Nietzsche’s Deepest Idea – Eternal Recurrence

Eternal recurrence is a life-changing idea. It is not an idea meant for philosophers, but for individuals. For the most individual of individuals, in fact. It is not meant to explain life, but to transform it. To cast light over every shadow and bend even the loneliest suffering towards joy.

That is, if you can handle it. That was your warning.

In his solitude, Nietzsche laid the foundations for the coming centuries. His ideas would influence generations of intellectuals, scientists, artists, and the general public. These ideas include his profound criticism of Christianity, his pioneering work in psychology, the Apollonian and the Dionysian, his attack on morality, his ideal of the overman…

But Nietzsche himself thought these were all secondary to his deepest insight.  

Eternal recurrence, or the eternal return, is, on the face of it, a bizarre concept, abstract and impractical. It is the idea your whole life – past, present, and future – repeats exactly as it is, forever.

(You can watch the video version of this essay on YouTube.)

Time is a Child at Play

Much of the charm of the idea comes from how childlike it is. This is the charm, perhaps, of all great ideas. You can imagine a 9-year-old pulling his mother by the sleeve, saying ‘Imagine, momma, if our lives repeat again and again – and always the same!

If a child says this, we would smile and pat him on the head for the silly notion. But when one of history’s deepest thinkers insists on it – we might want to pay closer attention.

Here is how Nietzsche describes the idea in verse:

Everything goeth, everything returneth; eternally rolleth the wheel of existence. Everything dieth, everything blossometh forth again; eternally runneth on the year of existence.

Everything breaketh, everything is integrated anew; eternally buildeth itself the same house of existence. All things separate, all things again greet one another; eternally true to itself remaineth the ring of existence.

Every moment beginneth existence, around every ‘Here’ rolleth the ball ‘There.’ The middle is everywhere. Crooked is the path of eternity.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra

Eternal Recurrence as the Heaviest Burden

When he first introduces the idea of the return, Nietzsche calls it ‘The Heaviest Burden’. He later calls it a ‘breeding’ idea, meaning it weeds out the weak of spirit. It is an exclusive idea, meant only for the deep, the strong, and the noble.

Here is what Nietzsche is proposing, in prose this time:

This life as you now live it and have lived it you will have to live once again and innumerable times again; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unspeakably small or great in your life must return to you, all in the same succession and sequence…

The eternal hourglass of existence is turned over again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Joyful Wisdom

Now – Forever

Eternal recurrence is not rebirth. There is no karma, sin, heaven, or hell here. No reward for the good, no punishment for the bad. No final answers, no moral to the story, no ‘beyond’. Only the permanent repetition of your impermanent life.

All your anxieties and unresolved conflicts, all disappointments, regrets, embarrassments, and suffering; all this mixed with your joys, pleasures, and triumphs, every ecstasy, every agony, and every dull, trivial, wasted hour… All of this again and again – forever.

This is the heaviest burden. The eternal return.

I. Being vs Becoming

Before we explore the implications of this strange idea, let’s see how it might have come about.

We should start by noting Nietzsche rejects the idea of a transcendent realm of existence. Plato’s world of forms, the Christian heaven, the Buddhist nirvana – Nietzsche views all these as diseased ways of thinking. To him, faith in an ideal world is but an escape from the only world there is. Love of a ‘beyond’ is but a subtle form of hatred for the here and now.

He is continuing here an ancient debate in Western thought. A debate we can trace back to Heraclitus and Parmenides. That is – Being vs Becoming.

Here’s a broad summary of the two views.

The Philosophy of Being

Philosophers on the side of Being claim there exist eternal things: perfect, immutable, unconditioned realities. They view only these universals as ‘really real’. What we perceive with our senses are but the shadows and reflections of ultimate reality. This world – the world of appearance – is but a veil, and the body is a prison of the soul. Man’s goal is to escape prison, to tear down the veil. He must detach from everything material. Through contemplation, one can access the eternal and transcendent. At death, the enlightened sage begin their true life in the realm of the immortals – the ideal world.

The Philosophy of Becoming

The philosophers of Becoming (fewer in number) claim existence is an endless stream of change; everything arises out of this stream and returns back into it. There is nothing ‘beyond’ the stream. All things interact, arise from, and depend on one another. Man is imprisoned by the illusions of permanent things with fixed identities. This includes the illusion of being a fixed ‘self’ (or ‘soul’). To become free, one must accept the impermanent, relative, and contradictory nature of reality. When illusion is dispelled, frustration is transformed into fascination with the spontaneity and playfulness of life. One becomes one with the creative flow when they realize they never were anything else.

Nietzsche on Being vs Becoming

Nietzsche takes a clear stance here. He writes:

One has deprived reality of its value, its meaning, its truthfulness, to precisely the extent to which one has mendaciously invented an ideal world. The “true world” and the “apparent world”—that means: the mendaciously invented world and reality…

The concept of “God” [has been] invented as a counterconcept of life… The concept of the “beyond,” the “true world” invented in order to devaluate the only world there is—in order to retain no goal, no reason, no task for our earthly reality! The concept of the “soul,” the “spirit,” finally even “immortal soul,” [were] invented in order to despise the body, to make it sick…

Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo

In short, Nietzsche sees the notion of Being as pathological. Heraclitus, whose philosophy of Becoming we’ve covered, was Nietzsche’s favorite thinker.

But Becoming didn’t satisfy Nietzsche for long. There too he encountered problems.

If there is no God…

Let’s assume for a minute there is nothing permanent, universal, and absolute in the world. God is dead and everything’s permitted. Time to party!

But wait.

Think for a moment what this would mean. Think what it would mean for you.

Your life, with its triumphs and tragedies, all lessons learned, all challenges faced… the entire journey of self-overcoming, self-transformation, self-discovery… What would be the point of it? If your life is an infinitesimal stream of change in an infinite ocean of change… Then of what consequence are you? What’s the point of anything?

The quick answer here is ‘Just live in the present, man, don’t think about it’. But this is not an answer; it is denial of the question. Why live in the present? Why live at all if change sweeps away everything? In fact, it seems much better not to live than live just long enough to understand living is meaningless.

Becoming is Suffering

Existence in a world of becoming is, at bottom, suffering. The Buddha knew this better than anyone, as we’ll see in our next essay.

Nietzsche understood that, while the philosophy of Being leads to fanaticism, the philosophy of Becoming leads to nihilism. Both views deprive life of joy and meaning. Both alienate us from the here and now.

But can there be an alternative view of existence? Can we reconcile change and eternity? Is there a philosophy that can encourage life in the present and also satisfy our longing for eternity?            

Nietzsche writes:

That everything recurs is the closest approximation of a world of becoming to the world of being.

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power

A whole book can be written on just this line. In fact, I think a few have been. But I’ll be brief.

Nietzsche’s Answer to Becoming

Heraclitus famously says no man steps into the same stream twice, for both the stream is different and the man himself. This is Becoming in a nutshell.

Nietzsche replies:

I teach redemption from the eternal flow: the stream flows back into itself again and again, and you enter the same stream again and again, as the same.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Kritische Gesamtausgabe: Werke VII/1,209

[Marcus Aurelius] kept constantly before him the transitory nature of all things, so as not to attach too much importance to them and to remain tranquil in their midst.

Conversely, to my mind it seems that everything is far too valuable to be so fleeting.

I seek an eternity for everything – should the most precious salves and wines be poured into the sea? – and my consolation is that all that has been is eternal: the sea will wash it ashore again.

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power

Time as a Paradox

Nietzsche’s recurrence presents the world as a mobius strip. From up-close, existence appears as an endless flow of change. But in the span of eons, the flow goes in cycles, repeating forever the same course. Change and rest, Being and Becoming, now and forever – are a matter of perspective.

What unites them is the eternal return.

This idea may, at first, seem like a thought experiment – an exercise in abstract thinking. This is only because we’re not taking it seriously enough.

II. Eternal Recurrence as a Challenge

Let’s assume for a moment the world really does recur. And let’s drop all philosophical arguments about Being and Becoming. Let’s make it personal.

Does your life, the way it is, stand the test of eternity? Would you relive it all over again… forever? Most of my audience answered ‘No’ to this.

But, let’s entertain Nietzsche a step further.

Embracing Recurrence

Ask yourself this, how would you have to live for the eternal repetition of your life to bring you joy? Must you pursue pleasure and achievement above all else? Perhaps only billionaires and celebrities can bear the return?

I think Nietzsche has something much deeper in mind.

Look at his life: a lone genius, misunderstood by family, ignored by contemporaries, rejected in love, crippled by illness… This is the prophet of the eternal return. We can be sure the idea is not about having a pleasant life.

In fact, the harder your life, the better you’ll be able to understand Nietzsche. Embracing recurrence is not about accumulating positive experiences to cancel out the negative ones. This one-sided hedonism is a form of immaturity. It is inability to face life in its wholeness.

The eternal return is also not about trying to ‘justify’ negative experience. This would be the approach of your average guru. They’ll teach you to accept suffering by pointing out its benefits: wisdom, growth, and so on. ‘There can be no light without the dark,’ ‘No pressure, no diamonds’ – that sort of thing. But this too is a subtle form of resistance. It’s like telling your partner ‘I will tolerate your nastiness, because I love all the rest’. This cheap facsimile of love will not do for a deep relationship.

It won’t do for a deep life either.

But can you Love it?

No, eternal recurrence cuts our every means of escape from reality. There is no world beyond, no ending with death, no future rebirth. There is only this life, as it is, forever. In fact, there is only this moment as it is, forever. To face this, no half-measures will do.

As Nietzsche says, recurrence calls for:

A Yes-saying without reservation, even to suffering… Nothing in existence may be subtracted, nothing is dispensable…

Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo

He continues:

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.

[One must] not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it … but love it.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo

The Eternal Return as a Zen Kōan

We begin to grasp the eternal return when we no longer approach it as a philosophical idea. Rather, it is a Zen kōan. Nietzsche’s aim is to spark psychological change within us. To bring us back to the present moment of the only life we can know we have. The eternal return is a torch thrown into the deepest caverns of our being, exposing every trace of resistance to experience, every form of clinging against what is.

In a twisted, but profound way, it is a Buddhist idea.

It is Nietzsche’s way of guiding us to complete surrender to experience. That is – to love.

But here I am getting ahead of myself.

We’ve now explored the return as a synthesis of Being and Becoming and as a challenge to our resistance to life.

Let’s now tackle the idea from one more angle. Let’s explore recurrence in the light of another one of Nietzsche’s big ideas. The will to power. This will reveal how the eternal return crowns Nietzsche’s entire philosophy.

We will get a bit technical for this final section, but by the end I think you’ll feel it was worth it.

III. Eternal Return & the Will to Power

Above all things, Nietzsche treasures the impulse to creative self-overcoming. The instinct to grow, affirm, and express oneself. He calls this, rather misleadingly, ‘the will to power’.

Our individual will to power, Nietzsche says, is but a special case of a universal principle. This principle is the tendency of energy to seek ways of discharging itself.

We read:

This world is a monster of energy, without beginning or end, a fixed and invariable magnitude of energy… 

[A]n ocean of tempestuous and torrential energies, forever changing, forever rolling back, with enormous periods of recurrence, with an ebb and flow…

This world is the will to power – and nothing besides! And even you yourselves are this will to power – and nothing besides!

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power

The Will vs Necessity

Let’s explore the will to power as a human drive, the form in which we know it best. This drive for self-expression and self-overcoming is by nature inexhaustible. Should it encounter no resistance, the will would claim absolute power.

But the will does encounter resistance. It encounters necessity.

By necessity, Nietzsche means all the circumstances of our life, conditions which define, and thus, restrict us one way or another. Necessity includes our genetics, nationality, gender, skin color, education, family, income… Everything that must be one way or another is necessity. And it is a limit on the will. It is a cage, chaining the will to a particular sort of existence, denying it absolute power.

Overcoming Necessity?

Nietzsche recognizes the will is always restricted by necessity. His difficult life taught him this. And he was too deep a thinker to fall for the modern idea of ‘improving’ our life. If we seek ‘improvement’ by changing one circumstance or another, we engage in a never-ending battle against reality. This gives us temporary satisfaction, but rather than solve the problem, it only displaces it.

Nietzsche agrees with the Buddha that the will can never find final satisfaction. Sooner or later, it crashes against the walls of necessity.

And among all kinds of necessity – one cripples us the most.


Time is continually devouring what is, shutting the doors to what was, shoving us towards what must be whether we like it or not. I can change my gender, my nationality, my skin color even. But I cannot change the flow of time.

Time cages the will into the infinitesimal space of the instant. And it takes even this space away as soon as it gives it.

With its right hand, time denies us actuality, leaving us stranded in a sea of potential. This is the future.

With its left hand, time freezes us in actuality, denying us any freedom of expression. This is the past.

In short, time is a monster.

Buddha’s Way

In previous essays, we’ve discussed the Buddha’s response to this. The will’s frustration is cured once the will is extinguished. The self must be subsumed under the conditioned world. The will must be recognized as just another form of necessity, an impersonal process. To experience the world as a flow of events devoid of self removes all dissatisfaction.

Time devours all things, but nirvana, being a no-thing, devours time. As we read in the Buddhist Jataka tales:

Time eats all beings, along with itself,

But he who eats time, he cooks the cooker of beings.

Ja II 260

Nietzsche’s Way

Well, we can say Nietzsche’s approach is exactly the reverse of this.

He says we must rather subsume the impersonal world of necessity under the personal will. Time and necessity are not enemies of the will. In fact, they are its servants.

How does that work?

Remember, Nietzsche says:

This world is the will to power – and nothing besides! And even you yourselves are this will to power – and nothing besides!

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power

Nietzsche reminds us the forces of life within us are not separate from the forces of life in the world we inhabit. In fact, we do not inhabit the world any more than waves inhabit the sea. Our individual will is part and parcel of the cosmic flow of energy. What we call ‘necessity’, everything that opposes our will, is just other expression of the world will.

Tat Tvam Asi

Nietzsche writes:

The fatality of man cannot be detached from the fatality of all that was and will be… one is a piece of the fatum [fate], one belongs to the whole.

  Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power

Nietzsche studied Sanskrit to gain access to Indian scripture. I don’t know how far he got and what he knew of the Upanishads, but here he is reiterating their most famous insight.

Atman is Brahman. The essence of the self and the essence of the world are one and the same essence. I do not merely participate in the world; at the deepest (and truest) level, I am the world.

Though, of course, Nietzsche gives his own twist on this. There is no Atman and no Brahman. There is no essence, no Being. To think there is would be escape from the reality of impermanence.

Rather, there is the eternal essence-less flow of impermanent events. But this flow repeats forever the same patterns so that its essence-less-ness becomes its true essence. It’s Becoming is its Being.

Becoming Universal

If you’ve read our essay on Buddhist emptiness, you will see the deep parallels here with Nagarjuna’s philosophy and the later idea of Buddha Nature.

When our sense of identity sinks down from the personal will to the world will – necessity and time are no longer enemies. In fact, nothing can be our enemy. To identify with the world will is to see everything in existence as belonging to you, as being an expression of you.

Nietzsche writes:

To stamp becoming with the character of being – that is the supreme will to power…

Friedrich Nietzsche, NL 1885-1887

The will takes ownership of its limitations. It subordinates them. It recognizes its own flourishing in every struggle, suffering, and defeat.

To Love Eternity

Once we see all that was, is, and will be as the fulfillment of our will… What’s left then, but to say ‘Yes!’ to it all, willing it all over again forever. Only the apotheosis of the will can make us strong enough to embrace the eternal return. This is the meaning of Zarathustra’s cry, a cry Nietzsche repeats in block capitals:

Oh, how could I not be ardent for Eternity and for the marriage-ring of rings—the ring of the return?

Never yet have I found the woman by whom I should like to have children, unless it be this woman whom I love: for I love thee, O Eternity!


Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra

Nietzsche’s Marriage Ring

The ring of ouroboros expresses the wholeness of existence and the cyclical nature of time. But Nietzsche calls the eternal return a ‘marriage ring’.

Remember the themes we’ve been exploring here. Time vs eternity, Being vs Becoming, change vs permanence, the will vs necessity, the individual vs the world. All these pairs of opposites find their union in the idea of the return. They are integrated into a whole, they are coupled – married – in Nietzsche’s deepest insight.

And now remember the challenge.

Can you bare the possibility your life, exactly as it is, may repeat again and again forever? If not, how must you live for this to be the case?

Nietzsche’s answer is as simple as it is radical.


Love all. Love even the unlovable, even suffering. Love your wasted potential. Love limitation, injustice, and frustration. Love the shadows no different than you love light.  

As the Buddha taught, such transformation can only come with insight – with awakening.

You must see life is the will actualizing itself. Heraclitus says time is a child at play.  You must see you yourself are that will, that child. You must see the beauty and terror of it all. Only then will you know if you are the noble kind of spirit Nietzsche wants. Only then will you know if you are capable of the deepest, bravest form of love.

Only absolute love can withstand the eternal return. In fact, the eternal return, Nietzsche’s deepest idea, is only a guidepost. And what it guides us to is this: a love supreme.

Watch the video version of this article.

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