Nietzsche and the Stoics on Eternal Return

Nietzsche’s thought experiment to determine our own greatness.

Sisyphus, by Titian.

Possibly under the influence of Plato, who was himself influenced by Pythagoras, the Stoics held that the universe undergoes cycles, being periodically destroyed in a great conflagration [Greek, ekpyrosis] and then reborn, ad infinitum.

Because God, being perfectly rational, is bound to make the same choices, each cosmic cycle plays out similarly or even identically, so that the world as we know it, with us in it, existed in the previous cycle and will recur in the next.

In around 200 CE, the philosopher Alexander of Aphrodisias wrote: “[Chrysippus and the Stoics] hold that after the conflagration all the same things come to be again in the world numerically, so that even the same peculiarly qualified individual as before exists and comes to be again in the world…”

In his Letters, the Roman Stoic Seneca (d. 65 CE) tells Lucilius: “Things that vanish from our sight are merely stored away in the natural world: they cease to be, but they do not perish… the day will come again that will return us to the light. It is a day that many would refuse, except that we forget everything before returning.”

This concept of eternal recurrence, or eternal return, is even echoed in the Bible:

The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun. Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? It hath been already of old time, which was before us. There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after (Ecclesiastes 1:9-11).

In the City of God Against the Pagans (426 CE), St. Augustine seeks to deny that these and other such verses refer to eternal return. If “the wicked walk in a circle,” says Augustine, “this is not because their life is to recur by means of these circles, which these philosophers imagine, but because the path in which their false doctrine now runs is circuitous.”

Enter Nietzsche

In the 19th century, Nietzsche used eternal return as a thought experiment, as perhaps the Stoics had done, to determine the degree to which our individual will is aligned with the will of the world.

How, asks Nietzsche, would we feel if a daemon visited us one night and told us that we will have to live out our life over and over again? Would we feel joy, or desperation?

In the chapter of Ecce Homo (1908) entitled, Why I Am so Clever, Nietzsche says, “My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati [love of fate]: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it … but love it.”

In his essay, The Myth of Sisyphus (1942), Albert Camus compares the human condition to the plight of Sisyphus, the mythical king of Ephyra who was punished for resisting the gods by being made to repeat forever the same meaningless task of pushing a boulder up a mountain, only to see it roll back down again. Camus concludes, “The struggle to the top is itself enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

Even in a state of utter hopelessness, Sisyphus can still be happy. Indeed, he is happy precisely because he is in a state of utter hopelessness, because in recognizing and accepting the hopelessness of his condition, he at the same time transcends it.

Or, in those wonderful words of Virgil, “The only hope for the doomed is no hope at all.”

Neel Burton is author of Stoic Stories.