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Nietzsche & the Eternal Recurrence

J. Harvey Lomax on the love of eternity.

Dedicated to Professor Hans-Georg Gadamer on his 100th birthday.

Docemur disputare, non vivere.”
(“We are taught how to discuss and debate, but not how to live.”)
Seneca Epistulae morales 95, 13

In the twentieth century “the plebeianism of the modern spirit, which is of English origin, erupted once again on its native soil…” (Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morals, I, 4). We stubborn Anglophones long resisted the philosophical movements of phenomenology and existentialism, Nietzsche’s heirs, during the generations of their intellectual conquest of Europe. Our religious roots, our powerful moral attachments to democracy and to natural rights, may partly explain our evident reluctance to descend into such theoretical and psychological depths, beyond good and evil. Yet, the same laudable moral-political fortitude and love of liberty that have twice spared humanity the horrors of world tyranny have also unwittingly fostered the proliferation of various forms of relatively empty, trivial human life across the globe. No one aspires to greatness. If suddenly someone did, then we would either sedate this strange person or race around like geese in our haste to persuade the renegade of the extreme folly of all great sacrifices, without which greatness cannot arise. Depriving life of greatness, however, has consequences: drugs, shrugs, boredom, lassitude, indifference, pusillanimity, and the ubiquitous expletive “Whatever”. Our petty pleasures do persist, as do assorted frustrations and complaints; but what remains to uplift and inspire us? What in our time can still seize and transfigure us? What can we cherish with all our might and all our soul? What can give profound meaning to our lives?

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) answers these questions, as it were, with a single word; a word that he wields as a lethal weapon against pre-Nietzschean modernity and as a plowshare for sowing the seeds of a new philosophy for the future: eternity.

God has already died at our hands, according to Nietzsche, so the new love of eternity will not satisfy a nostalgia for the good old days of revealed religion. Among other things, the Tower of Babel, comprised of religious sects and a multitude of incompatible revelations, indicated to Nietzsche that we are bereft of a divinity who can communicate clearly. To be sure, God’s death was a dreadful, earthshaking event. Nevertheless, the overman of the future loves nothing more than eternity – understood as the never-ending, identical repetition of all physical events of the universe in all details, including the most odious – and this Nietzschean overman rebelliously exults in undisguised atheism.

As is familiar to everyone, Christianity and other Scriptural faiths paint a fundamentally progressive portrait of the course of the universe. Even if, seen through the lens of the New Testament, this world resembles a valley of tears, then in the end the omnipotent will of God shall prevail, redeeming suffering and avenging evil. Nietzsche regards this understanding as nihilistic and pathological. He charges Christianity with nihilism because it radically depreciates the only life we certainly do have, life in this world, for the sake of an unknown afterlife. He adds the charge of psychopathology because of biblical Christianity’s lust for bloody sacrifice and revenge. Christianity needs an eternal hell for sinners and even the crucifixion of the son of God. “Wrath is cruel, and anger is outrageous.” (Proverbs 27:4). By contrast, the noble being without resentment, who wills the eternal recurrence of the same – a cyclical concept inherited from the ancient Pythagoreans, Empedocles, and especially Heraclitus – resoundingly affirms all that ever was, is, and will be.1 The liberation from the spirit of revenge, the reconciliation of man and the world, could hardly be more perfect… Or could it?

Martin Heidegger 2, among others, accuses Nietzsche of succumbing to his own brand of nihilism and spirit of revenge. Despite his this-worldliness, with his teaching of eternal recurrence, Nietzsche no less than the Christians preaches an immortality – we shall all return, just as we are, again and again, forever – that lacks any empirical warrant. Also, as do the Christians, Nietzsche’s overman avows his love for an eternity that, albeit non-transcendent in his case, exceeds human grasp and knowledge. The overman radically differs from the ancients in that he wills the eternal repetition of the selfsame. Yet one need not will a fact of nature. The conscious willing of a fiction, on the other hand, will always suffer from self-awareness and require self-deception. Nietzsche’s effort to transcend Christian disaffection with the world and to establish a ground for psychic health seems to culminate in a bizarre form of atheistic religion involving extreme alienation and one of the most noxious diseases of the soul (Plato, The Republic 382a-b).

Heidegger’s critique of Nietzsche as the nihilistic peak of the modern project to conquer nature could seem to suggest that the latter thinker argued for the validity of the eternal recurrence in metaphysical treatises. Actually, the principal development of the teaching occurs in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, a poetic work beyond compare. Hans-Georg Gadamer3, more sensitive to ironic playfulness than Heidegger, offers a most useful corrective by emphasizing the drama of Zarathustra. The title character, named after the founder of the old Persian religion, does at first seem to speak on behalf of the sacred teaching of a new, godless theology of eternal recurrence. The only version of the book published in Nietzsche’s lifetime concludes with ‘Seven Seals’ (a hostile, mocking echo of the closing book of the Bible), in which Zarathustra seven times trumpets his love for eternity in a symbolic new creation of man and the whole. Nietzsche designated the originally unpublished Fourth and Final Part as “for my friends and not for the public”. In Part IV, Zarathustra attests to his love for his animals as natural beings. But he complains that the so-called ‘higher men’, a comical, foul-smelling lot who worship the braying, yes-saying ass that represents the eternal return, slumber while he is awake. “These are not my proper companions,” he exclaims. At the very end of the book, Zarathustra overcomes his pity for the “higher men” and leaves them behind without even bidding them adieu. Perhaps a central purpose of the whole book is to purge the psyche, of every potential Zarathustra, of the temptation to minister to any form of piety? On close examination, even Parts I-III already hint at a considerable distance between Zarathustra’s speeches and his inner convictions. As the hunchback in Part II unmistakably intimates, Zarathustra says one thing to his disciples and something quite different to himself.

The contemporary world has had its share of Nietzscheans – from Peter Gast to Ernst Bertram as well as other members of the Stefan George Circle; from fascist leader Gabrielle d’Annunzio and Protestant pastors Albert Kalthoff and Max Maurenbrecher to socialist-anarchist Gustav Landauer; from expressionist Gottfried Benn (prior to 1933) to post-modernists such as Michel Foucault and Georges Bataille4 – notwithstanding the deeply paradoxical character of Nietzsche’s doctrines. The disciples and imitators have all failed to take due note of his many warnings about discipleship: “Verily,” says Zarathustra to his flock, “I counsel you: go away from me and resist Zarathustra!… Perhaps he deceived you. The man of knowledge must not only love his enemies but also be able to hate his friends. One repays a teacher badly if one always remains nothing but a pupil… You are my believers – but what matter all believers… All faith amounts to so little. Now I bid you to lose me and find yourselves.” Nor have they heeded an absolutely crucial passage in Nietzsche’s Antichrist (54): “One should not be misled: great minds are skeptics. Zarathustra is a skeptic…Convictions are prisons… The man of faith, the ‘believer’, of every kind, is necessarily a dependent man…”

Regarding spiritual independence, Nietzsche goes so far as to declare openly, in The Genealogy of Morals, that it is better to will the nothing than not will; an outrageously bold and exaggerated restatement of Socratic impiety that, to say the least, cannot be defended without careful qualification. At any rate, notwithstanding his esotericism, Nietzsche wishes to lead the most promising human beings from the dark cave of faith into the natural light of philosophic freedom.

However, escaping the bonds of faith does not come easily even for the most resolute. Family, friends, and fatherland all have their siren songs and, for apostates, severe sanctions. No less seductively, in our time, even philosophy can appear on the scene draped in the robes of venerable tradition. (Beyond Good and Evil appropriately begins with an attack ‘On the Prejudices of the Philosophers’ in which he explicitly challenges the possibility and legitimacy of the will to truth.) Nietzsche urges the best of the youth to hearken to nature, to tear off those robes and cast them aside, to enjoy the sweet pleasures of philosophy naked and in the flesh – not as a rape, but with philosophic eros as a most willing partner.

No ethical rule or metaphysical doctrine, then, but only the life of philosophy matters to Nietzsche in the end. His whole ‘philosophy’ of will to power and eternal return aims to shake to the eye-teeth the self-evidence of a rationalistic, philosophic approach – and thus to make genuine, self-questioning love of wisdom, à la Plato, possible again.

The Nietzschean images of nobility derive their pedagogical necessity from the manifest inadequacies of bourgeois existence and from the irrepressible longings of the great-souled young. If those images are lies, then they are noble lies in the Socratic-Platonic double sense that they challenge the young to ascend to their highest capacities and simultaneously reflect basic verities about human nature. The latter include the enduring truths that striving to overcome ourselves remains essential to our humanity and that, for the human being in full bloom, the unexamined life would not be worth living.

“We would consider every day wasted,” remarks Zarathustra, “in which we had not danced at least once. And we would consider every truth false that was not followed by at least one laugh.” In the best case, the more fully one understands these truths and acts accordingly, the deeper one’s joy may grow over the opportunities that life brings and the more willing one may become, were it possible, to relive one’s whole life again, unchanged, in the future.

© J. Harvey Lomax 2000

1 Karl Löwith, Nietzsche’s Philosophy of the Eternal Recurrence of the Same. (trans. J. Harvey Lomax) Univ of California Press, 1997.
2 Martin Heidegger, Nietzsche. (trans. David Farrell Krell) Harper & Row, Vol. 1: The Will to Power as Art (1979), Vol. 2: The Eternal Return (1984); Vol. 3: The Will to Power as Knowledge and Metaphysics (1986); Vol.4: Nihilism (1992).
3 ‘The Drama of Zarathustra’ (trans. Thomas Helke) in Nietzsche’s New Seas, ed. by Michael Allen Gillespie and Tracy B. Strong. University of Chicago Press, 1988, pp. 220-231.
4 For an example of a current American Nietzschean whose books are well worth reading, see Lawrence Lampert, Nietzsche’s Teaching: An Interpretation of Thus Spoke Zarathustra (Yale University Press, 1986); Nietzsche and Modern Times (Yale University Press, 1993); and Leo Strauss and Nietzsche (University of Chicago Press, 1996). The Irish poet W.B. Yeats, also heavily influenced by Nietzsche, is said to have adopted his version of the eternal recurrence from the philosopher.

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