Nietzsche presents the idea of the eternal recurrence in three chapters of Thus Spake Zarathustra (TSZ). These are: On the Vision and the Riddle, The Convalescent and The Seven Seals, the second chapter containing the most detailed explanation; the third being a note on eternity.
Before examining the 'doctrine' of eternal recurrence it is worth asking whether anything in TSZ can be taken at face value or as genuine philosophy. The aim of the work seems to be to establish Nietzsche as a great and unique human being through the poetic fiction of his proxy, the prophet Zarathustra. If the whole work is intentionally ironic, in explaining the difficulties that a great philosopher has in getting his ideas across, then it is entirely acceptable. However, if Nietzsche actually believed in the myth presented in TSZ, it would appear to be the work of a megalomaniac, albeit a significant one of poetic fantasy.
It seems probable that Nietzsche did attach importance to the ideas expressed in TSZ and was convinced of his own greatness to an unhealthy degree. This is consistent with his notion of creativity, where the positive affirmation of the individual and of life in general is a sign of greatness. This positive attitude towards achieving greatness permeates TSZ, and runs counter to the mainstream of philosophical discourse since Descartes, which is characterised by scepticism and doubt. Zarathustra affirms life, with all its suffering, and finally exults in the certainty that the superman will lead humanity to a better life. Contrasted with this is the pessimism and disgust with life that precedes his epiphany in The Convalescent. The role of the eternal recurrence is to render the coming of the overman certain in the way that Christians use their doctrinal framework to ensure the second coming of their saviour. Marx's belief that socialism was inevitable relies on a similar pattern of thinking.
On the Vision and the Riddle
Part 3 of TSZ was written in 1884, a few years after Nietzsche's decline in health had forced his retirement from academic life. However there is no suggestion that he was not mentally competent when it was written. However, the chapter entitled The Convalescent may well have been related to the several severe complaints he suffered from, which included migraines and stomach illnesses. It is interesting that Zarathustra suffers a physical and mental collapse in this chapter but it is in the earlier On the Vision and the Riddle that a psychologist is given an insight into Nietzsche's state of mind several years before his actual collapse.
The chapter opens with Zarathustra on a sea voyage, but quickly turns to an address to, "you bold venturers, adventurers", who are complimented: "because you do not want to probe along a thread with cowardly hands; and because where you can guess, there you hate to deduce". This remark suggests that the story Zarathustra is about to tell is not for the ears of pedantic philosophers but is aimed at more adventurous intellectual spirits.
Zarathustra is then depicted as climbing with great courage and difficulty up a steep mountain path (an exercise that the backpacker Nietzsche was familiar with) impeded by having to carry a "half dwarf, half mole, lame, paralysing, dripping lead in my ear, lead-drop thoughts into my brain." This dwarf aspect of Zarathustra then criticises his efforts rather cleverly, by pointing out "You hurled yourself so high - but every hurled stone - must fall!" This can be read as Nietzsche's internal dialogue convincing himself that he can achieve greatness if he can rid himself of the dwarf, characterised by gravity itself, that is holding him back. The dwarf, then, is his self-doubt. Nietzsche confirms that the dwarf is an aspect of his psyche by having Zarathustra say, "and being at two in such a way truly makes one lonelier than being at one."
Zarathustra continues to bewail his struggles and concludes by saying, "Dwarf - you or I!" He asks, "Was that life? Well then! One More Time!" This appears to be the subtle announcement of the doctrine of eternal recurrence. Although Zarathustra's life has been hard, oppressive and agonizing, he decides that he wants to have more of this life.
Part 2 of the chapter begins with Zarathustra confronting his dwarf with the words, "Stop, Dwarf! "I - or you! But I am the stronger of us two - you do not know my abysmal thought! That - you could not bear!" The dwarf hops down from his shoulder and Zarathustra proceeds to explain to him his abysmal thought. The text continues as follows:
"See this gateway, dwarf!" I continued. "It has two faces. Two paths
come together here; no one has yet walked them to the end.
This long lane back: it lasts an eternity. And that long lane outward -
that is another eternity.
They contradict each other, these paths; they blatantly offend each
other - and here at this gateway is where they come together. The name
of the gateway is inscribed at the top: 'Moment.'
But whoever were to walk one of them further - and ever further and
ever on: do you believe, dwarf, that these paths contradict each other
"All that is straight lies," murmured the dwarf contemptuously. "All
truth is crooked, time itself is a circle."
The dwarf rightly notices that the metaphor is linear, ceteris paribus, but this is only Zarathustra arguing with himself. The statement that "no one has walked them to the end" seems pointless, since the paths are eternal and humans are mortal. Also, the idea of walking back in time seems impossible whether the path is eternal or not. It is interesting that Nietzsche confounds time and space in this model, as if he were anticipating Einstein's concept of space-time. Similarly, the arbitrary 'moment' where Zarathustra and the dwarf are conversing anticipates the relativistic origin of a local space-time system of coordinates. The two paths contradict because of the 'arrow of time' constraint, but it is unclear whether Nietzsche intends this to be the answer to his question. It seems that the dwarf does not like the linear concept of an infinite path, from indefinite past to indefinite future, but prefers a crooked or circular one. Elsewhere in TSZ, the dwarf is referred to as the Devil, so the confrontation described above can be seen as a variant of the dialogue between Christ and Satan in the desert.
"You spirit of gravity!" I said, angrily. "Do not make it too easy on
yourself! Or I shall leave you crouching here where you crouch, lamefoot -
and I bore you this high!
It is not clear from this remark whether Zarathustra prefers a linear eternity or a circular one, but later it becomes clear he does prefer circularity by adopting a wheel of time model.
See this moment!" I continued. "From this gateway Moment a long
eternal lane stretches backward: behind us lies an eternity.
Must not whatever can already have passed this way before? Must
not whatever can happen, already have happened, been done, passed by
Here the doctrine is stated, that what can happen, must have already happened. The italicized 'can' is critical, and seems to suggest that anything is possible as opposed to the repetition of some restricted set of possibilities.
The implication is that the universal event space comprises everything that is not impossible. For the mathematician, this idea can be expressed as a four-dimensional possibility space, but for the physicist this has to be constrained by those mysterious regularities called laws of nature.
And if everything has already been here before, what do you think of
this moment, dwarf? Must this gateway too not already - have been here?
And are not all things firmly knotted together in such a way that this
moment draws after it all things to come? Therefore - itself as well?
For, whatever can run, even in this long lane outward - must run it once
It is not clear whether Nietzsche had really thought the consequences of his metaphor through. The statement, "everything has been here before" is too general. The small event that is the gateway and its environs when the conversation takes place is not really a 'here and now' but an ongoing (literary) event that ceases when it passes away into new events. Nietzsche's use of 'everything' seems to suggest that the particular space-time juncture is associated with every conceivable event, which is clearly erroneous. The best that can be said is that the construction is just a fanciful figure of speech that does not bear close analysis. The alternative is that Nietzsche is too clever to be understood by all but those who espouse his obscure idea.
And this slow spider that creeps in the moonlight, and this moonlight
itself, and I and you in the gateway whispering together, whispering of
eternal things - must not all of us have been here before?
- And return and run in that other lane, outward, before us, in this
long, eerie lane - must we not return eternally? -"
The concept is clarified here, by affirming that the precise 'state of affairs' described will be exactly reproduced, presumably at some other time. This raises the major difficulty of understanding how the space-time of a particular event could be holographically reproduced and distributed throughout Zarathustra's eternal cosmos.
Thus I spoke, softer and softer, for I was afraid of my own thought and
secret thoughts. Then, suddenly, I heard a dog howl nearby.
Had I ever heard a dog howl like this? My thoughts raced back. Yes!
When I was a child, in my most distant childhood:
- then I heard a dog howl like this. And I saw it too, bristling, its head
up, trembling in the stillest midnight when even dogs believe in ghosts:
- so that I felt pity. For the full moon had passed over the house, silent
as death, and it had just stopped, a round smolder - stopped on the flat
roof just as if on a stranger's property -
that is the why the dog was so horror-stricken, because dogs believe in
thieves and ghosts. And when I heard it howl like this again, I felt pity
This passage seems to be a feeble attempt to justify the concept anecdotally, but the relevance of the childhood experience and the dog is doubtful.
Where now was the dwarf? And the gateway? And the spider? And all
the whispering? Was I dreaming? Was I waking? I stood all of a sudden
among wild cliffs, alone, desolate, in the most desolate moonlight.
But there lay a human being! And there! The dog jumping, bristling,
whining - now it saw me coming - then it howled again, it screamed: had
I ever heard a dog scream like this for help?
Now Zarathustra reveals that it was all a dream, but links the dream to his present by reintroducing the dog motif.
And truly, I saw something the like of which I had never seen before.
A young shepherd I saw; writhing, choking, twitching, his face distorted,
with a thick black snake hanging from his mouth.
Had I ever seen so much nausea and pale dread in one face? Surely he
must have fallen asleep? Then the snake crawled into his throat - where
it bit down firmly.
My hand tore at the snake and tore - in vain! It could not tear the snake
from his throat. Then it cried out of me: "Bite down! Bite down!
Bite off the head! Bite down!" - Thus it cried out of me, my dread, my
hatred, my nausea, my pity, all my good and bad cried out of me with one
Zarathustra now launches into a new story, but is not clear whether this is just another fancy. The passage is redolent with symbolic significance but it is not clear how Nietzsche intends the symbols to be interpreted, if at all. The Shepherd may stand for Christ, Apollo, Dionysus or some other mythological figure. If it were based on an actual dream, the obvious interpretation is a childhood experience of fellatio, whether performed on the writer himself, or some relative or merely imagined. The snake is traditionally a symbol of wisdom, so the meaning may be that the shepherd, as some kind of leader, is choking on his own wisdom. The biting off of the head and spitting out of the snake may therefore mean the rejection of old knowledge.
In Psychology and Alchemy (p.137) Jung says of a dream about a snake, ""This is brought about by the ceremonial use of a reptile, presumably a snake. The idea of transformation and renewal by means of a serpent is a well-substantiated archetype. It is reported of the mysteries of Sabazius...(A golden snake is let down into the bosom of the initiated and taken away again from the lower parts). Among the Ophites, Christ was the serpent...The shepherd's experience with the snake in Nietzsche's Zarathustra would accordingly be a fatal omen (and not the only one of its kind - cf. the prophecy at the death of the rope dancer)." It is notable that Sabazius was confounded with Zagreus, the Roman Dionysus. The Shepherd however is to be found in the Hermetica in the person of Peomandres, the Shepherd of Men. Whatever Nietzsche's sources may have been, the important result of the incident is the trauma and nausea that Zarathustra feels as a result of the 'incident' and the subsequent transformation of the shepherd into the superman.
You bold ones around me! You searchers, researchers and whoever
among you ever shipped out with cunning sails onto unexplored seas!
You riddle-happy ones!
Now guess me this riddle that I saw back then, now interpret me this
vision of the loneliest one!
For it was a vision and a foreseeing: what did I see then as a parable?
And who is it that must some day come?
Who is the shepherd into whose throat the snake crawled this way?Who
is the human being into whose throat everything that is heaviest, blackest
- Meanwhile the shepherd bit down as my shout advised him; he bit
with a good bite! Far away he spat the head of the snake - and he leaped
to his feet. -
No longer shepherd, no longer human - a transformed, illuminated,
Zarathustra has moved on from his perfunctory explanation of the eternal recurrence to the birth of the superman. The shepherd has been transformed by his experience into a "transformed and laughing being". This rebirth is reminiscent of the birth of Dionysus from Zeus's thigh or the birth of Athena from his head.
Never yet on earth had I heard a human being laugh as he laughed!
Oh my brothers, I heard a laughter that was no human laughter - and
now a thirst gnaws at me, a longing that will never be still.
My longing for this laughter gnaws at me; oh how can I bear to go on
living! And how could I bear to die now! -
Thus spoke Zarathustra.
Having witnessed the birth of this superhuman being, albeit in a vision, Zarathustra realizes his own irrelevance but cannot bear to accept his mortality - he must go on living, to glory in the superman.
At the opening of this chapter, Zarathustra suffers an epiphany, behaving like a madman he "screamed with a terrifying voice and behaved as though someone else were lying on his bed, who did not want to get up". He then refers, presumably, to the eternal recurrence by saying, "Up, abysmal thought, out of my depths!... listen! Because I want to hear you!" This latter remark reinforces the separation between the two personalities within, the 'you' being his "most abysmal thought".
The first section finishes with "Hail to me! Here now! Give me your hand - ha! Let go! Haha! - Nausea, nausea, nausea - oh no!" The uniting of Zarathustra with his great thought leads first to nausea and then to the complete collapse described in Part 2 of the chapter. From a psychological point of view, Zarathustra seems to have suffered a personality split, with his 'abysmal thought' becoming the dominant identity.
After a convalescent period of seven days, Zarathustra is persuaded by his
animals to "step out of your cave: the world awaits you like a garden. The wind is playing with heady fragrances that make their way to you; and all brooks want to run after you." He returns to the idea of the eternal recurrence by saying, "aren't words and sounds rainbows and illusory bridges between things eternally separated? To each soul belongs another world; for each soul every soul is a hinterworld." He continues with this subjectivist position by saying, "For me - how would there be something outside me? There is no outside!"
The animals then take over the discourse and tell Zarathustra about the wheel of being, "Everything dies, everything comes back: the wheel of being rolls eternally. Everything blossoms again, the year of being runs eternally." All this is just conventional medieval philosophy about seasonal change, and its illusion of certainty. But then, "Everything breaks, everything is joined anew; the same house of being builds itself eternally. Everything parts, everything greets itself again; the ring of being remains loyal to itself eternally. In every Instant being begins; around every Here rolls the ball There. The middle is everywhere. Crooked is the path to eternity."
Zarathustra then confirms that he is the shepherd of the earlier vision by saying, "How well you know what had to come true in seven days - and how that monster crawled into my throat and choked me! But I bit off its head and spat it away from me." He confirms that he has been redeemed by saying, "Now I lie here, weary still from this biting and spitting out, sick still from my own redemption."
After a litany of complaint, including the cruelty and lust of human beings, and their littleness, Zarathustra explains that it was "My great surfeit of human beings - that choked me and crawled into my throat; and what the soothsayer said: 'All is the same, nothing is worth it, knowledge chokes.' "
The animals seem to recognise that this nausea and nihilism is just part of the convalescent process, and urge Zarathustra to, "Go outside to the roses and bees and swarms of doves! Especially to song birds, so that you can learn to sing from them!" The animals urge him to "fashion yourself a lyre first, a new lyre!" Presumably this is a reference to Hermes, who invented the lyre, and is none other than the shepherd Poemandres, but the deeper meaning is that Zarathustra must heal himself, "so that you can bear your great destiny, which was never before a human's destiny." The meaning seems to be that Zarathustra must assume the role of a tutelary god because, "you are the teacher of the eternal recurrence." Hermes Trismegistus was, of course, the tutelary god. The remainder of the chapter focuses on explaining the eternal recurrence.
That you must teach this teaching as the first - how could this great
destiny not also be your greatest danger and sickness!
Behold, we know what you teach: that all things recur eternally and
we ourselves along with them, and that we have already been here times
eternal and all things along with us.
You teach that there is a great year of becoming, a monster of a great
year; like an hourglass it must turn itself over anew, again and again, so
that it runs down and runs out anew -
- so that all these years are the same as each other, in what is greatest
and also in what is smallest - so that we ourselves in every great year are
the same, in what is greatest and also in what is smallest.
And if you wanted to die now, oh Zarathustra: behold, we know too
how you would speak to yourself then: - but your animals beg you not to
There is 'great year' in Hindu cosmology, which is much greater than the 25,765 year precession cycle, known to western astronomy as the Great or Platonic year. This latter precession cycle was probably known to Aristarchos of Samos (280BC). The Hindu cycle is based on Kalpas, or one Brahma day, which endures for 4.32 billion years. The Brahma year is therefore very large indeed. The cosmos is destroyed and recreated in the Hindu system but there is no exact repetition as described in the passage above. Indeed, the stories about the Buddha's previous lives indicate the uniqueness of each reincarnation and the progression towards perfection. What is not clear from Zarathustra's exposition is how long his cycle is or if it is finite or infinite. The hourglass metaphor is quantitative only and does not explain why or how each grain of sand would exactly repeat its flow history in the hourglass.
You would speak and without trembling, rather taking a deep breath,
blissfully; for a great weight and oppressiveness would be taken from you,
you most patient one!
'Now I die and disappear,' you would say, 'and in an instant I will be a
nothing. Souls are as mortal as bodies.
The death of the soul with the body follows Aristotle's view rather than Plato's where the eternal soul returns to the World Soul.
But the knot of causes in which I am entangled recurs - it will create
me again! I myself belong to the causes of the eternal recurrence.
I will return, with this sun, with this earth, with this eagle, with this
snake - not to a new life or a better life or a similar life:
- I will return to this same and selfsame life, in what is greatest as well
as in what is smallest, to once again teach the eternal recurrence of all
The view here is the scientific one, that identical causes will reproduce the same events, ceteris paribus. For example, the birth of suns requires similar conditions, but it is hardly conceivable that Earth's sun would arise for a second time in the same cosmos. If the present cosmos were to collapse into a singularity it is conceivable that a new big bang would reproduce an identical copy of the preceding one, but an empirical proof of this would be impossible. From this point of view, Nietzsche's grand idea is irrefutable but possibly false.
- to once again speak the word about the great earth of noon and human
beings, to once again proclaim the overman to mankind.
I spoke my word, I break under my word: thus my eternal fate wills it
- as proclaimer I perish!
The hour has now come for the one who goes under to bless himself.
Thus - ends Zarathustra's going under!'" -
When the animals had spoken these words they fell silent and waited
for Zarathustra to say something to them: but Zarathustra did not hear
that they were silent. Instead he lay still, with eyes closed, like someone
sleeping - even though he was not sleeping. Indeed, at this moment he
was conversing with his soul. The snake and the eagle, however, finding
him silent in this manner, honored the great stillness around him and
cautiously slipped away.
According to the eternal return the 'overman' would have arisen innumerable times in the past, as would multiple Zarathustra's have proclaimed him to mankind. In view of the prophet's attitude to women, one wonders if a superwoman arose too, or if the godlike hero would mate with human women like the Watchers, those angels who could not resist the temptation of the daughters of men after the fall.
The Seven Seals
Zarathustra explains in Part 1, "oh how then could I not lust for eternity and for the nuptial ring of rings - the ring of recurrence. Never have I found the woman from whom I wanted children, unless it were this woman whom I love: for I love you, oh eternity!" Nietzsche's lack of success with women is here exacerbated by his desire for the impossible rival of a female goddess of eternity. This seems to be a variant of the Church as Bride of Christ or of Plotinus's World Soul.
Each of the seven sections of this hymn to eternity repeats this stanza, preceded by the imagined delights of eternity. In section five, ""infinity roars around me, way out there space and time glitter, well then, what of it old heart!" and in section 7, "but bird-wisdom speaks like this: 'see there is no up, no down! Throw yourself around, out, back you light one! Sing! Speak no more! - are not all words made for the heavy? Do not all words lie to the light? Sing! Speak no more!" This desire for absolute freedom from gravity and from thought suggests that Zarathustra is not temperamentally suited to the life his author has been leading, one of intense study, but rather the life of a wandering mystic who longs to be free of earthly constraints.
If one were to strip away all the poetic literary decoration, what would remain of Nietzsche's two important ideas: the eternal recurrence and the superman? In the world that he inhabited and the much-changed world that we know today, there have developed many radical theories and fictions about the cosmos and the future of human beings transformed by science. The possibility of further advances in human evolution, in terms of enhanced human powers, is not too fanciful. A more complex model of the cosmos as a multiverse is also being explored. What is clear, though, is that these scientific advances are based on work mostly unrelated to Nietzsche's fanciful and poetic notions, although psychoanalysts and others have been influenced by his insights. Consequently, Nietzsche's opinion of his importance in human history is grossly overstated, at least regarding the two main ideas of TSZ. However, this is not to say that they are unimportant elements in the development of non-scientific thought, since TSZ has had a profound influence on philosophy, culture and the arts which may well overshadow the influence of less fanciful philosophers.
The importance attached by Nietzsche to TSZ and the intensity and complexity of the work suggest that he did view the idea of the eternal recurrence and of the coming superman as more than just poetic expressions upon which to hang his radical view of the human condition and the future of humanity. For a great scholar of antiquity he must have been aware of the hubris inherent in TSZ, despite the thin mask provided by its protagonist Zarathustra.
Given the extravagant idea that anything that is possibly must have occurred, and must occur again, the emergence of a superior human who can save the human race does not appear unreasonable. Unfortunately the idea founders on the shore of the vast accumulation of scientific and technical knowledge that has occurred since Nietzsche's time. The law of entropy alone precludes the kind of cyclic stability envisioned in Nietzsche's recurring cosmos and the eventual death of all stars promises a Malthusian outcome in the absence of humanity. This reduces Nietzsche's grand idea of eternally recurring future heroes to an empty Valhalla, and certainly one where all great beings have vanished without trace.