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Somewhat surprisingly given its prominence in the interpretation of Nietzsche’s work, the motif of eternal recurrence occurs explicitly only a few times in his published books: in certain passages and episodes in The Gay Science, Thus Spoke Zarathustra and Beyond Good and Evil, for instance. The consensus on the importance of eternal return for Nietzsche relies rather on his unpublished writings, such as his letters, or the miscellaneous personal notes and unfinished fragments found in The Will to Power and other posthumous editions of his notebooks.
These unpublished writings suggest that Nietzsche accorded great importance to the thought of eternal return in his overall project. In Ecce Homo, Nietzsche describes the Damascene moment when the idea of eternal recurrence first came upon him while walking in the woods near Lake Silvaplana in August 1881 (EH, p69). He insists it came upon him, rather than vice versa.
A letter to Franz Overbeck written a few years later in March 1884 describes the thought of eternal return as having the potential to “break the history of humanity in two” – a formulation that appears repeatedly in Nietzsche’s letters right up to the eve of his insanity. As Joan Stambaugh puts it in her 1972 study of eternal return: “Nietzsche’s own attitude toward this thought is striking. He does not quite seem to know what to do with it, and yet he cannot leave it alone.” (Stambaugh, xi).
Arguably this judgement applies equally to the innumerable commentaries upon and interpretations of Nietzsche’s work. Karl Löwith, Martin Heidegger and Pierre Klossowski are just some of the distinguished names that have seen eternal recurrence as a key that unlocks Nietzsche’s thought, revealing an underlying systematicity lurking beneath the stormy surface of his prose. Heidegger, for instance, devotes an entire volume of his 1940 study of Nietzsche to what he calls “the doctrine of eternal return”, declaring that Nietzsche’s “fundamental metaphysical position” is captured by it. Löwith similarly describes eternal return as “the unifying fundamental idea in Nietzsche’s philosophy” in his 1935 book on the topic.
This essay takes a slightly different approach. Treating eternal recurrence as a systematic doctrine fails to do justice in my eyes to the profoundly anti-systematic and indeed anti-philosophical tenor of Nietzsche’s work. The eternal recurrence of the same is a provocation to thought rather than a mystery underlying it. To adapt an image from Gilles Deleuze’s 1962 book on Nietzsche, the thought of eternal return is “an arrow shot by Nature that another thinker picks up where it has fallen so that he can shoot it somewhere else” (Deleuze, ix).
Stambaugh makes a similar point when she states that any interpretation of eternal return is “forced to ‘go beyond’ Nietzsche’s writings, published or unpublished, on the subject… If one adheres strictly to what Nietzsche wrote about eternal return, it is impossible to ‘solve’ the enormous problems inherent in this thought.” (Stambaugh, p103).
At any rate, such speculative and experimental approaches to eternal return are far more in keeping with Nietzsche’s spirit than rifling through his personal papers in the hope of chancing upon a revelation. Consequently, this essay will examine various interpretations of eternal recurrence with the aim of seeing what can be done with the thought – especially with regards to questions of time and history – rather than what Nietzsche might have ultimately ‘meant’ by it.
Eliade’s myth of eternal return
Perhaps the first point to make about Nietzsche’s thought of the eternal return of the same is that it represents a broadside against our prevailing metaphysical ‘common sense’ about time and history. In fact the suspicion of progressivist historiography and linear accounts of time are present in Nietzsche’s earliest published writings, notably the 1873 essay ‘On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life’ in Untimely Meditations. The motif of eternal return in his later work can be seen as a radicalisation of these early insights and positions.
With this in mind, it is worth briefly sketching out one of the most influential accounts of eternal return as an alternative to linear history – that set out by the Romanian philosopher and historian of religion Mircea Eliade in his 1949 book The Myth of Eternal Return. Eliade sets up an opposition between, on the one hand, the “historical man” of modern societies who consciously and voluntarily makes his own history, and on the other, the “traditional man” of agrarian and pre-modern societies that holds a hostile and negative attitude towards history, holding instead to a cyclical conception of time whereby the cosmos periodically abolishes itself only to be reborn again.
Eliade argues that the cyclical time of traditional societies is designed to ward off the “terror of history” by draining historical events of their meaning. A deed in the present is seen not as a historical act, but as the repetition of an archetypical gesture undertaken by the gods in a mythological prehistory. The reality of the deed stems from its status as an echo of this mythic past, and not from the event in itself. And the eventual cyclical return of the gods ensures that the event’s historical irreversibility is also ultimately overcome.
What complicates this picture of simple antagonism between historical and cyclical time is the complicity between them. Pre-modern societies try to ward off history – but their time is nevertheless slowly corrupted by it. This corruption by history only stops when the grand cycle comes to an end – the cosmos is destroyed and created anew, thereby purging history from time.
Eliade makes little effort to conceal his sympathy for these traditional accounts of time and his despair at a “spiritually arid” historicist modernity that inevitably (in his eyes) falls into relativism and nihilism. Hegel and Marx, unsurprisingly, come in for particular criticism. In many respects Eliade’s political outlook, themes and judgements on the question of eternal return are at least superficially very similar to those of Nietzsche.
Nevertheless it should be noted that Eliade’s version of the myth of eternal return does not refer directly to that of Nietzsche. In fact Nietzsche is only mentioned twice in passing throughout the book. The first reference is a positive one, with Nietzsche’s eternal return cited approvingly as part of a recent traditionalist backlash against rampant historicism. The second, however, is negative: Nietzsche is described as a thinker of “destiny” – and is thus consigned to the modern historicist camp that Eliade bitterly opposes.
This ambivalence gives us a clue as to how profoundly Nietzsche’s thought of eternal return differs from that of Eliade, despite the many thematic and political resemblances. For starters we should note that Eliade’s “archaic ontology” consigns the reality of apparent world to a mythical plane. This gesture is precisely what Nietzsche identifies as “Platonism” and polemicises against – see for instance the passage “How the ‘True World’ finally became a fable” in Twilight of the Idols.
Moreover, Eliade’s insistence on “warding off” the terror of history is a profoundly reactive stance to take with respect to modernity – especially when his purported justification for that stance are the horrors meted out by history against the suffering and powerless masses. Nietzsche, for all his nostalgia for aristocratic values, is never interested in simply restoring a past golden age. For him the past is important only insofar as it can detonate the present and thus induce the extraordinary rupture necessary for the overcoming of nihilism. Far from warding off history, eternal recurrence for Nietzsche is, paradoxically, a necessary condition if we are to take but a single step forwards.
Cyclicity, the Same and Poincaré recurrence
A third point of divergence between Eliade’s version of eternal return and Nietzsche’s concerns the question of what exactly returns and how. For Eliade it is a matter of the entire cosmos repeating itself perfectly, in precise cycles divided into subcycles. For instance, he carefully recounts how the 12,000 year long mahayuga cycle in Hindu mythology is broken down into four smaller (and diminishing) yugas, each in turn preceded by a “dawn” and “twilight” stage.
Can we discern an analogous perfect cyclicity in Nietzsche’s thought of the eternal return? There are certainly unpublished notes where he toys with the idea. For instance, note 1066 in The Will to Power (dated 1888) deploys a combinatoric argument in an attempt to prove that the world must repeat itself precisely after a finite amount of time: “A circular movement of absolutely identical series is thus demonstrated: the world is a circular movement that has already repeated itself infinitely often and plays its game in infinitum.”
In fact this argument is fallacious, even if we accept Nietzsche’s premises of a finite number of “forces” and infinite time, as Georg Simmel pointed out as early as 1907 (Kaufmann, p329). Simplifying Simmel’s example slightly: imagine a clock dial with two hands, the first making one rotation each hour and the second making √2 rotations each hour. No two configurations of this clock could repeat precisely without contradicting the fact that √2 is an irrational number.
We can however, demonstrate that any particular clock state repeats itself approximately (to any desired degree of precision). This is a phenomenon mathematicians call ‘Poincaré recurrence’ and is a common feature of closed dynamic systems. (Note however that some physicists, notably Ilya Prigogine, argue that Poincaré recurrence does not ever actually occur in reality – and that this non-recurrence undergirds and ensures the irreversibility of time.)
The ‘On the Vision and the Riddle’ section of Thus Spoke Zarathustra provides further evidence that Nietzsche’s thought of eternal return should not be understood in terms of perfectly repeating cycles. Zarathustra is climbing a mountain burdened by the Spirit of Gravity, a dwarf that rides on his back, mocking and discouraging him. They come across a gateway called “Moment” (Augenblick) with two infinite paths leading from it representing the future and the past.
Zarathustra asks the dwarf if the paths would remain in “eternal opposition” if one were to “follow them further and ever further and further”. The dwarf responds glibly that “time itself is a circle” – prompting an angry response from Zarathustra who chides him for taking the thought of eternal return “too lightly”. The dwarf vanishes shortly thereafter, presumably vanquished by Zarathustra.
Heidegger draws the following lesson from this passage: “So the dwarf has not really grasped the riddle; he has made the solution too easy. Accordingly, the thought of eternal recurrence of the same is not yet thought when one merely imagines ‘everything turning in a circle’… That is precisely the thought of circling as the dwarf thinks it, the dwarf who, in Zarathustra’s words, makes things too easy – inasmuch as he absolutely refuses to think Nietzsche’s stupendous thought.” (Heidegger, p42).
One finds similar judgements against the cycle interpretation of sameness in Deleuze: “Every time we understand the eternal return as the return of a particular arrangement of things after all the other arrangements have been realised, every time we interpret the eternal return as the return of the identical or the same, we replace Nietzsche’s thought with childish hypotheses. No one extended the critique of all forms of identity further than Nietzsche.” (Deleuze, xi).
And Stambaugh notes that Nietzsche’s expression das Gleiche “does not express simple identity and therefore does not, strictly speaking, mean the Same. It lies somewhere between the Same and the Similar, but means neither exactly.” She uses the example of two women wearing two hats that resemble each other so closely that one could mistake them for the same hat. The hats would be the ‘same’ in the sense of gleich: “This more than similarity, but it is not identity.” (Stambaugh, p31). The resemblance here to Poincaré recurrence is striking: the same recurs eternally, but always with a glitch that stops just short of perfect identity and cyclicity.
Subjectivity and time
So far our survey of the thought of eternal return has focused on what might be called the “objective” side of the question – the recurrence of all things, or of arrangements of the world. But Nietzsche’s writing on the eternal return typically involves a “subjective” side as well, fusing together the grandest cosmic vistas with the most intimate personal experience. The following famous passage from The Gay Science involves just such a juxtaposition:
What if some day or night a demon were to steal into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it you will have to live once again and innumerable times again; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and every sigh and everything unspeakably small or great in your life must 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 over again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!’ (GS, §341)
What, in this passage, is the glitch between recurrences that makes this scene much more than mere endless and trivial cyclical repetitions? It is the uncertainty over how the reader reacts to the demon: one can either be crushed by the thought of eternal return, “throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus”, or one can affirm the eternal return and “long for nothing more fervently than for this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal”. The glitch, in other words, is the space of subjective decision.
We see here how the eternal return in Nietzsche’s hands ties together the objective and subjective – or more accurately, creates a basis for a subjectivity in terms of an infinitesimal crack in the objective order of being. Similar themes can be found in Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, where Sartre bases subjective freedom on the nothingness that separates each moment from the next.
It is perhaps no surprise that several commentators have interpreted the eternal return (and this passage from The Gay Science in particular) in ‘ethical’ terms, arguing that it offers a kind of purely immanent equivalent of Kant’s categorical imperative. Deleuze puts it as follows: “The eternal return gives the will a rule as rigorous as the Kantian one… As an ethical thought the eternal return is the new formulation of the practical synthesis: whatever you will, will it in such a way that you also will its eternal return.” (Deleuze, p68).
A similar quasi-ethical question of subjective attitudes to the past animates Nietzsche’s early ‘History for Life’ essay mentioned above. The bulk of the essay is a broadside against a certain positivist vision of history that sees it as a science that accumulates facts about the past. Such an attitude to history, Nietzsche argues, in fact paralyses us with knowledge and prevents us from truly acting. In contrast to this historical attitude, he puts forward a ‘suprahistorical man’ with a capacity to actively and wilfully forget, thereby overcoming this paralysis.
Both the historical and suprahistorical attitudes are contrasted with the unhistorical life of animals that “live in the present, like a number without any awkward fractions left over” – suggesting, perhaps that animals live in purely cyclical time and cannot think the eternal return proper (UM, p61). On this note, see also the curious animal chorus in the ‘Convalescent’ section of Thus Spoke Zarathustra (TSZ, p232) – Zarathustra treats the animals with kindness, yet it is clear from his “buffoons and barrel organs” remarks that they do not quite ‘get’ the teaching of the eternal return.
We have remarked already on the spatial juxtaposition of the cosmic and the intimate in the eternal return – this is paralleled by a temporal superposition of eternity on an instant, which leads us to another variation on this theme of time and subjectivity. Stambaugh picks up on the idea of eternal return as a relation of the instant to eternity in order to construct a phenomenology of time that can overcome the nihilism of historicism (though as noted above, she is careful to situate her interpretation as one that deliberately ‘goes beyond’ Nietzsche’s actual writings).
Stambaugh argues that Nietzsche’s Moment is radically opposed to traditional notions of time as duration or flux. The ‘horizontal’ flow of time is at each instant punctuated by a ‘vertical’ drop that corresponds to Zarathustra’s experience of ‘no time’: “Well of eternity! Serene and terrible noontide abyss! When will you drink my soul back into yourself?” (TSZ, p289). Moments arise and perish into this vertical abyss, Stambaugh argues, rather than being strung together horizontally. The past and future become dimensions of the present, and eternity becomes the absolution of time (Stambaugh, p126).
Benjamin, history and now-time
Stambaugh’s interpretation of the eternal return of the same seizes upon one of its many potentialities – the implicit phenomenological critique of the metaphysics of time – and develops this potential doggedly and systematically. Yet for all its strengths, certain aspects of Nietzsche’s thought drop out of Stambaugh’s reading, notably the historical dimension of eternal recurrence and the asymmetry between past and future that this involves.
I’ll end with a few words on Walter Benjamin’s Theses on the Concept of History, a text deeply influenced by Nietzsche’s approach to history and his thought of eternal return, and one that restores the lost dimensions mentioned above. To my mind it is the single most powerful example of a productive approach to Nietzsche’s eternal return, one that uses the thought rather than comments upon it or attempts to decode it.
Benjamin wrote the Theses in 1940, shortly before his death and in circumstances of almost unthinkable historical catastrophe: the total victory of fascism in Germany over the forces of the left. He tears into progressivist and empathetic approaches to history – which invariably end up sympathising with the ruling class while lulling workers into a false sense of security and dulling their ability to fight – and instead calls for a historical materialism that recognises its task is to “brush history against the grain” (Thesis 7).
Nietzsche’s suspicions of a nihilism lurking at work within history are transformed into the chilling image of the Angel of History being hurled into the future, watching over its shoulder as the corpses pile up behind him (Thesis 9). Benjamin also adopts and radicalises Nietzsche’s insistence that the road to the future lies through the past, declaring that the working class struggle is “nourished by the image of enslaved ancestors rather than by the ideal of liberated grandchildren” (Thesis 12).
But perhaps the most striking Nietzschean themes appear in theses 14 and 15. “History is the subject of a construction whose site is not homogenous, empty time but time filled full of now-time (Jetztzeit).” He calls for a “tiger’s leap into the past” that reactivates lost possibilities in the present and detonates them into the future. “What characterises revolutionary classes at their moment of action is their awareness that they are about to make the continuum of history explode.” The harbingers of a new dawn in history shoot their rifles at clock-faces – bringing time to a standstill.
Texts by Nietzsche
Untimely Meditations, edited by Daniel Breazeale, Cambridge University Press 1997
The Gay Science, edited by Bernard Williams, Cambridge University Press 2001
Thus Spoke Zarathustra, translated by RJ Hollingdale, Penguin 1969
Ecce Homo, translated by RJ Hollingdale, Penguin 1992
The Will to Power, edited by Walter Kaufmann, Vintage 1968
Gilles Deleuze, Nietzsche and Philosophy, Athlone 1983
Mircea Eliade, The Myth of Eternal Return, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1955
Martin Heidegger, Nietzsche volume II: The Eternal Recurrence of the Same, Harper & Row 1984
Walter Kaufmann, Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist, Princeton 1974
Joan Stambaugh, Nietzsche’s Thought of Eternal Return, John Hopkins 1972
Benjamin translations taken from Fire Alarm by Michael Löwy, Verso 2005