- Eternal return is a theory in philosophy that states that all life and energy in the universe have been recurring since forever, and will continue to do so an infinite number of times.
- The idea has existed since ancient times, but was popularized by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.
- Nietzsche first mentioned it in his book “The Gay Science”, but spoke about it in more detail in “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”.
You probably came across a story where the characters are dealing with the fact that their lives are recurring, forever repeating, and this is not the first time they have been living their lives. One example could be the movie Fountain from 2006, which deals with the same story of a man trying to save the love of his life from dying told across three different periods.
The story and the characters are always the same; however, the time is different. That would be one of the ways we can explain eternal return, sometimes also called eternal recurrence. It is a theory that states that all life and energy in the universe have been recurring since forever, and will continue to do so an infinite number of times. It is another way of looking at reincarnation, so to say: we have been living this same life many times in the past, and will continue to do so an infinite number of times in the future.
Would You Live Your Life Over Again?
This theory has been strongly influenced by similar theories found in ancient Egypt and Indian philosophy. It was taken up by a large number of other disciplines, but its popularity waned off with the spread of Christianity. However, in the 19th century, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche started discussing it again and connecting it with many other concepts in philosophy. With him, the theory gained the name “eternal return,” and it was mostly related to the philosophical train of thought of predeterminism. It states that everyone is predetermined to repeat the same events over and over, infinitely continually.
Nietzsche was obsessed with this question if we will be repeating the lives we are already living. He would ask the question if a person is happy with the way they have been living their life, and would they repeat it again. If they answer affirmatively, it means that their life was a successful one, according to Nietzsche. However, he asked himself, what if this were actually true, what if we actually were living our lives over and over again, in different times and settings, but with the same personalities and people surrounding us?
The Eternal Recurrence
He called this question the “Eternal Recurrence” or the eternal return and brought it up in several of his books. The most important one is naturally “Thus Spoke Zarathustra,” where he is basically giving his best to try and decipher the meaning of life. It was here that Nietzsche concluded that if you’re willing to live your life over and over again while repeating the same mistakes and choices while feeling the equal amounts of happiness and sadness, you can say that you’ve led a life worth living. If you aren’t willing to go through it all once again, Nietzsche says you have failed in life. That’s depressing, but philosophers aren’t known to be the happiest bunch.
If we take a look at Nietzsche’s more intimate writings, we can see he was obsessed with this idea. He didn’t believe this was debatable; he was convinced that this will happen, that we will repeatedly live out our lives in a constant recurrence. It is thought that he was planning on pursuing a degree in physics so that he can try to find out if this was true or not.
He never spoke about it this way in public. However, he would always present it as an abstract term used in a more poetic philosophical way. It seems that he was privately convinced that it was true, and it was a question that he wanted to find the answer to obsessively.