Eternal Recurrence: Epicurean Oblivion, Stoic Consolation, Nietzschean Cultivation

Michael Ure, Thom Ryan

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This paper examines Epicurean, Stoic and Nietzschean accounts of the eternal recurrence and their ethical significance. Epicurean and Stoic physics commits both philosophies to a cosmology of recurrence. Lucretius and Seneca embed cosmological theories of recurrence in a philosophical tradition of consolation. Since both also conceive philosophy as a way of life, to borrow Hadot’s terminology, they also necessarily link this cosmological doctrine to their ethical theory. In other words, since they endorse the principle of living according to nature, and nature eternally returns to the same state, they must consider what it means to live according to recurrence. Nietzsche’s commitment to the doctrine of the eternal recurrence is contested. Commentators dispute whether he holds it to be literally true, or he conceives of it in some non-literal sense, as an ethical thought experiment or spiritual exercise, for instance. Like the Stoics and Epicureans, however, Nietzsche aims to naturalise (or renaturalise) humanity. As an integral part of his naturalistic ethics he suggests that the best life is one that affirms recurrence.

This paper demonstrates that all three philosophies consider the eternal recurrence from a therapeutic and ethical perspective. That is to say, we show how they frame, interpret and mobilise the idea of recurrence in ways that suit their particular therapeutic or transformative ends. Yet we argue that each formulates a very different conception of its transformative effects. Though they share a conception of recurrence as a ‘spiritual exercise,’ they attribute to it very different outcomes. We show that Lucretius uses it to derive pleasure from the prospect of eternal oblivion, Seneca to achieve tranquil contemplation of our fate, and Nietzsche to incite an unquenchable craving to cultivate ourselves as singular works of art worthy of eternity.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationNietzsche and Epicurus
Subtitle of host publicationNature, Health and Ethics
EditorsRyan Johnson, Vinod Acharya
Place of PublicationLondon Uk
PublisherBloomsbury Academic
Number of pages15
ISBN (Electronic)9781350086326, 9781350086319
ISBN (Print)9781350086302
Publication statusPublished - 2020

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