Eternal return, or Eternal Recurrence
Eternal return (or “eternal recurrence”) is a concept which posits that the
universe has been recurring, and will continue to recur in the exact same
self-similar form an incomprehensible and unfathomable number of times.
The concept has roots in ancient Egypt, and was subsequently taken up by
the Pythagoreans and Stoics. With the decline of antiquity and the spread of
Christianity, the concept fell into disuse, though Friedrich Nietzsche briefly
resurrected it. It is a purely physical concept, involving no “reincarnation,”
but the return of beings in the same bodies. Time is viewed as being not
linear but cyclical.
The basic premise is that the universe is limited in extent and contains a
finite amount of matter, while time is viewed as being infinite. The universe
has no starting or ending state, while the matter comprising it is constantly
changing its state. The number of possible changes is finite, and so sooner or
later the same state will recur. At least one mathematical proof has been
developed to disprove this rationale for eternal return.
Physicists such as Stephen Hawking and J. Richard Gott have proposed
models by which the (or a) universe could undergo time travel, provided the
balance between mass and energy created the appropriate cosmological
geometry. More philosophical concepts from physics, such as Hawking’s
arrow of time for example, discusses cosmology as proceeding up to a
certain point, whereupon it undergoes some form of time reversal.
The Bhavacakra represents the eternal cycle of life.
The concept of cyclical patterns is very prominent in dharmic religions,
including Hinduism and Buddhism among others. The Wheel of life
represents an endless cycle of birth, life, and death from which one seeks
liberation. In Tantric Buddhism, a wheel of time concept, known as the
Kalachakra expresses the idea of an endless cycle of existence and
In ancient Egypt, the scarab (or dung beetle) was viewed as a sign of eternal
renewal and reemergence of life, a reminder of the life to come.
The symbol of the Ouroboros, the snake or dragon devouring its own
tail, is the alchemical symbol par excellence of eternal recurrence. The
alchemist-physicians of the Renaissance and Reformation were aware of
the idea of eternal recurrence.
The thought of eternal recurrence is central to the writings of Friedrich
Nietzsche. Nietzsche never speaks about the reality of “eternal recurrence”
itself, but about the “thought of eternal recurrence.” Nietzsche conceived of
the idea as a simple “hypothesis”, which, like the idea of Hell in
Christianity, did not need to be true in order to have real effects. The thought
of eternal recurrence appears in Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
Nietzsche’s conception of the eternal recurrence of all things differs from
other seemingly similar hypotheses, insofar as it is intrinsically related to
Zarathustra’s announcement of the Übermensch and the ethical imperative
of overcoming nihilism On a few occasions in his notebooks, Nietzsche
discusses the possibility of eternal recurrence as cosmological truth, but in
the works he prepared for publication it is treated as the ultimate method of
affirmation. According to Nietzsche, it would require a sincere love of fate
not simply to endure, but to wish for, the eternal recurrence of all events
exactly as they occurred — all the pain and joy, the embarrassment and
Nietzsche calls the idea “horrifying and paralyzing,” and says that its burden
is the “heaviest weight” imaginable.