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Eternal Recurrence: Nietzsche and the Stoics

Classical Literature

Eternal Recurrence: Nietzsche and the Stoics

Portrait photo of Friedrich Nietzsche

 

by Patricia Slatin, Ph.D.

The nineteenth century German philosopher Nietzsche was no fan of Stoicism. As he saw it, Stoics spent life hiding under a “hard, hedgehog skin,” avoiding suffering but likewise through insensitivity rendering themselves incapable of joy; such a life could never be desired by the strongest spirits, Nietzsche believed. Yet, in spite of his condemnation of Stoic attitudes, he may be more indebted to them in respect of one of his key ideas than he would be willing to acknowledge – namely, his idea of the eternal recurrence of the same. Nietzsche is famous for entertaining this concept, but it did not originate with him. Both Stoic and Epicurean philosophers of antiquity, albeit for very different reasons, posited versions of the theory that everything happening in the universe has happened before an infinite number of times, and will recur an infinite number of times in the future, all things repeating themselves identically down to the last detail. To the Stoics, eternal recurrence was an item of scientific doctrine – a real cosmological claim, whereas Nietzsche was perhaps proposing it only as a thought experiment. Yet the main concern of the Stoics, as of Nietzsche, was not with the scientific truth of the theory, but rather with how it might be useful to people in living their lives. There appears to be a more than superficial similarity between the Nietzschean and Stoic approaches to the theory, as I think a comparison of Nietzsche’s words with part of a letter of the first century A.D. Stoic Seneca will reveal.

Nietzsche introduces the theory in Gay Science 341 as a means of testing the quality of a person’s life. The passage as a whole reads:

The greatest weight.—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? (Trans. Walter Kaufmann)

Here he implies that most people would be unable to endure the thought of living their lives over again innumerable times – the notion of re-suffering all their most painful experiences would simply overwhelm them. On the other hand, there are those worthy of being counted truly happy and strong who could love their lives so fully as to desire them over and over; such people have a way of passing the eternal recurrence test. One interpretation of Gay Science holds that the way to pass the test is to turn one’s life into a work of art: just as artists create a beautiful composition from many individual elements, which taken by themselves may not be beautiful at all, so, Nietzsche believes, we can do with the details of our life. If we are able to see each aspect of ourselves and each thing that has happened to us as somehow contributing to the beauty of our life overall, then we will be able to love and desire everything that happens, since removing any of our experiences, even the most painful ones, would be to detract from the beauty of the whole. Now, Nietzsche does not regard this artistic life-fashioning as an easy matter. A great deal of work and ingenuity and self-overcoming is required in order for our life to acquire the character of a great work of art, hence this is a project for only the strongest spirits. (Yes, he is terribly elitist, but that’s not our focus here.)

The Stoics posited an eternal recurrence out of their conviction that the universe was a rational living being – universal Nature, whom they also called “God” and “Zeus,” whose providential concern for itself and for everything within it was perfect. God, they said, lives through the course of His existence as a rational animal until a time comes when He absorbs Himself wholly into His own thoughts; then there arises a universal conflagration, with everything turning into pure, living fire. Yet this fire, being God, is creative and does not remain forever in its pure form; after a while it becomes fiery and airy, earthy and watery; the fire and air combine to make up the pneuma, the World Soul, and this Soul creates a body for itself out of the earthy and watery aspects. Once the universe exists again as an ensoulled body, it embarks upon another course of its life, with everything happening in it identically to how it happened before, until the time arrives for another conflagration. This process – a cycle of the world’s life followed by a conflagration – repeats without end. The Stoics thought it impossible for anything in the present cycle of the world’s existence to differ from how it had been in previous cycles, because they saw this as the best of all possible worlds, so that any change in the world could only be a change for the worse, and it were impossible that a perfectly providential and rational deity ever permit itself to change for the worse. Human beings necessarily also experience an eternal recurrence of themselves, as they are parts of God, and their souls are offshoots of the World Soul. So, when the right time comes in each cycle of the world’s life, each person is born again and relives the same life he has lived innumerable times before.

Statue of Lucius Annaeus Seneca with another Roman

Seneca brings up the theory of eternal recurrence at the end of his Letter 36, where he is counseling a friend not to be afraid of death. He writes,

In death there is nothing harmful; for there must exist something to which it is harmful. And yet, if you are possessed of so great a craving for a longer life, reflect that none of the objects which vanish from our gaze and are re-absorbed into the world of things, from which they have come forth and are soon to come forth again, is annihilated; they merely end their course and do not perish. And death, which we fear and shrink from, merely interrupts life, but does not steal it away; the time will return when we will be restored to the light of day; and many men would object to this, were they not brought back in forgetfulness of the past.

But I mean to show you later, with more care, that everything which seems to perish merely changes. Since you are destined to return, you ought to depart with a tranquil mind. …
(Trans. Richard M. Gummere)

We may note that Seneca, like Nietzsche, believes the idea of eternal recurrence would be unwelcome to most people, and he seems also to agree with Nietzsche as to the reason for this when he says that many would object to reliving their lives, “were they not brought back in forgetfulness of the past” – that is, people shrink from suffering and have no creative means of transforming it into something affirmable; their only way of dealing with it is by forgetting. Seneca, however, is not addressing himself in his letter to the common run of people, but to a friend who is a reasonable man, who he is confident will see how the thought of eternal recurrence can just as well be a source of comfort as of fear, for if we have to get back all our sorrows, by the same token we will get back all our joys. (This is a point Nietzsche chooses to overlook, wishing for his purposes to make the eternal recurrence into a wholly terrifying prospect). If Seneca’s friend is lamenting the loss of something that has been precious to him, he can comfort himself with the thought that he has not lost it forever: as he must return, so must it return to him when the universe’s life is renewed.

But what if the joys do not outweigh the sorrows? How can Seneca be so confident that it is possible “to depart with a tranquil mind”? The Stoics had their own way of passing the ‘eternal recurrence test’, differing to be sure from Nietzsche’s but requiring just as much psychic effort and self-fashioning. Their strategy was to train themselves to look at everything from the perspective of universal Nature. If, as they insisted, this is really the best of all possible worlds, governed by a perfect divine Providence, then anything that actually happens at any point must be the best thing that could happen at that point. Certain things may look negative to us, but that is merely a result of our looking at them from within a limited human perspective; could we but see them as God sees them, we would perceive how they are indeed for the best, and we would be able to desire them as God desires them. Clearly it is not easy to acquire such an attitude in respect of all things that happen in our world, so the Stoics performed spiritual exercises to help them; much of what Marcus Aurelius writes in his Meditations amounts to an effort to escape the limits of his own viewpoint and reform his consciousness in likeness to God’s. Now, is this altogether unlike Nietzsche’s advice to adopt an artistic perspective on our lives? Both strategies for embracing eternal recurrence are an ongoing effort to change the way we perceive, and both acknowledge that this is not a simple matter, for the means of re-fashioning our minds are never simply given to us – we have to be creative. So perhaps Nietzsche was too hasty in dismissing Stoicism as just an attempt to render oneself insensible to the pains of life. Though superficially so incompatible with each other, the Stoic and Nietzschean projects appear to have at least one essential premise in common.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
patricia slatin
Dr. Patricia Slatin has a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of California at Berkeley. She has taught classes in Latin, Ancient Greek, and Philosophy at U.C. Berkeley, Georgetown, and Stanford. Her teaching credits include "Death and the Afterlife in Classical Antiquity", "Socrates and His Legacy", and "Becoming Like God: An Introduction to Greek Ethical Philosophy". Dr. Slatin currently teaches Latin and tutors both Latin and Greek for the Carmenta Online Latin School.

Click here to see Dr. Slatin’s full profile on the Carmenta Faculty Page.

 

 

3 Comments

  1. Magister Andrew

    Patricia and Derick,

    I’ve always found Nietzsche’s concept of Eternal Recurrence of the Same to be one of his most interesting and intriguing ideas, in part because, unlike most of his positions, this one seemed far less obvious to me and really forced me (just as Nietzsche would have wanted, I think) to explore its possible meanings and how it might challenge my own concepts of myself and my life.

    -Andrew

  2. Derick Alexandre

    Patricia,

    Thank you for this remarkable post! Do you think the following point might represent a key difference between the Stoic position and Nietzsche’s: that the Stoics hold this notion of eternal recurrence as a genuine cosmological doctrine, as evidenced in the Seneca letter, whereas Nietzsche simply uses it as a fictive tool or conceit (a “noble lie”, if you will) to solicit the imaginative cooperation of his readers in this project of self-fashioning? Anyway, I loved this article.

    -Derick

    • Patricia

      Hi Derick,

      Thanks for your response. And yes, I think you’re quite right in what you identify as a key difference between the two, as least as concerns Nietzsche’s position in *Gay Science*. However, if you look into his unpublished notebooks (that is, those writings that remained unpublished at the time of his death – they are now published), you’ll find a passage in which Nietzsche does seem to be treating eternal recurrence as a cosmological doctrine rather than a useful fiction (his notion of it there resembles the Epicurean rather than the Stoic conception, though), so perhaps he did change his mind at some point about the scientific status of the theory. But since the passage suggesting a change of mind only appears in writings he did not make public, it’s difficult to be sure whether he ever seriously entertained the possibility of a *real* eternal recurrence.

      Patricia