The Magic of Nietzsche’s Eternal Return

What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you in 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!‘”
– Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science

This is the idea of ‘eternal recurrence’ or ‘eternal return’ as introduced by Nietzsche. Though the idea is not an innovation of Nietzsche and was probably first introduced in Greek philosophy by one of the Pythagoreans, its history is irrelevant for the purpose of this post. Also, its scientific validity or its validity as a plausible philosophy is not intended to be debated. Let’s presume for this purpose that it is only a plausible concept with no scientific validity or proof. (Like all mythology or the very concept of God, if I might say so.)

The most obvious and disturbing import of this concept is the weight that it adds to every moment of life. As most succinctly summarized by Milan Kundera in his masterpiece The Unbearable Lightness of Being – “If every second of our lives recurs an infinite number of times, we are nailed to eternity as Jesus Christ was nailed to the cross. It is a terrifying prospect. In the world of eternal return the weight of unbearable responsibility lies heavy on every move we make.

In existential terms, the idea raises the responsibility of every choice that man makes by infinity. In Sartre’s philosophy, Man is condemned to be free. In Nietzsche’s, I guess, he is condemned for eternity.

Man’s greatest limitation, in my opinion, is time. Therefore, the birth of the idea of eternity – of god, afterlife, heaven, hell, devil and what not. Our race has had a history of building its self-image in illusions. If death limits – immortality. If time limits – eternity. We have had infinite resources.

If Nietzsche’s entire philosophy is read in context, it is clear that his idea of eternal recurrence was never offered by him to be believed as a factual truth. Neither does he deny the possibility of its factual validity. He introduces it as if from thin air and dwells on it never in detail. No arguments, no explanations – not even an attempt. Probably, this is the reason why the idea has perplexed one and all for ages (I was almost tempted to say ‘eternity’).

On deliberating on it for sometime now, I have concluded that probably Nietzsche left the idea vague only to give it more strength. Paradoxical as it may sound, I am convinced that any attempt to dwell into the truism of an idea as fictitious as this would only serve as suicidal.

It is my opinion that Nietzsche, very cunningly, used eternal return as a tool to serve the rest of his system of ideas. It has been suggested, by none other that Dostoevsky, that if God was dead, everything would be permissible. There would be chaos and confusion and human society would be orderless. Probably as a solution to this, Nietzsche proposed this idea. I guess its true import should be that man must live his life as a first in a cycle of eternal recurrence so that man is compelled to be responsible and careful about every action, each moment. That the failure to act now would be a failure to be faced eternally. In one stroke of the pen, Nietzsche not only made man responsible beyond time but also turned its own illusion of eternity to weigh him down to the ground. He, probably, understood too well the unbearable lightness of being.


11 responses to “The Magic of Nietzsche’s Eternal Return

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  3. Interesting post. Nietzsche is by far my favorite philosopher – at least so far.

    As I think I responded to you (or somebody) during the Myth of Sisyphus conversation on my blog, my understanding of Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence is simply this – if we knew we were going to have to live our life over and over and over again, we’d make better choices. We’d be master of our existence rather than a slave to it. Therefore we should live our lives “AS IF” there is Eternal Recurrence.

    But I think it is a trap to think of this as just a “fictitious” tool because it is an immensely practical and psychologically observant insight. You can only change something if you are at first willing to accept it exactly as it is. Any attempt to deny the reality of your situation will keep you stuck in the same recurring patterns until you are finally willing to face things exactly as they are. When you accept things as they are, then you have the courage to “slay the dragon”. If we remain in the “dutiful” stage, we are slaves to our existence rather than masters of it.

    This was my problem with Camus’s Sisyphus. He gets to the point of accepting things as they are, but with the understanding that he is condemned to his fate. That is what Nietzsche would call slave morality. What Nietzsche managed to do that Sartre and Camus did not was drop the fallen man/condemned man thinking.

    You quoted Sartre as saying “Man is condemned to be free.” But why is lightness unbearable and freedom condemning? Why do we experience it in this way?

    I still contend it is because we have gotten rid of God (as Nietzsche says, we’ve killed God through our addiction to abstraction) but have maintained the guilt that goes along with the Cartesian/Augustinian “fallen man”/condemned man thinking.

    That, to me, is the beauty of Nietzsche, he recognized that we killed God and he also recognized that if there is no God, we have to likewise get rid of the condemnation that co-existed with that God. Man is not condemned by eternity, fate, God, or anything else except his own slave morality. (We become enslaved to the ideas we create.)

  4. Just another thought – perhaps another idea that has to do with Eternal Recurrence is that there is no final destiny. Zorathustra’s three stages are eternally recurring. In the camel stage, we are dutiful. We do as we are told, we follow the rules, we carry our load down the same old beaten path. But eventually, something happens that takes us off of that path and we find ourselves in unchartered territory. This takes us to the lion stage. We realize that we must create a new path and this requires “slaying the dragons” (the ideas that have enslaved us). Once we’ve slayed the dragons, we become the child – innocent again. But we don’t get to stay in this innocence because eventually all the new ideas become old and we have to slay those, too. There is no final abstract utopianistic destination to be discovered. No otherworldly place we get to go to “in the end”. This is it.

    BTW – I absolutely love what you wrote: In one stroke of the pen, Nietzsche not only made man responsible beyond time but also turned its own illusion of eternity to weigh him down to the ground. He, probably, understood too well the unbearable lightness of being.

  5. It was me, arulba, you had the discussion on Camus with. I have been waiting to reply to you but before that I needed to revisit Camus which I am doing right now. I should get back to you in a few days. Because I am convinced Camus is less rhetorical, very dry, and logical and positive about life, which you disagree with, I want to come back to you [eternal recurrence! :-)] with his own words. Look out for me!

  6. I remember that I had the discussion on Camus with you, but there was at least one another involved in the discussion so I wasn’t sure to whom I had made the specific comment about Nietzsche.

    I think you have misunderstood me. I think it is clear that both Sartre and Camus were “positive about life”. My primary issue with Camus isn’t Camus himself, it is his use of Sisyphus which I think is “bad faith” because it is based on “slave morality”.

  7. Cool page.., bro

  8. Nietzsche’s conception of eternal recurrence is based upon the notion of force. Though he never explicitly mentions ‘force’ in ‘The will to power’ notebook, if you look at sections 1062, 1064, 1066 (near the back), here we have an explicit – as opposed to mythic – conception of eternal recurrence and what it actually means. For N, the world is a finite configuration of forces (ie, everything in the world, being merely an expression of force, is finite, limited, as he says ‘if the world may be thought of as a certain definite quantity of force’ 1066)). In contrast to this, the world is, as it were ‘housed’ or contained in an infinite amount of time. So, we have finite ‘things’ in the world (that is, expressions of force, or the basis of the will to power) that are by definition, limited which are contained in an infinite amount of time. Thus, the finite (forces, ‘things’ in the world) is contained in the infinite (time) – which further means that a cycle of repetition is required to ‘fill up’ the infinite amount of time: ‘In infinite time, every possible combination would at some time or another be would be realised an infinite number of times’ (1066).
    So eternal recurrence is the infinite recurrence of finite forces (‘things’). the eternal recurrence is also, i suppose, an expression of Nietzsche’s anti-platonism – ie, Nietzsche favours ‘becoming’ over ‘being’ – the eternal recurrence is the endless return of becoming, it is becoming over and over again.

  9. Hi Wart,

    Thanks for your insight which is really explains logically the genesis of the idea of eternal recurrence.

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