Nietsche, as others before and after him (its roots, I am told, are in the West Asian tradition) , espoused the idea of an ever repeating clockwork universe, in which all lives are led over and over; each time identically. In choosing this view, one is compelled to a love of Fate, to -in the language of Zarathustra- choose one's 'downgoing', and indeed much of 'Thus Spoke...' follows from it as a premise (although it is not mentioned until the closing chapters).

Nietsche, not fool enough to believe it could be proved to be reality, presented it (out of Zarathustra's voice) as a thought experiment:

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' ... 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.' (The gay science, via wikipedia)

But as a thought experiment, what are its consequences? Certainly they are not the same as those of the premise itself. And has anyone attempted to rehabilitate this notion, in a thought experiment or otherwise, in a manner other than the (fairly obviously futile) direct argument toward the concrete reality of the eternal return?


7 Answers 7


First, a small point: I don't know of any "West Asian" antecedents to the Eternal Return; if you have a citation, please pass it along, as it would be interesting to find out about.

Second, it is not by any means clear that Nietzsche would have had to have been "a fool" to believe in the Eternal Return, and there are certainly passages which would indicate that he did believe it (more than as a thought experiment). It's far from a foolish position-- if you accept a materialist universe, in fact, it is a likely side effect; if we posit (like modern physicists) that the universe began with a Big Bang, one would presume that whenever the necessary conditions for such an event arises, another Big Bang occurs, which would play out deterministically in exactly the same fashion, etc. Nietzsche makes this reasoning clear in some of his notebooks (minus the reference to the Big Bang, of course).

Now, as to the consequences of the thought experiment: you'll find almost as many varying interpretations as there are readers of Nietzsche, but he makes explicit that he is aiming at a notion of amor fati, that one should live one's life as if each moment were holding the force of eternity; a nice literary examination of this "heaviness" is found in Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being, where the weight of the Eternal Return is contrasted to the lightness of believing that every ephemeral moment only occurs the once.

  • thanks for your response, but I fear you misunderstand me: I did not say that Nietsche would be a fool to believe in the eternal return (indeed, never would), merely that he would be a fool to argue for it. Given his skeptical position, such a strong metaphysical claim would be untenable. I agree, though, that it is possible. I am just confused as to whether any logical conclusion can be drawn from what has the ontological status of a thought experiment: if I said- "Imagine one day, a demon came to you and told you God was real and that he hates gays" there is little doubt that... Dec 9, 2011 at 16:33
  • it would carry less weight than the actual occurrence itself. Indeed, your contrasting literary reference bears this out nicely: for the exact negation and its consequences are eminently possible! What I had wondered was whether I had missed something of an analytic bent in the thought experiment formulation. As for the reference you requested, I can only point you in the vague direction of a chap at a party who first recommended T.S.Z. to me- wikipedia seems to mention it in passing though. Dec 9, 2011 at 16:45
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    @TomBoardman: Sorry, I did misread you on that point, I apologize. In some of Nietzsche's notebooks, he lays out the argument in a straightforward form, not as a thought experiment-- I can try to dig out the references when I have a chance. As for the value of the thought experiment, there are definitely precedents where people are exhorted to act as if a certain doctrine were true, regardless of the fact that the actual truth status of the proposition is indeterminate (and often undeterminable)-- I can think of a Buddhist example off the top of my head, as well as one from Judaism. Dec 9, 2011 at 17:13
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    I might tenatively suggest that it's possibly both of these things at once, in different places perhaps. What @Tom says about a "strong metaphysical position" is precisely what a later Nietzsche will articulate, as a secret, a discovery, something different from the Greeks: that eternal recurrence is will to power, the eternal recurrence of transformations, downgoings/overcomings; the eternal return is not said of the same but of difference. Deleuze elaborates this in some depth in his Nietzsche and Philosophy, which is well worth a look on this point
    – Joseph Weissman
    Feb 9, 2012 at 23:44
  • To the first question. Someone here points the questioner to the Vedas, but is not very specific. philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/22378/… This 'Swami V...' may have a more specific reference for you, if you pursue him.
    – user9166
    Mar 21, 2015 at 15:40

Nietsche, as others before and after him (its roots, I am told, are in the West Asian tradition) , espoused the idea of an ever repeating clockwork universe, in which all lives are led over and over; each time identically

First of all, I am not aware if Nietsche had been influenced by West Asian Tradition.

I know for a sure though that he was influenced and admired the Greek philosophers whose theories often tries to put on the test even though it is not mentioned explicitely (i.e. the reader is assumed to know about them).

I don't know if the concept of Eternal Retern as you point out is rooted in West Asian tradition either.

But it sounds like a concept rooted in Greece as well.
To give 2 specific examples:
One of the presocratic philosophers was Heraclitus. From his work, only fragments survive up to this date, which are so significant though that have been analyzed by thousands of writers.
This concept you refer brings to my mind some of his quotes:
1) “This world was not created.It ever was, and is, and shall be, ever-living fire, in measures being kindled and in measures going out.”
2) Everything is driven by fate
3) In a cyclical road the end and beginning are common

The philosopher who suggested the concept of the phichi coming back again and again was Plato (which Nietze always refers to).

Plato's theory was that knowledge is a "memory". It's root is from previous lives.
In the Republica it actually describes via the part were Socrates describes a myth that humans are "locked" in this circular mode, always returning until the human psichi learns enough to break that circle and stop returning and reach the heavens.

If you are interested in this eternal return and if there is one what is the purpose etc.
I would advice you to read Phaedros and Republica of Plato (but from Republica only the myth part is what would be relevant).

As far as Nietche that you mention, what he means is open to interpretation, but IMO what he is interested in is to find a way for man to "break" his destiny and not depend on anything else. Because if you live in circle, that means you are forced to adhere to a pattern which is the definition of fate or destiny.
The idea is, is man strong enough to break the circle? (possibly refering as usual to Plato)

  • Choosing to use words like 'gangasrotagati', and to insist on occasionally including the Chinese in his racialist thinking, Nietzsche is purposefully inviting us to see him as influenced by Asian traditions, if only in the sense of looking back further than Greece to Sanskrit texts and considering older cultures than we are used to looking at. He is, after all, after the dawn of European Orientalism, and has Schopenhauer (who, to my eye, purposely tried to Germanize Buddhism) as an influence.
    – user9166
    Mar 21, 2015 at 16:10

As an addition to Joseph Weissman's comment i would add that the 'cosmological thesis' interpretation of eternal return [finite amount of matter, finite amount of combinations which it can enter into, everything recurs] is a straw man of Nietzsche's formulation, in Nietzsche's words 'confusing Zarathustra for his ape .. Nietzsche's theory of differential relations of force makes it clear that the Return is a selective doctrine, not everything which comes to pass returns. The will to power, as the organising principle of the relations of force, is central to understanding the nature of return. Simplistically, that which returns are those things capable of enduring in the midst of being perpetually extended beyond their present state.

in the essay Nomadic Thought Deleuze says Nietzsche's return is not concerned with coding, decoding or recoding, but with 'getting something through' which is unable to be coded, forcing something to come to pass which 'scrambles the codes'. Many a book has addressed the topic, but two I would recommend are: Neitzsche and Philosophy by Gilles Deleuze, and Nietzsche and the Vicious Cycle by Pierre Klossowski.

  • This was a very interesting answer, especially the connection to the will to power. Perhaps you would be interested in improving the formatting and expanding upon it? If you had any choice quotations from the books you mentioned, that would increase the chance that people take a look at them.
    – labreuer
    Mar 20, 2015 at 18:19

It is worth noting that in Zarathustra Nietzsche nowhere explains what eternal returns means. All formulation (except the name for the idea) are done either by the animals (for example LVII. THE CONVALESCENT end of part 2) or a dwarf (XLVI. THE VISION AND THE ENIGMA part 2). There is one excerpt where Zarathustra himself is explaining the eternal return but he whispers it to the Life (LIX. THE SECOND DANCE-SONG end of part 2)

German term for Eternal Return is Die Wiederkunft des Gleichen. Wiederkunft literally means return but in German it may has slightly different sound. As in English it is composed of two words re-turn = wieder-kunft. In English return sounds more like turning again, undo change. In German wieder means again but also a new and kunft is associated not with the shift but with the future. So Wiederkunft may be read as future again. Returning is not coming again but making the future again. Also the word Gleichen is not without meaning here. It can be translated as the same but German language has also other wordd which would better fit to that understanding, namely derselbe. So gleich may be read not as the same but as no different (we are no different but we are not the same).

Zarathustra also says in the context of eternal return that it means that no moment vanishes. It may be little easier to understand that negative formulation of the problem. Although many people would want some things to disappear it is not the case. No moment, no act vanishes for good.

On completely different angle (which may be disputable in Nietzsche context as it refers to the psychological explanation) when a person experiences something traumatic it will stay with him even for good. It will return to him the same but not exactly the same.


I believe Tracy strong makes the argument that it is a thought experiment designed to produce a transfigured self-understanding.

See: Friedrich Nietzsche and the Politics of Transfiguration (Book)


When I take it as a thought-experiment, the Eternal Recurrence effectively undermines the significance of Infinity. Things that are actually infinite can still only really be affected for a finite time, before they settle in and actions become irrelevant. This returns everything important to being finite. Instead of arguing against infinity it is best to let it die of its own weight. Even if it does not matter in the End of Ends the time to make change is always now, before it stops being possible.

Also note that the framing is not "Is this TRUE", it is, "WERE this true, would it make you happy or miserable?" So one interpretation is that we should endeavor to live so that WERE that true, we would be grateful and not resentful that it were. We should work to be happy with this life. It really is all we have, even if we are eternal. We cannot always live for 'the future', because the future will eventually be the past.

But also, to my mind, Nietzsche wanted to maintain urgency in all things, and concentrate decisions and considerations for full effect, if one was to make them clearly. Infinity as used in classical religion, often removes the urgency from life, especially if you maintain tradition and can transfer your responsibility forward after your death.

So evolving tradition, with its forwarding of responsibility to posterity is bad, Christianity with its transfers of guilt must be reversed, ideas like Infinity need to be robbed of their palliative effects, etc. Even Romantic music that uses the tools of Classical manipulation but is not tightly engineered, so that it affects people but does not guide them in a specific, chosen direction, is overall deceptive and inappropriate.

The best analogy I find is that he saw such things as drugs that made life more bearable, but robbed it of saliency. The 'Great Betrayal' of the 'Last Man' is to accept 'Wretched Contentment' for the sake of 'His Herd'.

The sheer number of drinking songs he wrote in the opening of The Gay Science indicate that for him it is fine to be intoxicated, if you know it. But at some point in same series, he admonishes cultures (the Germans and Chinese?) for the effects that their common drugs have on them -- one should not 'live with alcohol' or accept the 'lessons' of opium as part of life. If such a thing can change your culture, it is a weak culture. If you are choosing illusions, they should be chosen by something other than chemistry.

(To get how strong a driving decision I imagine this is, bear in mind how much of Nietzsche's most productive periods he was either in constant pain, or on too many drugs, and how often this is either mentioned, or is obvious from the flow of the tone, in his 'most personal' books.


In my opinion there is an obvious logical inconsistency here. If these cycles are to be identical then just as in this cycle we have no evidence of the others except for the idea itself with the status of a hypothesis, then we will be in exactly the same situation in all of these cycles, and then it absolutely does not matter whether they do exist or not.

Similar but slightly different argument: even if we assume they exist, still - given they are absolutely identical, this makes ontological status of their multitude questionable. How does an infinite multitude of absolutely identical anythings differ from a unique such anything?

In fact even if they only differ by time when they occur and by nothing else, this still makes them different, so even the time itself must repeat in cycles, and then I cannot even think of any way of distinguishing between an infinite number of cycles and a single one which is tracked many times. Consider a circle, say, drawn on table. The fact that I can describe to you features of this drawing in succession along the circular trajectory and when reaching the point where I started describing then just go on and continue repeating myself many times does not make it several circles, right? It is still one circle, I am just describing it several times.

  • Right, there is no way of telling the repetitions apart. So an assumption of convergence eliminates the significance of any kind of infinity. But that is a clever deduction, not a contradiction. The point is that (for a Victorian materialist) infinity just does not matter, even if is taken into account. An absolutely clockwork universe need not deal with infinities. It 'dies in fire or in ice' or it repeats, so everything really is finite. (Fortunately, we have proof that we do not live in a clockwork universe.)
    – user9166
    Mar 20, 2015 at 20:14
  • Nietzsche hated metaphysical extravagance, and was a very sarcastic man, with a goal of de-Christianizing European culture. As part of the goal of removing Christian influences from Greek philosophy goes, largely undoing what Aquinas did to Aristotle, killing off infinity is an important step.
    – user9166
    Mar 20, 2015 at 20:22
  • @jobermark Well this does not free him from logical inconsistency (if my argument is correct), does it? If he is arguing, he cannot replace correctness of the argument with emotional impetus. Or do you mean that he was not inclined to argue but rather was acting perforce? The passage cited looks more like an argument to me (albeit emotionally and energetically charged). Mar 20, 2015 at 20:32
  • (I mean if it is something which does not matter at all, why would anybody either react to it so tragically or admire it as something supremely divine?) Mar 20, 2015 at 20:38
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    Which is sarcastic.
    – user9166
    Mar 21, 2015 at 19:23

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