Given that Nietzsche has a reputation for being an atheist, this chapter may come as something as a surprise to many, as it demonstrates Nietzsche’s own ‘religiosity’. In looking at religious belief, Nietzsche is more concerned with why people believe what they do, not what they believe. It is the psychology of religion that is his main concern.
Here I want to focus on the key Section 56, as this presents his notion of the ‘eternal recurrence’. Apart from Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the doctrine of the eternal recurrence only gets a few mentions in his later works. However, the doctrine was first elaborated in The Gay Science (S341) where Nietzsche presents a ‘what if’ image. He asks what if a demon were to creep up to you one night when you are all alone and, feeling lonely, and were to say to you that the life you have lived and continue to live will be the same life you will live again and again for inﬁnity. This life will be exactly the same; no additions, and no omissions, every pain, every joy, every small and great event. If this were the case, would you cry out in despair over such a prospect, or would you think it to be the most wonderful outlook ever? Though not mentioned speciﬁcally, this ‘what if’ scenario sums up the eternal recurrence: whatever in fact happens has happened an inﬁnite number of times in the exact same detail and will continue to do so for eternity. You have lived your life an inﬁnite number of times in the past and will do so an inﬁnite number of times in the future.
Importantly, like seemingly the doctrine of the will to power, Nietzsche presents the eternal recurrence as a thought experiment, not a provable truth. In his unpublished notes of the time (which should always be treated with caution) he argues for it as a cosmological thesis. However, it is most appropriately (given what we know about Nietzsche’s epistemological views) seen as an existential challenge: given this burdensome thought how can we turn it into something joyful? It is essentially the same kind of question that has preoccupied a number of existential thinkers, most notably Camus. Nietzsche goes beyond Schopenhauer’s pessimism here in expressing the need for a human being to be world-affirming: you have to be well-disposed towards yourself, not full of world-weary pessimism or hoping for the next life. You have to look at your life and, like seeing a drama or hearing a musical, declare ‘de capo’ (‘from the beginning’): wanting it again and again. Saying ‘yes’. Nietzsche ends S56 with ‘a vicious circle made god?’, but this is the god Dionysus, not the Christian God.
The eternal recurrence is meant to have a transforming effect, which requires a revaluation of all values. It requires us to be proud of our achievements because they are our creation. Nonetheless, like religious belief, adopting the eternal recurrence is a matter of ‘faith’. Where it differs from religious belief is that it does not place that faith in something other-worldly, but in this life.