The concept of the eternal return or the eternal recurrence is one of Nietzsche's most important concepts. However, this concept was not created by Nietzsche but was expanded upon and incorporated into his overall philosophic world view. The idea has its origins with the Pythagoreans. They believed that whenever the heavenly bodies all returned to certain fixed relative positions this would initiate another cycle of history of the universe. Nietzsche encountered the idea in his readings of Heinrich Heine, whom he admired. The essence of Heine's thought, which was appropriated by Nietzsche, can be seen in the following quotation.
For time is infinite, but the things in time, the concrete bodies are finite... Now, however long a time may pass, according to the eternal laws governing the combinations of this eternal play of repetition, all configurations that have previously existed on this earth must yet meet, attract, repulse, kiss, and corrupt each other again... And thus it will happen one day that a man will be born again, just like me, and a woman will be born, just like Mary (Citation from Kaufmann's Translator's Introduction to The Gay Science, p. 16)
For Nietzsche the concept of the eternal return was terrifying and paralyzing to the will. In essence, the Eternal Return is the theory that there is infinite time and a finite number of events, and eventually the events will recur again and again infinitely. The following is an explanation of this theory from The Will to Power.
If the world may be thought of as a certain definite quantity of force and as a certain definite number of centers of force -- and every other representation remains indefinite and therefore useless -- it follows that, in the great dice game of existence, it must pass through a calculable number of combinations. In infinite time, every possible combination would at some time or another be realized; more: it would be realized an infinite number of times. And since between every combination and its next recurrence all other possible combinations would have to take place, and each of these combinations conditions the entire sequence of combinations in the same series, a circular movement of absolutely identical series is thus demonstrated: the world as a circular movement that has already repeated itself infinitely often and plays its game in infinitum. (ibid)
For Nietzsche this as an image of horror in that all the world's suffering would be repeated ad infinitum and that there as no final goals in life but a mere perpetuation of the same. The idea of eternal return is intimately linked to another important aspect of his philosophy; namely the will to endure and the meaning of the Superman. Nietzsche's nihilism is also an important aspect in understanding the concept of eternal recurrence. Nietzsche believed that there was no order or structure to the world. We, mankind, create order and form in the world but there is no inherent order or form as such. In other words, our concept of order and reality is contingent on our own ideas and there is no ideal reality to which we can subscribe. While the concept of nihilism may seem to be completely negative, it does have important positive consequences in Nietzsche's thought.
From the realization of eternal recurrence and the emptiness to any fixed and certain ideas and forms Nietzsche derives the following. If there are no illusions or false ideals and theories to subscribe to then we have no illusions about life and consequently we will not be led into false assumptions and ideas about what life should be. We will not be temped to waste our time on false goals and dreams, which in fact do not exist in reality. Men and women who do not have illusions will then not be tempted to compare human life to some image or ideal that is in actuality an illusion. For example, the ideals in many religions, while having positive aspects, have undoubtedly also brought suffering and pain to many as a consequence of trying to attain some ideal. One has only to study the Christian Crusades, where the ideals of Christian theology were imposed on other cultures, to substantiate this view.
Nietzsche was also obviously opposed to the Platonic worldview and the idea of the ideal forms that lie behind reality. He saw these not as images or concepts of perfection to be striven for and emulated, but rather as false ideas that deprive humanity and deviate from the correct avenues of human development. In other words, Nietzsche was a materialist and a philosopher who believed in the here and now.
The central aspect and positive element that can be drawn from Nietzsche's philosophy of eternal return or eternal recurrence is the emphasis on the understanding and exposure of ideology as illusion. This can also be compared to the Buddhist view of 'illusion' with an important difference in that Buddhists do not believe in the principles of nihilism. Unimpeded by any illusions about life or reality and the striving for Ideals that did not exist, Nietzsche saw the aim of life as the improvement and development of mankind. Mankind for Nietzsche had not achieved its potential precisely because of being continually impeded and retarded by false illusions and ideals such as an adherence to normative moralities.
Therefore, according to Nietzsche, unimpeded by these aspects, man had a chance of achieving its true aims. This is the underlying philosophy behind the concept of the Superman or Ubermensch. It is also the foundation for Nietzsche's motif of "beyond good and evil."
The freedom from both good and evil follows from his understanding of the illusionary quality of all ideals, and the uncertainty of any ideal of certainty in reality that all values and morals were "relative." In other words, all morals are dependent and contingent on the situation and context. There was no 'good' as such, only relative good according to various cultural and social factors. Central to Nietzsche's philosophy was a possibility of transcending or going beyond both concepts of good and evil. He stated that until now there had been no real goal or aim for humanity.
All goals and aims have been relative and illusionary and have kept humanity from following any real goal. It is the creation of the Superman or Ubermensch, which is the true goal of humanity. In a real sense the "Superman" was the overcoming of human fallibilities and weaknesses. Understood as a symbol of affirmation in the face of adversity and illusions, the concept of the "Superman" is a positive aspect of his philosophy.
However, in order to attain this stage of human development, the ideas of pain and endurance have to be understood in the context of the realization of the fundamental illusion of reality. Pain and endurance, inasmuch as they stem from an illusionary world and are themselves illusions, have to be endured. Nietzsche saw human life as a bridge to something greater. Human life is seen as a bridge to something greater. In this sense human life is a sacrifice that has to be endured in order to progress to the next stage of human development; namely the phase of the "Superman."
In the concept of eternal recurrence Nietzsche saw the terror of life that had to be endured. This was to be overcome in the image of the "Superman" that would go beyond the category of the human, which is linked to the illusion and false ideals of the world. He would also go beyond the pain and suffering of ordinary human nature and would be beyond the fear of common humanity. The theme that resounds throughout his philosophy is that of endurance that goes beyond the concepts of pain and suffering. The "Superman" has immunity to fear and suffering, just as much as he is immune to happiness and pleasure. These feelings and concepts would be transcended by the Ubermensch. Thus, an essential aspect of his thought can be seen in the following quotation.
Courage in the face of reality ultimately distinguishes such natures as Thucydides and Plato: Plato is a coward in the face of reality -- consequently he flees into the ideal; Thucydides has himself under control -- consequently he retains control over things.
A from Twilight of the Idols in Dark Thunder from an Ancient War.)
Nietzsche is opposed to the idealism of Plato and sees this as an escape rather than a confrontation with reality. Criticism of Nietzsche's philosophy obviously centres on his seemingly irreligious and nihilistic approach to life. Yet, his philosophy was welcomed at the beginning of the Twentieth Century as it provided artist and writers with a foundation on which to base their rebellion of conventions and society, which they considered to be corrupt and outmoded. This acceptance of Nietzsche's philosophy was helped by the First World War as many writers, artists and intellectuals lost faith in the status quo. Nietzsche was also influential in…