Eternal Recurrence

The most well known version of the concept of ‘Eternal Recurrence’, sometimes known as ‘Eternal Return’, was posited as a thought experiment by Friedrich Nietzsche. Though not the first to encounter this idea, Nietzsche struggled with the concept for a long time, he felt at that the idea of the Eternal Recurrence was the most disturbing and most puzzling of all value judgements, and seems to highlight his critique of values very well.

It is important to note that this is a Thought experiment and not a metaphysical claim. Though Nietzsche had originally intended it as a claim to truth, prior to the writing of the Gay Science he had reformulated it into a purely hypothetical concept.

The concept as put forth by Nietzsche is as follows.

The greatest weight.— 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!”
Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus?… Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?

from Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, s.341, Walter Kaufmann transl.

At first it seems difficult to understand the purpose of this thought experiment at all, though the beginning phrase, “The greatest weight” alludes to the problem Nietzsche had encountered. If we know we are to experience the same things over and over again, how would we value things? Even the slightest actions would be given almost infinite weight, as we would be forced to experience them over and over and over countless times. In the only case in which i could ever answer in the affirmative would be if i were to have lived every moment in my life to the highest…. highest what? Nietzsche had undone pretty much all values possible. I cannot say i live morally as Nietzsche had clearly undone that. How am i to solve this riddle?

One possible approach is that Nietzsche was putting this forth as a kind of ‘imperative’, similar to that of Kant. If we are to run our lives through this thought experiment, what will our reaction be to the demon? We are not borrowing any systemic approach, we are not being told how to value, we are simply being asked what we value by having this question asked of us. But at the same time it seems to be the greatest burden imaginable to have to re-live life over and over. In the perfect possible world, where i have done everything to the point that i am satisfied with life, i feel i have lived it to it’s greatest extent; this is the only situation i can conceive of in which i would rejoice. However where does that leave us? We cannot exactly use that in any meaningful way in life, even if we strive towards that goal, we will likely never reach it, and have to deal with these great burdens.

Nietzsche’s vague response to these issues are as follows:

To endure the idea of the recurrence one needs: freedom from morality; new means against the fact of pain ( pain conceived as a tool, as the father of pleasure…); the enjoyment of all kinds of uncertainty, experimentalism, as a counterweight to this extreme fatalism; abolition of the concept of necessity; abolition of the “will”; abolition of “knowledge-in-itself.”

Greatest elevation of the consciousness of strength in man, as he creates the overman.

from The Will to Power, s. 1053,1056,1058,1060, Walter Kaufmann transl.

If we are to abolish so many of these core values that we hold, are we not just evading the problem by rendering life meaningless? Or do i contradict Nietzsche’s philosophy by taking his theory of the overman by adopting his values towards it, becoming the very thing he warns against? This mystery seems unsolvable to me, with my limited understanding of what is very clearly a complicated and radical philosophy.

It seems to understand the thought experiment, and to understand Nietzsche’s philosophy itself continually falls back on his rejection of morality and of herd mentality, which is by no means an easy task. Perhaps without a proper understanding of Nietzsche i shall never fully unravel the mystery of eternal recurrence as he saw it.

*This is just a test blog post, scrambled down in the early hours so forgive the quality!


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