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.”