Eternal return


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Eternal return (German: Ewige Wiederkunft; also known as eternal recurrence) is a concept 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 basic premise proceeds from the assumption that the probability of a world coming into existence exactly like our own is nonzero. If space and time are infinite, then it follows logically that our existence must recur an infinite number of times.[1]

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.[2]

Classical antiquity

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, palingenesis).

The idea is also suggested in Virgil's Aeneid. In Book 6 of the poem (lines 724–51), the hero, Aeneas, descends into the Underworld and learns from Anchises—his deceased father whose soul lives on in Elysium—that a system of metempsychosis secures the continuation of the human race: after death, each human soul undergoes a period of expurgation, cleansing themselves of the impurity accrued during their embodied life on earth. Most souls, however, are condemned to return to an embodied existence on earth (rather than move on to Elysium, like Anchises). And yet, before they return to that life, they are summoned by "god" to the River Lethe, where they drink the water and come to forget what they have experienced—viz., all the suffering and punishment for their "sins", and the struggles and toil that went along with their previous embodied existence. In other words, right as they enter into their new embodied existences, they are made ignorant, both of what they did in their previous existence that incurred all the penalties in the afterlife, and indeed of the penalties themselves. They are, then, forced into a position where they are more or less doomed to repeat their wrongdoings, all the while remaining unaware of the cost that those wrongdoings will bring upon them. One scholar, David Quint,[3] has argued that this moment in Virgil's poem is illustrative of the therapeutic effects of oblivion—of the way that the act of forgetting secures the continuation of life. That is one interpretation, but the point seems to strike a more tragic note about the way humans are condemned to act out the same errors time and time again because of enforced ignorance. The Aeneid is, more generally, accepted as having a thoroughly tragic outlook on human existence (a landmark study on this is W. R. Johnson's Darkness Visible(1976); see also P. R. Hardie, "Virgil and Tragedy" in the volume The Cambridge Companion to Virgil, edited by C. Martindale (Cambridge University Press: 1997)).

Abrahamic religions

Judaism and the other Abrahamic religions are thought to be some of the first religions to go against belief in eternal return, stressing instead that the world has a beginning and an end.[citation needed] Jewish eschatology holds a number of things as occurring at the end of time,[citation needed] including the coming of the Messiah, a universal resurrection, and the Last Judgment. Christian and Islamic eschatology add to this narrative an Antichrist who opposes the Messiah, and an ultimate battle between the forces of good and evil, called Armageddon by Christians.

Ecclesiastes states: "What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun."[4] According to Augustine of Hippo, some philosophers in antiquity have apparently cited these verses as support of their doctrine of eternal return. Augustine, however, in his treatise The City of God, condemns such an interpretation.[5]

Indian religions

Life circle in Vajrayana

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.[6]

Friedrich Nietzsche

The concept of eternal recurrence is central to some important writings of Friedrich Nietzsche.[7] It appears in a few of his works, in particular §285 and §341 of The Gay Science and in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. In Ecce Homo (1888), he wrote that the thought of the eternal return was the "fundamental conception" of Thus Spoke Zarathustra.[8] The origin of the idea is dated by Nietzsche himself to August 1881, while he was walking in Sils-Maria.

Scene of Nietzsche's inspiration: "by a massive, pyramidally piled up block not far from Surlei"

Interpretations of the eternal recurrence as it appears in Nietzsche's works have mostly revolved around cosmological and attitudinal and normative principles.[9]

As a cosmological principle, it has been supposed to mean that time is circular, that all things recur eternally.[10] A weak attempt at proof has been noted in Nietzsche's notebooks, and it is not clear to what extent, if at all, Nietzsche believed in the truth of it.[11] Critics have mostly dealt with the cosmological principle as a puzzle of why Nietzsche might have touted the idea.

As an attitudinal principle it has often been dealt with as a thought experiment, to see how one would react, or as a sort of ultimate expression of life-affirmation, as if one should desire eternal recurrence.[12]

As a normative principle, it has been thought of as a measure or standard, akin to a "moral rule".[13]

One of the most discussed appearances of eternal recurrence in Nietzsche's work is section 341 in The Gay Science, "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 [...]
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" [...][14]

As Heidegger points out in his lectures on Nietzsche, Nietzsche's first mention of eternal recurrence, in aphorism 341 ("The Greatest Weight") of The Gay Science, 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.' "[15] Robert Wicks suggests that the concept of eternal recurrence, as portrayed in "The Greatest Weight," "serves to draw attention away from all worlds other than the one in which we presently live, since eternal recurrence precludes the possibility of any final escape from the present world.[16] Wick's analysis implies that eternal recurrence does not refer to the endless repetition of specific events, but rather the inescapable general circumstances that constitute existence in the physical world.

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[17] (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.[18] However, Gustave Le Bon is not quoted anywhere in Nietzsche's manuscripts; and Auguste Blanqui was named only in 1883. On the other hand, Nietzsche read Vogt's work during the summer of 1881 in Sils-Maria.[19] Albert Lange mentions Blanqui in his Geschichte des Materialismus (History of Materialism), a book Nietzsche read closely.[20]

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...[21]

To comprehend eternal recurrence in his thought, and to not merely come to peace with it but to embrace it, requires what he calls amor fati, "love of fate".[22] In Ecce Homo—"Why I Am So Clever", section 10, he confesses:[23]

"My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it—all idealism is mendacity in the face of what is necessary—but 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. "'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 the spirit of gravity.

Gilles Deleuze suggested that Nietzsche's eternal return was not only a directive for ethical behavior, but also a radical understanding of the nature of time. As he put it, "The present must coexist with itself as past and yet to come. The synthetic relation of the moment to itself as present, past, and future grounds its relation to other moments. The eternal return is thus an answer to the problem of passage [between past and present, or present and future]."[24] Deleuze contrasted this understanding to an understanding that Nietzsche was referring to a literal, mechanistic return of the same moment. Deleuze rather claimed that Nietzsche was attempting to synthesize being and becoming: "It is not being that returns but rather returning itself that it constitutes being insofar as it is affirmed of becoming."[24] Deleuze's own articulation of this conception was further expanded in Difference and Repetition (1968).

Albert Camus

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. Camus concludes, "one must imagine Sisyphus happy."[25]

Opposing arguments and criticism

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.[26]

See also


  1. ^ Tegmark M., "Parallel universes". Sci. Am. 2003 May; 288(5):40–51.
  2. ^ Jean-Pierre Luminet (2008-03-28). The Wraparound Universe. AK Peters, Ltd. ISBN 978-1-56881-309-7.
  3. ^ Epic and Empire: the Politics of Generic Form from Virgil to Milton (Yale University Press: 1993)
  4. ^ The ecclesiast. Koheleth. NIV.
  5. ^ "At all events, far be it from any true believer to suppose that by these words of Solomon [i.e. Ecclesiastes 1:9-10] those cycles are meant, in which, according to those philosophers, the same periods and events of time are repeated; as if, for example, the philosopher Plato, having taught in the school at Athens which is called the Academy, so, numberless ages before, at long but certain intervals, this same Plato and the same school, and the same disciples existed, and so also are to be repeated during the countless cycles that are yet to be — far be it, I say, from us to believe this. For once Christ died for our sins; and, rising from the dead, He dies no more. Death has no more dominion over Him; Romans 6:9 and we ourselves after the resurrection shall be "ever with the Lord", 1 Thessalonians 4:16 to whom we now say, as the sacred Psalmist dictates, "You shall keep us, O Lord, You shall preserve us from this generation." And that too which follows, is, I think, appropriate enough: "The wicked walk in a circle," not because their life is to recur by means of these circles, which these philosophers imagine, but because the path in which their false doctrine now runs is circuitous." (St. Augustine, City of God, book XII, chapter 13, )
  6. ^ "BBC - Religions - Hinduism: Hindu concepts". Retrieved 2021-03-16.
  7. ^ Anderson, R. Lanier (2017), "Friedrich Nietzsche", in Zalta, Edward N. (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2017 ed.), Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, retrieved 2020-07-23
  8. ^ Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, "Why I Write Such Good Books", "Thus Spoke Zarathustra", §1
  9. ^ Sinhababu, N., & Teng, K.U. (2019). Loving the Eternal Recurrence. The Journal of Nietzsche Studies 50(1), 106-124.
  10. ^ Sinhababu, N., & Teng, K.U. (2019). Loving the Eternal Recurrence. The Journal of Nietzsche Studies 50(1), 106-124.
  11. ^ Sinhababu, N., & Teng, K.U. (2019). Loving the Eternal Recurrence. The Journal of Nietzsche Studies 50(1), 106-124.
  12. ^ Sinhababu, N., & Teng, K.U. (2019). Loving the Eternal Recurrence. The Journal of Nietzsche Studies 50(1), 106-124.
  13. ^ Sinhababu, N., & Teng, K.U. (2019). Loving the Eternal Recurrence. The Journal of Nietzsche Studies 50(1), 106-124.
  14. ^ Schacht, Richard (2001). Nietzsche's Postmoralism: Essays on Nietzsche's Prelude to Philosophy's Future. Cambridge University Press. p. 237. ISBN 978-0-521-64085-5.
  15. ^ See Heidegger Nietzsche. Volume II: The Eternal Recurrence of the Same trans. David Farrell Krell. New York: Harper and Row, 1984. 25.
  16. ^ Wicks, Robert (2018), "Nietzsche's Life and Works", in Zalta, Edward N. (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2018 ed.), Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, retrieved 2020-07-23
  17. ^ Tremblay, Jean-Marie (2 February 2005). "Louis-Auguste Blanqui, (1805-1881), L'éternité par les astres. (1872)". texte.
  18. ^ Walter Benjamin. The Arcades Project. Trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin. Cambridge: Belknap-Harvard, 2002. See chapter D, "Boredom Eternal Return," pp. 101-119.
  19. ^ "La bibliothèque de Nietzsche". Archived from the original on November 16, 2006. and "revision of previous catalogues". Archived from the original on 2006-11-16. Retrieved 2007-01-05. on the École Normale Supérieure's website
  20. ^ 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)
  21. ^ Kaufmann, Walter. Nietzsche; Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist. 1959, page 376.
  22. ^ Dudley, Will. Hegel, Nietzsche, and Philosophy: Thinking Freedom. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2002, page 201.
  23. ^ Basic Writings of Nietzsche. trans. and ed. by Walter Kaufmann (1967), p. 714.
  24. ^ a b Deleuze, Gilles, 1925-1995. (1983). Nietzsche and philosophy. New York: Columbia University Press. p. 48. ISBN 0-231-05668-0. OCLC 8763853.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  25. ^ Camus, Albert (1991). The Myth of Sisyphus: And Other Essays. New York: The Myth of Sisyphus: And Other Essays. ISBN 978-0679733737.
  26. ^ 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.
  • Hatab, Lawrence J. (2005). Nietzsche's Life Sentence: Coming to Terms with Eternal Recurrence. New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-96758-9.
  • Lorenzen, Michael (2006). "The Ideal Academic Library as Envisioned through Nietzsche's Vision of the Eternal Return". MLA Forum 5, no. 1. Archived from the original on 2006-11-14. Retrieved 2006-11-21.
  • Lukacher, Ned (1998). Time-Fetishes: The Secret History of Eternal Recurrence. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press. ISBN 0-8223-2253-6.
  • Magnus, Bernd (1978). Nietzsche's Existential Imperative. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. ISBN 0-253-34062-4.
  • Jung, Carl (1988). Nietzsche's Zarathustra: Notes of the Seminar Given in 1934 - 1939 (2 Volume Set). Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0-691-09953-8.
  • Mircea Eliade (1954). Myth of the Eternal Return. Bollingen Foundation Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0691-01777-8.

External links