Editor’s Note: This is a guest article from Kyle Eschenroeder.
We’ve once more rolled into the time of year where many of us make resolutions for how to live better in the months to come.
Most of these resolutions concern very concrete, practical parts of life: losing weight, exercising more, wasting less time, getting organized. Worthy resolutions all.
But the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once gave himself a different kind of resolution — one that was both epically sweeping, and yet had the potential to tangibly transform every single area of his life:
“For the New Year . . . everyone takes the liberty of expressing his wish and his favorite thought: well, I also mean to tell what I have wished for myself today, and what thought first crossed my mind this year,—a thought which ought to be the basis, the pledge and the sweetening of all my future life! I want more and more to perceive the necessary characters in things as the beautiful:—I shall thus be one of those who beautify things. Amor fati: let that henceforth be my love! I do not want to wage war with the ugly. I do not want to accuse, I do not want even to accuse the accusers. Looking aside, let that be my sole negation! And all in all, to sum up: I wish to be at any time hereafter only a yea-sayer!”
Nietzsche resolved to amor fati — to love his fate. He wanted to say yes to life.
Amor fati was in fact not just a one-time new year’s resolution for Nietzsche, but central to his whole philosophy:
“My formula for human greatness is amor fati: that one wants to have nothing different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely to bear the necessary, still less to conceal it. . . . but to love it.”
While Nietzsche’s resolve to amor fati was rather broad and immense in scope, he fortunately had a very specific tool to help him achieve his goal: the idea of eternal return.
If saying yes to life is a resolution you’d also like to make this year, then this tool — this radically perspective-altering prism — will prove invaluable to you as well.
The Eternal Return
“What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you 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 more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to 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 upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!'” –Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science
How would you live if you were to repeat this life, as it is lived this time, over and over again for eternity?
Nothing changes. You couldn’t make different decisions or take on different attitudes. You wouldn’t be conscious that you’re reliving your life.
This life. As it is. Again and again.
This is the idea of eternal return or recurrence.
It turns memento mori — meditating on your death — on its head while offering a path to amor fati — to loving one’s fate.
It’s an ancient idea and a stirring thought experiment; while Nietzsche and others have done serious work to try and prove that eternal recurrence is literally true, for our purposes, all we need to consider is: What if?
What if death is not an escape hatch? What if you are sentenced to life, not death? To this life in particular. The only one you know.
The more you consider this idea, the more potent it becomes.
Were eternal return to be true, we’d start to take more responsibility for our life, and treat every decision more seriously, because we’d be stuck with the consequences for eternity. As Nietzsche observes, were the idea of eternal return true, “The question in each and every thing, ‘Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?’ would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight.”
As Nietzsche further observes, the weight that accompanies the idea of eternal return is truly a double-edged sword:
“Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.’ If this thought gained possession of you, it would change you as you are or perhaps crush you.”
Indeed, on the one hand, the idea of eternal return can be wildly terrifying.
Putting our life to this test is intensely uncomfortable. The idea of death or Heaven/Hell suggest we move on, leaving all or many of our decisions behind; we may be destined to an infinite reward or punishment, but either way, there is a change to something new. In the case of eternal return, however, we are fated to experience all our choices again and again — not just in memory but in living reality. Whatever mistakes you’ve made in the past, you’ll repeat on an endless, infinite loop. Knowing this, you may feel as if you’ve already spent too much of your life living in a way that would be unbearable to experience all over again. You may even feel as if you ought to just “throw yourself down and gnash your teeth.”
Yet the anguish that the idea of eternal return can generate about the past is matched by the incisive inspiration it can lend to the present and the future.
If you stay with your past regret, you’ll break through. You’ll realize that every moment spent in remorse is another regretful moment for eternity. You’ll finally understand, in your bones, the truth of Nietzsche’s wise advice: “Never yield to remorse, but at once tell yourself: remorse would simply mean adding to the first act of stupidity a second.”
If you’ve lived 70% of your life in a way you wouldn’t want to revisit, the importance of doing something differently for the remaining 30% becomes obvious. Would you want to spend an eternity regretting a previous eternity?
Eternal return then shifts your focus to the present and future — to the challenge of shaping the rest of our lives into ones we’d want to live again and again.
Eternal recurrence demands that we repeatedly answer the big, tough question of How to live? Not in an academic sense, though. The question becomes urgent, immediate, and eminently practical. We find we must rely on ourselves in the moment to make the call, and the weight of eternal recurrence helps to bring out the best in us — the best we’re capable of at the time.
The steep cost of deliberation becomes obvious and we become less patient with minor arguments about things that don’t really matter. If eternal recurrence were true, the right thing to do becomes more apparent, as does the need to take action on it. As I meditate more and more on eternal return, I continuously find myself heartily agreeing with the Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius when he said, “Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.”
Our transformed present also radically shifts our future. If we are to live this life not once, but an infinite amount of times, we’ll want to take care in choosing our aims. At the same time, we’ll be more motivated to stay true to them, and less likely to forget what’s really important when our ego begins to tempt us away. Eternal return doesn’t dictate a set of ideals to hold; instead, it keeps us closer to the ones we choose for ourselves.
When life is looked at through the prism of eternal return, rather than being ephemeral, fleeting nothings, each moment becomes an immortal brick in the groundwork of your existence. Each moment not only shapes the future, but the present moment for infinite future selves.
Eternal recurrence challenges us to inch closer to amor fati
For other uses, see Eternal return (disambiguation).
"Eternal Recurrence" redirects here. For the EP by Angel Deradoorian, see Eternal Recurrence (EP).
Eternal return (also known as eternal recurrence) is a theory that the universe and all existence and energy has been recurring, and will continue to recur, in a self-similar form an infinite number of times across infinite time or space. The theory is found in Indian philosophy and in ancient Egypt and was subsequently taken up by the Pythagoreans and Stoics. With the decline of antiquity and the spread of Christianity, the theory fell into disuse in the Western world, with the exception of Friedrich Nietzsche, who connected the thought to many of his other concepts, including amor fati. Eternal return is based on the philosophy of pre-determinism in that people are predestined to continue repeating the same events over and over again.
The basic premise proceeds from the assumption that the probability of a world coming into existence exactly like our own is greater than zero (we know this because our world exists). If space and time are infinite, then it follows logically that our existence must recur an infinite number of times.
In 1871 Louis Auguste Blanqui, assuming a Newtonian cosmology where time and space are infinite, claimed to have demonstrated eternal recurrence as a mathematical certainty. In the post-Einstein period researchers cast doubts on the idea that time or space was in fact infinite, but many models provided the notion of spatial or temporal infinity required by the eternal-return hypothesis.
The oscillatory universe model in physics offers an example of how the universe may cycle through the same events infinitely. Arthur Eddington's concept "arrow of time", for example, discusses cosmology as proceeding up to a certain point, after which it undergoes a time reversal (which, as a consequence of T-symmetry, is thought to bring about a chaotic state due to entropy).
Multiverse hypotheses in physics describe models where space or time is infinite, although local universes with their own big bangs could be finite space-time bubbles.
In ancient Egypt, the scarab (dung beetle) was viewed as a sign of eternal renewal and reemergence of life, a reminder of the life to come. (See also Atum and Ma'at.)
The Mayans and Aztecs also took a cyclical view of time.
In ancient Greece, the concept of eternal return was connected with Empedocles, Zeno of Citium, and most notably in Stoicism (see ekpyrosis).
See also: End time in Indian religions
The concept of cyclical patterns is prominent in Indian religions, such as Jainism, Hinduism, Sikhism and Buddhism among others. The important distinction is that events don't repeat endlessly but souls take birth until they attain salvation. The wheel of life represents an endless cycle of birth, life, and death from which one seeks liberation. In Tantric Buddhism, a wheel of time concept known as the Kalachakra expresses the idea of an endless cycle of existence and knowledge.
While explaining the "true self" (Atma or "Me"), lord Krishna describes the "repeating nature of universe" as a backdrop in few verses:
8.17 - Knowing that [a] thousand eras constitute a day of Brahman, [and a] thousand eras complete a night, are the people who know day, [and] night.
8.18 - On arrival of day, all manifestations originate from "Unmanifest"; On arrival of night they annihilate into [what is] known as "Unmanifest" only.
8.19 - This elementary world only happens again & again; Annihilates upon arrival of night, [and] originates upon arrival of day.
See also: Gilgul Neshamot
Historically, esoteric mystical Judaism has references to reincarnation of the soul.
The "revolving" of souls through a succession of lives, or "gilgulim" - is an integral part of some schools of Jewish mysticism.
Judaism and reincarnation
Judaism posits a creation narrative "In the beginning" and a redeemed Olam Haba at the end, which means Judaism has a linear, not a cyclical concept of time, at least regarding the physical world. However, as the Creator is eternal and without beginning or end, things in time attain some form of eternal-ity through a relationship with Him. Additionally, the Midrash posits that historical events in the history of the Jewish people repeat themselves. There is a spiritual repetition, too, and the influence is transmitted year after year, no matter the "distance" from the original event. As a result, the actions in a person's life directly affect their life in the next world, or after death, and are direct manifestations of the spiritual influences of what they did in this world (see the Kabbalah of the Ariza'l). There is also a perspective that time is composed of seven cycles, which repeat every seven thousand years (a view rejected by Isaac Luria). These concepts give human choices to do good deeds in Olam HaZeh - "this world" - some of what Nietzsche called the eternal recurrence's "infinite weight".
Twice in Ecclesiastes, there are concise statements of an idea of recurrence: "What has been, is what will be [...]", "What is, has already been; what will be, has already been [...]", (1:9 and 3:15, resp.). However, their context is not as assertions of a tenet of time being cyclic or infinite; instead, they appear as just items in the long list of the book's reiterations of its theme that life is hevel (vain, futile).
The symbol of the ouroboros, the snake or dragon devouring its own tail, is the alchemical symbol par excellence of eternal recurrence. The alchemist-physicians of the Renaissance and Reformation were aware of the idea of eternal recurrence; the physician-philosopher Sir Thomas Browne in his A Letter to a Friend c. 1657 linked the Uroboros symbol with the idea of eternal return thus -
that the first day should make the last, that the Tail of the Snake should return into its Mouth precisely at that time, and they should wind up upon the day of their Nativity, is indeed a remarkable Coincidence, which tho Astrology hath taken witty pains to salve, yet hath it been very wary in making Predictions of it.
An allusion to eternal recurrence also occurs at the conclusion of Browne's The Garden of Cyrus.
All things began in order, so shall they end, and so shall they begin again.
The concept of "eternal recurrence", the idea that with infinite time and a finite number of events, events will recur again and again infinitely, is central to the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche. As Heidegger points out in his lectures on Nietzsche, Nietzsche's first mention of eternal recurrence, in aphorism 341 of The Gay Science (cited below), presents this concept as a hypothetical question rather than postulating it as a fact. According to Heidegger, it is the burden imposed by the question of eternal recurrence—whether or not such a thing could possibly be true—that is so significant in modern thought: "The way Nietzsche here patterns the first communication of the thought of the 'greatest burden' [of eternal recurrence] makes it clear that this 'thought of thoughts' is at the same time 'the most burdensome thought.' "
The thought of eternal recurrence appears in a few of his works, in particular §285 and §341 of The Gay Science and then in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. The most complete treatment of the subject appears in the work entitled Notes on the Eternal Recurrence, a work which was published in 2007 alongside Søren Kierkegaard's own version of eternal return, which he calls 'repetition'. Nietzsche sums up his thought most succinctly when he addresses the reader with: "Everything has returned. Sirius, and the spider, and thy thoughts at this moment, and this last thought of thine that all things will return". However, he also expresses his thought at greater length when he says to his reader:
"Whoever thou mayest be, beloved stranger, whom I meet here for the first time, avail thyself of this happy hour and of the stillness around us, and above us, and let me tell thee something of the thought which has suddenly risen before me like a star which would fain shed down its rays upon thee and every one, as befits the nature of light. - Fellow man! Your whole life, like a sandglass, will always be reversed and will ever run out again, - a long minute of time will elapse until all those conditions out of which you were evolved return in the wheel of the cosmic process. And then you will find every pain and every pleasure, every friend and every enemy, every hope and every error, every blade of grass and every ray of sunshine once more, and the whole fabric of things which make up your life. This ring in which you are but a grain will glitter afresh forever. And in every one of these cycles of human life there will be one hour where, for the first time one man, and then many, will perceive the mighty thought of the eternal recurrence of all things:- and for mankind this is always the hour of Noon".
This thought is indeed also noted in a posthumous fragment. The origin of this thought is dated by Nietzsche himself, via posthumous fragments, to August 1881, at Sils-Maria. In Ecce Homo (1888), he wrote that he thought of the eternal return as the "fundamental conception" of Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
Several authors have pointed out other occurrences of this hypothesis in contemporary thought. Rudolf Steiner, who revised the first catalogue of Nietzsche's personal library in January 1896, pointed out that Nietzsche would have read something similar in Eugen Dühring's Courses on philosophy (1875), which Nietzsche readily criticized. Lou Andreas-Salomé pointed out that Nietzsche referred to ancient cyclical conceptions of time, in particular by the Pythagoreans, in the Untimely Meditations. Henri Lichtenberger and Charles Andler have pinpointed three works contemporary to Nietzsche which carried on the same hypothesis: J.G. Vogt, Die Kraft. Eine real-monistische Weltanschauung (1878), Auguste Blanqui, L'éternité par les astres (1872) and Gustave Le Bon, L'homme et les sociétés (1881). Walter Benjamin juxtaposes Blanqui and Nietzsche's discussion of eternal recurrence in his unfinished, monumental work The Arcades Project. However, Gustave Le Bon is not quoted anywhere in Nietzsche's manuscripts; and Auguste Blanqui was named only in 1883. Vogt's work, on the other hand, was read by Nietzsche during this summer of 1881 in Sils-Maria. Blanqui is mentioned by Albert Lange in his Geschichte des Materialismus (History of Materialism), a book closely read by Nietzsche. The eternal recurrence is also mentioned in passing by the Devil in Part Four, Book XI, Chapter 9 of Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, which is another possible source that Nietzsche may have been drawing upon.
Walter Kaufmann suggests that Nietzsche may have encountered this idea in the works of Heinrich Heine, who once wrote:
[T]ime is infinite, but the things in time, the concrete bodies, are finite. They may indeed disperse into the smallest particles; but these particles, the atoms, have their determinate numbers, and the numbers of the configurations which, all of themselves, are formed out of them is also determinate. Now, however long a time may pass, according to the eternal laws governing the combinations of this eternal play of repetition, all configurations which have previously existed on this earth must yet meet, attract, repulse, kiss, and corrupt each other again...
Nietzsche calls the idea "horrifying and paralyzing", referring to it as a burden of the "heaviest weight" ("das schwerste Gewicht") imaginable. He professes that the wish for the eternal return of all events would mark the ultimate affirmation of life:
What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you 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 more and innumerable times more' ... Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: 'You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.' [The Gay Science, §341]
To comprehend eternal recurrence in his thought, and to not merely come to peace with it but to embrace it, requires amor fati, "love of fate":
My formula for human greatness is amor fati: that one wants to have nothing different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely to bear the necessary, still less to conceal it—all idealism is mendaciousness before the necessary—but to love it.
In Carl Jung's seminar on Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Jung claims that the dwarf states the idea of the eternal return before Zarathustra finishes his argument of the eternal return when the dwarf says, "'Everything straight lies,' murmured the dwarf disdainfully. 'All truth is crooked, time itself is a circle.'" However, Zarathustra rebuffs the dwarf in the following paragraph, warning him against over-simplifications.
A late 1880s comment by Nietzsche, "In an infinite period of time, every possible combination would at some time be attained," has been cited to argue that Nietzsche dropped his plans to try to scientifically prove the theory because he realized that if he would have to eventually repeat life as it is, his presumption of infinite time means "he" would also have to "repeat" life differently, since every configuration of atoms and events will occur. Instead, according to this interpretation of Nietzsche, he continued to propound the doctrine for its psychological and philosophical import. Though section 1063 of his posthumous notebooks "The Will To Power" states, "The law of conservation of energy demands eternal recurrence."
Poincaré recurrence theorem
Related to the concept of eternal return is the Poincaré recurrence theorem in mathematics. It states that a system whose dynamics are volume-preserving and which is confined to a finite spatial volume will, after a sufficiently long time, return to an arbitrarily small neighborhood of its initial state. "A sufficiently long time" could be much longer than the predicted lifetime of the observable universe (see Terasecond and longer).
The philosopher and writer Albert Camus explores the notion of "eternal return" in his essay on "The Myth of Sisyphus", in which the repetitive nature of existence comes to represent life's absurdity, something the hero seeks to withstand through manifesting what Paul Tillich called "The Courage to Be". Though the task of rolling the stone repeatedly up the hill without end is inherently meaningless, the challenge faced by Sisyphus is to refrain from despair. Hence Camus famously concludes that, "one must imagine Sisyphus happy."
While the big bang theory in the framework of relativistic cosmology seems to be at odds with eternal return, there are now many different speculative big bang scenarios in quantum cosmology which actually imply eternal return - although based on other assumptions than Nietzsche's. So there are competing models and hypotheses with a temporal, spatial or spatio-temporal eternal return of everything in all variations as Nietzsche has envisaged.
The oscillating universe theory—that the universe will end in a collapse or 'big crunch' followed by another big bang, and so on—dates from 1930. Cosmologists such as professor Alexander Vilenkin from Tufts University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Max Tegmark suggest that if space is sufficiently large and uniform, or infinite as some theories suggest, and if quantum theory is true such that there is only a finite number of configurations within a finite volume possible, due to Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, then identical instances of the history of Earth's entire Hubble volume occur every so often, simply by chance. Tegmark calculates that our nearest so-called doppelgänger is 1010115 meters away from us (a double exponential function larger than a googolplex). While it would be impossible to scientifically verify an identical Hubble volume, it does follow as a fairly straightforward consequence from otherwise unrelated scientific observations and theories. Tegmark suggests that statistical analyses exploiting the anthropic principle provide an opportunity to test multiverse theories in some cases. Generally, science would consider a multiverse theory that posits neither a common point of causation, nor the possibility of interaction between universes, to be an ideal speculation. However, it is a fundamental assumption of cosmology that the universe continues to exist beyond the scope of the observable universe, and that the distribution of matter is everywhere the same at such a large scale (see cosmological principle).
Nietzsche scholar Walter Kaufmann has described an argument originally put forward by Georg Simmel, which rebuts the claim that a finite number of states must repeat within an infinite amount of time:
Even if there were exceedingly few things in a finite space in an infinite time, they would not have to repeat in the same configurations. Suppose there were three wheels of equal size, rotating on the same axis, one point marked on the circumference of each wheel, and these three points lined up in one straight line. If the second wheel rotated twice as fast as the first, and if the speed of the third wheel was 1/π of the speed of the first, the initial line-up would never recur.
Thus a system could have an infinite number of distinct physical configurations that never recur. However the example presupposes the possibility of perfect continuity: for instance, if the universe proves to have a quantum foam nature, then the exact quantity of an irrational number cannot be expressed by any physical object.
The modern adaption of the Eternal Return concept has proven its way to metal music. An American Melodic Death Metal band named Darkest Hour named their Sixth album The Eternal Return.
An Indian Metal band named Eternal Returns adapts the concepts of Eternal Return to its music, lyrical concepts and composition.
- ^Tegmark M., "Parallel universes". Sci. Am. 2003 May; 288(5):40–51.
- ^Jean-Pierre Luminet (2008-03-28). "The Wraparound Universe". AK Peters, Ltd. ISBN 978-1-56881-309-7
- ^citations in Rabbi Joseph Hayim, Da'at U'Tevunah, p. 90, http://www.hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=20123&st=&pgnum=90 , translated in Zev Golan, "God, Man and Nietzsche: A Startling Dialogue between Judaism and Modern Philosophers", iUniverse, 2007, p 5
- ^Zev Golan, "God, Man and Nietzsche: A Startling Dialogue between Judaism and Modern Philosophers", iUniverse, 2007, pp4-14
- ^See Heidegger Nietzsche. Volume II: The Eternal Recurrence of the Same trans. David Farrell Krell. New York: Harper and Row, 1984. 25.
- ^Notes on the Eternal Recurrence - Vol. 16 of Oscar Levy Edition of Nietzsche's Complete Works (in English)
- ^1881 (11 )
- ^Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, "Why I Write Such Good Books", "Thus Spoke Zarathustra", §1
- ^Walter Benjamin. The Arcades Project. Trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin. Cambridge: Belknap-Harvard, 2002. See chapter D, "Boredom Eternal Return," pp. 101-119.
- ^"?". Archived from the original on November 16, 2006. and "revision of previous catalogues". on the École Normale Supérieure's website
- ^Alfred Fouillée, "Note sur Nietzsche et Lange: le "retour éternel", in Revue philosophique de la France et de l'étranger. An. 34. Paris 1909. T. 67, S. 519-525 (in French)
- ^Kaufmann, Walter. Nietzsche; Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist. 1959, page 376.
- ^Kundera, Milan. The Unbearable Lightness of Being. 1999, page 5.
- ^ abDudley, Will. Hegel, Nietzsche, and Philosophy: Thinking Freedom. 2002, page 201.
- ^Gildersleeve, M. (2015). The Gay Science and the Rosarium Philosophorum. Agathos, 6(2), 37.
- ^Golan, God, Man and Nietzsche, pp2-3
- ^Rüdiger Vaas: "Ewig rollt das Rad des Seins": Der 'Ewige-Wiederkunfts-Gedanke' und seine Aktualität in der modernen physikalischen Kosmologie. In: Helmut Heit, Günter Abel, Marco Brusotti (eds.): Nietzsches Wissenschaftsphilosophie. de Gruyter: Berlin, New York 2012, S. 371-390. ISBN 9783110259377content
- ^Alex Vilenkin: Many Worlds in One. New York: Hill and Wang 2006
- ^Tegmark, M (May 2003). "Parallel universes. Not just a staple of science fiction, other universes are a direct implication of cosmological observations". Sci. Am. 288 (5): 40–51. doi:10.1038/scientificamerican0503-40. PMID 12701329.
- ^Max Tegmark (2003). "Parallel Universes". In "Science and Ultimate Reality: from Quantum to Cosmos", honoring John Wheeler's 90th birthday. J. D. Barrow, P.C.W. Davies, & C.L. Harper eds. Cambridge University Press (2003). 288: 40–51. arXiv:astro-ph/0302131. Bibcode:2003astro.ph..2131T. doi:10.1038/scientificamerican0503-40. PMID 12701329.
- ^Tegmark, Max (May 2003). "Parallel Universes". Scientific American: 41.
- ^Kaufmann, Walter. Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist. (Fourth Edition) Princeton University Press, 1974. p327
- Louis-Auguste Blanqui, Eternity by the Stars, tr. with an intro by Frank Chouraqui (New York: Contra Mundum Press, 2013).
- Paolo D'Iorio, "The Eternal Return: Genesis and Interpretation", in The Agonist, vol. III, issue I, spring 2011.
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