"The Eternal Recurrence and Nietzsche's Ethic of Virtue"


Lester H. Hunt

What I would like to try to show here, to the extent that I can do so briefly, is that Nietzsche's doctrine of the eternal recurrence of the same things is - whatever else it might be in addition to this - an ethical idea. Considering it as such, I will argue, promises to shed light both on the content of Nietzsche's ethics and on the idea of recurrence.

To some people, this will sound like a curious thesis. It sounds as if I am saying that Nietzsche's celebrated doctrine is closely analogous to, for example, Kant's Categorical Imperative, that it means something like "Act as if everything that has happened will happen, and already has, infinitely many times." On such an interpretation, Nietzsche would be telling us to act in a way that is appropriate to a world in which the eternal recurrence is true. Actually, I would agree that such advice would make little sense. It is far from obvious what sorts of actions would befit a world in which everything recurs eternally. Further, as far as I know, Nietzsche never describes any actions, classes of actions, or patterns of behavior that his doctrine would require of us. In the absence of such descriptions, the idea of recurrence could be little help to us in planning our lives and choosing between alternative courses of action.

In fact, I do not think that this is the sort of influence Nietzsche meant the idea of recurrence to have. We begin to see in what way the eternal recurrence is an ethical idea when we realize that Nietzsche's ethic, unlike the idea embodied in Kant's Formula of Universal Law, is not a matter of prescriptions about action. Nietzsche's is an ethic of virtue. As he puts it, "The worth of an action depends on who does it and whether it originates from one's depths or one's surface."(1) More precisely, as I have argued elsewhere, Nietzsche holds a pure ethic of virtue: for him, whatever ethical merit an action has depends entirely on the state of character from which it arises.(2)

On such a view, the most appropriate form in which an ethical idea can be expressed is precisely not that of a prescription about what we should do. A notion is an ethical one just in case it has important implications regarding what we should be - regarding, in other words, the inner state of character from which our actions flow. It is largely because of its impact on what we are that Nietzsche welcomes the idea of eternal recurrence. "If you incorporate the thought of thoughts, it will change you."(3) The change he envisions would be a change from a lower to a higher character type, from one that is less worthy of admiration to one that is more. That is, it would be a change from a state of lesser virtue to a state of greater virtue.

This means that, if we understand the nature of this change, we will shed light on the important matter of what virtue is, for Nietzsche. Remarks scattered through several sections of Zarathustra indicate a direction in which we might look for the needed understanding. I have in mind the places in which Nietzsche suggests that the characterological change he wishes for has something to do with "revenge" (Rache).

As he describes it, revenge is essentially an attitude toward time itself: it is "the will's ill will against time and it's 'it was'." It is the result of the fact that, from a certain perspective, the past appears both to need changing and to be impossible to change, so that the will is left painfully powerless, "an angry spectator of all that is past." Among the effects of this painful condition is a desire to cause additional pain, either to oneself or to others: "on all who can suffer" the will "wreaks revenge for his inability to go backwards." (II 20.)(4) Revenge is responsible for the ideal of equality, the urge to punish, and the excessive desire to be just (II 7). Among the other works of revenge are a nihilistic hatred for the fact that the world is characterized by flux, and a longing to escape from this world (II 20).

Conceived in this way, revenge has a very broad impact on human life; Zarathustra says, "it has become a curse for everything human that this folly has acquired spirit." The trait he is describing here is purely reactive, negative, and destructive. As such, it is just the sort of trait Nietzsche would see as standing in the way of virtue. In obvious ways, it is the opposite of the spontaneous, enthusiastic, and creative activity he calls "gift-giving virtue" elsewhere in Zarathustra (I 22). Getting rid of revenge, if that should be possible, would plainly be a long step toward achieving virtue as he understands it.(5) In fact, Nietzsche more or less tell us so himself: "that man be delivered from revenge, that is for me the bridge to the highest hope" (II 7).(6)

How is the doctrine of the eternal recurrence connected with revenge? Zarathustra begins his longest sustained discussion of revenge with his clearest description of what it would mean to be delivered from it: "to recreate all 'it was' into a 'thus I willed it' - that alone should I call redemption" (II 20). Curiously enough, this also sounds like a partial description of what it would mean to "incorporate" the thought of the eternal recurrence. When Zarathustra does finally accept and affirm his thought of thoughts, in "The Convalescent," he immediately describes the variety of Rache from which he has suffered - namely, his "disgust with man," with "the small man" (III 13) - and he does so entirely in the past tense, as if it is something he has finally done away with. Could this mean that the thought of eternal recurrence actually brings about the destruction of revenge, or at least helps us to escape from it?

The text does not answer this question with irrefutable clarity, though it does leave one with the impression that the answer is yes. What I propose to do in what follows is to reenforce this impression by carrying out the following thought experiment: supposing that we do believe in eternal recurrence, what effects would this have on us that could help in eliminating revenge? The result will provide additional evidence that Nietzsche does mean what the text suggests he means.

This thought experiment can help to supply Nietzsche with answers to certain questions that every ethic of virtue should attempt to answer. Such theories always involve the claim that the value of what we do depends on certain aspects of our selves, such as enduring passions and deep-seated beliefs. In addition, they are probably all committed to the further claim, which in Nietzsche is quite explicit,(7) that the more deep-seated a trait is, the more powerfully relevant it is to the value of our actions. Yet such aspects of the self are notoriously difficult to change, and the deeper they are, the greater the difficulty. Since we all have an interest in becoming better human beings - in controlling the worth of our actions - an ethic of virtue inevitably raises the question of whether we can have such control and, if we can, how we can get it. My little experiment will suggest that Nietzsche does have answers to both these questions.

Consider, first, what vengeful states of mind are like, for Nietzsche. He presents revenge as a sort of anger against the pastness of the past. But it is not a mere passive emotion. It does something. One thing it does, as Zarathustra tells us in "On Redemption," is to produce various "fables" (Fabelliedern). The fables he mentions there - including the belief that "things are ordered by justice and punishment" and the belief in Hell - all rely in various ways on the notion of punishment, "for 'punishment' is what revenge calls itself." (II 20.)

Such uses of the concept of punishment are attempts to solve a certain problem: that of replacing a certain undesirable feeling with a certain desirable one. Given Nietzsche's analysis of revenge, what they seem to do is to enable those who use them to experience the irrational feeling that they are doing something about the past. As such, however, they cannot be successful unless it is possible for the vengeful person to have certain thoughts regarding time.

First, any use of the notion of punishment requires, at a minimum, that we be able to think of the act for which the culprit is being punished as an event in the past. To some extent, this is simply a conceptual truth. If the government imprisons you because it believes you will commit a crime, this is not what we call punishment. Perhaps it is preventive detention or an attempt to deter you, through fear, from doing what you would otherwise do. But such prevention and deterrence are not, in themselves, punishment. They are about the future only, while punishment is necessarily about the past.

Further, the concept of punishment cannot play its characteristic role in the fables of revenge unless we can see the past and the future as related in a certain way. We must be able to see the future as the answer and solution to the past. We must entertain the hope of a certain sort of break in time. At one time, things were out of joint but then, later, things were set back in order: the culprit got what he or she deserved. At first, things were one way but, fortunately, things were later quite different. In its most extreme forms, the fables of vengeance break all of history, including not only the history of the past but the fancied history of the future, into two opposite pieces: there is the evil past of sin or violent class conflict and, as the solution, the redeeming future of the Christian kingdom of heaven or the socialist heaven on earth.

A full acceptance of the eternal recurrence would make it impossible to think of time in this way. If I really do see the world in terms of recurrence then, as I contemplate the future, I am thinking of a series of events which will eventually lead to the present moment, and will do so infinitely many times. As I turn my attention to the past, I see exactly the same thing. Time is not broken into two pieces which differ in that, in one of them, things are out of joint while, in the other, this disjunction is set back in its proper order. The past and the future are in fact merely identical. In particular, the greatest myths of vengeance are unthinkable: we cannot see history as coming to rest in a final solution, whether a heavenly or an earthly one, because we cannot see it as coming to rest at all. In addition, the future I am able to contemplate includes the very act that I wish to punish.(8) It is bad enough if I, the prospective punisher, am sure the culprit will commit the offense - that is, a very similar act - again, despite having been punished. But what if I am sure that exactly the same evil act, in every odious detail, will recur infinitely many times? That is my prospect if I believe in recurrence. I can no longer look forward with satisfaction to the future as a time when the culprits will get what they deserve, for it is also the time when they commit the crime.

At this point, one might suspect that there is a sort of compromise satisfaction available the vengeful individual. Perhaps people who seek revenge could find a certain satisfaction - the same in kind as that afforded by the great world-historical fables of vengeance, though less potent and complete - in the fact that some evil people get what they deserve in each recurrence of the world. Could each world-cycle then have something like the meaning of a movie that is endlessly replayed, where each replay has a (in fact, the same) happy ending?

I believe the answer to this question is "no." For vengeful thinking - in fact, for any sort of intelligible use of the concept of punishment - the story that has the happy ending must not end at an arbitrary place. Suppose that Billy the Kid kills six people and then is captured. Our vengeance - or whatever drive it is that is gratified by punishment - is not satisfied if he overpowers his jailor and escapes. Nor is it satisfied if Billy is recaptured and executed, but somehow rises from the dead and commits six more murders. Our urge to punish will not accept it as satisfactory if we end the story of a punishment at some arbitrary point simply to create a happy ending. Revenge cannot knowingly do such a thing. If Nietzsche is right about the eternal recurrence, however, there is no natural place to end the story of the world. Time is not naturally divided into cycles which, like a replayed movie, have beginnings and ends. There is simply no non-arbitrary place at which we can decide that our story ends and no reason, other than the need for a happy ending, to end it at any particular place. Our desire to create art can be satisfied by such solutions, but our sense of justice cannot.

So far, then, the eternal recurrence frustrates revenge and - so, at least, we can hope - makes room for virtue by making it impossible for revenge to solve the problems that it sets for itself. Revenge aims at the satisfaction of feeling that something is being done about the evil past, but it cannot achieve this satisfaction unless the vengeful subject can think certain thoughts and see things in a certain way. Recurrence makes such states of mind impossible. It does so by healing a fissure in the world - a break in time - that the vision of vengeance requires.

We can find another way in which recurrence can overcome revenge by looking at the direct emotional impact that Nietzsche attributes to his doctrine. At first, Zarathustra finds the realization of the eternal recurrence sickening. "And the eternal recurrence even of the smallest - that was my disgust with all existence. Alas! Nausea!" (II 20.) The idea of recurrence causes him to be disgusted with existence.(9) I think that this effect is an essential part of the process by which Nietzsche expects this idea to combat revenge. It will be easier to understand why this is so if we first grasp why he expects the eternal recurrence to nauseate us.(10)

It is important to realize, first, that for Nietzsche the meaning that a new idea has for us is sometimes affected by the nature of the ideas that it replaces. He tells us in a late note that when the "Christian moral hypothesis" became untenable, it gave rise to the impression that there is "no meaning at all in existence," the reason being that the Christian hypothesis had enjoyed the status of "the interpretation" of existence.(11) That is, the Christian hypothesis was replaced by the idea that it is not true, but a certain related principle - that events can only acquire meaning in the way that they get it from Christian morality - survived. The new world was then weighed by this old principle and, of course, found wanting.

A parallel sort of reasoning can indicate why Nietzsche would predict that the truth of the recurrence of the small man would dawn on us as a nauseating shock. In the metaphysics of revenge, and indeed in most metaphysical and religious systems, the eternal things are the highest things, and the fact that they are eternal is part of the reason why they are venerated as lofty. Such systems include an often tacit but always powerful standard of value. When these systems die and are replaced by recurrence the standard of value will survive, and the new world will be measured by it. Seen from the resulting perspective, recurrence elevates the meanest aspects of existence to the status that had previously been reserved for the highest. This is a very shocking idea if it occurs to someone who has - as to some extent we all do - a moral view of life, a belief that things ought to be ordered according to justice. The small man does not deserve the divine status of the eternal. It is not fitting. To the extent that we care about whether things are fitting or deserved, we will find the truth of recurrence shocking, and if we care very much about such things, we will find it sickening.

The same sort of reasoning can be applied to the effect that recurrence would have on the way we view the relation between the past and the future. We can expect the truth of recurrence to be nauseating to someone whose life is based on the moralistic assumption that the meaning that there is in the world consists in the fact that events that are "wrong" in one way or another are corrected or "made up for" by decisive future events. Life is only meaningful if it is just. From this perspective, a world in which everything recurs eternally is a world in which the crucial work is always to be done over again, in which nothing is ever really settled. The recurrence would represent a paradigm of "aim- and meaninglessness," in which the only recognized sort of meaning has been removed: "the nothing (the 'meaningless') eternally!"(12) We might say that the eternal recurrence enforces Nietzsche's dictum that "the present must absolutely not be justified by a future, nor the past by reference to the present."(13)

Since we are all to some extent infected by morality and the fables of revenge that are based on it, the first effects that the eternal recurrence would have on us are bound to be unpleasant. It would bring with it a sort of experience that we would like to avoid if we can. But how can we? This is where different types of people will part ways. One sort of response will be taken by the least healthy individuals, the ones who are most dependent on vengeful ways of feeling and thinking. For them, as for everyone else, the problem presented by the recurrence lies in the picture it presents of the flux of events. As Nietzsche puts it: "Can we remove the idea of a goal from the process and then affirm the process in spite of this?" For the vengeful, the answer to this question will simply be "no." They will find that, with their fables rendered useless, they simply have "no comfort left." "They will experience the belief in the eternal recurrence as a curse, struck by which one no longer shrinks from any action." They will perish of their own despairingly self-destructive behavior.(14)

On the other hand, there are the healthier types, the people for whom the fables of revenge answered no deep need. Such people are "human beings who are sure of their power and represent the attained strength of humanity with conscious pride." They are able to affirm the world-process depicted in the recurrence because, for them, something is "attained at every moment within this process - and always the same."(15)

What could this something be? We find a clue in Zarathustra's comment on the fables of revenge: "I led you away from these fables when I taught you, 'The will is a creator'." He goes on to explain: "All 'it was' is a fragment, a riddle, a dreadful accident - until the creative will says to it, 'But thus I willed it. ... But thus I will it, thus I shall will it'." (II 20.) That is, we can escape from vengeful thinking if we can see the events of the past as fragments which, though meaningless in themselves, nonetheless provide the material for a creative synthesis in which something new is brought into existence. The most important such creative process for Nietzsche is the one he calls "self-overcoming" in Zarathustra, in which forces within the self - some of which are ugly in themselves or potentially destructive - are redeemed by being pressed into the service of new codes of values. This pursuit of ever greater self-integration is something that the creative will is accomplishing "at every moment" within the process of life and, insofar as the value we find in this process is the value of the will to power as an end in itself, it is "always the same." As I have argued elsewhere, this ever-increasing self-integration is the source from which, for Nietzsche, new virtue comes into existence.(16)

If what I have said here is true, or close to it, what does it indicate about Nietzsche's conception of virtue and how it is acquired? One aspect of the process of escaping from revenge that is surprising, at least to me, is the important role played by conscious thinking. The process I have just described is one in which ideas - most obviously including the idea of recurrence itself - have real efficacy. Admittedly, Nietzsche would not say that anyone is free to adopt, simply by making a conscious effort, the attitude of unlimited affirmation to which the eternal recurrence can bring us, but he does seem to say that some people can be "led" into it by teaching them something.

The role played in this process by the teaching of the eternal recurrence seems to be this. Belief in the eternal recurrence renders the fables of revenge unbelievable and useless. Those who are not only vengeful but sick have no choice, given this belief, but to wander off to their own destruction. Those who are not really sick are faced with a choice: either suffer the fate of the sick or find a way out of revenge. The creation of virtue is such a way out.(17)


1. Gesammelte Werke (Munich: Musarion Verlag, 1920-1929), vol. XVI, p. 245. Quoted by Leslie Paul Thiele in Friedrich Nietzsche and the Politics of the Soul (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), p. 39.

2. Lester H. Hunt, Nietzsche and the Origin of Virtue (London: Routledge, 1991), p. 171. See also Chapter 5 and passim. In the present paper I am trying to make good what I now suspect was deficiency in that book, for I neglected there to discuss the impact that the notion of eternal recurrence has on this interpretation of Nietzsche's ethics.

3. 3. Nietzsches Werke (Leipzig: Alfred Kroner Verlag, 1919), vol. XII, p. 117. Quoted in Ivan Soll, "Reflections on Recurrence," in Robert C. Solomon, ed., Nietzsche: A Collection of Critical Essays (Garden City, New York: Anchor Books, 1973), p. 324.

4. All references given in parentheses are to Zarathustra. II 20 is the twentieth section of the second part of the book, ie., "On Redemption."

5. Note that I avoid saying that Nietzsche thinks of revenge as a vice. Elsewhere I argue that, although Nietzsche has a conception of virtue, his way of thinking does not allow him to have a conception of vice. There are people who lack virtue, and there are traits that stand in the way of acquiring virtue, but there is no trait of character which is the opposite of virtue (and, consequently, evil). See Nietzsche and the Origin of Virtue, pp. 152-3.

6. Actually, the sentence I have just quoted from ends like this: "... the bridge to the highest hope, and a rainbow after long storms." The association of a rainbow with a bridge recalls the last scene of Wagner's Das Rheingold, in which the gods enter Valhalla for the first time. Nietzsche associates the destruction of revenge with the achievement of a status that seems higher, more divine, and not merely happier, than our present status.

7. For Nietzsche's views on this subject, see the quotation cited in note 1, above, as well as section 32 of Beyond Good and Evil.

8. Actually, it is possible that someone who really embraces recurrence would be unable to use the concept of punishment at all. If I do embrace it, and I think that the events that recur are numerically identical and not merely qualitatively the same, then I do not exactly think of the event that I wish to "punish" as a past event at all. It is no more a past event than it is a future event. This seems to violate the conceptual requirement that the punishment come after the malfeasance and not before it.

9. I believe Ofelia Schutte is wrong when she claims, in Beyond Nihilism: Nietzsche without Masks (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), p. 67, that belief in Eternal Recurrence is a "guarantee of life affirmation." This is the eventual result for some people, but there are no such guarantees.

10. The explanation for this is, after all, not obvious. It is true enough that almost any process, if prolonged ad infinitum would probably be sickening, but that is clearly not the reason for the nausea Nietzsche is predicting here. A series of experiences is only nauseating for this reason in the event that the person to whom it happens can remember having had all-too-many of these experiences already. But each time I recur and see the small man again, I will not remember ever having seen him before: if I did, I would not be recurring exactly as I did last time, but with the new memory of having recurred that last time. This means that the eternal recurrence of human mediocrity cannot be sickening for the same reason that, eg., a million-year-long sex act would be. See Ivan Soll, "Reflections on Recurrence," pp. 339-342. Soll supposes, however, that this is the only reason why recurrence might be sickening. I will presently suggest another one.

11. The Will to Power, trans. by Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale (New York: Random House, 1967), ## 4 and 55, pp. 9 and 35. These are part of a group of comments which were printed as a single note in The Will to Power but were a single extended note in Nietzsche's manuscripts: they are ## 4, 5, 114, and 55. A careful reading of these comments is very helpful in understanding the subjects I am treating in this paper.

12. The Will to Power, #55, pp. 35 and 36.

13. The Will to Power, #708, p. 377.

14. The Will to Power, #55, pp. 36, 37, and 38. I think it is in light of these passages that we should read Nietzsche's more shocking comments in this subject in ## 1053, 1054, and 1056.

15. The Will to Power, #55, pp. 36 and 38.

16. See Nietzsche and the Origin of Virtue, Chapter V, and passim.

17. I am much indebted to discussions with Robert Horton of an earlier draft of this paper.