Nietzsche: The Eternal Return, Suffering, and the Affirmation of Life

“The ideal of the most high spirited, alive, and world affirming human being who has not only come to terms and learned to get along with whatever was and is, but who wants to have what was and is repeated into all eternity, shouting insatiably da capo [from the beginning].” (Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche).

Nietzsche’s idea of the eternal return, or eternal recurrence, is one of his most famous ideas, yet also one of the most misunderstood. Such a misunderstanding often arises because there are two perspectives or ways to interpret this idea, leading some to confusion regarding exactly what Nietzsche meant by it. Nietzsche sometimes writes of the eternal return as 1) a scientific theory, and sometimes as 2) a psychological “test”.

The Eternal Return as a Scientific Theory

The eternal return as a scientific theory is the idea that all events and experiences in the universe will be repeated again and again for all eternity. Nietzsche based this theory on a few assumptions: 1) that the universe contains a finite quantity of energy (law of conversation of energy), 2) that the possible states this energy can assume is finite, and 3) that time is infinite. Based on these three premises, he concluded that everything that happens will be repeated ad infinitum. From a personal point of view, this means that our own life and everything that happens to us and everything we experience, will be repeated again and again, and again….and again.

“This world: a monster of energy, without beginning, without end; a firm, iron magnitude of
force that does not grow bigger or smaller, that does not expend itself but only transforms itself… a sea of forces flowing and rushing together, eternally changing, eternally flooding back, with tremendous years of recurrence, with an ebb and a flood of its forms; out of the simplest forms striving toward the most complex, out of the stillest, most rigid, coldest forms toward the hottest, most turbulent, most self-contradictory, and then again returning home to the simple out of this abundance…without goal, unless the joy of the circle is itself a goal.” (The Will to Power, Nietzsche)

The Eternal Return as a Psychological Test

While Nietzsche wrote of the eternal return as a scientific theory, he was much more interested in using it as a psychological “test” to determine whether we have attained a state of amor fati (love of fate) – which Nietzsche saw as the ultimate goal of human existence.

“I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things; then I shall be one of those who make things beautiful. Amor fati: let that be my love henceforth! Some day I wish to be only a yes-sayer.” (The Gay Science, Nietzsche)

(For more information on the relation between amor fati and the eternal return check out our video: Introduction to Nietzsche)

In The Gay Science Nietzsche recommends we engage in the following thought experiment, actively imagining the situation as realistically as possible. The goal is to figure out what our reaction would be to such a message, as Nietzsche thought this reaction would uncover our true, and often hidden, attitude towards life and the universe:

What if a demon crept after you into your loneliest loneliness some day or night, and said to
you: “This life, as you live it at present, and have lived it, you must live it once more, and also
innumerable times; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and every sigh, and all the unspeakably small and great in your life must come to you again, and all in the same series and sequence – and similarly this spider and this moonlight among the trees, and similarly this moment, and I myself. The eternal sand-glass of existence will ever be turned once more, and you with it, you speck of dust!” – Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth, and curse the
demon that so spoke? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment in which you would answer him : “You are a God, and never did I hear anything so divine!” If that thought acquired power over you as you are, it would transform you, and perhaps crush you. (The Gay Science, Nietzsche)

The Eternal Return and Suffering

To “pass” this psychological test, and to respond to the demon with joy instead of disgust at the thought of having to live our life over and over, innumerable times more, requires that we reorient our attitude towards suffering. The problem with saying yes to every moment and wishing it would return again and again (and thus attaining a state of amor fati or “yes-saying”), is the all-pervading presence and inevitability of suffering in life. In order to say “Yes” to all existence we must say “Yes” to suffering.

(For more information about how the presence of suffering can make it difficult to affirm existence, check out our video Suffering and the Meaning of Life)

Suffering will always be a common feature of any life, but while most people try to escape from their suffering – drowning it out with distraction or muffling it with medications – it is possible to develop a positive relationship to it. We can accept our suffering, and even grow to love it.

The idea of loving your suffering sounds quote foreign and unachievable, yet if we look back on our life it becomes obvious that our greatest changes and transformations occurred during deeply troubling times. It is common knowledge that the potential for growth and change accompanies experiences of hardship, struggle, and failure, but what is uncommon is the application of this knowledge when in the midst of deep pain or hardship. When suffering, most people do not welcome it and think of how much they’ll grow from it – but instead lament over their pain and seek to do away with it in any way they can.

If we can hold in our mind in the midst of suffering the idea that suffering grants the possibility of growth we can rise above our pain, see the value in it, and detach from it so we can use it, manipulate it, for our benefit – in the service of growth and change.

“I must first go down…deeper into pain than ever I descended, down into its blackest flood…Whence come the highest mountains? I once asked. Then I learned that they came out of the sea. The evidence is written in their rocks and in the walls of their peaks. It is out of the deepest depth that the highest must come to its height.” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche)

Such an attitude grants us the ability to say “Yes” to our suffering, and thus say “Yes” to life itself in all its confusion, chaos, and uncertainty. With such an attitude we would respond to the demon: “You are a God, and never did I hear anything so divine!” If we are to make the most of this turbulent life, and not grow bitter and stagnant with time, we must learn to say “Yes”:

“For the game of creation, my brothers, a sacred ‘Yes’ is needed.” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche)