July 15, 2001

Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence

Throughout his writings, Friedrich Nietzsche encourages his readers to “overcome” themselves. One of the things that one must do to overcome himself is to affirm this life. In order to affirm life, one must do three things. First, one must acknowledge that this world is all that there is and that all conceptions of an afterlife are false. Second, one must acknowledge that the universe is completely chaotic and, therefore, void of all values, purpose, and meaning. And third, one must find joy in this life and love this life, despite the aforementioned facts and despite the fact that life is filled with great pain and suffering.

In order to see if they have truly affirmed this life, and thus begun to overcome themselves, Nietzsche offers his readers a test. If one has truly affirmed life, Nietzsche believes, he will be able to accept the doctrine of eternal recurrence. Simply put, this doctrine states that, not only is this life the only life there is, but that this life eternally repeats itself. In other words, everything that has ever occurred in the universe will occur again and again throughout all eternity, each time, occurring exactly as it did in the past. As Nietzsche puts it,
Behold, we know what you teach: that all things recur eternally, and we ourselves too; and that we have already existed an eternal number of times, and all things with us. You teach that there is a great year of becoming, a monster of a great year, which must, like an hourglass, turn over again and again so that it may run down and run out again; and all these years are alike in what is greatest as in what is smallest; and we ourselves are alike in every year, in what is greatest as in what is smallest (332).
Although it is debatable whether Nietzsche believed that eternal recurrence actually occurs (although there is some evidence to suggest that he did, the whole idea is quite inconsistent with the rest of his writings), one thing remains unarguable: eternal recurrence is a tough doctrine to accept. As Norman Melchert puts it,
What is life for, if it isn’t going anywhere? If there is no hope for
ultimate improvement, for progress, for getting beyond the small and the great—for overcoming man once and for all—what would be the point? Man would be a bridge leading nowhere! (The Great Conversation 574).
Since eternal recurrence is such a tough doctrine to accept, it is undoubtedly a good test to see whether someone has truly embraced life. For, if one truly loves this life, as one who has overcome himself will, then it follows that he would not mind reliving it over and over again for all of eternity. If one truly loves this life, he would actually rejoice at the thought of getting to continually live it over again.

The thought of eternal recurrence is so horrible that even Zarathustra, who seems to be close to overcoming himself, spends much of Thus Spoke Zarathustra cowering from and trying to avoid accepting this “most abysmal thought.” “Nausea, nausea, nausea—woe unto me!” he declares when thinking of it (328). Zarathustra seems to be most disgusted by the thought of eternal recurrence because it means that, not just the “great man,” but also the “small man” recurs eternally (331). In other words, Zarathustra laments eternal recurrence because it means that, even though man may eventually overcome himself, the ordinary man, or the man who has not yet overcome himself, will one day come back. To put it another way, even if man eventually overcomes himself, he will one day be forced to go back to square one and will again find himself the weak, dumb, and “apeish” being that again needs to be overcome.

Although the thought of eternal recurrence, and mostly the thought of the small man recurring, drives Zarathustra into a deep depression, he eventually overcomes his depression and accepts eternal recurrence. As the prophet joyfully declares towards the end of Book III of Zarathustra, “Oh, how should I not lust after eternity and after the nuptial ring of rings, the ring of recurrence?…I love you, O eternity!” (340).