Nietzsche - Are amor fati and eternal recurrence compatible doctrines

Essay 2002 12 Pages

Philosophy - Philosophy of the 19th Century


Are amor fati and eternal recurrence compatible doctrines?

The essay deals with the compatibility of two doctrines - amor fati and eternal recurrence. The purpose of this paper will not be to assess if they are compatible in the sense of whether they can work in intertwined harmony. I will not discuss the legitimacy of amor fati as a doctrine but eternal recurrence with its non-religious claims needs to stand up to our scrutiny. A doctrine can be either based on knowledge or on belief. It would stand to reason therefore to verify eternal recurrence´s claims to legitimacy through knowledge – empirical or physical evidence or through belief. In regard to knowledge I will have to prove if eternal recurrence is comprehensible, to find out whether or not amor fati and eternal recurrence are working hand in hand. Without plausible reasoning the final goal of amor fati can not be reached through the way of eternal recurrence. Firstly it is therefore necessary to find some empirical or physical proof for his thesis upon which one can build the basis for empirical interpretations of the eternal recurrence. Secondly Nietzsche´s eternal recurrence can be seen hypothetically, as a game of thoughts, where one is asked to imagine his/her life recurring innumerable times in all its smallest details and should then react to this imagined state-of-affairs. Taking the assumption that those statements are in themselves rational and convincing I can state that eternal recurrence leads consequently to amor fati. Therefore both doctrines are compatible. If it is not the case eternal recurrence will just be based on belief. I will answer the questions if Nietzsche really offers a new doctrine through which one can reach the goal of affirmation of life or if it is only a doctrine on the basis of faith.

The goal of Nietzsche´s ambitious teaching is amor fati. Amor fati is the love of life itself and the love of fate. It does not stand for passive acceptance of all fruitful and painful experiences in life but for the love to all activities one performs and especially towards events which happen to oneself by chance. “It is this total love of life which accepts all, rejects nothing, but preserves a sovereign mastery of the unruly elements in the self, which Nieztsche continually celebrates under the name Amor Fati” (Williams, p. Xvii). It entails the yes to necessities, which means in the worst case, that perhaps one is entitled only to fail in life. Nietzsche does not want us to base the doctrine of amor fati on belief of the Christian religion anymore but on the knowledge of eternal recurrence as a proof that we can love and change our lives out of ourselves, without a God. The Dionysianism in his book The Birth of Tragedy is an obvious example for amor fati as Nietzsche admires the Greek for celebrating all cycles in life, even the phases that consist in degeneration and decay. However, since in Nietzsche´s mind God is dead and nihilism reigns he thinks that we have to search for another way to reach the final goal of total affirmation of life. I will not examine whether or not amor fati is a doctrine worth striving for, as it is not reasonable to question the sense of a target (like a footballer kicking a goal when he does not yet know where the goal posts are). An aim is static and it is not rational to judge measures which lead towards it when one is not sure about the goal itself. Taking amor fati as the desired end it leaves for me to test eternal recurrence´s validity as a method. The method of eternal recurrence can be rooted on physical or hypothetical evidence or it can be a matter of belief. Referring to the Pons dictionary “a doctrine is a set of principles or beliefs, especially religious ones” (Brown, p. 323). Robert Allen makes it even clearer that a doctrine can be based on two different set of principles. “Doctrine [is] a principle or the body of principles in a branch of knowledge or system of belief” (Allen, p. 253). One has got rather scientific or rational roots, the other consists of conviction or trust in somebody or something. If Nietzsche´s set of principles have the power to make people change their lives towards amor fati, we can conclude that eternal recurrence forms a new doctrine and that those two doctrines are compatible. Looking at belief in terms of faith one can certainly claim that it changes people´s lives. However Nietzsche did not intend to create a new believe and definitely not a new religion. Zarathustra explained that “You had not yet sought yourselves when you found me. Thus do all believers; therefore all belief is of so little account” (Nietzsche, p. 103). He wanted to convince people to look not to a god but to themselves for a reason to live. Nietzsche wanted to give reasons to alter ones attitude towards life. Belief starts, he knew, where reasoning ends. Therefore I suggest that Nietzsche did not want belief to be the basis of his doctrine but logic. “It is power, this new virtue; it is a ruling idea, and around it a subtle soul: a golden sun, and around it the serpent of knowledge” (Nietzsche, p. 101). To teach the people, maybe as well as himself, how to affirm and eventually improve this imperfect life, he invented the doctrine of eternal recurrence. The idea occurred to him in August 1881 and appeared first in print in The Gay Science. Eternal recurrence is constituted by Nietzsche as follows: “This life as you live it and have lived it you will have to live it 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, and all in the same succession and sequence…” (Williams, p. 194). For him eternal recurrence and amor fati are closely connected. Nietzsche´s ideal is “the most exuberant, most living and most world-affirming man, who has not only learned to get on and treat with all that was and is but who wants to have it again as it was and is to all eternity...” (Novak, p. 165).

Eternal recurrence is “his most controversial teaching and the one he [Nietzsche] considered the most important” (Magnus, p. 38). In the literature it mainly discusses, whether eternal return leads to affirmation of life or not, on two different levels: the empirical or the hypothetical interpretation of Nietzsche´s worldview. Starting off with the empirical hypothesis, I will refer to Bernd Magnus who deals with this topic in length in his book Nietzsche´s Existential Imperative. He disproofs the physical basis of Nietzsche´s doctrine and withdraws with it, the empirical legitimation. Leaving the hypothetical view of Nietzsche´s teaching aside for a moment, eternal return is made impossible and with it the influence on affirmation of life. Most authors agree with Magnus that Nietzsche´s argumentation in terms of physical reliability are either trivial or false. Tracy Strong for example admits that the doctrine of reappearing again and again, unchanged, “hardly seems worth taking seriously, except, perhaps, in the light of offering some new form of moral behaviour by which the individual might relate his choices to a universal principle” (Strong, p. 261). Magnus enforces it, that “there can be no unambiguous empirical argument for recurrence in Nietzsche´s works at all and that he was himself aware of this fact” (Magnus, p. 74). One evidence for this claim could be that references to the empirical requirements of the doctrine are only to be found in the Nachlaß which was published later by his sister – not by himself. However taking this fact into account, nine broad empirical assumptions can be drawn from the Nachlaß, according to Magnus. I will deal with four of them, which if true, could have been the empirical basis of Nietzsche´s thesis. Nietzsche states: “In infinite time, every possible combination would at some time or other be realized; more: it would be realized an infinite number of times” (Magnus, p. 77) - as for him time is infinite and energy definitely is finite. He therefore could divide infinite time through a finite amount of energy and he ended up with a finite number of energy combinations and developments. Nietzsche claims that with limited possibilities and unlimited time the combinations will be repeated innumerable times.

In his empirical studies Nietzsche must have been very much influenced by the zeitgeist of this period. Especially before the turn of the century, it was thought that the major laws of physics had been discovered (Newton’s laws covered the gravitational effects, Maxwell’s laws the electromagnetic etc.) and the world would be fully describable by them. At that time physicists believed the universe to be a gigantic deterministic “clock work”, where every future behaviour of a system (e.g. the movements of the planets around the sun) could be equated, just by the initial conditions given. Therefore Nietzsche tried to find physical evidence for his doctrine of eternal recurrence to increase the plausibility of his teaching and to make it more convincing. I can also imagine that Nietzsche was probably influenced by the, for his time, recent achievements in Statistical Mechanics (Boltzmann, Gibbs etc.). Quantum mechanics was not yet invented, so he could not get the statistical mechanics in the right context. It is worth mentioning that quantum mechanics even though it postulates discrete energy levels, which would give a good point to Nietzsche’s reasoning for a finite number of energy states, it also tells us that the world is not deterministic at all, but dominated by complete random and not repetition of the same. Yet Georg Simmel´s classical refutation grants that there are only three number of states in the system. Indeed it would be going beyond the limits of this essay to discuss Nietzsche’s hypothesis in the context of quantum mechanics. Instead I would like to bring another argument on stake to disproof Nietzsche’s physical basis for the doctrine of eternal recurrence. It seems to me that Nietzsche used some arguments that he got from thermodynamics, but he has not considered the whole theory with devastating results for his theses. He did not consider the second law of thermodynamics. It states that the entropy (information loss) of a system can never decrease. The state with the highest entropy (disorder) is the most likely and nature tends toward it. Now what does that mean to Nietzsche’s thesis? If you let a system evolve with time, it will tend to go in the state of highest entropy and rest there (equilibrium state). Therefore there will not be any repetition. Without room for repetition Nietzsche´s idea of eternal return breaks down. “I do not mean to suggest that Nietzsche was uninterested in finding empirical confirmation for his doctrine. On the contrary, he was very much interested in finding empirical confirmation, but apparently for a doctrine which he had embraced for reasons other than empirical cogency” (Magnus, p. 88). His insufficient physical argument though suggests that it was rather written as a thought experiment than as a sustained argument in support of a definitive thesis. Nietzsche consciously left those physical experiments unpublished because he himself knew that, without profound scientifically support, it would not increase the credibility of his doctrine. However since his Nachlaß was made public, authors tried to proof him wrong to destroy the scientific basis of the doctrine. “...his scientifiic ...pronouncements were based more on inspired guesswork and self-oberservation than on reading or research” (Hayman, p. 360) which he most likely had already realised himself. However without eternal return of things and events Nietzsche´s eternal recurrence is evitable no doctrine, not even a persuasive idea. According to the present physical knowledge Nietzsche´s assumtions, which led him to his conclusion or which he tried to use to back up his doctrine, are wrong. “Nietzsche should have been deeply dissatisfied with his “proof,” which is incomplete and invalid” (Nehamas, p. 142). Therefore, as far as the empirical worldview is concerned, there can not be any connection between amor fati and eternal recurrence because, as shown, eternal return physically does not exist.



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University of Southampton – Philosophical Department
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Nietzsche German Philosophical Theory




Title: Nietzsche - Are amor fati and eternal recurrence compatible doctrines