Franklin & Marshall College Franklin & Marshall College

Fate, Joy, and the Beauty of the Absurd: An Interpretation of Nietzsche on the Eternal Recurrence

Timothy Stoll

Friedrich Nietzsche is among the most famous of the European philosophers.  But a pervasive nominal familiarity is about as far as most acquaintance with the great thinker extends; as fate would have it Nietzsche’s actual philosophy is as little comprehended as his name is ubiquitous.  The philosopher who notoriously proclaimed, “God is dead!” is actually the proponent of a vastly more cheerful, subtle, and optimistic system of thought than his sardonically deistic eulogy might give us to believe.  Above all Nietzsche is concerned with finding the means to combat the onset of a “suicidal nihilism” that he foresees to be an irrevocable consequence of the increasing secularization of Western society.  At the core of this task is an enigmatic idea known as the eternal recurrence.  Essentially designed as a thought experiment to test the degree to which a person is satisfied with existence, the eternal recurrence asks us to imagine our lives, precisely and down to their finest details, as repeating ad infinitum.  Our presumed reaction to this prospect—either joy or despair—is supposed to test our ability to affirm a life free of misleading and mendacious metaphysical suppositions.  As important as this idea is to Nietzsche’s philosophy, however, it still eludes adequate interpretation.  In this paper I have tried to offer an interpretation of the eternal recurrence that places the idea within the broader context of Nietzsche’s philosophy.  What the eternal recurrence does, I argue, is to strengthen and make salient nihilism calling us to affirm life even in light of its inherent purposelessness.  This is why Nietzsche considered the eternal recurrence the ultimate test: if we can find joy in living, even when in full recognition of the absurdity of existence, then we have truly overcome nihilism.  Should we fail the test, however, we must come seriously to reconsider certain of our core beliefs and our commitments thereto.