The Eternal Return

April 17, 2011 § 6 Comments

By Tai Carmen

What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.  Ecclesiastes 1:9

I dwell in sacred time, which flows in a circle. Not historical time, which runs in a line. T. A. BarronThe Lost Years of Merlin

The idea of the eternal return is not limited to Biblical platitude. The concept can also be found in ancient EgyptianMayan and Aztec beliefs, in East Indian and ancient Greek philosophy, as well as the 19th century thought experiment of Friedrich Nietzsche.

The concept of the eternal return posits that the universe has been recurring, and will continue to recur, in a self-similar form, an infinite number of times across infinite time and/or infinite space.

The image of the Ouroboros, the snake devouring its own tail, symbolizes the eternal recurrence, or “the end is the beginning.” It has been seen in various expressions through out ancient Egypt, Japan, India, and Greece — in European woodcuts and Aztec art.

Stephen Hawking affirms the possibility of the  “arrow of time”,  a concept that the universe proceeds up to a certain point, after which it undergoes a time reversal.

Respected religious scholar, Mircea Eliade, expands on the concept in his book, Cosmos and History: The Myth of the Eternal Return, first by splitting man’s experience into two categories: the sacred and the profane, or everyday.

In his studies of tribal belief systems around the world, Mircea concludes that traditional or “archaic” man associates “the sacred” with some original mythology of creation. He sites the Aborigines concept of “dreamtime” as one example. In the Aborigine legend of “the time before time” creators, who exist in a world outside of time, created the world within time, and then become rocks, trees, stars, etc. in the world. In this way, Mircea observes, the profane only gains meaning through the sacred.

Nietzsche uses the idea of the eternal return as a thought experiment to explore his concept of Amor fati, or “love of fate.” Imagining such an existence horrifying, he rallies with the cry of embracing what is:

“I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things; then I shall be one of those who make things beautiful.”

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§ 6 Responses to The Eternal Return

  • Aaron says:

    This matter of cyclic time is directly analogous to reincarnation in Indian tradition, although the cycles here are represented by life cycles. In the version stated here though, I think the life cycle you refer to is that of the universe. All of reality is directed by physical forces controlling matter throughout time. This leads to cycles of events that occur, including that of the birth and death of universes.

  • john says:

    Nice post! 🙂

  • Lauren says:

    I’m really enjoying the articles on this blog… I love the way you incorporate different sources, quotes, and images. Thanks for this!

  • Alf T says:

    Hi all. By far and away the best treatise I’ve read on eternal return is from the Russian author, Ouspensky, in both his major works, ‘Tertium Organum’ and ‘A new Model Of The Universe’. Both written around a hundred years ago (now translated very well into English) andreadily available free on line – don’t pay for them from some book sellers – easily able to get free.

    Even if you are not into eternal return (which is really only a small part of the above two books) I should like to say these are two of the absolutre best books on philosophy / cosmology / science / mysticism, I have ever read.


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