The Eternal Recurrence: how the meaning returns to existence

It was during one of his walks in Sils im Engadin, near lake Silvaplana,  in Switzerland,  that the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche had what he believed was the greatest thought he had ever conceived.

He was walking by the lake when he suddenly stopped near a massive rock and had an unsettling vision.

What Nietzsche conceived was a thought experiment that in his opinion would help us to analyze every action and every choice in our lives, so that we could live it to the full.

This was what he questioned:

“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 nnumerable 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.’ “ [1]

In other words, Nietzsche, through the depth of his existential reflection, speculated on the hypothetical possibility that people could have the opportunity to live their life again, making all the same choices and mistakes, and on this speculation, he indentified two types of individuals. Those who are joyful to have this possibility, because they lived their life authentically, driven by their passions and values, and those who, conversely, are terrified by the idea, because they didn’t live the life they truly wanted and  now acknowledge the fact that they will be condemned to eternity to repeat their failures again and again.

This idea became known as the Eternal Return of the Same and it embodies the very essence of Nietzsche’s attitude to life, featured  by a dialectic of tragedy and joy.

He essentially believed that even though we all have things that we might consider as failures or as tragic moments in our lives, like the break-up of a relationship, an unexpected layoff, or even the death of a loved one, we should desire to live those moments again too.

In fact, just like an athlete or an artist we should learn to incorporate imperfections, mistakes and blows into the big picture of Life. We must build our lives in order to be our own heroes, setting our values and purposes, and then loving the choices we have made.

In this way, the Eternal Return of the Same, imaging the possibility to live our lives again, both in its most tragic and happiest moments, expresses the core of Nietzsche’s philosophy that can be extremely summed up with the sentence:“Say yes to life”.

Furthermore, for the first time since ancient times, a thinker affirmed that suffering was not something you must seek redemption for, as Christianity taught, or escaped at all costs, as Schopenhauer asserted, but rather it is something that  must be accepted and grasped.

Therefore, in Nietzsche’s opinion, in order for people to succeed must be ready to face suffering and potentially to overcome it. This is the meaning hidden behind some of his most striking quotes, like:

“What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger [2] or

 “Live dangerously! Build your cities on the slopes of Vesuvius!” [3]

These are all affirmations that Nietzsche himself embodied through the hardships of his tormented life.

However, some scholars have suggested that the philosopher who called himself  the “Anti-Christ”, behind the vest of a parable, didn’t just want to convey a moral message, but also to affirm the physical reality of his theory. This might possibly be true if we look at some of his private writings and if we acknowledge the fact that at a certain point in his life he had the intention to pursue a degree in Physics, perhaps to prove his intuition.

Still, the idea that everything happening in the universe is recurring and will recur identically an infinite number of times across infinite time and space wasn’t Nietzsche’s intuition, but it dates back to the heritage of ancient philosophy which the philosopher had the opportunity to contemplate in depth during his early studies. [4]

This concept first appeared  in Indian philosophy and in Egyptian mythology [5]. In the western world, the idea of a circular structure of time was already present in Pre-Socratic Greece and it was developed in particular by Empedocles and Zeno of Citium,  then it was also found in the Stoicism, to finally be replaced by the linear-concept of time introduced by Christian religion.

However, some modern conceptions of physics have opened a new path to this concept again.

 The Big Bounce theory of the universe, for instance,  is a hypothetical cosmological model which suggests looking at the Big Bang not as the starting point of the universe, but rather as the blowing-up part of a cycle of expansion and contraction, which has recurred an infinite number of times already. Therefore, according to this theory, our universe is only one of the infinite universes that have recurred before and that will continue to recur in the future.

Yet many scientists consider this theory implausible. In fact, they argue that it is more likely that the universe is just going to expand until it finally breaks down into nothingness. Furthermore, even if the Big Bounce is true, there is no reason to necessarily suppose that all the infinite number of universes merely iterate themselves in a self-identical way throughout time.

On the other hand, the majority of scholars who have tried to tackle Nietzsche’s philosophy consider it more appropriate to approach the debate around the Eternal Recurrence of the Same as an open issue, since it is not entirely clear if the philosopher wanted to express a scientific truth or a moral message, or possibly both.

In conclusion, we can surely affirm that Nietzsche’s theory represents a fierce criticism of the linear-concept of time, a bastion of  Christianity , judged as the first source of human unhappiness.

In fact, in this time-perspective human beings are not able to focus on the moment they are living, the Present, since their minds are completely absorbed by the concern of what comes next. In this way each moment has significance only in relation with the other moments, pushing the meaning of existence to an unattainable “beyond”.

In contrast, from a circular perspective each moment of existence regains its significance and its fullness regardless of the other moments . Hence, it is only in the frame of a circular recursion of time that we are allowed to free ourselves from the chains of anxiety and to live each moment of our lives as coincidence of meaning and existence.


Nietzsche, F. (1882 ). The Gay Science [1] [3]

Actually Nietzsche said it much more eloquently: “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.”   Nietzsche, F. (1888). Twilight of the Idols  [2]

In ancient Egypt the Scarab was a symbol of eternal renewal and reemergence of life:  [5]

Explanation of the Big Bounce Theory:


Nietzsche’s relationship with the Classical World:  [4]

Explanation of the Big Bounce Theory:

A nice movie that deserves to be watched just for this scene:  (“About Time – Happiness scene”)


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