Eternal return  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Eternal return (also known as "eternal recurrence") is a concept which posits that the universe has been recurring, and will continue to recur, in a self-similar form an infinite number of times across infinite time or space. The concept is found in Indian philosophy and in ancient Egypt and was subsequently taken up by the Pythagoreans and Stoics. With the decline of antiquity and the spread of Christianity, the concept fell into disuse in the western world, though Friedrich Nietzsche resurrected it as a thought experiment to argue for amor fati.

In addition, the philosophical concept of eternal recurrence was addressed by Arthur Schopenhauer. It is a purely physical concept, involving no supernatural reincarnation, but the return of beings in the same bodies. Time is viewed as being not linear but cyclical.

Friedrich Nietzsche

The concept of "eternal recurrence" is central to the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche. As Heidegger points out in his lectures on Nietzsche, Nietzsche's first mention of eternal recurrence, in aphorism 341 of The Gay Science (cited below), presents this concept as a hypothetical question rather than postulating it as a fact. According to Heidegger, it is the burden imposed by the question of eternal recurrence—whether or not such a thing could possibly be true—that is so significant in modern thought: "The way Nietzsche here patterns the first communication of the thought of the 'greatest burden' [of eternal recurrence] makes it clear that this 'thought of thoughts' is at the same time 'the most burdensome thought.' " The thought of eternal recurrence appears in a few of his works, in particular §285 and §341 of The Gay Science and then in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. It is also noted in a posthumous fragment. The origin of this thought is dated by Nietzsche himself, via posthumous fragments, to August 1881, at Sils-Maria. In Ecce Homo (1888), he wrote that he thought of the eternal return as the "fundamental conception" of Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

Several authors have pointed out other occurrences of this hypothesis in contemporary thought. Rudolf Steiner, who revised the first catalogue of Nietzsche's personal library in January 1896, pointed out that Nietzsche would have read something similar in Eugen Dühring's Courses on philosophy (1875), which Nietzsche readily criticized. Lou Andreas-Salomé pointed out that Nietzsche referred to ancient cyclical conceptions of time, in particular by the Pythagoreans, in the Untimely Meditations. Henri Lichtenberger and Charles Andler have pinpointed three works contemporary to Nietzsche which carried on the same hypothesis: J.G. Vogt, Die Kraft. Eine real-monistische Weltanschauung (1878), Auguste Blanqui, L'éternité par les astres (1872) and Gustave Le Bon, L'homme et les sociétés (1881). Walter Benjamin juxtaposes Blanqui and Nietzsche's discussion of eternal recurrence in his unfinished, monumental work The Arcades Project. However, Gustave Le Bon is not quoted anywhere in Nietzsche's manuscripts; and Auguste Blanqui was named only in 1883. Vogt's work, on the other hand, was read by Nietzsche during this summer of 1881 in Sils-Maria. Blanqui is mentioned by Albert Lange in his Geschichte des Materialismus (History of Materialism), a book closely read by Nietzsche.

The eternal recurrence is also mentioned in passing by the Devil in Part Four, Book XI, Chapter 9 of Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, which is another possible source that Nietzsche may have been drawing upon.

Walter Kaufmann suggests that Nietzsche may have encountered this idea in the works of Heinrich Heine, who once wrote:

[T]ime is infinite, but the things in time, the concrete bodies, are finite. They may indeed disperse into the smallest particles; but these particles, the atoms, have their determinate numbers, and the numbers of the configurations which, all of themselves, are formed out of them is also determinate. Now, however long a time may pass, according to the eternal laws governing the combinations of this eternal play of repetition, all configurations which have previously existed on this earth must yet meet, attract, repulse, kiss, and corrupt each other again...

Nietzsche calls the idea "horrifying and paralyzing", referring to it as a burden of the "heaviest weight" ("das schwerste Gewicht") imaginable. He professes that the wish for the eternal return of all events would mark the ultimate affirmation of life:

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, §341]

To comprehend eternal recurrence in his thought, and to not merely come to peace with it but to embrace it, requires amor fati, "love of fate":

My formula for human greatness is amor fati: that one wants to have nothing different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely to bear the necessary, still less to conceal it—all idealism is mendaciousness before the necessary—but to love it.

In Carl Jung's seminar on Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Jung claims that the dwarf states the idea of the Eternal Return before Zarathustra finishes his argument of the Eternal Return when the dwarf says, "'Everything straight lies,' murmured the dwarf disdainfully. 'All truth is crooked, time itself is a circle.'" However, Zarathustra rebuffs the dwarf in the following paragraph, warning him against over-simplifications.

A late 1880s comment by Nietzsche, "In an infinite period of time, every possible combination would at some time be attained," has been cited to argue that Nietzsche dropped his plans to try to scientifically prove the theory because he realized that if he would have to eventually repeat life as it is, his presumption of infinite time means "he" would also have to "repeat" life differently, since every configuration of atoms and events will occur. Instead, according to this interpretation of Nietzsche, he continued to propound the doctrine for its psychological and philosophical import. Though section 1063 of his posthumous notebooks "The Will To Power" states, “The law of conservation of energy demands eternal recurrence."

See also

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