The engaging concept of the eternal recurrence may be traced back to cosmic speculations in ancient Greece and early thought in the philosophies of India. This idea focuses on time, maintaining that it is essentially cyclical (rather than linear) in nature. Over the centuries, some serious thinkers have held that this finite universe has been, and will be, returning in exactly the same way; thus for them, reality is an infinite series of identical universes. This assumption that our universe is forever a repeating circle of objects, events, and relationships has far-reaching consequences for science, philosophy, and theology. This intriguing concept of time has appeared in major works of world literature, and it is also referred to in modern lyrics and major films.
In antiquity, the eternal return may be found in the thoughts of the Pythagoreans and the Stoics, as well as in Hindu and, later, Buddhist speculations on time. Among the Presocratic philosophers, Heraclitus developed a version of the eternal recurrence. He taught that the flux of reality is endless, but within it everything returns forever in an infinite series of finite cycles: Night and day follow each other, as do the lunar phases and the four seasons of the year. Likewise, life and death are followed by rebirth. On the cosmic scale, the whole universe returns periodically. Heraclitus’s dynamic view of the world greatly influenced several process thinkers who came later, especially German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche in the 19th century.
If true, then the idea of an eternal recurrence of the same raises profound questions concerning metaphysics and ethics; for example, if our universe is strictly determined, then can there be human freedom in the world? This idea also challenges the concepts of identity, causality, and creativity. Even though it is an extreme point of view, the eternal recurrence remains a unique frame of reference for making value judgments.
In recent philosophy, Friedrich Nietzsche (18441900) grounded his own worldview in the eternal recurrence of the same, thereby reviving this perspective in serious thought. In fact, it is his central idea. This concept came to him as a result of a fortuitous summer visit to Switzerland. In early August of 1881, while staying in Sils-Maria of the Upper Engadine, Nietzsche took a walk through the wooded Swiss Alps and along the lake of Silvaplana. The philosopher tells us that, while walking alone in deep thought not far from Surlei, he unexpectedly came upon a huge pyramiDalí rock in his path. Suddenly, in a flash of intuition “6000 feet beyond man and time” (as he put it), the restless thinker experienced a new vision of reality far superior (so he thought) to those views that had been presented by all other philosophers. Nietzsche’s instant grasp of the colossal idea of the eternal recurrence made him delirious with joy, as he claimed that this concept would justify his own iconoclastic interpretation of ultimate reality, a worldview that he had been developing over the previous years.
Nietzsche had undertaken a rigorous reevaluation of all values, with alarming results. His scathing criticisms of Western civilization (especially Christianity) concluded that those basic ideas and entrenched beliefs that underpin the modern sociocultural milieu are actually false and have therefore been responsible for reducing human beings to a pitiful mediocrity. Claiming that “God is dead!” but overcoming nihilism, Nietzsche now desired to give to humankind a new philosophy that focused on the value of affirming life in general, and he gave priority to those superior individuals who are capable of impressive creativity.
Concerning time, Nietzsche had embraced the Darwinian theory of evolution with its sweeping framework of time. Evolution awoke the philosopher from his dogmatic slumber, giving to him a scientific foundation for his dynamic worldview. Nietzsche now saw this universe as a pervasive driving force or the will to the power responsible for the creative evolution of all life; he saw our own species as a temporal link between the fossil apes of the remote past and the overbeings to emerge in the distant future. But, must there exist only this one evolving universe? Why not an endless series of cosmic evolutions, each cycle absolutely identical to all the others? Christianity taught a unique and unrepeatable history of this world from the Divine Creation to the Last Judgment. In sharp contrast, however, the eternal return is far more than just a single linear history of this world or a general periodicity of different worlds. For Nietzsche, time has no preestablished final state or predetermined end goal. Furthermore, in the ongoing circularity of this universe, each successive cosmic cycle is absolutely identical in all general and specific details. Each cycle will be trillions of years in duration. This philosopher hoped that advances in the natural sciences would offer sufficient empirical evidence to, one day, demonstrate the truth of the eternal return of cosmic reality.
Nietzsche attempted to give rational arguments to convince other thinkers that the eternal recurrence of the same is a viable interpretation of our dynamic universe. He made three crucial assumptions: Space is finite, but time is eternal, and the cosmos consists of a finite number of atomic units. Therefore, the number of objects and events that can exist in this universe is also finite, and the resultant sequence of things will occur in a finite series. Nietzsche concluded that if time is eternal, then the same cosmic sequence of things would repeat itself (no matter how long it would take). As such, the identical galaxies would return with their same stars, comets, planets, and moons (each object playing out its same history). Every snowflake, drop of water, blade of grass, and grain of sand that has ever existed will reappear in an identical series of events throughout all time. The earth will return, undergoing the same evolutionary sequence of organisms, with fossil apes giving rise to our species and human beings preceding the emergence of superior overbeings to come. In the distant future, the wise overbeings will joyfully accept the cosmic truth of the eternal recurrence, which guarantees for them that they will exist forever.
In fact, Nietzsche thought that this identical universe would return an infinite number of times! Thus, for him, the eternal recurrence of the same was the quintessential interpretation of this universe; one is reminded of the oscillating model for this universe in modern cosmology. Concerning human conduct, the eternal recurrence offers this existential imperative: One ought to choose to act only in such a way that every choice is a decision made forever. This duty to eternity follows from the cyclicality of reality and gives infinite value to each choice. But there is no recollection of any past cosmic cycle, and, because each cycle is identical, it is always as if a person is free to decide among the actions that may be taken. However, if the eternal return is true, then each and every choice has been determined for all time, and, consequently, there is no free will (freedom is an illusion).
If true, then the eternal recurrence gives meaning and purpose to all existence. Nothing, not even the human animal, will pass out of existence forever. Everything has returned, and everything will return over and over again, including Friedrich Nietzsche (who would, in Nietzsche’s view, live to formulate his idea of the eternal return an infinite number of times). If it is better to exist than not to exist, Nietzsche argued, then it is better to return to live one’s identical life over and over throughout all time than to never exist again. As such, the eternal recurrence offers to human beings a natural substitute for personal immortality outside of religious beliefs and theological assumptions.
Actually, one may see the eternal recurrence of the same as a philosophical replacement for the personal God of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic religious tradition. The cyclical universe itself is the eternal, necessary, and sufficient Being that gives endless existence to everything in material reality. No doubt, Nietzsche found enormous comfort in this comprehensive idea, because it offered him a form of personal immortality without the need for postulating a spiritual soul within his naturalistic standpoint. Nevertheless, it remains puzzling that he had devoted so little space to explicating his idea of eternal return in his writings. Nietzsche had planned to author a book exclusively on this concept, but his intention was never realized. Even so, the highly controversial idea of eternal recurrence is both unverifiable and unfalsifiable. Therefore, it remains only a metaphysical speculation, although a very powerful one.
See also Cosmology, Cyclic; Eliade, Mircea; Experiments, Thought; Heraclitus; Nietzsche, Friedrich; Nietzsche and Heraclitus; Time, Cyclical
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Hatab, L. J. (2005). Nietzsche’s life sentence: Coming to terms with eternal recurrence. New York: Routledge.
Kitt, T. F. (2007). Eternal recurrence: A step out of time. Twickenham, UK: Athena Press.
Löwith, K. (1997). Nietzsche’s philosophy of the eternal recurrence of the same. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Stambaugh, J. (1972). Nietzsche’s thought of eternal return. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.