of gods.
The eternal recurrence is the denial of any absolute beginning, any creation, and any god. Thus, it breaks through the 2000 years of Christianity. It is a critique and repudiation of the Platonic-Christian tradition and accomplishes a revaluation of values. The timeless eternity of a supernatural God is replaced by the eternity of the ever creating and destroying powers in nature and man.
Nietzsche concentrates upon the dispute between the doctrine of becoming (attributed to Heraclitus) and the doctrine of being (attributed to Parmenides), as the most important event in the history of early Greek thought. Nietzsche was greatly influenced by Heraclitus’ idea of becoming, he states:
“Heraclitus will remain eternally right with his assertion that being is an empty fiction”
– Twilight of the Idols, “Reason” in Philosophy, 2.
The death of the Christian God made Nietzsche rediscover the Ancient World. He revived this classical idea.
Nietzsche finds in Heraclitus’ philosophy three elements which become leitmotifs in his teaching: life is eternal war, polarity, and tension; life is becoming and flux and life is play, “the world of Zeus.”. These elements become the bases for Nietzsche’s fundamental concepts of the will to power and the eternal recurrence.
The concept of the will to power is the foundation of Nietzsche’s theory of eternal recurrence and the basis of his metaphysics.
Nietzsche is often called a philosopher of life. Heidegger calls his belief a metaphysics of being. And he is quite right in stating that Nietzsche is a metaphysician, and the eternal recurrence “a doctrine where being is thought in its deepest sense.” Wherever Nietzsche rejects metaphysics, it is only the Platonic-Christian tradition that he opposes in which being is understood as unchanging and transcendent. Therefore, Nietzsche only rejects metaphysics of a fixed and static world. Just as Nietzsche, the “immoralist”, is in reality a seeker of moral values beyond good and evil.
The will to power is a dynamic force in continuous becoming and striving, manifesting itself in the encounter with obstacles. Nietzsche’s will to power is different from Darwin’s principle of the “survival of the fittest”. Nietzsche’s “survival” is not merely struggle for existence and self-preservation, but it is primarily struggle for increase of power, while the fittest is the higher individual, the “free spirit” is one who affirms struggle as a creative force and aims at intensification of power.
The two basic concepts of the will to power and the eternal recurrence seem at first to contradict each other: the will to power symbolising an eternal development and the eternal recurrence an eternal sameness.
Nietzsche himself sees no contradiction. He calls becoming a “form of Being”, thus they are compatible. This is best expressed in Heraclitus’ famous quote which symbolises becoming and constant flux:
“No man ever steps in the same river twice”
The river is not only a symbol of becoming, but the sameness and repetition of the motion is a form of Being. In fact, Nietzsche claims:
“the eternal recurrence … this teaching of Zarathustra, might have already been taught by Heraclitus”
– Nachlass, Werke, XV, p.68.
And finally, life is play. Nietzsche calls the cosmos “the Innocence of Becoming”. The world is an eternal play of dynamic forces, their tension and release, their perishing and coming to be. It is an eternal recurrence of a will to create and to destroy, to struggle and to expand.
In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the eternal recurrence is Zarathustra’s “abysmal thought” and central teaching. It is both creation and destruction, joy and suffering, good and evil.
However, if everything eternally recurs, this includes the “most contemptible” Last Man, which is diametrically opposite to the Overman. Zarathustra is full of anguish as he placed his hopes for mankind in a dramatic historical moment, the bridge from man to the overman:
“Alas, man recurs eternally! The little man recurs eternally! I had seen them both naked, the greatest man and the smallest man: all too similar to one another, even the greatest all too human! The greatest all too small! – that was my disgust at man! And eternal recurrence even for the smallest! That was my disgust at all existence!”
– Thus Spoke Zarathustra, The Convalescent, 2.
Zarathustra is so sickened by this thought that he remained lying down for seven days and for a long time would neither eat nor drink. However, his animals kept him company. While still convalescent, his animals speak to him:
“Everything goes, everything returns, the wheel of existence rolls for ever. Everything dies, everything blossoms anew; the year of existence runs on for ever. Everything breaks, everything is joined anew; the same house of existence builds itself for ever. Everything departs, everything meets again; the ring of existence is true to itself for ever. Existence begins in every instant, the ball There rolls around every Here. The middle is everywhere. The path of eternity is crooked.”
– Thus Spoke Zarathustra, The Convalescent, 2
They elaborate further stating:
“For your animals well know, O Zarathustra, who you are and must become: behold, you are the teacher of the eternal recurrence, that is now your destiny! That you have to be the first to teach this doctrine – how should this great destiny not also be your greatest danger and sickness! Behold, we know what you teach: that all things recur eternally and we ourselves with them, and that we have already existed an infinite number of times before and all things with us. You teach that there is a great year of becoming, a colossus of a year: this year must, like an hour-glass, turn itself over again and again, so that it may run down and run out anew […] And if you should die now, O Zarathustra: behold, we know too what you would then say to yourself – but your animals ask you not to die yet! You would say – and without trembling, but rather grasping for happiness: for a great weight and oppression would have been lifted from you, most patient of men! “Now I die and decay,” you would say, and in an instant I shall be nothingness. Souls are as mortal as bodies. But the complex of causes in which I am entangled will recur – it will create me again! I myself am part of these causes of the eternal recurrence. I shall return, with this sun, with this earth, with this eagle, with the serpent – not to a new life or a better life or a similar life: “I shall return eternally to this identical and self-same life in the greatest things and in the smallest, to teach once more the eternal recurrence of all things. To speak once more the teaching of the great noontide of earth and man, to tell man of the Overman once more.”
– Thus Spoke Zarathustra, The Convalescent, 2
After Zarathustra’s recovery, he struggles with the “spirit of gravity”, which sees life as a burden to be borne and is represented by a dwarf. It is Zarathustra’s own reflective doubt that he will be “dragged down” by the thought of the eternal recurrence.
“Behold this gateway, dwarf! It has two aspects. Two paths come together here: no one has ever reached their end. This long lane behind us: it goes on for an eternity. And that long lane ahead of us – that is another eternity. They are in opposition to one another […] and it is here at this gateway that they come together. The name of the gateway is written above it: “Moment”. But if one were to follow them further and ever further and further: do you think, dwarf, that these paths would be in eternal opposition? […]
From this gateway Moment a long, eternal lane runs back: an eternity lies behind us. Must not all things that can run have already run along this lane? Must not all things that can happen have already happened, been done, run past? And if all things have been here before: what do you think of this moment, dwarf? Must not this gateway, too, have been here – before? And are not all things bound fast together in such a way that this moment draws after it all future things? Therefore – draws itself too? For all things that can run must also run once again forward along this long lane […] must we not all have been here before? And must we not return and run down that other lane out before us, down that long, terrible lane – must we not return eternally? […]”
Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Of The Vision and the Riddle, 2
In reading Thus Spoke Zarathustra, we are experiencing as readers our own eternal return, the cycle of hope and despair, descent and return, sociality and isolation, love and contempt, parable and parody, lower and higher, earth and heaven, snake and eagle, that are present throughout the book.
In the climax of the book, Zarathustra stands up and accepts the eternal recurrence: he becomes the ultimate life affirmer and Yes-sayer. He dedicates to the higher man, who aspire to the figure of the overman, his dithyramb on all Eternity. Zarathustra’s soul and Dionysus both represent the highest kind of being.
“I, the last disciple of the philosopher Dionysus – I, the teacher of the eternal recurrence.”
Twilight of the Idols, What I owe to the Ancients, 5
The Eternal Recurrence | Friedrich Nietzsche
The eternal recurrence is a central notion of Nietzsche’s thought. It supposes that you’d have to experience the same life, with the same events and same experiences, repeated for eternity.