Nietzsche and Heraclitus

Nietzsche and Heraclitus

The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), although extremely critical of many thinkers, com­pletely accepts Heraclitus’s concept of time and develops it further. When Nietzsche read Heraclitus he felt at home, because concerning the form and content of being, Heraclitus’s philosophy is similar to that of Nietzsche. Concerning the content of being, both defend a natural philosophy of perma­nent change that leads to a never-ending process of overcoming and of creation and destruction of forms. Nietzsche specifies the content of being further by developing the metaphysics of the will- to-power. (Metaphysics here is understood as a description of the nature of the world, which in Nietzsche’s case is monistic and this-worldly.)

Both thinkers agree, however, not only concern­ing the content of being but also concerning its form, which is cyclical. In Nietzsche’s case this form is referred to as the eternal recurrence, whereas Heraclitus calls it the great year, which is supposed to have a (metaphorical) duration of 10,800 years. Nietzsche stresses the similarity of his concepts to Heraclitus’s in various published and unpublished writings. In Ecce Homo he stresses that traces of his concept of the eternal recurrence can be found in Heraclitus, and in Thus Spake Zarathustra he himself employs the notion of the great year in order to explain his understanding of the form of being.

Eternal Recurrence, Time, and Salvation

Many Nietzsche scholars today (such as Volker Gerhardt) stress the ethical relevance of Nietzsche’s concept of the eternal recurrence. However, the fact that he clearly compares his concept to Heraclitus’s metaphysical one in his published writings shows that it was meant as a metaphysi­cal one. This reading of the eternal recurrence gets further support from his plans to study physics in Paris for 10 years in order to prove his concept scientifically, as his friend Lou Andreas-Salome pointed out, and from passages in his notebooks that he did not publish himself in which he puts together arguments with which he tries to prove the eternal recurrence philosophically. All of these arguments fail or are insufficient. At the least they do not establish what they are meant to establish. From the premises he mentions, he cannot infer the eternal recurrence by necessity. This, however, does not mean that his arguments cannot be improved so that the premises actually imply the eternal recurrence of everything. In addition, cur­rent scholars who stress the ethical relevance of the eternal recurrence are surely correct in doing so. The eternal recurrence is of immense ethical importance, as it is Nietzsche’s theory of salva­tion, and it can give meaning to people who do not believe in a Christian afterlife but rather in a this-worldly concept of existence.

Eternal recurrence implies that whatever you have done and will do will recur identically. You lived the very same life before you were born, and you will lead it again in the very same manner. This implies that your life will not be over when you die but that you will return again and again, and you will meet the very same people you know now, and you will have to go through all the pains and pleasures you have experienced and will expe­rience. You will not remember that you have lived the very same life before, but if you hold this con­cept, then you can feel comfort in realizing that you will experience all the wonderful events you have experienced again and again. These events are not over and done with. On the other hand, a life might have been so terrible that the concept of eternal recurrence can be unbearable.

What is important concerning salvation on the basis of this concept is that you experience one moment that you can affirm completely. Once you have had such a moment, then all other moments before and after this one are justified by means of this one moment, because all the other moments have been and are necessary in order for that moment to occur, according to Nietzsche. By say­ing yes to one moment, you also affirm all the pain and suffering you have to go through to reach it. However, if you experience a moment that you can affirm completely, you are saved on the basis of this concept. Therefore, the eternal recurrence or the great year increases the importance of any sin­gle moment immensely. Scholars who focus mainly on the ethical aspect of this concept stress that it is like an existential imperative: One ought to live as if one’s life were to recur forever without this actu­ally having to be the case. This does not correspond to Nietzsche’s way of thinking. He was a classical philologist who was trained to think metaphysi­cally and ontologically and did so himself because he understood that if you wish to have the ethical side of the concept, it needs an ontological founda­tion. Hence, he considered proving it scientifically and attempted to argue for it philosophically.

Circular Time and Identity

Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence and Heraclitus’s great year, understood philosophically, have impli­cations concerning ontology and the philosophy of time. Concerning ontology, the concept can be seen as the form of being, the circle in which all other worldly events occur. Concerning the phi­losophy of time, the concept implies the circularity of time. If we take the notion of the circularity of time seriously, then it does not imply that we have the x plus nth (whereby n has to be a natural num­ber) circulation but only one. Hence, we cannot talk about infinite time but rather circular time, time that is in itself circular. According to this concept, everything that occurs, occurs infinitely often. However, it would be more appropriate not to say that anything occurs infinitely often but rather that the very same thing occurs again and again. In the end, it is not the same but rather the identical that happens again. The circularity of time therefore implies that there is the relation of identity in its strongest Leibnizian sense between the various circulations of the world. The qualities that are valid in one circulation are also valid for all others. Here we also have to include spatiotem­poral qualities.

Nietzsche tried to prove this concept philo­sophically. He argued, for example, thus: The law of the conservation of energy demands eternal recurrence. However, this is clearly false. The law of the conservation of energy alone does not nec­essarily imply this concept. If we assume the con­servation of energy but also that the amount of energy is infinite, then we have an infinite number of possible combinations. However, an infinite number of possible combinations excludes the possibility of the eternal recurrence. If we assume that energy is finite but space exists separately from energy and is infinite, then again we have an infinite amount of combinatory options. Even if it were the case that energy is finite and time and space were qualities of energy, the eternal recur­rence does not follow by necessity, as it could be the case that the law that is responsible for the change of the energy is itself subject to change, which excludes the possibility of the occurrence of the eternal recurrence.

Even if we further assume that energy is finite, time and space are aspects of energy, and the law underlying the change is determined and unchang­ing, the eternal recurrence does not follow by neces­sity, as there is the option that energy can turn up in an infinite amount of sizes, which also precludes that eternal recurrence takes place. Only when we assume, in addition to the premises just mentioned, that energy can turn up only in a finite amount of sizes, eternal recurrence follows, as the law of the conservation of energy (which is already included in our premises) also entails the reversibility of all states of the world—another necessary premise. By adding the premises just listed, however, we significantly expanded the argument suggested by Nietzsche.

It has to be noted that the notions “energy” and “force” that Nietzsche employs can be substi­tuted by the notion “substance.” There is a fairly wide range of words that can be exchanged for one another. However, the meaning of the words depends on the context in which they appear. Hence, it is not usually the case that one word has only one meaning in Nietzsche’s writing, which is why one must be extremely cautious when inter­preting him. Nietzsche’s worldview is based on one substance, to which he refers using a great variety of words. This one substance is not unified but consists of various will-to-power quanta, to which he also refers as “force” or “energy.” When various will-to-power quanta are unified, will-to- power constellations come into existence. In his notebooks he tried to develop a will-to-power metaphysics. By doing so Nietzsche was the only thinker who further developed Leibniz’s monadol- ogy. However, Nietzsche’s was based upon only one, nonunified substance, as “will can only act upon will.” Because one type of substance is all there is, time and space have to be aspects of it and cannot exist separately from it. In addition, this substance is finite, as Nietzsche tries to banish all aspects of infinity from his philosophy.

In practice, this undertaking has the follow­ing implications: An infinite force cannot exist; therefore the existing force has to be finite. Infinite divisibility cannot exist; therefore the divisibility of force has to be finite. As a further premise we thus get the following: Force is not divisible infinitely often but turns up only in certain quantities. The logic or law of change demands that it be based upon a certain, specific law, which Nietzsche described in detail in his will-to-power metaphysics. It is decisive for eter­nal recurrence that such a law exists and that it is unchanging. Furthermore, the reversibility of all states of the world at an instant has to be given. Nietzsche solves this problem by reference to the law of conservation of energy. All the reflections just mentioned were not made by either Nietzsche or Heraclitus. However, they correspond to Nietzsche’s and Heraclitus’s way of thinking. We can summarize the foregoing as follows:

  1. There is only one substance.
  2. Time and space are aspects of one substance but do not exist independent of it.
  3. The complete amount of substance is finite.
  4. The divisibility of the substance is also finite, that is, there is a minimal amount in which the substance exists that is not divisible any further, whereby the size is different from zero.
  5. There is a certain law that is the basis for change of the one substance.
  6. The reversibility of all states of the world at an instant has to be assumed.

Conclusion: In such a system, substance can have only a finite number of states.

Once all states are present, then, one state has to recur, as the possibility of recurrence is given. If one state of the world at an instant recurs, and if the law governing the change does not change either, all other states of the world have to recur in an identical manner. As infinity is excluded, we cannot talk about infinite time either. As time is an aspect of the one substance, it also has to be identical with the previous time. (The word “pre­vious” here has to be understood solely as a meta­phor.) Such an understanding of time can be applied only if time is circular and finite. On that basis, the objection that this cycle is different does not apply either, as it is not different. This objec­tion goes as follows: This cycle is different from all the other cycles, for we are in this cycle and we are conscious of being within this cycle, which does not apply to the cycles n plus 1 or 2. Hence this cycle cannot be identified with the other cycles. However, individuals who argue in this manner do not take the notion of circularity seri­ously, because if they did, they would know that there is only this one cycle.


The concept of eternal recurrence also has interest­ing implications for the concept of space. According to both Nietzsche and Heraclitus, there is only one substance, which changes on the basis of one deter­mined law that represents one aspect of the sub­stance. All things and qualities are aspects of the one existing substance; that is, space and time are such aspects, too. Because the amount of substance is finite, it is also limited at its end. Limitation can only come about by something other, so that sub­stance would have to be limited by another some­thing. If such a something limited the substance, then it would exist outside of the substance. However, there can be only one substance.

In addition, substance can interact only with itself; two absolutely different substances cannot interact. Hence, the one substance cannot be lim­ited by another substance. It cannot be limited by a vacuum either, as this would imply that there is an empty space. However, space exists only as an aspect of the substance, so empty space cannot exist. As substance can be limited neither by another substance nor by empty space, it has to be limited by itself. If the substance is limited, and if it can be limited only by itself—the amount of substance being finite and space being one aspect of the substance, then space can only be regarded as curved. Even though the concept of curved space was developed only about 150 years ago by first Georg Friedrich Bernhard Riemann and then Einstein, it has to be implicitly included in the philosophy of all those thinkers like Heraclitus and Nietzsche who defended the great year or the eternal recurrence of everything.


In addition, we can argue that even on the basis of contemporary physics, the premises necessary for the occurrence of the eternal recurrence to occur are such that corresponding premises can be found there:

  1. Time and space have aspects of ones subtance: Since Einstein formed his general theory of relativity, this has been the dominant scientific paradigm.
  2. Energy or substance is limited: Scientifically, this is a very probable premise. If the density of matter is sufficiently high, the Friedmann equations, which can be deduced from Einstein’s equations of the general theory of relativity, demand a closed universe. If the mass of neutrinos were zero, then when they are not moving, the density of matter of the universe would be great enough for a closed universe.
  3. Force is limited, which implies that it is being limited in amount and in its divisibility: Again, a comparable premise can be found in contemporary physics. Energy can turn up only as an integer multiple of the Planck constant.
  4. There is a determined law responsible for change: Physicists attempt to find a grand unified theory (GUT) in which they hope to unite the four basic forces: the weak force, the strong force, the electromagnetic force, and gravitation. The GUT can be seen as the determined law demanded by eternal recurrence.
  5. The reversibility of all states has to be given: The law of the conservation of energy alone might be sufficient to imply this premise. However, one can also argue against the validity of this premise by referring to the second law of thermodynamics, which implies the permanent striving for entropy. However, there are natural scientists, such as Benjamin

Gal-Or, who hold that the second law of thermodynamics might just be connected to the expansion of the universe. We might have antientropy during the collapse of the universe.

Given the foregoing comparison between the premises of the eternal recurrence and of modern science, we can see that even from a scientific standpoint, eternal recurrence bears some plausi­bility. However, this does not mean that eternal recurrence can simply be identified with the phys­ical theory of the big bang and the expansion and contraction of the universe, because here prob­lems concerning the understanding of singularity come in. Stephen Hawking’s and Roland Penrose’s understanding of singularity is dominant today, and it causes problems for this kind of under­standing of the eternal recurrence. This again does not mean that all cosmological interpretations of the eternal recurrence have to fail. With the eter­nal recurrence or the great year, Nietzsche and Heraclitus developed concepts of time that are very different from our everyday perception of time, but once grasped, these concepts inspire a lifelong fascination.

Stefan Lorenz Sorgner

See also Cosmology, Cyclic; Eternal Recurrence;

Heraclitus; Nietzsche, Friedrich; Presocratic Age;

Time, Cyclical

Further Readings

Danto, A. (1965). Nietzsche as philosopher. New York: Columbia University Press.

Sorgner, S. L. (2001). Heraclitus and curved space.

Proceedings of the Metaphysics for the Third Millennium conference, Rome, September 5-8, 2000 (pp. 165-170).

Sorgner, S. L. (2007). Metaphysics without truth—On the importance of consistency within Nietzsche’s philosophy (Rev. ed.). Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press.

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Friedrich Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche

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