“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.