Eternal Recurrence

Imagine, one day you are approached by a demon.

Pitchfork, pointed tail, horns and talons – the whole shebang!

This demon promises to reveal to you the truth of existence, and, being the gullible mortal you are, you readily accept.

“This life, as you lead it, and as you shall lead it, will repeat again. And again. And again. From now, until forever. Eternally you shall relive that which you have lived, and that which you shall live.” The demon smiles, his wicked, soul-stealing smile. He thinks you undone, he knows how this goes. He has revealed his secret a thousand times before, and a thousand souls have screamed in anguish at the thought.

But not you. Not you…

This was a thought experiment by the 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche that he dubbed eternal recurrence. This idea can be found in many early pre-christian religions as a legitimately held belief with the most notable being the Ancient Egyptians. And indeed, even Nietzsche seemed to be toying with the idea as more than just a thought experiment. Some of his unpublished notes reveal an attempt to put together a logical proof for the concept. However, I’m not interested in the belief systems that hold up this idea as a physical fact or fundamental feature of nature. It’s the power of this thought experiment as a psychological tool that most intrigues me.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Try it. Go ahead. Imagine the scenario above. How do you respond? Are you one of the many souls screaming in agony at the thought of having to relive your life an infinate number of times? Or do you, as Nietzsche did, say to the demon, “You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.”[1]

I expect very few of you respond with quite the enthusiasm that Nietzsche did. Even those of you who think you live a blessed life, and are grateful for the good, would probably look back to a number of events in your past with horror at having to relive them over and over for all eternity. Certainly there is not much we can do about the past. It is done and fixed, and cannot be changed. But the present is far more malliable and to change the present is to alter the course of the future.

Past

Before we totally disregard the past, on the basis is can’t be changed it is important to remember, that those events are the building blocks that led to who you are. Before you can determine how to change the present and the future, a good idea is to look into your past and ask: What parts of this life do I regret? If this were to recur eternally what events do I most fear repeating? But, before you instantly write off anything that caused even the slightest bit of anguish – given the gift of foresight – ask yourself, did this event bring me future benefit that I now enjoy today?

You may have found school rather tedious for instance, but without an education would the rest of your life be better or worse? Therefore if everything were to repeat, would it be better if the event “going to school” were to repeat and the benefit along with it? Or would it be better that you had never gone to school and therefore struggled through the rest of life (over and over again)?

The Ancient Egyptians believed that scarabs did not procreate and instead reincarnated from the ball of dung it pushed along the desert. This led to the scarab becoming symbolically associated with reincarnation.

So, you’ve realised as bad as school was, the long term benefits outweigh the short term suffering. But perhaps you look back on your education with the perspective of someone that went on to higher education and think you could have done better. Maybe you’ve learnt techniques to learn that if you knew back then could have gotten you far better grades. Maybe you’d have just prefered to be taught more useful subjects and waste less time learning pointless facts that brought no benefit to your life. Or maybe you’d prefer to have learnt in a system that wasn’t soley focused on passing exams. Regardless of your conclusions, the unchangeable truth remains: the past cannot be altered.

But now you have reflected on the flaws of the past and what you would do differently, you have the tools necessary to alter the present for the benefit of the future.

Present

In Nietzsche’s eyes, the only person that could truly embrace the concept of eternal recurrence and praise the demonic messenger as “divine” was one who lived their life in accordance with the stoic concept of amor fati (Latin for “love of fate”). That being a person who didn’t just endure the slings and arrows of fate but saw in them necessity and thus loved them. This could be simplified down to a “every cloud has a silver lining” philosophy, but I think there is more to it than that. Amor fati literally means to see everything that happens to you as being good by nature of it being fated. The death of a child, a sudden illness, a road accident; very few would find the power within them to look upon these things as blessings. But it exactly that that the believer of amor fati must do.

Amor fati seems to me to be an incredibly difficult concept to fully embrace without the proper philosophical tool set to do so. Without a certain mental preparedness, any attempt to “love fate” is doomed to failure, especially in the face of the worst demons fate has to conjure. Fortunately the ancient Greek and Roman Stoics have provided us with exactly the tools we are looking for. For, although amor fati was originally coined by Nietzsche, the concept appears in one form or another in the extant texts of numerous Stoic philosophers, some of which are listed below:

“Do not seek for things to happen the way you want them to; rather, wish that what happens happen the way it happens: then you will be happy.”

Epictetus, Enchiridion, Ch VIII

“Wherever it is in agreement with nature, the ruling power within us takes a flexible approach to circumstances,always adapting itself easily to both practicality and the given event. It has no favored material for its work, but sets out on its objects in a conditional way, turning any obstacle into material for its own use. It is like a fire mastering whatever falls into it. A small flame would be extinguished, but a bright fire rapidly claims as it’s own all that is heaped on it, devours it all, and leaps up yet higher in consequence.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations translated by Martin Hammond, Book IV

As I personally only came to Nietzsche after reading deeply into the Stoics I found that I was already prepared with the mindset required to embrace amor fati. Stoicism, tends to get a bad rap as a philosophy of negation – one that seeks to suppress emotions or do away with them entirely. In reality Stoicism has never been about removing emotion, only preventing it from having power over you. Many people find themselves enslaved to their emotions, the teachings of Stoicism simply seek to reverse this master/slave dynamic making you the master of yourself. Once one has learnt to master the impulses that lead to overreaction, then, I believe they are ready to take the next step and truly love fate.

Future

If you are not happy with your present circumstances, now is the best time to take action. Small actions now magnify greatly when projected into the future. In economics this manifests as inflation. In a life, this is the difference between following a path you hate in the idealistic (and ignorant) hope that somehow that will bring happiness in the future, and following one you love regardless of the hardship that comes with it, knowing that whatever the outcome fate brings you will love it.

So ask yourself today the question of eternal recurrence, and do not settle for a life less that which has you crying forth: “You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine!”

Reading List

To anyone interested in reading up on the concepts discussed here I have listed some of the best books to read up on both Stoicism and Nietzsche’s ideas of amor fati and eternal recurrence. For anyone new to philosophy I recommend starting with the Stoics. They all write in a simplistic style that makes the concepts easy to understand and incorporate into your own life. Nietzsche however, is more of a challenge, and it helps to have background knowledge of both his philosophical inspirations and the time period he was writing in (And even then you will most certainly not get everything on the first read!). I have linked to copies of the translations I own here, each I can recommend as being of good quality and easy to read.

Stoicism

Meditations, Marcus Aurelius, translation by Martin Hammond

Letters from a Stoic, Lucius Annaeus Seneca, translation by Robin Campbell

Epictetus, Enchiridion, translated by George Long

Eternal Recurrance & Amor Fati

Ecce Homo – An autobiography of sorts. In this Nietzsche set’s forth a number of practical lifestyle actions that he takes in an attempt to answer questions such as “Why am I so clever?” (literally a chapter title) as well as reviewing his bibliography of works. Although this was his last published book (posthumously in 1908) I’d recommend this as the first book of Nietzsche’s to read as it gives an overview of all his work.

Thus spoke Zarathustra – Written in the style of a myth or religious text whereby Zarathustra comes down from the mountaintop to share his wisdom with mankind. Both amor fati and eternal recurrence appear in this book alongside other famous concepts such as the Ubermensch (Superman) and the will to power. Due to the style this can be a hard book to understand as a lot of the concepts are presented as metaphors and parables.

The Gay Science – “A book of exuberance, restlessness, contrariety, and April showers.” This book is a rather ecclectic selection of poetry, aphorisms, and prose that covers a wide range of topics. Each section is quite short, usually not much more than a page. This makes it easy to pick up and put down, although to fully understand the concepts is not so easy. This was written towards the middle of Nietzsche’s life so some concepts here are not as well formed as in later works such as Thus Spoke Zarathustra and Beyond Good and Evil.

Bibliography

[1] – Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, 1882

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