NIETZSCHE: Eternal Recurrence in True Detective

19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote, “What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more?’” In this video, we will explore the concept of Eternal Recurrence as presented in the HBO series True Detective, and we will also consider Nietzsche’s practical applications of the concept.

In HBO’s True Detective, Matthew McConaughey’s character, Rust Cole, explains Eternal Recurrence to two other detectives. “Time is a flat circle. Everything we’ve ever done or will do, we’re gonna do over and over and over again. You are reborn, but into the same life that you’ve always been born into.”

To help clarify this idea, let’s draw an analogy between the theory of Eternal Recurrence and a film on DVD. When we finish watching a film we can replay it from the beginning. The film does not change – the actors repeat the very same lines and the very same actions. According to the theory of Eternal Recurrence, our lives are like films on DVDs that are replayed over and over again. And this raises an interesting question – are there viewers pressing replay on the DVDs of our lives?

Rust Cole explains the type of perspective that these metaphysical “viewers” might have of our world. “You ever heard of something called the M-brane theory, detectives? Outside of our spacetime, from what would be a fourth-dimensional perspective, time wouldn’t exist, and from that vantage, could we attain it we’d see our spacetime look flattened, like a single sculpture with matter in a superposition of every place it ever occupied, our sentience just cycling through our lives like carts on a track. See, everything outside our dimension… that’s eternity, eternity looking down on us. Now, to us, it’s a sphere, but to them, it’s a circle.” In other words, these fourth dimensional viewers have the same perspective in relation to our lives as we have in relation to the character’s lives in True Detective. We are outside of True Detective’s spacetime; we have the power to press replay and watch the characters cycling through their lives “like carts on a track.”

Nietzsche was profoundly affected by the concept of Eternal Recurrence. In Thus Spake Zarathustra, he referred to it as the “mightiest thought.” It is important to note, however, that Nietzsche did not introduce the theory of Eternal Recurrence. It is found in Ancient Egyptian and Indian philosophies. But Nietzsche’s practical application of the idea is innovative.

Instead of asserting Eternal Recurrence as a metaphysical truth, Nietzsche presents it to the reader as a hypothetical test to determine whether one is living a worthwhile life. Supposing that someone tells you Eternal Recurrence is true, that you will need to live your life over and over again for eternity, Nietzsche asks: “Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.’” The person who embraces Eternal Recurrence as a blessing from the divine is living a worthwhile life. On the other hand, the person who curses Eternal Recurrence as a torment sent from the devil ought to consider changing the path of life on which he is treading.

To conclude, Eternal Recurrence is the theory that time is like a circle, and that the life we live now, we will live innumerable times more for eternity. In short, our lives are like DVDs. Nietzsche introduces an innovative interpretation of this ancient concept. He is unconcerned about the validity of the theory, but rather presents the concept as a hypothetical test. In order to pass the test, one must live so “that one wants to have nothing different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity.”


17 thoughts on “NIETZSCHE: Eternal Recurrence in True Detective

  1. So now I see a bit of technology in use to explain the idea? 🙂 On a side note (despite the fact that according to Nietzsche suffering has a value in its own) I just wanted to suggest you to use align by width option for your texts, of course it decrease the suffering of some readers, but it will make your posts more pleasant/convenient for reading… 🙂 Also wanted to point out to the typo in the “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” title you mentioned… But anyway interesting usage/interpretation of idea, somewhat similar to “brain in a vat” concept for radical skepticism – it is not about validity of proposal but about our view on this hypothetical situation and inability to proof the opposite.

    • First, “Thus Spake Zarathustra” is not a typo. It has been translated as “Thus Spake Zarathustra” and “Thus Spoke Zarathustra.”

      Second, I suppose you are being sarcastic when you mention the use of technology to explain Eternal Recurrence. I never argued that science was not useful. I argued that science should be relegated to an inferior position with respect to Art, and that science ought only to be used to enhance the ability of Art to produce beauty and meaning. In this case, science has produced an item that is useful in explaining a concept that enhances the love of an exalted life – thus, it performs its function as an assistant to Art.

      Third, I will consider adjusting the width of the texts. I think that the text looks fine on a computer. Perhaps it’s too narrow on a smartphone?

      • About “align by width” for text, I actually meant “Justify” option, see this picture to see what I mean: (above without Justify, below with Justify 🙂 )
        As for my note about technology, you just said in your comment to my blogpost that you “far from technology” or something similar and I referred to this 🙂 you are not so far from it… 🙂

  2. Gosh, that has got me thinking. Am I living a life that I would care to repeat for all eternity, even the bits that are painful or difficult? It reminds me of mindfulness, the little I know of it. Cherish each moment as it is the eternal now.
    I struggle with this concept for people in the throws of dementia. They may have little choice as to how they live each moment. They may need help from the rest of us.
    Yet, even in our darkest moments we can still cling to that breeze “on the heath”.

  3. The text is fine on my smartphone!

    Nietzsche… I came across him when I departed from Christianity. His life was one full of struggles, he seemed to always be searching. People can be like that, I think I am left wondering at times. This theory makes me have two splits of mind … Make my life more fun, enjoy, enjoy, enjoy and the other oh my word it will be like Groundhog Day … Stop the world now I want to get off!
    I don’t think I want to buy into it but it certainly makes you think.

  4. In reply to Nietzsche I would say:

    In the context of this life, once you have everything you ever wanted, done everything you were interested in, met every type of woman, had a family and gained freedom from every onerous obligation and in the process won every challenge that had meaning for you, endured every pain and had every question answered – repeating this life even one more time would be hellish tedium.

    The minimum requirement for my happiness is now “Something to look forward to”. I’m bored here, not unhappy or depressed, just bored. If all you have to offer is pain that I am unable to see the meaning in, either show me the meaning or give me something to look forward to. If you cannot do that, give me eternal death.

    • I see the point of the Eternal Recurrence as having a bit more to say than merely repeating this life over and over again, to the hellish tedium that you mention. There is something more than a repeat button ad infinitum: there is no beginning or end to the dvd and there is no big other or figure there watching the ‘dvd repeat. ER is essentially about traversing nihilism – the fact that everything we will do or will accomplish will inevitably end up in nothing. (Becoming is really nothing-in-itself.) Your “something to look forward to” will lead to nothing in the end, as what I do or accomplish in my life will ultimately end in nothing. So what happens? Resignation at the sight of the nothing? No. There is the will that says, ‘not yet.’ The notion of an endless repeat of presence of the will transforms it into an affirmation. That is to say, Nietzsche’s idea of Eternal Recurrence is a kind of repetition of the being of becoming as it orbits around its affirmation. It privileges over stasis the notion of becoming and over representation the notion of creative affirmation. At least, this is my interpretation of that signifier “Nietzsche”, as how I have come to understand it thus far.

    • I think part of Nietzsche’s idea is that your memory is wiped clean on each iteration of the recurrence, so there’s no possibility of boredom or tedium from living the same experiences over and over. After all, how could you live EXACTLY the same life twice if you remembered everything the second time around?

      • I have only a cursory knowledge of Nietzsche but even from that it is strange to hear him compared to a Bhudist or a ‘New Age’ reincarnation adherent. But if he were to offer reincarnation as a remedy for boredom, I would say that I could take little comfort from it. If we have any identity at all, we are the sum total of our memories, experiences and choices we make in dealing with them. Each of us is a unique algorithm encoded in our minds that deals with life in its own way. If you wipe that out, I am no longer me. I am effectively dead.

  5. “He is unconcerned about the validity of the theory”–hmm… I have a fairly distinct memory from the Nietzsche class I took in college of Nietzsche making an argument like this: “There’s finitely much matter bouncing around in space for infinite time, so eventually every configuration of matter–and sequence of configurations–will recur, and keep recurring for all eternity.” Of course my memory could be mistaken… But this is a minor point. You’re certainly right that the practical implications of the hypothesis are what Nietzsche mostly cared about.

  6. Pingback: NIETZSCHE | Eternal Recurrence in True Detective | ohcomeonandance

  7. Enjoyed your post NIETZSCHE: PROMETHEAN UBERMENSCH, and i’ll translated into Greek and post it today or tomorrow. However, I would ask you to look for my poetry book UBERMENSCH, by Manolis, it is available as an e-book at as well as…it is a small expense but you may find my view of Ubermensch rather intriguing …if you wish to have it in book form I would be more than happy to mail you a copy free of charge.

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