The Eternal Recurrence
, has been widely criticized as not only cosmologically flawed but also of having little practical use as an ethical doctrine. Yet this central part of Nietzsche's
philosophy, the “fundamental conception”
(Ecce Homo, III, on Z, 1) of his fictional work and supposed masterpiece Thus Spoke Zarathustra
, has inspired so much criticism and support that one may be unwise to discard it as philosophically unimportant.
It is perhaps misleading to consider Nietzsche’s writings upon the eternal return as the construction of a single doctrine. Ignoring, for the time being, all of its different viable interpretations or possible meanings, it is necessary to separate Nietzsche’s teachings into those of a metaphysical doctrine and those of an ethical doctrine.
In undertaking his metaphysical teachings we are to assume that the universe contains a finite amount of matter and that time is infinite. Thus the number of arrangements of matter, although incomprehensibly huge, is finite and over infinite time such arrangements must be repeated. From this Nietzsche deduces that everything that has and will occur must occur again in an everlasting cycle. Hence our lives shall and have repeated themselves, eternally echoing themselves, identical in every fashion and unchangeable. However, the body of Nietzsche’s metaphysical proof remained unpublished during his lifetime, considered by some as a possible sign of dissatisfaction with his attempt, or an indication that he considered the reality of the eternal recurrence irrelevant to the purpose of his philosophy.
It is thus also necessary to assert that energy can be neither created nor destroyed, but even after such an amendment Nietzsche’s argument may still be found lacking. Why, for example, are we not to consider that after the exhaustion of the possible conformations of energy that rearrangement may cease? Could the universe not reach a final state? One must thus add Nietzsche’s assumption that “energy is… forever active,” (Werke, Vol. XII, p51). We must also assume that space is not infinite or there would be infinite possible arrangements of energy within space. Not only this but we must assume that space is granular rather than continuous or once again infinite arrangements are possible. Even after these assumptions are added to Nietzsche’s argument refutation is still possible, as demonstrated by George Simmel’s rotating discs.
Furthermore, assuming that there could be truth within ER cosmology, why are we to assume that our lives should recur in an identical fashion without even the smallest of details different? To explain this we need the concept of Will to Power, another of Nietzsche’s central doctrines:
“The world seen from within, the world described and defined according to its “intelligible character” – it would be “will to power” and nothing else,” (Beyond Good and Evil, 36).
Nietzsche believes that all events in the world are fundamentally (although sometimes very abstractly) due to the will to power, “the tendency to produce more and more effects on the world; it is a tendency in connection with which there is no question or choice… And since this incessant activity characterizes everything, everything in the world is at least in principle connected with everything else… The will to power, then, depends on the fact that for Nietzsche all things in the world are interconnected and that their interconnections are crucial to their very character,” (Alexander Nehamas, Nietzsche: Life as Literature, p79). Thus it can be argued that if a feature of a life were to be different then it would cease to be the same life; its relationship with everything else in existence would change and because “A “thing” is the sum of its effects” (Will to Power, 551) it would no longer be the same “thing”. Also, if everything is interconnected with everything else by “a tendency in connection with which there is no question or choice,” then in a sense the events of the universe are predetermined and thus if they were to reoccur would only do so identically.
To take the point further we can examine Nietzsche’s concept of the causa sui and metaphysical free will:
“The causa sui is the best self-contradiction hitherto imagined… but mankind’s extravagant pride has managed to get itself deeply entangled with precisely this piece of nonsense. For the desire for “freedom of will” in that metaphysical superlative sense which is unfortunately still dominant in the minds of the half-educated… is precisely that causa sui and, with more than Münchhausen temerity, to pull oneself into existence out of the swamp of nothingness by one’s own hair,” (Beyond Good and Evil, 21).
So, because nothing can be the cause of itself, we would be unable to change our lives through our own actions, as they too are dependent on their relation to other factors and thus in a sense caused by external factors. Nehamas uses this idea for his interpretation that the recurrence is the assertion that:
“If my life were to recur, then it could recur only in identical fashion,” (Alexander Nehamas, Nietzsche: Life as Literature, p153).
And hence we have no grounds for wishing for an improved life through successive cycles. However, Nietzsche is providing us with even more a priori theorising and what we appear to be left with is merely a dogmatic assertion requiring many determinist rules and assuming objective truth not unlike the religions that Nietzsche criticizes so vehemently - and even then it can be refuted!
However, it is worth noting that Nietzsche first introduced the concept of the Eternal Return simply as a proposition, without justification or proof:
“What if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest of 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 everything unutterably small and great in your life will return to you, all in the same succession and sequence…”
Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him; “You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine?”… The question in each and every thing: “Do you want this once more and innumerable times more?” would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight. Or how well-disposed would you have to become to yourself and your life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate confirmation and seal?” (The Gay Science, 341).
Here Nietzsche gives a hypothetical situation to ponder, although his belief in the truth of ER is unapparent, as is the importance with which he credits one’s reaction to it. The outline of the theory is present, however, as Nietzsche presents us with the idea of an infinite repetition of our lives and intends for us to consider its practical implications. The exact nature of the inquisition is, nevertheless, open to a wide number of interpretations, though it seems that he is priming us for the consideration of the ethical doctrine of eternal recurrence.
In order to understand Nietzsche’s possible moral purposes behind this doctrine, for, as he instructs the reader when considering “metaphysical assertions… it is always well (and wise) to ask oneself first: what morality does this (does he -) aim at?” (Beyond Good and Evil, 6) one must take into account some of his other teachings, including those of the übermensch.
Nietzsche abhored organized religion for its devaluation of life by promise of something greater to come in an afterlife for which life itself must be considered a hardship. He attacks the metaphysical doctrine of religion through his argument that “There are no facts, only interpretations… We cannot establish a fact in itself, and it is perhaps nonsense to wish to do so,” (Nachlass, p769). His creation of a man to transcend these values, a person of directly opposite, life-affirming values, features prominently in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, known as the übermensch. The becoming of the übermensch is a universal goal for mankind in order to combat the nihilism that could otherwise result from the acceptance of Nietzsche’s apparent assertion that there are no objective truths, moral or otherwise. Nietzsche believes that acceptance of the eternal recurrence is the ultimate in life affirmation and the sign of greatness in men, achievable by the übermensch.
So, regarding being approached with the prospect of the eternal return one would come to the conclusion that Nietzsche’s ideal person, that of the übermensch, would react in the second of the two aforementioned manners, by experiencing “a tremendous moment”. It is this kind of life affirmation that Nietzsche believes we should all aim at in opposition to religion’s ascetic ideals.
But how is the reader meant to take this passage relative to Nietzsche’s metaphysical theory? Nietzsche only gives two possible reactions of opposite extremities in response to the demon’s message, ignoring a possible response of indifference. Is it thus to be assumed that in this situation we are expected to accept the theory as a fact, supported by his metaphysical argument, not to dismiss it as a mere possibility which we could dismiss with indifference? In order to react as Nietzsche would hope us to than surely we would have to believe in the truth of his theory? But why then would he have published the ethical side of his doctrine without his cosmological proof, or even any mention thereof in the published works of his lifetime?
It has been suggested that Nietzsche held that a belief that our lives could recur eternally would be enough to induce a life-changing response, thus rendering Nietzsche’s metaphysical proof of less importance but still leaving the motivation to attempt to formulate a proof - motivation which Nietzsche obviously had - to help cement the idea. Despite this, the idea that a mere belief in the eternal return would provoke the desired reaction seems highly unlikely. A view, proposed by Bernd Magnus, attempts to totally dissociate the acceptance of eternal recurrence as truth from its relevance as a doctrine. Believing that one must imagine their actions recurring eternally but not actually believe it, Nietzsche’s justification for this behavior being its ability to combat the nihilism resulting from a lack of faith in the doctrines of religion by the emphasis on the importance of our reactions resulting from their eternal repetition and the assurance that our lives are not merely transient. However, it is hard to imagine how combating nihilism, no matter how important we view it, could provide us with acceptance and affirmation of the doctrine; once again we appear to require an acceptance of the metaphysical truth of the recurrence.
Maudemarie Clark suggests instead that we view the passage as a means “to formulate a test for the affirmation of life,” (Maudemarie Clark, Nietzsche on Truth and Philosophy, p251). Supposedly Nietzsche is putting us in a hypothetical situation, one where we would accept the demon’s message uncritically in order for us to examine our reaction, in order “to reflect our actual attitude towards ourselves and our lives,” ( Maudemarie Clark, Nietzsche on Truth and Philosophy, p251). Thus Nietzsche is instructing that we should live as we would be willing to repeat our lives eternally. Hence:
“Affirming eternal recurrence depends in no way on believing recurrence to be true, possible or even logically possible. It requires the willingness to live one’s life again.” (Maudemarie Clark, Nietzsche on Truth and Philosophy, p252)
As compelling as this argument may be, it does not explain why Nietzsche would go to such great lengths in his unpublished works to attempt to prove the truth of ER or why he would be “reluctant to disclose it to the world until he could find the scientific confirmation he thought it must have if it was to be accepted,” (Arthur C. Danto, Nietzsche as Philosopher, p203). Indeed Nietzsche even considered studying the natural sciences in order to collect more support for his doctrine, which leads to the suggestion that perhaps Nietzsche was unable to prove his metaphysical doctrine. Could it be that the eternal return was only a crude attempt to eliminate the nihilism that is likely to sprout from Nietzsche’s other teachings; that he was perhaps more inclined to desperately want to prove this solution rather than truly believing that sufficient proof could be found?
Whether we accept the metaphysics of the recurrence or not we should still consider the consequences of the acceptance of the doctrine relative to Nietzsche’s intentions. If we are to accept ER as true why should we identify with our self of another cycle who would be psychologically distinct from other cycles? There would be no conscious link between us if the person is to be the same person, for knowledge of a previous cycle would render them a different person in Nietzsche’s eyes, recalling that “A “thing” is the sum of its effects” (Will to Power, 551). The idea of ER paradoxically suggests that there is only the one identical life that we shall live independent of the knowledge of another, and that an infinite repetition of this life may mean nothing in itself and thus do nothing to change this life. So must we affirm this life for the reason that it is the only one we shall get? It is doubtful that Nietzsche would go to such lengths to prove such a trite observation. Therefore perhaps the exact metaphysical consequences of the eternal return were unimportant to Nietzsche; instead the metaphysical doctrine was created as a means to support his own life-affirming ideal and that even he may not have had belief in its truth:
“The falseness of a judgement is to us not necessarily an objection to a judgement… The question is to what extent it is life enhancing… and our fundamental tendency is to assert that the falsest judgements are the most indispensable to us,” (Beyond Good and Evil, 4).
Instead what is important is an ability to affirm the recurrence or live with an acceptance of it as if it were true, the ability to affirm life despite Zarathustra’s assertion:
“Did you ever say Yes to one joy? O my friends, then you said Yes to all woe as well. All things are chained and entwined together, all things are in love; if you ever wanted one moment twice, if ever you said: “You please me, happiness, instant, moment!” then you wanted everything to return!”
To accept any aspect of our life we must accept all life because “all things in the world are interconnected and their interconnections are crucial to their very character.” If we wish to affirm the positive portions of our lives then we must affirm all the horrors too.
This perhaps makes the recurrence the “most abysmal thought” Zarathustra speaks of. It must be overcome in order to affirm life and is perhaps capable of producing the highest state of nihilism in those who don’t overcome it, those who Nietzsche considers “constitute the greatest danger to man… the ones who most undermine life among men. …such a man speaks to himself … “I wish I were anyone else but myself! …but there is no hope of that. I am who I am: how could I escape from myself? And yet – I have had enough of myself!”” (On the Genealogy of Morals, III, 14).
Affirming the eternal return may appear to require an acceptance of one’s past, however, according to Nietzsche’s assertion that “willing liberates”(Thus Spoke Zarathustra, II, 20), one is able to accept the past by affirmation of the recurrence. As stated above, by accepting any aspect of our life we thus accept all life, hence by willing the recurrence we will what has happened before by willing through the cycle, accordingly releasing the will from its “most lonely affliction”(Thus Spoke Zarathustra, II, 20), that it cannot will backwards. So perhaps we are capable of reconciling our past through acceptance of our present, or even our future, thus not rendering affirmation of the doctrine exclusive to those who believe they have so far led a supremely joyful life.
So perhaps Nietzsche intends for us to affirm the recurrence or live with an acceptance of it as if it were true, despite metaphysical flaws or even despite being wholly untrue. Unfortunately Nietzsche seemed incapable of providing any altogether acceptable reasons to do this unless we were to truly believe it would enhance our life. Perhaps this is why he felt the need to attempt a cosmological proof, for no other argument would be capable of universally convincing us to do so. So, does Nietzsche provide any good reason for supposing the eternal recurrence to be true? I would have to say a resounding no, although perhaps he hoped that he would not have to.
Alexander Nehamas, Nietzsche: Life as Literature, (1999)
Peter Berkowitz, Nietzsche: The Ethics of an Immoralist, (1998)
Arthur C. Danto, Nietzsche as Philosopher, (1980)
Maudemarie Clark, Nietzsche on Truth and Philosophy, (1991)
Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, translated by R. J. Hollingdale, Penguin Books Ltd., London, England, 1990.
Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, translated by R. J. Hollingdale, Penguin Books Ltd., London, England, 1969.
Friedrich Nietzsche, On The Genealogy of Morals, translated by Douglas Smith, Oxford University Press, Oxford, England, 1996.
Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, translated by Duncan Large, Oxford University Press, Oxford, England, 1998.
It is also perhaps worth noting that throughout Nietzsche's work he consistantly contradicted himself leading many to feel he was incompetent as a philosopher (a little harsh in my opinion). For example one may argue that the ER renders all of equal value because it requires everything to be willed back again due to the interconnection of all things. If so, not only are we left with epistemic and ethical anarchy but Nietzsche would also be rendering the religious doctrines he wishes to undermine of equal value to his own. Another to consider is that one may question why Nietzsche is creating an ethical doctrine if he doesn’t believe in metaphysical free will or that Nietzsche’s argument of the incoherency of a "world-as-it-is-in-itself" and "objective truth" would appear to render his own metaphysical doctrines false as well as they too rely on there existing objective truths. Although it may be possible to argue effectively against these contradictions it may be more worthy to consider Nietzsche's key phrase that when considering “metaphysical assertions… it is always well (and wise) to ask oneself first: what morality does this (does he -) aim at?”