The idea of Eternal Recurrence is one that Nietzsche came up within 1881. This concept says that no matter what happens, it will all happen again and again infinitely. If this were true, would anyone really want to live? For many people, the idea of living a life where they have to experience everything from birth until death over and over again would be too much to bear. However, there are some benefits of Eternal Recurrence.
The idea of eternal recurrence
The idea of eternal recurrence happens in a few of his books, for example, §285 and §341 from The Gay Science. It also occurs in Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
The complete treatment of the subject is in work called Notes on the Eternal Recurrence. This book talks about how everything that happens will happen again and again forever. Nietzsche sums up his thoughts in his writing when he says: “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 says more about his thought when he talks to his reader. And maybe he says it best when he says this:
“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 everyone, 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”.
The same hypothesis was carried on:
- Eine real-monistische Weltanschauung(1878),
- Gustave Le Bon, L’homme et les sociétés (1881),
- Auguste Blanqui, L’éternité par les astres (1872).
Walter Benjamin compares Blanqui and Nietzsche’s ideas about eternal recurrence in his unfinished, monumental work – The Arcades Project.
Nietzsche did not mention Gustave Le Bon in his manuscripts, and he only mentioned Auguste Blanqui by name in 1883. The Devil mentions, as he does in the fourth part of Book XI in Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov, which is the possible source from which Nietzsche might have gotten inspiration.
What was Eternal Recurrence for the Stoics?
To the Stoics, eternal recurrence was an item of scientific doctrine – a real cosmological claim, whereas Nietzsche was perhaps proposing it only as a thought experiment. Yet the primary concern of the Stoics, as of Nietzsche, was not with the scientific truth of the theory, but rather with how it might be helpful to people in living their lives. There appears to be a more than the superficial similarity between the Nietzschean and Stoic approaches to the theory, as I think a comparison of Nietzsche’s words with part of a letter of the first century A.D. Stoic Seneca will reveal.
Nietzsche introduces the theory in Gay Science 341 as a means of testing the quality of a person’s life. The passage as a whole reads:
“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. 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 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.
The question in each and everything, “Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?” would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight. 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? (Trans. Walter Kaufmann)”
He says that people would not be able to live their lives again. They wouldn’t want to live their lives over and have the same bad things happen. Some people could love their lives so much that they want to live them over and over. These people have a way of passing the test of living again and again. In one interpretation of Gay Science, you can pass the test by turning your life into a work of art. Artists put many things together to make a beautiful picture or sculpture. You can do that too with the details in your life.
If you can see every event in your life as contributing to the beauty of your life, then you will be able to love everything that happens. Even if it’s painful, it is still part of the beautiful whole. Nietzsche says that it is not easy to make our lives into a work of art. It takes a lot of work and ingenuity. This is for the strongest people.
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