Interpretations of Nietzsche’s Doctrine of Eternal Return

By R.N. Carmona

In approaching the doctrine of eternal return, one will find that there are three ways to interpret it. There is the cosmological interpretation (CI). There are also the ethical (EI) and existential interpretations (EXI). After an extended discussion of these interpretations, I will demonstrate that EXI is the most plausible, especially when considering Nietzsche’s philosophy as fully as possible. In other words, if one can agree that it is possible to, at the very least, attempt to consider Nietzsche’s philosophy as a whole, then one can also agree that of these interpretations, EXI is consistent with Nietzsche’s philosophy or perhaps more forcefully, EXI is what allows for there to be any talk of a consistent Nietzschean philosophy. To my mind, the more forceful point is tenable and I will endeavor to demonstrate it. To accomplish this, it is necessary to show that CI and EI are not consistent with Nietzsche’s philosophy; moreover, it must be shown that neither of these interpretations can make his philosophy consistent.

Prior to discussing the interpretations, it will be useful to consider aphorism 341 of Nietzsche’s The Gay Science:

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 have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: “You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.” If this thought gained possession of you, it would change you as you are or perhaps crush you. The question in each and every thing, “Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?” would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight. 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? (Nietzsche, 273)

Given this aphorism, it would seem that every interpretation is prima facie plausible. It would also seem that CI and EI are more tenable, since they’re made explicit in the passage. Prior to seeing that more clearly, it is imperative to explain what is entailed by CI and EI. It is time now to flesh out the three interpretations of eternal return.

The cosmological interpretation (CI) tells us that there is a finite set of ways in which matter can organize itself. It also states that determinism is true and that the universe is eternal. Given these premises, all events eternally recur and matter will repeatedly organize itself in a finite number of ways. On the latter, the implication is that every person that has ever existed will exist again and since determinism is true, they will live precisely the same life they lived the previous time. This is perfectly in keeping with aphorism 341, since the demon states that you will return once the eternal hourglass is turned upside down over and over again; even the spider and the moonlight between the trees will recur in precisely the same succession.

The ethical interpretation (EI) sidesteps the metaphysical commitments of the premises of CI and seems to prescribe to us an ethical principle with an unusual Kantian flavor. This is part of the reason it’s untenable once one considers Nietzsche’s philosophy as a whole. Nietzsche seems to disagree with Kant in a number of places as will be shown momentarily, so it would be curious if he employed the doctrine of eternal return to prescribe an ethical principle which sounds like a paraphrase of Kant’s categorical imperative, “will only those actions which you wish to recur for all of eternity.” It would appear to be the case given that the doctrine bears upon one’s actions as the greatest weight.

The existential interpretation (EXI) also circumvents the metaphysical commitments of CI and rather than prescribe an ethical principle as EI appears to do, it implores the great individual to live the sort of life they would approve of living an infinite amount of times over. It is as Ronald Dworkin offered, an adverbial rather than adjectival life, a life comprised of the total performance rather than what remains when the performance is subtracted. As the demon states at the end of the passage: “Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate confirmation and seal?” The life of the great individual, the Übermensch, Nietzsche believes, will crave an ultimate confirmation and seal, the ultimate acknowledgement of the life s/he led. In order to see why EXI succeeds where CI and EI fail, it is imperative to capture Nietzsche’s philosophy as fully as possible.

CI cannot counter the fact that Nietzsche doesn’t apply determinism to great people. When speaking of the equivalence of greatness and a lack of compassion, Nietzsche states that this experience is “a parable for the whole effect of great human beings on others and on their age; precisely with what is best in them, with what only they can do, they destroy many who are weak, unsure, still in the process of becoming” (Nietzsche, 101). The key is in the phrase “with what only they can do,” which would seem to attribute free will solely to great people. When coupled with Nietzsche’s analysis of herd instincts (see pp.174-175) along with the herd’s attribution of free will to bad conscience, then it would seem that Nietzsche is arguing that only great people can act out of their own volition.

To further establish the notion that only great people can exhibit free will, we can consider Nietzsche’s concept of self-creation. Nietzsche speaks of giving style to one’s character. He also implies that the great individual has the ultimate self-knowledge that is to such an extent that s/he is fully cognizant of their strengths and weaknesses (Nietzsche, 232). This knowledge enables them to build a unified character, one that affirms the good and the bad that exists within them. This self-creation, giving style to oneself, is not possible without free will, without the capacity to tear the head off the snake — a snake that can be seen as the determinism inherent in the herd instinct.

In addition to this, Nietzsche strongly disagreed with a mechanical world. He states that “an essentially mechanical world would be an essentially meaningless world” (Nietzsche, 335). He refers to such thinking as a degradation of existence and asks us to consider whether music can be reduced to calculations and formulas. He refers to the scientific view of the world as “stupid” and yet a scientific view implies a deterministic view, “ ‘a world of truth’ that can be mastered completely and forever with the aid of our square little reason” (Ibid.). Though there are other instances in where Nietzsche appears to undertake the metaphysical commitments of CI—in particular in his discussions on history and the herd instincts inherent in morality—a full consideration of his overall philosophy disabuses one of committing the error of thinking he’s confined himself to such commitments. Given this, CI is untenable and a fuller exploration of Nietzsche’s views of individuals will only further establish this.

Though EI circumvents the metaphysical commitments of CI, EI is an untenable interpretation as well. As mentioned above, Nietzsche disagreed with Kant explicitly. In his Critique of Practical Reason, Kant states that his categorical imperative “determines quite precisely what is to be done to solve a problem and does not let him miss.” Given Nietzsche’s opposition to a mechanical view of the world, one can speculate that he would be staunchly opposed to Kant’s claim. More explicitly, however, Nietzsche inverts the very values Kantian ethics rests upon. In aphorism 4, for example, he says that “the evil instincts are expedient, species-preserving, and indispensable to as high a degree as the good ones; their function is merely different” (Nietzsche, 79). In aphorism 5, Nietzsche seems to indict Kant’s categorical imperative as a quasi-religious alternative. He speaks of “talk of ‘duties,’ and actually always of duties that are supposed to be unconditional” (Nietzsche, 80). He adds that “they would lack the justification for their great pathos” in the absence of such talk and that they therefore “reach for moral philosophies that preach some categorical imperative” or “ingest a good piece of religion” (Ibid.). Given this and his lengthier disagreements with Kant specifically in Beyond Good and Evil, and given Kant’s mechanistic view of his own categorical imperative, EI must be wrong since it suggests that Nietzsche is proposing an ethical principle based on unconditional duty and that would therefore justify our great pathos. This would no doubt run counter to Nietzsche’s overall project of revaluation of values, which had till his time been based upon herd instincts.

Given what’s been surveyed above, it is clear that CI and EI do not allow Nietzsche’s philosophy to be consistent. In fact, both interpretations lead to glaring inconsistencies. Though it may be argued that Nietzsche was not a hard determinist and that thus, a modification of the premise “determinism is true” is in order, there is still no way of demonstrating that he committed himself to the other premises. Given his discussion of causality (see pp.172-173), for example, it can be argued that he believes in the sort of infinities that would cancel out the notion of a finite number of states in which matter can organize itself. EI will lead to still other inconsistencies as we’ve seen. Perhaps the most damning point to be made is that Nietzsche’s thesis involved an inversion of Christian values and an admonition for us to see evil as vital to the preservation of our species. Far from allowing for his philosophy to remain consistent, EI would make it obviously inconsistent.

EXI, to the contrary, succeeds at unifying the threads of Nietzschean philosophy. His view of individuals, especially great individuals, his revaluation of values, and his belief in a dynamic rather than mechanistic world are all encompassed in EXI. His doctrine of eternal return  is therefore telling us to live the kind of life we would approve of living over and over again for all of eternity, for in permitting this revelation to possess our thoughts and thereby bear upon our actions is the equivalent of living a great life once. This not only encompasses Nietzsche’s ideas of self-creation and greatness, but it also anticipates the Übermensch, the overman, the human ideal who prevails against the herd instinct and fully succeeds at creating both for himself and for others new values. The doctrine of eternal return connects his later projects and perhaps this is why he assigned to this idea such great importance.

Of the possible challenges EXI faces, I will deal with two. One challenge I’ll call the nihilistic challenge (NC) and the other I’ll call the inconsistency challenge (IC). On NC, one can argue that Nietzsche simply didn’t care about the life you choose to live. He did suggest that the doctrine of eternal return may crush you and perhaps this will be the common reaction to the demon’s revelation. On the basis of this, we’ll surrender our commitment to life and give up notions of meaning and purpose; we will behave as though nothing matters. On IC, one can argue that EXI leads to an inconsistency in thought. In other words, self-creation and the Übermensch are null concepts when considering that Nietzsche is prescribing to them an existential principle. Both challenges fail to adequately challenge EXI for the following reasons.

NC fails because it gives more weight to the suggestion that the doctrine of eternal return will crush people than to other suggestions, in particular the suggestion of desiring an eternally recurring life and receiving it as an ultimate confirmation. The latter suggestion encompasses EXI, but even if it didn’t, the suggestion that it would crush people to the point of nihilism ignores the human penchant for talk of meaning and purpose, and the ensuing search for them. As we saw earlier, even Nietzsche was not immune to talk of meaning; in fact, meaning is arguably the primary reason why he was opposed to a mechanistic view of the world. IC, on the other hand, fails to present an adequate challenge because the proponent of IC would have to assume that Nietzsche didn’t think we can influence one another. To the contrary, he speaks of the sort of intoxication that leads to the breaking of limbs along false paths (see p.101). To his mind, great human beings offer a drink that is too potent to them who are weak. This implies that the drink isn’t too strong for them who are ready to receive it. Nietzsche is basically borrowing Christian imagery and is saying something akin to milk is for babes and meat is for the strong (1 Corinthians 3:2), and therefore, the great can influence the great. If this holds, then there’s nothing inconsistent about EXI.

In light of what has been briefly surveyed here, EXI is not only more tenable than CI and EI, but it also succeeds where they fail with regards to either being consistent with Nietzsche’s philosophy in toto or in allowing for any talk of a consistent Nietzschean philosophy. EXI is harmed by neither NC nor IC. More importantly, it is the connective thread of Nietzsche’s works, starting with The Gay Science and ending with On the Genealogy of Morals. Perhaps a more elaborate discussion is needed, in particular one that is able to employ Nietzsche’s insights in the works mentioned above in addition to insights found in Thus Spoke Zarathustra and Beyond Good and Evil. At any rate, if Nietzsche’s philosophy is to retain its consistency, it is necessary for EXI to remain tenable across these four works. What’s been established here is that it is tenable within the purview of The Gay Science.


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