Nietzsche's Idea of the Eternal Recurrence

How would you feel about living your life again and again and again?

businessman walking in an endless circle
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The idea of the eternal recurrence is one of the most famous and intriguing ideas in the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). It is first mentioned in the penultimate section of Book IV of The Gay Science, aphorism 341, entitled ‘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 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 every thing, "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?

Nietzsche reported that the thought came to him suddenly one day in August 1881 when he had halted by a large pyramidal rock while on a walk alongside the lake of Silvaplana in Switzerland. After introducing it at the end of The Gay Science, he made it one the “fundamental conception” of his next work, Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Zarathustra, the prophet-like figure who proclaims Nietzsche’s teachings, at first, is reluctant to articulate the idea, even to himself. Eventually, though, he proclaims the eternal recurrence as a joyful truth, one that would be welcomed by someone who loves life to the fullest.

The eternal recurrence doesn’t really figure in any of Nietzsche published works after Thus Spoke Zarathustra. But in the collection of notes published by Nietzsche’s sister Elizabeth in 1901 under the title The Will to Power, there is an entire section devoted to the eternal recurrence. From this, it appears that Nietzsche seriously entertained the possibility that the doctrine is literally true.

He even considered enrolling at a university to study physics in order to investigate the doctrine scientifically. It is significant, however, that he never really insists on its literal truth in his published writings. It is presented, rather, as a sort of thought experiment to test one’s attitude to life.

The Basic Argument for the Eternal Recurrence

Nietzsche’s argument for the eternal recurrence is fairly simple. If the amount of matter or energy in the universe is finite, then there are a finite number of ways in which things in the universe can be arranged. Either one of these states will constitute equilibrium, in which case the universe will cease to change, or change is constant and unending. Time is infinite, both forwards and backward. Therefore, if the universe ever was going to enter a state of equilibrium, it would have already done so, since in an infinite amount of time, every possibility would have already occurred. Since it clearly hasn’t yet reached a permanently stable state, it never will. Therefore, the universe is dynamic, endlessly going through a succession of different arrangements. But since there is a finite (even though incredibly large) number of these, they must recur every so often, separated by vast eons of time. Moreover, they must have already come about an infinite number of times in the past and will do so again an infinite number of times in the future.  Consequently, each one of us will live this life again, exactly as we are living it now.

Variations of the arguments had been put forward by others before Nietzsche, notably by the German writer Heinrich Heine, the German scientist-philosopher Johann Gustav Vogt, and the French political radical Auguste Blanqui.

Is Nietzsche’s Argument Scientifically Sound?

According to modern cosmology, the universe, which includes time and space, began roughly 13.8 billion years ago with the event known as the Big Bang. This implies that time is not infinite, which removes a major plank from Nietzsche’s argument.  

Since the Big Bang, the universe has been expanding. Some twentieth-century cosmologists have speculated that, eventually, it will cease to expand, after which it will shrink as all the matter in the universe is pulled back together by gravity, leading to a Big Crunch, which will trigger another Big Bang and so on, ad infinitum. This concept of an oscillating universe is perhaps more compatible with the idea of eternal recurrence but current cosmology does not predict a Big Crunch. Instead, scientists predict that the universe will keep expanding but will gradually become a cold, dark place, as there will be no more fuel for stars to burn—an outcome sometimes called The Big Freeze.

The Role of the Idea in Nietzsche’s Philosophy

In the passage cited above from The Gay Science, it is noticeable that Nietzsche does not insist that the doctrine of the eternal recurrence is literally true. Instead, he asks us to consider it as a possibility, and then ask ourselves how we would respond if it were true. He assumes that our first reaction would be utter despair: the human condition is tragic; life contains much suffering; the thought that one must relive it all an infinite number of times would seem terrible.

But then he imagines a different reaction. Suppose one could welcome the news, embrace it as something that one desires? That, says Nietzsche, would be the ultimate expression of a life-affirming attitude: to want this life, with all its pain and boredom and frustration, again and again. This thought connects up with the dominant theme of Book IV of The Gay Science, which is that of being a “yea-sayer,” a life-affirmer, and of amor fati (love of one’s fate).

This is also how the idea is presented in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Zarathustra’s being able to embrace the eternal recurrence is the ultimate expression of his love for life and his desire to remain “faithful to the earth.” Perhaps this would be the response of the "Übermnesch" or "Overman" who Zarathustra anticipates as a higher kind of human being. The contrast here is with religions like Christianity, that see this world as inferior to another, and this life as a mere preparation for a life in paradise.

The eternal recurrence thus offers a different notion of immortality to the one favored by Christianity.