The Validity and Significance of the Thought of the Eternal Return of the Same

Rowan Tepper Goucher College 1021 Dulaney Valley Rd. Baltimore, MD 21204 410-337-3051 215-317-9930


One of the most prominent while at the same time most enigmatic parts of the work of Friedrich Nietzsche the what is alternately known as the thought of the eternal return of the same or as the doctrine of eternal recurrence. The distinction between these two terms takes on a critical importance in its understanding, however for the moment we are concerned principally with it in the guise of the thought of eternal return. Its importance has been disputed, and it has spawned many critics who attempt to refute it. It will be shown that thought of eternal return is critical for our understanding of Nietzsche’s conception of time and as well forms the central criterion for ones actions after the experience of the thought. First Nietzsche’s conception of time will be sketched out, thus showing how refutations of the eternal return fail in light of the context of his thought. Second, the importance of this thought and its consequent doctrinal integration into ones person. The thought becomes determinative of ones actions and resolves Kant’s apparent antinomy of free will and causal determinism by showing in a different manner their non-contradictory nature. §1 - Demonstration When the Eternal Recurrence is presented in Zarathustra, in “On the Vision and the Riddle” it is presented no longer as a hypothetical experience as in The Gay Science, but presented as a fact. In “On the Vision and the Riddle” and the answer to the riddle found in “The Convalescent,” Nietzsche presents Eternal Recurrence as a consequence to the laws of nature with resounding significance for life. Thus the doctrine of Eternal Recurrence bears examination in its early form as the thought of the Eternal Return. What will be born out in this examination is that many attempted refutations of Eternal Recurrence fail in light of Nietzsche’s conception of time as comprised of distinct discrete units rather than an infinitely divisible continuum.


Time for Nietzsche is real, infinite and divisible into finite units. Perception is likewise limited, and for Nietzsche it will be argued that the exactitude of recurrence need not be perfect. Recurrence simply states that the repeated state and sequence be absolutely indistinguishable. Although numerous notes pertaining to the doctrine of Recurrence in this interpretation were published posthumously in The Will to Power, they consist primarily of the theoretical physical underpinnings for that which is contained in this section of Zarathustra. In this presentation of the Eternal Return, the past and future are portrayed as two paths of infinite length meeting at a gateway, above which is inscribed Moment or in the German, Augenblick. Recurrence is described as follows:

From this gateway, Moment, a long eternal lane leads backward; behind us lies an eternity. Must not whatever can walk have walked on this lane before? Must not what can walk have walked on this lane before? Must not whatever can happen have happened, have been done, have passed by before? ... Must not this gateway too have been there before? And are not all things knotted together so firmly that this moment draws all that is to come? Therefore itself too? For whatever can walk - in this long lane out there too, it must walk once more.”1

In this description, the present moment is that moment which binds an infinite past and infinite future into a stream of time. The present moment is, given an infinite time always at the midpoint of time with eternity before and after. The moment of this passage is the gateway between past and present. Importantly it is a gateway at which it is possible to stop, or at least to reflect before

Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, pg. 270


passing from it. The moment while being the point of demarcation between past and present, for Nietzsche has duration. Moreover, this interpretation is substantiated when we examine other passages from Nietzsche’s work and discover that his descriptions of the passage of time are always in terms of the subject and are in discrete units. This interpretation of the unitary notion of time is furthered by Nietzsche’s characterizations of the passage of time in On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life2, “the moment, here in a wink, gone in a wink, nothing before and nothing after, returns nevertheless as a spectre to disturb the calm of a later moment. Again and again a page loosens in the scroll of time, drops out, and flutters away – and suddenly flutters back again into man’s lap.” Time is defined in units and events, memory, and continuity is attached by the perceiving, historical human.
The following conditions are contained in the articulation of the Eternal Return found in “The Vision and the Riddle.” These are the fundamental assumptions that underpin the interpretation of the Eternal Return in its cosmological sense. 1. Time is infinite, both in the past and future, and Space is finite and composed of distinct bodies and their relations. This is found stated again and again throughout Nietzsche’s work. Moreover, if we



Nietzsche, On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life, pg.


take his metaphor literally in “On the Vision and the Riddle”, the “eternal lanes” are times infinite extension into the past and future. 2. The “same” referred to in the phrase “eternal return of the same” refers to a state or sequence of states, with state defined as δ and sequence defined as δ ’. States are defined within the discrete time interval α 3, to which corresponds the unitary moment. Here we must pause to clarify these terms. A state is everything within one’s perceptual threshold down to the minutest distinguishable detail. The time interval, moment, α is defined in causal terms because of Nietzsche’s emphasis on strict causality (#3 below) and his insistence that Recurrence is the only possible consequence of physical laws. Therefore we are justified in provisionally appropriating Hans Reichenbach’s causal theory of time. This theory states that temporal order can onlyt be defined by the possibility of event A being a possible cause of event B. With light being the fastest possible agent of causality, the speed of light forms a limiting velocity for determining temporal succession. Temporal order, that is, A being prior to B, can only be established provided that they are within the time interval defined as two times the distance between them divided by the speed of light. That is, it must be possible for one to have caused the other and be for

light to return: therefore in seconds


2d . c


Anything taking place in less than the time that it takes for light to go between objects is simultaneous. Reichenbach, pg. 40 Therefore, α must be greater than or equal to

2d 2d , being the absolute value for c c

non-subject-referential simultaneity, when the time requisite for observation is factored in, the value of α may be larger.


3. Successive states are inextricably liked by causal connection. Each state necessarily determines the next. Given any complete state A, a corresponding state B must necessarily follow. This is explicitly stated in “On the Vision and the Riddle”: “And are not things knotted together so firmly that this moment draws after it all that is to come.”4 When these conditions converge in Nietzsche’s thought, as a result "everything that can in any way be must, as a being already have been. For in an infinite time the course of a finite world is already completed,"5 and “If the world had a final goal, it must have already been reached. If there were for it some unintended final state, this must also have been reached. If it were in any way capable of a pausing and becoming fixed, of ‘being’...then all becoming would long since have come to an end, and therefore all thought.”6 The cosmological interpretation of the Eternal Recurrence thus demands that in the course of an infinite time, every possibly configuration of spatial objects necessarily occurs. Therefore after a long, immeasurable, but finite period of time, the world returns to its initial state, and thence by virtue of the strength of causal connection between states, necessarily repeats in an identical sequence.”7 Ultimately, it is against this interpretation of Eternal Recurrence that most criticism has been leveled. It should be noted that the points that have drawn the most criticism have been that space and time are composed of discrete and finitely divisible units. It is in the articulation found in Zarathustra that the key to defusing most criticisms is found.
4 5

Ibid. pg. 270 Heidegger, Nietzsche, pg. 43 6 Nietzsche, The Will To Power, pg. 546 7 Every other sequence having occurred in the course of the “initial” repetition by returning to a similar, but distinguishably different starting point and thus proceeding differently.


Barely two decades after the publication of Zarathustra, Georg Simmel, in his lecture series Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, brings to bear an argument originally used in the 14th century, by Nicole Orisme, as a refutation of the classical cyclic model of time. According to Robin Small, Simmel attempts to refute the Eternal Recurrence by taking aim specifically at the condition that states: “a finite number of elements allows only a finite number of combinations.”8 Simmel posits a system of three wheels, the first two rotating at speeds related by a whole number ratio: wheel B rotates at twice the speed of wheel A.

Wheel C, however rotates at a speed of ensuring that:


times the speed of A, thereby

“according to the nature of the number π ... the third wheel will never have finished a whole number of rotations when the first wheel has completed a whole number of rotations... but because of the instantaneous position of alignment ... of the points marked on the first and second wheels † will occur only after the first wheel has made a whole rotation, the marked point of the third wheel never can pass under the thread at the same moment... In consequence, the starting position of the three wheels cannot be repeated through eternity.”9 Simmel’s argument purports to establish that “the finitude of the elements does not imply the finitude of their combinations.”10 Small, after introducing the concept of phenomenal possibilities, the limited number of distinguishable states consequent to the conditions we have noted above, denies that this is Nietzsche’s intent. Small demonstrates that using a fractional approximation for π , 355/113, instead of π , with its infinite non-repeating decimals going on into infinity, one
8 9

Small, pg. 127 † † Georg Simmel, quoted in Robin Small, Incommensurability and Recurrence: From Oresme to Simmel in Journal of the History of Ideas, Volume 52 Issue 1, Jan-Mar 1991, pg 128

Small, pg. 128


comes to a difference of less than .00001 rotations between the fractional approximation and that which would result from the use of π Small argues a strict interpretation of Nietzsche’s insistence on an exact repetition, that even a repetition that is absolutely

indistinguishable but different in a negligible way is no repetition. However, this is not the case in light of Nietzsche’s view of time and space. Here it is crucial to note the significance of the term Moment, as translated from the German Augenblick, literally, the blink of an eye. By Augenblick, it appears that Nietzsche in speaking of the Moment is not referring to an instant. There is, in what would be Nietzsche’s construction of Simmel’s wheels no “instantaneous position of alignment,” rather a finitely short position of alignment, corresponding to the shortest amount of time observable11, whether by virtue of the limitations of perception or the absolute limits of simultaneity. The moment is to Nietzsche not to be the temporal equivalent to a mathematical point, the instant that is presumed in Simmel’s refutation.12
11 12

With such a treatment of time, the universe

See pg. 4 Millic Capek also argues from the concept of instantaneity but in terms of relativity and quantum theory. While beyond the scope of this paper, it is fruitful to give passing note to Bas Van Fraassen’s article in response to Capek that in relativistic physics, simultaneity cannot be defined as instantaneous, and refers to Reichenbach’s causal theory of time that defines simultaneity as events that cannot have any causal relation, therefore falling within a specified limit, a threshold of observation that can be seen as constituting threshold α , that if simultaneity is defined in terms of observable through vision, that is, “the velocity of light is the limiting velocity ... All events that happen at P during this interval are “indeterminate as to time order” relative to the arrival of the signal at Q”, and thus† for our purposes simultaneous. This is completely in line with the connotations of the term Augenblick. Van Fraassen also derives the same basic conclusion of a threshold value of differentiation through quantum theory’s psi-function, which “supplies a description of the physical state of a system, which is as complete as possible” and then concludes that if this “as complete as possible” description is the same for two values of time, they are for all intents and purposes the same state. A


becomes subject to description in terms of what is known as Poincare’s theorem: that is, “that in an isolated mechanical system will return at a future time to a state which is closer to its initial state than any given amount.”13 Thus, the universe at its present and subsequent states δ and δ’can be designated as s(t) and sn(t) each as a function of time. As t(time, defined in units relative to α) goes to infinity in either direction the difference of s(t) and sn(t) approaches zero. At some point, the difference between δ and δ’ becomes smaller than the observable difference, and thence an infinite number of repetitions that are smaller than δ. Thus from any point, t defined within a range defined through causal simultaneity, the number of points t where the difference between δ and δ’ is larger than the given threshold is finite whereas the number of points where the difference between δ and δ’ is smaller are infinite. These assume that t increases incrementally, and the period of observation is also of the incremental value. If Moment were to refer to a unit of time infinitely small having duration of zero, if α were to be equal zero. Thus it would meet the instantaneity requirement for Simmel’s refutation. Those minute differences on the order of a millionth or a rotation would become

representation of the above proof would be:

n  → ∞

lim ϕ (t ) − ϕ (t ± n) = 0


presuming discrete units for t and n, an infinite number of values for t or n would result in a value below threshold α, representing recurrences of an indistinguishably different state of the world(ϕ(t)), as opposed to a finite number with values above αrepresenting distinguishably different states of the world.(This does apply to sequences as required by Nietzsche as through causal connection, each state is necessarily preceded by and followed by a necessarily linked state. This follows for every value of ϕ(t) so each state of the world has infinite indistinguishable, repetitions. Bas C. Van Fraassen, Capek on Eternal Recurrence, The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 59 Issue 14 (Jul. 5, 1962) 371-375, pg. 372, 373 13 Small, pg. 133


necessarily indistinguishable even were the point of union is of zero duration. Thus an infinite number of repetitions would falls under the threshold value. What follows in the context of Nietzsche’s thought is that when time is broken down into discrete but non-zero units, every possible event and sequence of events happens, and in infinite repetition of indistinguishable states. Most importantly, from the perspective outside of time, all possibilities are laid out to be seen from this view which transcends human perspective. §2 – Significance As I have elsewhere dealt with the subject at length, I will touch only briefly on the significance of Eternal Recurrence within the frame of Nietzsche’s thought. In short, as a natural metaphysical structure, the thought of Eternal Return demands a response. For Nietzsche, one cannot be indifferent to the thought, one is either shattered by it or it becomes determinative for their future actions. Heidegger writes of this “the thought would everywhere and at all times weigh upon our actions … The thought of eternal return is to be a burden – that is to be determinative.”14 As the thought weighs upon its thinker it becomes internalized into the doctrine of Eternal Recurrence, the application of which to life forms the backbone of Nietzsche’s later critique of values. Alternately, as Karl Lowith points out Eternal Recurrence affords a reconciliation of free will with fate. With all possible sequences of events governed by causal law and necessity one is bound strictly to follow causal interactions yet ones actions still bear consequences from a temporal perspective. The sequence of events one experiences is not necessarily pre-determined because ones actions are part of that sequence. “Fate evokes also the power and freedom of willing as a

Heidegger, pg. 22


counter-movement to the stubbornness of necessity. Absolute freedom would transform man into a creator-God, absolute necessity into an automaton.’ Apparently this problem can be solved only ‘if free will were the highest potency of fate’”15 As already demonstrated the proper response to a godless world is not to “become Gods” but to positively replace the function of God. Thus demonstrated by the free will from within and fate from an omniscient perspective, in an eternal recurring world will and fate cease to be antinomical. Every willed act becomes not only compatible with fate but when looked at in retrospect, absolutely necessary to fate. In essence, when looked at from beyond a human standpoint which renders will and fate antinomical will is seen as generative of fate. Again, Heidegger writes of the importance of the thought, “Yet so much is clear: the doctrine of return should never be contorted in such a way that it fids into the readily available ‘antinomy’ of freedom and necessity… our sole task – to think this most difficult thought as it demands to be thought, on its own terms.”16 The resolution of the antinomy between fate and will is a byproduct of secondary importance to the determinative value of the doctrine of return.

15 16

Karl Lowith, pg. 275-276 Heidegger, pg. 139


Bibliography Martin Heidegger, Nietzsche volumes 1&2, Translated by David Farrell Krell, (New York: HarperCollins, 1991). Karl Lowith, “Nietzsche’s Doctrine of Eternal Recurrence” in Journal of The History of Ideas, Volume 6, Issue 3 (Jun. 1945), 273-284. Friedrich Nietzsche Thus Spoke Zarathustra in The Viking Portable Nietzsche, Translated by Walter Kaufmann (New York: Viking Penguin, 1954). On The Advantage and Disadvantage Of History For Life, Translated by Peter Preuss, (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1980). The Will To Power, Translated by Walter Kauffmann and R.J. Hollingdale, (New York: Vintage, 1967). Robin Small, “Incommensurability and Recurrence: From Oresme to Simmel” in Journal of the History of Ideas, Volume 52 Issue 1, Jan-Mar 1991, pg 128. Bas C. Van Fraassen, “Capek on Eternal Recurrence”, The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 59 Issue 14 (Jul. 5, 1962) 371-375, pg. 372, 373


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