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Nietzsche on the Eternal Recurrence of the Same

Updated on May 31, 2014

Nietzsche's text

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 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?

From Nietzsche's The Gay Science, s.341, Walter Kaufmann transl..

•My philosophy brings the triumphant idea of which all other modes of thought will ultimately perish. It is the great cultivating idea: the races that cannot bear it stand condemned; those who find it the greatest benefit are chosen to rule...

•I want to teach the idea that gives many the right to erase themselves - the great cultivating idea...

•Everything becomes and recurs eternally - escape is impossible! - Supposing we could judge value, what follows? The idea of recurrence as a selective principle, in the service of strength (and barbarism!!)...

•To endure the idea of the recurrence one needs: freedom from morality; new means against the fact of pain ( pain conceived as a tool, as the father of pleasure...); the enjoyment of all kinds of uncertainty, experimentalism, as a counterweight to this extreme fatalism; abolition of the concept of necessity; abolition of the "will"; abolition of "knowledge-in-itself."

•Greatest elevation of the consciousness of strength in man, as he creates the overman.

from Nietzsche's The Will to Power, s. 1053,1056,1058,1060, Walter Kaufmann transl.

Background: Presocratics, Materialist Philosophies, Heinrich Heine

One of the proximate sources that might have inspired Nietzsche is in the work of Heinrich Heine, as Nietzsche's preeminent English-language translator, Walter Kaufmann, points out. We find the following text in one of Heine's novels.

For time is infinite, but the things in time, the concrete bodies are finite.... Now, however long a time may pass, according to the eternal laws governing the combinations of this eternal play of repetition, all configurations that have previously existed on this earth must yet meet, attract, repulse, kiss, and corrupt each other again.... And thus it will happen one day that a man will be born again, just like me, and a woman will be born, just like Mary (citation from Kaufmann's Introduction to The Gay Science, p. 16).

Nietzsche was also familiar with compendious histories of materialist thought, in which one may often come across musings about reocurrent constellations of the universe's material components. Polemically speaking, this has been a way to criticize the abstruse claims of metaphysical theories that postulate immaterial substances: we can make sense of the experience we have that appearances, patterns, dispositions and other ingredients of our actual world tend to recur; something like a soul, on the other hand, is supposed to be unique and aloof from the kind of interaction that would permit copies to be made...

The influence from classical antiquity comes from thinkers like Heraclitus, who stressed the inherently unstable and dynamic character of what we take to be the totality of things; and from Epicurus and the Epicurean Roman poet Lucretius who pointed out that the smaller number of basic ingredients ("atoms" they called them) within a vastly larger universe ought to result in a finite number of reocurrent patterns.

More broadly, Greek and Roman antiquity viewed historical time as circular rather than linear. For many decades, it was a hackneyed cliché of academic articles that the linear view of historical time was Hebraic and Christian, while the pagan view had been circular. The first attempted systematic work on the linear Christian view may well be Augustine's City of God.

What Does It Mean? I.

There is a view that the teaching of the eternal return of the same is not meant literally but is presented as a hypothetical to test one's moral fiber - in accordance with certain normative criteria that Nietzsche posits. On this view, the healthy animal - the properly integrated, instinctually whole and functioning human being - would assent or "say yes" to the prospect of looking forward forevermore to an eternal repetition of situations that have occurred before. The weak, on the other hand, would run headlong into the darkest abyss of nihilistic despair. If all has happened before and the expectation of novelty turns out to be illusionary, then is there any value that can possibly justify this universal charade of a predetermined, deeply meaningless existence? Only those who have superior natures can face this abyssmal depth of emptiness and yet, out of the strength of their own instinctual force, affirm life by being the deserving creators of their own values. Perhaps this is what happens in the proper generation of artistic work - so it is the artist, rightly understood, who has the ultimate moral claim to affirmation even in spite of the universal abyss that stares back at the intelligent human animal. In one of his earliest works, The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche claimed to have dispelled faulty notions of earlier scholars who had fancied the ancient Greeks to be "happy-go-lucky." Instead, like instinctively healthy children, the early Greeks who generated that wondrous culture went on to drape the abyss with beautiful artistic work - until the plight of rationalism, originated by the instinctively disintegrated and slaivish" Socrates, descended on them like a curse.

What Does It Mean? II.

Read literally, the teaching of the eternal return of the same may be understood as follows. Given that a limited or finite (even if enormously large) number of fundamental material ingredients exists, then there is a finite number of possible combinations of those components. Any one of those combinations may indeed be extremely unlikely to occur if expected to happen for what is our present moment, but, from the point of view of ceaseless time, each such combination is bound to occur. If it is to occur later rather than sooner, this is, again, an irrelevant matter if we are approaching the whole configuration regardless of present temporal restrictions. Any combination is not only bound to occur but it is also bound to occur again regardlerss of the temporal information as to whether it has already occurred. And, if it has occurred, more than once, the same thing applies: it is bound to occur again, and again, and again, ad infinitum. This seems to presuppose infinite time and, from the vantage point of modern physics, it would require a less common view of the universe which is called the "oscillating universe" according to which, view, each big bang comes "after" a big crunch and each big crunch is "succeeded" by a big bang. The words "after" and "succeeded" arfe in quotation marks because it might be meaningless to speak of time still running in the interstices of the transition from crunch to bang.

The view Nietzsche embraces appears deterministic - and this is in accord with the common view of Nietzsche's philosophy. However, Nietzsche also regards the reactions to the teaching of the eternal recurrence as being morally significant. The superior human natures, who are to be the biological ancestors of the super-human (Übermensch) under the right conditions, will affirm life even in the dark shadow of the eternal return. Inferior natures will be driven to the ultimate despair and depart - thus taking the inferior stock out of the genetic pool and paving the way for the heroic future of the Übermenschen. If this assent and withholding of assent is to be freely given, we see Nietzsche pushed into a position known as Compatibilism. This view, thought incoherent by some but defended by some of the most celebrated thinkers, aims to combine determinism with free will. One way this can be done is this: the right way of causing actions is not to count as preventing free choice - for instance, when the cause is someone's character, then this is the right way of determining, so to speak, and, as such, does not count as a deterministic cancellation of free choice.

The deterministic element of Nietzsche's thought of the eternal return seems to lie primarily in its materialistic-philosophy component. What constitutes a mental state (experience, feeling, thought, memory, sense of who one is, what we broadly designate as consciousness) - these are all, presumably, epiphenomena of constellations of material components. When the exactly same configuration occurs - which, as we saw, can be taken as inevitable given "enough" time - then the matching brain-states would themselves be exactly the same: and, given that brain-states and consciousness-states are the same thing, the exactly same situation has recurred as far as any sentient, perceiving human being is concerned. An assumption here seems to be that mind-states and brain-states are the same "natural kind" - in the same way that water and H2O are the same kind of thing in nature. This view is reductionist and, possibly, eliminativist in that renders talk of mental states themselves superfluous when all is said and done. Nietzsche does not enter this debate - he does not have this conceptual vocabulary available to him. It is unkely that he would go along with the eliminativist view. Although he had reposed high expectations in science in his early work, Nietzsche ultimately expected science, like the teaching of the eternal return, to expedite the destruction of the weaker natures by dispelling the hopes that make life livable for the "slavish" masses. To this extent, science is expected to perform an explanatory elimination of categories like "mind" or "spirit" - and the analysis of language, Nietzsche expected, would further eliminate metaphysical myths like the self. All the same, Nietzsche is clearly bent on continuing to discuss normative matters which require continuing availability of meaningful terms about the moral agent and, it seems, about the possibility of free choice too.

An overlooked problem that looms over the teaching of eternal return has to do with the philosophic problem studied under the term "personal identity." We turn to that next.

Who Returns?

Surprisingly, it is difficult to find satisfactory criteria for determining what accounts for the same, continuous person being there across time. As we use language, we clearly, take perdurance or continuity of the same person across time to be unproblematic. We have to be careful about something here: "X is no longer the person he/she used to be" commits us to perdurance of the same person! We are asserting that it is X indeed who is not the "same person" he or she used to be. "Same person" here does not refer to the problem known in philosophy as "personal identity." In fact, as we saw, personal identity or perdurance of the same person over time is presupposed, so we can say of this same person that he or she has changed in some specified respects. If the person X we are talking about is supposed to have changed in such ways that it is no longer X we are talking about, then "X is not the same person anymore" really means "not-X, which is also referred to as X, is not the same person anymore." But the "X" label is misleading then. Worse, if a name is rigid - if it tracks always the same person - then the sentence expresses a contradiction: "X is X and is not X, and is not the same person anymore." This should count as logical nonsense. But the sentence above is not nonsensical as used in language. So, we can tell that "same person" means something else - not something about personal identity.

The most popular criterion of personal identity - what makes the same person over time - is rightly-caused memory combined with a sense of enduring self-awareness. It is instructive, then, to see that even this criterion runs into consequences that seem unacceptable: the serial killer who suffers from severe amnesia should not be put to trial - if we think at least that we should not try a different person for what someone else has done. The amnesiac person B is not continuous with the person A who had committed those crimes. This is the consequence we buy into if we adopt the memory criterion. There may well be no satisfactory criterion. There is a viewpoint, known as "bundle theory", that there is no perduring same-person over time but only a reconstituting of the impression that the same person has perdured. Notice, however, that, although they almost never address this subject, all kinds of popular views about immortality, reincarnation, and even the view of the eternal recurrence we are considering here, bank on an implicit assumption that it is the same person that survives physical or bodily destruction, or becomes incarnated serially, or is resurrected - or reexperiences the same conditions over again.

Nietzsche can use some of the standard criteria of personal identity to get through. Suppose he chooses the memory-awareness criteria. If the material configuration collapses as exactly the same with past configuration x, then everything, all the way to memories in the brain and sense of awareness, are the same. Moreover, the memories have been caused in the right way - a refinement of the criterion of memory, which is considered more appropriate for personal identity. Resistance to the adequacy of this defense of Nietzsche's position may well originate from clinging to an old view that the self is an immaterial substance, a soul. For this view, embraced by Plato, the challenge of personal identity does not arise: it is guaranteed, as it were, that the same person perdures. Notice an eerie similarity to what we would say of an elementary particle of the universe (assuming we have fundamental particles that cannot be destroyed or in any way modified.) Nietzsche is a debunker of the immaterialist view of consciousness and it is only fitting that his own view would be at odds with the Platonic notion.

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© 2014 Odysseus Makridis


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