Eternal Recurrence

The doctrine of the “eternal recurrence of the same” (also known as eternal return of the same) remains one of the most peculiar and enigmatic features of Nietzsche’s philosophy.   Indeed, commentators and Nietzsche scholars have published dozens of books, articles, and essays speculating as to how seriously Nietzsche took the doctrine to be a literal metaphysical understanding of reality, as well as how it fits into the broader scheme of Nietzsche’s body of work, particularly in relation to the Ubermensche and the Will to Power. 

Among the more popular, and somewhat banal, interpretations of eternal recurrence is that of an existential thought experiment. One is supposed to imagine that he or she will repeat this life exactly as it is over and over again — with all its pain, sorrows, tragedies, and disappointment. The point of eternal return as thought experiment is to induce us to examine our lives and take control. If we’re doomed to repeat this life exactly as it was and will be forever, then we ought to take responsibility for living our life as an experimental aesthetic narrative. Presumably, only the Overman would be strong enough to affirm the continuous recycling of this life — for only he is capable of looking at life square in the face and proclaim, “yes!”
This interpretation can be seen as an extremely important part of Nietzsche’s overall project of developing a philosophy that would both overcome the nihilism of the modern age AND at the same time bring about the affirmation, rather than denial, of this life. Under this view then, the doctrine of eternal recurrence represents Nietzsche’s ultimate break from his predecessor and “educator” Arthur Schopenhauer, despite the heavy influence the latter played on Nietzsche’s development and thought.
The doctrine of eternal recurrence may also be understood as a means of bringing into question our preconceived notions of progress, universality, and objectivity as byproducts of a linear conception of time. Modern man takes for granted that he understands (ontic) time as a linear progression of “nows” leading from past, to present, and future. 
Even contemplating time as cyclical casts a shadow of doubt over our unquestionable commitment to progress and objectivity. If time is cyclical, then the very notion of “progress” as we understand it becomes necessarily impossible. The very notion of progress assumes time as linear. Only if we see time as occurring as a “stream” from then-to-now, and from now-to-yonder can such evaluative change take place.  Yet, if everything were to exist in complete transience only to begin again — the idea of permanent progress is untenable. What is perceived as an overcoming of the past (say, scientific or technological advancement) is only tentative and ephemeral: for if it is all to end and begin again, there can simply be no constancy. Without constancy then, the notion of overcoming and ascending beyond what was, along with the hope of transcending the now with the hope of an even better tomorrow, must be cast aside.
So too would our belief in objectivity. Objectivity presumes something eternal; it deals not in substance but form — specifically, a form that exists beyond the realm of time and space. Something that is, in and of itself, existing eternally and thus always in a static state of being. Cyclical time renders the static state of being an impossibility, as well, for if everything that was is to come again, and the now for which I see myself as experiencing will again recur, the very grounding for the “objective” is stripped away.  
Cyclical time undermines being in favor of continuous becoming. The “is”, as we perceive it, is only an illusion; a derivative and mistaken experience for the perpetual “will be.” The “will be,” then, is always already what it “was,” and forever “will be”, all of which is confined to the sameness of the repetitive cycles of the ever-recurring. 
Even hypothesizing on the eternal recurrence raises important questions concerning that which we take for granted about what it means to “be” human. It provides grounds for questioning time as linear — and so too the correlative notions of progress and objectivity which derivative of such conceptualizations of linear time. It also forces us to question the metaphysical traditions pertaining to the constancy of the “self,” as well as the metaphysical dualism of “mind” (eternal) and “body” (temporal). 


  1. gnatseyeview

    I’ve always found this doctrine puzzling. It does not seem to be consistent with the way Nietzsche otherwise thought and wrote. I have wondered if it represented a blind spot for him, that it was his own attempt at accommodating immortality, even if it meant repetition.

  2. antimodernist

    I think how one understands the doctrine of eternal return will generally depend on what type of interpretation he or she takes on Nietzsche’s work as a whole. For instance, if you take take Nietzsche as a thorough-going naturalist (Jon Richardson) or interpret his work under a biological lens (Baeumler), then I think it’s hard to see eternal return as little more than an inconvenient digression in Nietzsche’s thought. This type of interpretation of Nietzsche would probably lend itself to the “existentialist thought experiment” interpretation of eternal return. On the other hand, I’ve always found Heidegger’s analysis of Nietzsche (from his Nietzsche lectures) which was an attempt at dispelling the biologism of Baeumler and other contemporaries. For Heidegger, Will to Power, what could arguably be considered the so-called “foundation” of Nietzsche’s thought, could only be understood in its relation to the Overman AND eternal return of the same. But Heidegger’s interpretation/analysis of N is not w/o its own problems, considering that he’s basically attempting to re-interpret Nietzsche w/in his own framework and not really trying to understand Nietzsche “as Nietzsche.”

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