Nietzsche, Friedrich (1844–1900)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC057-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 20, 2019, from

12. Eternal recurrence

Nietzsche identifies himself above all else as the teacher of eternal recurrence, which is often interpreted as a cosmological theory to the effect that the exact history of the cosmos endlessly repeats itself. Although he did sketch arguments for such a theory in his notebooks, he actually does not argue for or commit himself to a recurrence cosmology in any work he published. And, although he presents eternal recurrence as the ‘basic conception’ of Zarathustra, he does not commit its protagonist to a cosmology. He identifies this ‘basic conception’ not as a cosmology, but as ‘the highest formula for affirmation that is at all attainable’ ( Ecce Homo III §1 [ Werke VI.3: 335]).

As first articulated in Gay Science, eternal recurrence is a heuristic device used to formulate Nietzsche’s Dionysian ideal (see §9 of this entry). How well disposed we are to life is to be measured by how we would react upon being told by a demon (in a manner designed to induce uncritical acceptance) that we will have to live again and again the exact course of life we are now living. Would we experience despair or joy, curse the demon or greet him as a god? Nietzsche’s ideal is the affirmation of eternal recurrence, to be a person who would respond to the demon with joy. This is not equivalent to having no regrets, since it has no implication concerning how to respond if given the choice of variations on history. Nietzsche’s ideal is to love life enough to be joyfully willing to have the whole process repeated eternally, including all the parts that one did not love and even fought against. Eternal recurrence gives him a formula for what it is to value the process of life as an end and not merely as a means.

Nietzsche’s special self-identification with eternal recurrence can be explained in terms of his view regarding the importance of the ascetic ideal and his explanation of its power: ‘a counterideal was lacking - until Zarathustra’. There are only two plausible candidates for the counterideal Zarathustra offers, the overhuman and the affirmation of eternal recurrence. The overhuman is one who overcomes the ascetic ideal. But, as Zarathustra first preaches it, the overhuman ideal can be seen as another variation on the ascetic ideal. Like the ascetic priest, Zarathustra treats our lives as valuable only as a means to a form of life that is actually their negation. Like the ascetic priest, he turns his will to power against human life and takes revenge against it (for the powerlessness it induces) by excluding it from what he recognizes as intrinsically valuable. The ideal of affirming eternal recurrence, in contrast, values the whole process of living, and thereby overcomes the ascetic ideal’s devaluation of human life, even while pushing us to go beyond its present form. It provides us with the image of a higher form of human life, but does not take revenge against the latter by refusing to call its higher form ‘human’. It therefore appears to be Zarathustra’s true alternative to the ascetic ideal.

It may seem, however, that happy pre-moral barbarians should be able to affirm eternal recurrence. How then can it provide an image of a higher form of human life towards which to strive, one that could inspire internalization, virtue and self-creation comparable to that inspired by the ascetic ideal? One relevant factor is Nietzsche’s hope for new philosophers who will create new values. Perhaps he did not expect his counterideal to provide the full content of new values, just as the ascetic ideal did not provide the full content of the old values. The ascetic priests did not create their values from scratch. They took over virtues, duties, forms of life that were already there and gave them a new interpretation, one that denied the value of natural human existence. Nietzsche seems to hope that new philosophers will do something comparable - that they will provide a new life-affirming interpretation of virtues, duties and forms of life that are already there. Eternal recurrence would function as the form of new values, a test that they must pass to count as non-ascetic or life-affirming. The test for teachers of new values would be: can you endorse and teach these values while affirming eternal recurrence?

If this suggestion is correct, Nietzsche’s relation to the modern world is not quite as revolutionary as it sometimes appears. The role of his new philosophers is not to overturn everything, but to take what is in pieces due to the dissolution of the old interpretation of value and to provide a new interpretation. This kind of philosophizing is not just for the future, but is found in Nietzsche’s own writings. He praises old virtues - justice and generosity, for instance - but gives us a new interpretation of them, a different way of seeing them as valuable. Generosity is valuable not because it is selfless, but because it exhibits the soul’s richness and power. And justice is perhaps the greatest virtue not because it is disinterested or obeys a higher law, but because it is the rarest and highest mastery that is possible on earth. And Nietzsche does not merely talk about these matters. His writings show us a new kind of person and a new kind of philosopher in the virtues he exhibits in them, not least of all in the interpretations he gives of his virtues. Truthfulness or honesty, justice, generosity are all exhibited in his writings, but are given life-affirming interpretations that bring to our attention the role of the will to power in them.

This is not to say that Nietzsche’s new values are simply repackaged old ones. Nietzsche’s ideal leads him to value qualities that he claims have never before been considered part of greatness, such as malice, exuberance and laughter. But even in their new interpretations of old values, the aim of Nietzsche’s new philosophers is to push culture in new directions, for instance, towards giving explicit expression at the higher levels of culture to what the old ideal excluded from the highest forms of life. This is what Nietzsche exhibits, for instance, in the positive and negative emotion, the exuberance and malice, the aggression and eros, that permeates his writings. At this level, his philosophy is art, but it is an art that completes and is no longer used to devalue knowledge, which can now be recognized as its sometimes contentious partner in Nietzsche’s soul and writings.

Citing this article:
Clark, Maudemarie. Eternal recurrence. Nietzsche, Friedrich (1844–1900), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC057-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2019 Routledge.

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