What is the eternal recurrence?
The eternal recurrence, one of the most important concepts developed by Nietzsche, states that since events are finite and time is infinite, someday, all and any events will return. This means that time is, basically, caught in a circular loop, and every single thing that has ever happened will happen again, and – no less importantly – that each thing that will ever happen has already happened. We, as temporal creatures, are, in essence, stuck within an ever-recurring loop, forced to do the same thing over and over again.
Nietzsche calls the concept “horrifying” – and, if understood in the basest way, it truly is. To be trapped in eternity, replaying the events that happen to us again and again and again – what truly could be more frightening? There is little I can think of. However, luckily, there are a few philosophical problems with eternal recurrence.
The most basic one is that the concept of eternal recurrence only works if we accept that space is, for some reason, finite. When dealing with matters of eternity we never know, and to the best of my knowledge, we have no reason yet to assume that space is finite. The universe is finite, however, we do not know if other universes exist – just as we do not know whether there truly is a beginning or an end to time. If space is infinite, the world remains in a state of infinite flux, where nothing is true, however, everything is possible.
Also, this concept works only if time is perceived as linear. If time is infinitely linear, thus being like a line, it is true that it seems like it eventually will loop. However, if time is perceived as non-linear, allowing for multiple possibilities to exist at the same time, and it is infinite, it becomes not like a line, but like a plane curled into a sphere – on which we already have some freedom of movement. We can choose whether to circulate on our line of probability or to jump to another. In the end, of course, the possibilities are still limited – but who says there is a finite number of dimensions to time? There is no proof of that, and recent physics studies seem to show that time – in itself a concept which has befuddled the collective mind of man since the possibility of thought arose – is a lot more complex than we even previously thought.
Nonetheless, the eternal recurrence can also be seen as not a metaphysical concept, but more a moralistic device. Amor fati is often mentioned next to this concept, for a “love of fate” is most certainly necessary to survive such a horrendous fate, moreover, to enjoy it. Amor fati, in its purest form, is a wonderful incentive for behavior that complies with the moral code of the individual, for to love one’s fate, one’s destiny, is to have the urge to fulfill it as beautifully, to perform one’s own play as well as possible. It is total determinism. You are forced to do the same thing, over, and over, and over again for all eternity – you can enjoy it, transcend it, or make yourself do what you want to do for all eternity, time and time again.
Nietzsche says that the Overman can overcome the eternal recurrence. It is useless to lay down and die within such a context: you wills simply die for an eternity – not the most pleasant way to spend it. What any person can do, however, is walk into the arena with his head held high. One can struggle through eternity, or wail through it, or… Enjoy it. We cannot change the outside – can we, perhaps, change our attitude, if not our predicament and what we are born as? Nietzsche is not certain on that, it seems to me.
Nonetheless, humans in the very least have an illusion of free will. If we can attempt something, however futile it may be, we are not powerless. Our nth life is, at the very same time, our first life, too. So we can either doom ourselves to eternal horror or to eternal bliss. Humans, now that God is dead, make their own heavens and their own hells, and only by making a heaven where hell is supposed to reside, can we deal with the eternal recurrence appropriately – in a way that does not leave us depressed and howling with fear and madness.
Thus, the eternal recurrence, the fear and anticipation of eternity – something that is far too heavy and complex for our merely mortal minds – is one of the strongest calls to take up a life that is worth living. A life which ends in nothingness for everyone can be lived sloppily – it’s not like you care once you’re dead. A life which ends in eternity is another – and more frightening, and thus stronger – matter. Nietzsche shows beautifully how eternity, something that humans have wanted for as long as they existed can be both a blessing and a nightmare.
1. Friedrich Nietzsche, trans. Walter Kaufman Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Modern Library, 1995, 368 p.