n Ecce Homo (1888) Nietzsche recounts the story of Zarathustra and mentions how the basic conception of the work, the idea of eternal recurrence, offered as the highest formula of affirmation attainable, ‘came’ to him.
He tells us that the idea belongs to the August of 1881 and that it was jotted down on a piece of paper with the inscription ‘6000 feet beyond man and time’.
He was walking through the woods beside the lake of Silvaplana in Sils Maria when he stopped beside a mighty pyramidal block of stone: “Then this idea came to me”.
Let me stress that a great deal of intellectual energy has been devoted to a thought that the philosopher jotted down on a piece of paper!
In essence, Nietzsche depicts a world of forces that suffers no diminution and no cessation, it is a world that never reaches equilibrium: ‘Whichever state this world can world can achieve, it must have achieved and not only once but innumerable times’.
Let us take this very moment, Nietzsche says: has it not already been here once before, and many times, and will it not recur as it is? Is it not the same with the moment that gave birth to this one and with the moment that will be its child?
He then turns to address humanity in this way. The whole of one’s life turns again and again like an hourglass, including every pain and every pleasure, every friend and foe, every hope and every error -‘the entire nexus of all things’. Nietzsche adds: ‘This ring, in which you are a grain, shines again and again’.
He concludes with the truly decisive insight: ‘In every ring of human existence there is always an hour in which the most powerful thought surfaces, first for one, then for many, then for all, that of the eternal return or recurrence of all things – it is each time for humanity the hour of midday’.
The view that the eternal return centres on a mystical experience, bound up with the fantastical vision Nietzsche allegedly had at Surlei, fundamentally misrepresents his philosophical character. A mystical experience gives us very little to think about and is deeply suspect.
By contrast, Nietzsche’s sketch gives us a great deal to think about. Nietzsche wanted nothing to do with flashes of inspiration.
Bits of knowledge arrived at through intuitions have as little reality as an hallucination. As he writes: ‘the ‘burning hot feeling of the enraptured…is an illness of the intellect, not a path to knowledge’.
This thought he says contains more than all religions that teach us to despise this life as something merely fleeting and to focus our gaze on an indeterminate other life. It is a though experiment designed for new mode of living.
This ‘powerful thought’ uses the energy that has hitherto been at the command of other aims. It has a transforming effect, not through the creation of any new energy but simply by creating new laws of movement for energy.
It is in this sense that it holds for Nietzsche the possibility of determining and ordering individual human beings and their affects differently.
For Nietzsche the eternal return is ‘the hardest thought’ (der schwerste Gedanke). He stresses that it can only be endured through a revaluation of all values:
‘No longer joy in certainty but in uncertainty; no longer “cause and effect” but the continually creative; no longer will to preservation but power; no longer the humble expression, “everything is merely subjective”, but “it is also our work! – Let us be proud of it!”‘
In order to endure the thought of return one needs freedom from morality, new means against the fact of pain, enjoyment of all kinds of uncertainty, and experimentalism. It is this ‘greatest elevation of the consciousness of strength of human beings’ that comes into being as the overhuman or superhuman is created.
We should not be on the lookout for unknown felicities or bestowals of grace; rather, we should make the effort to live in such a way that we wish to live this life again and like this for ‘eternity’.
Eternal recurrence or return of the same is a teaching on the greatest weight in two senses. First, in the sense of the heaviest – it will keep us bound to the earth and animal conditions of existence.
And second, in the sense of the highest or most superior weight: it will lift us higher and higher, above and over ourselves, but whilst remaining fundamentally attached to life. Even in our aspirations we must remain true to the earth. Long live physics!