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Philosophy Then

Back to the Future

Peter Adamson looks back at ideas of eternal repetition.

In these uncertain times marked by disease and political upheaval, we naturally wonder about the future and whether the past as we’ve known it is irrevocably lost. At such a moment, the idea that the future actually is the past, and that the past is the future, might seem reassuring: these events have all happened before, and are now repeating, as they have repeated an infinite number of times. Each of us has lived our life before, and will live it again: “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.”

Those words were written – at least once if not an infinite number of times – by the most famous exponent of this doctrine of eternal recurrence, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) in The Gay Science (341). Scholars disagree about whether he took it seriously as a cosmological theory. He did not really give an argument for it, apart from his endorsement of determinism. But determinism gives us only the idea of a future made inevitable by the past, not an endlessly repeating past and future. So even though Nietzsche called eternal recurrence “the most scientific of all possible hypotheses” (Will to Power 55), he had more to say about its psychological dimension than its cosmological dimension.

He was also not the first to contemplate this rather breathtaking notion, as he himself noted. He looked back to the ancient Stoics, who were themselves taking inspiration from the Presocratic philosopher Heraclitus (c.535-475 BC).

Both Heraclitus and the Stoics thought there is a divine force steering the cosmos which is fiery in nature. Indeed, the Stoics taught that the world was once nothing but a ‘conflagration’, with this fiery God living in splendidly hot isolation. God then contracted to become the cosmos as we see it, pervading it so as to be physically present in every part of it. Our souls, for example, are but particularly pure fragments of this divine fire. At the end of time, the cosmos will once again be transformed into God – the world ending in fire, not ice. Then exactly the same sequence of events will play out again; and again, and again.

Why must it be the same sequence of events? Because the Stoics were determinists, believing that the same starting points will always lead to the same outcomes. Moreover, their God is providential, and ensures that world history unfolds in the best possible way, even if we cannot always discern the wisdom behind this design.

Unbeknownst to the Stoics, the philosophers of another contemporary antique culture were developing similar ideas. In India, astronomical and astrological theories were predicated on the assumption that the stars’ locations signify events that occur down here on Earth. Since given enough time the stars will return to exactly the same configuration, the events they signify should match.

Admittedly this won’t be happening any time soon. Hindu astronomers calculated the length of the world cycle – a single ‘day’ in the life of the divine Brahmā – as 4.32 billion years, with the cosmos being destroyed at the end of each day. In this vision, time itself was seen as a destructive force. But instead of an endlessly, infinitely recurring cycle, such as the Stoics proposed, Brahmā would have a natural lifespan, with many thousands of those very long days.

In this sort of breathtaking cosmic vision, it might seem that the concerns of humans would be reduced to trivialities. But in Nietzsche’s hands, the doctrine of eternal recurrence was meant to have the opposite effect.

So what attitude did Nietzsche think we should adopt if we did believe that our lives are repeated an infinity of times? For starters, we might choose to spend less time binging on Netflix.

Nietzsche draws more dramatic consequences than that. In the passage from the Gay Science I quoted, he goes on to say that contemplation of eternal recurrence should “change you as you are or perhaps crush you.” For him, it forces upon us the question of whether we would endorse life as we have lived it, and endorse it infinitely. If we do, it will not be because our life involved only good things: pleasures and happy occasions we would like to enjoy over and over. Nietzsche himself was tormented by illness and suffering throughout his life: but he still aspired to say ‘Yes!’ to life as an eternally recurring experience. So even though his friend Lou Salomé told him that the doctrine “had to mean something horrifying”, Nietzsche thought it was possible to respond to the prospect with unbounded joy.

This was indeed the attitude taken by Nietzsche’s fictional prophet Zarathustra, whom he described as ‘the teacher of eternal recurrence’. The attitude is to embrace the world in all its meaninglessness, taking joy in endlessly repeating lives embedded within a history that has neither narrative structure nor purpose. Zarathustra’s ‘good news’ of eternal recurrence is in this respect diametrically opposed to the Christian idea of history, with its arc of Fall and Redemption. Without beginning or end, Nietzsche’s world has nothing to offer but its very existence, with suffering inevitably mixed in amongst its pleasures. As Nietzsche writes in Thus Spake Zarathustra 4.19: “Have you ever said Yes to a single joy? O my friends, then you have said Yes too to all woe.” It’s a more daunting challenge than the comforting story of providential order told by the Stoics, but in its way, even more optimistic.

© Prof. Peter Adamson 2020

Peter Adamson is the author of A History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, Vols 1-5, available from OUP. They’re based on his popular History of Philosophy podcast.

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