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  • Eternal Return and the Problem of the Constitution of Identity
  • Alexander Cooke

The basic conception of the work, the idea of eternal recurrence, the highest formula of affirmation that can possibly be attained—belongs to the August of the year 1881: it was jotted down on a piece of paper with the inscription: "6000 feet beyond man and time." I was that day walking through the woods beside the lake of Silvaplana; I stopped beside a mighty pyramidal block of stone which reared itself up not far from Surlei. Then this idea came to me.

—Nietzsche, Ecce Homo

Introduction: Nietzsche and the Doctrine of the Eternal Return

The doctrine of the eternal recurrence of the same presents itself as both the most problematic and difficult aspect of Nietzsche's philosophy. While described above, and in other letters of Nietzsche's surrounding the month of August 1881 (see Klossowski, 1997, 55–56), as the "highest formula of affirmation," in The Gay Science, written during the same period, the same thought is communicated as the heaviest burden:

The heaviest burden.—What if a demon crept after you one day or night in your loneliest solitude and said to you: "This life, as you live it now and have lived it, you will have to live again and again, times without number; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and every sigh and all the unspeakably small and great in your life must return to you, and everything in the same series and sequence—and in the same way this spider and this moonlight among the trees, and in the same way this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence will be turned again and again—and you with it, you dust of dust!"—Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who thus spoke? Or have you experienced a tremendous moment in which you would have answered him: "You are a god and never did I hear anything more divine!" If this thought gained power over you it would, as you are now, transform and perhaps crush you; the question in all and everything: "do you want this again and again, times without number?" would lie as the heaviest burden upon all your actions. Or how well disposed towards yourself and towards life would you have to become to have no greater desire than for this ultimate eternal sanction and seal?

(GS, 273–74)

From such a cursory examination, the eternal return seems no more than a belief or an ethical concept. However, the content of Nietzsche's thought indicates [End Page 16] something much stronger than a personally held belief. While its grounds will be problematized in due course, the doctrine of the eternal return can be given a proof, in the strongest sense of the word.

The eternal return takes two forms: (1) a cosmological or physical doctrine; (2) an ethical or selective doctrine. As pointed out by Pierre Klossowski, these two aspects are summarized in the following single claim: "Act as though you had to relive your life innumerable times and will to relive it innumerable times—for in one way or another, you must recommence it and relive it" (Klossowski, 1997, 56–57). How can one provide a proof, first, for the physical doctrine—that one's life must eternally return—such that the second, ethical or practical doctrine can be elucidated from Nietzsche's philosophy?

For Nietzsche, the world is constituted by force. If force is the fundamental constitution of the world, it can only nourish itself on itself. It has no exterior source or supplement to fuel it; otherwise it would no longer be fundamental and singularly essential. Force must therefore be finite. If force is finite, it would seem that the world is proceeding to an end state of entropy. Nietzsche argues, though, that if the universe had an end, it would already have been reached (WP, 36). The final state of Becoming—Being—if it were at all possible, would no longer become. The fact that one experiences time as movement—that the present moment is...


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