‘Time Is A Flat Circle’: Nietzsche’s Doctrine Of Eternal Recurrence

Time is a Flat Circle

The Doctrine of Eternal Recurrence

By Professor Lawrence Hatab (Old Dominion University)

June 15, 2015         Picture: Kristine Ulanowsky/Behance.

This article is part of The Critique exclusive No Exit From Hell: The Philosophy Of True Detective.

In True Detective, the character of Rustin Cohle is remarkable in professing pessimism (Read Professor Joshua Dienstag’s essay on Rustin’s pessimism); not in the ordinary sense of being a glass-half-empty type of person, but in the full-blown philosophical sense that human consciousness is a “tragic misstep,” that we are “programmed” to think there is meaning in our individual lives, but that this is an illusion. Cohle counsels that we should “deny our programming, stop reproducing, and walk hand in hand into extinction.”

It is surprising to hear this kind of thinking in a TV series, and it is clear to me that Cohle’s sentiment is drawn directly from the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer (Read Professor David Cartwright’s take on the Schopenhauer inspired pessimism expressed on the show). For Schopenhauer, the ultimate nature of reality is the Will, a blind assertive drive to live and satisfy desires. It is the drive that is primary, not any object of desire, or any individual agent of desire, or any satisfaction of desire. So the Will never comes to rest in a state of fulfillment. All things exhibit the same primal force that finds no consummation or ultimate satisfaction. Our sense of being individual selves striving for particular goals is only an “appearance” of the single driving energy within all things. The evidence for a purposeless Will at the heart of reality is the constant reassertion of willing after any satisfied desire and the boredom experienced after an achieved end. The surging of the Will for individual agents comes to a stop with death, but this is only an apparent cessation of the Will because it continues to surge in all other beings. Schopenhauer was a this-worldly thinker who believed that a hard-eyed look into life reveals the absurdity of existence: We are naturally driven to satisfy our desires and to see life as purposeful; yet we often suffer from obstacles to desire, and even when satisfied, desire continues to seek satisfaction—until all desires and purposes are canceled out by death. Suffering is therefore an inevitable part of life that cannot be overcome or resolved. We constantly seek what cannot be delivered in life. Schopenhauer says that our response to this absurdity should be a denial of the Will to whatever extent possible, which in its strongest form would be an ascetic renunciation of desires, especially the sexual drive to reproduce, which simply perpetuates the absurdity. For Schopenhauer, ascetic passivity rules out suicide, but death is welcomed as a release from suffering and the futility of life.

Such is the philosophical source of Cohle’s powerful speech about the tragic misstep of consciousness and the need to deny our programmed desires. In the series it seems that Cohle’s attitude may have stemmed from a terrible event in his life: his young daughter, while riding her tricycle, was run over and killed by a reckless driver. Surely something like that can affect a person’s attitude toward life, but it should be said that in Schopenhauer’s philosophy, pessimism is a function of wisdom, not mood or terrible misfortune. Even if one does not experience deep trauma, that does not alter the global absurdity analyzed by Schopenhauer.

In the last episode of the series, Cohle comes out of a coma and tells his partner, Hart, that he saw his daughter and father in his unconscious state. Then he says: “Once there was only dark. You ask me, the light’s winning.” What is meant by the light winning? There is no overt repudiation of his original pessimism, but it seems to suggest a more positive outlook on life.

“In Schopenhauer’s philosophy, pessimism is a function of wisdom, not mood or terrible misfortune. Even if one does not experience deep trauma, that does not alter the global absurdity analyzed by Schopenhauer”.

In one sense it was satisfying to hear Cohle talk about the light, but dramatically speaking it appeared to come out of the blue. Was he simply getting over his grievous disposition? Did he see or feel something that brought him away from pessimism? It is not clear (Read Professor Sandra Shapshay’s discussion of this question in “The Ethics of True Detective: Resignation or Compassion?“). But I want to spend some time considering another speech by Cohle, which seems in line with Schopenhauer’s pessimism but which connects to another philosopher: Friedrich Nietzsche, whose core project was diagnosing pessimism as an illness and opting for life affirmation.

Cohle says: “Time is a flat circle. Everything we have done or will do we will do over and over and over again—forever.” This is Nietzsche’s doctrine of eternal recurrence, as depicted in The Gay Science and Thus Spoke Zarathustra. It is clear that Cohle recounts this idea in a pessimistic manner; indeed it magnifies the absurdity of life by declaring its endless repetition. I want to emphasize, however, that a pessimistic reading of eternal recurrence cannot be the last word in coming to terms with Nietzsche’s offering. Whether this can have any bearing on Cohle’s apparent change of heart is not at all evident, because he originally portrayed the repetition of life in a Schopenhauerian spirit.

Schopenhauer was an early influence on Nietzsche, and they agree on certain basic things: the primacy of a driving will, which generates perpetual conflict with no ultimate resolution and no salvation. They are on firm ground so far, because who can deny that life as we have it puts a tragic limit on all human interests and aspirations? For both thinkers, this tragedy is the last word on existence, but they differ on whether life as we have it is worthwhile or meaningful. Schopenhauer’s answer is No and Nietzsche wants to say Yes. Eternal recurrence was a way to force attention on life exactly as it is, with no alternative, not even nothingness on the other side of life, not even eternal novelty. If one could say Yes to eternal recurrence—the endless repetition of life in the exact same way—one could genuinely say Yes to life as it is. It turns out that Schopenhauer said No to life specifically with regard to the possibility of recurrence: “At the end of his life, no man, if he be sincere and at the same time in possession of his faculties, will ever wish to go through it again.”[1]

Nietzsche came to see Schopenhauer’s pessimism as the secret code to the Western tradition. Pessimism implies that life should support human interests in some fundamental way but cannot—why else turn away from life? Nietzsche applauded Schopenhauer’s honest analysis of existence and his deconstruction of all “optimistic” doctrines. Nietzsche concluded that any “positive” world-view is simply a concealed pessimism that seeks an alternative to life’s tragic character, a No to life as it is. For instance, Christianity basically agrees with Schopenhauer about turning away from earthly life, but for the sake of an illusory salvation. Schopenhauer was therefore able to articulate the pessimistic spirit of Western thought without concealment. Nietzsche diverged from Schopenhauer (and the tradition) in calling pessimism to account for the paradox of a living entity turning against life. If this life is all there is, how can existence be “absurd”? Perhaps life-denial is absurd. Nietzsche aims to find a way in which the tragic conditions of existence can be understood as generating meaning rather than cancelling it out.

Eternal recurrence is announced in The Gay Science as a question posed to the reader:

“The Greatest Weight. What if some day or night a demon were to sneak after you in your 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; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything immeasurably small or great in your life must return to you, all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned over and over, and you with it, a speck of dust.”

Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or did you once experience a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: “You are a god, and never have I heard anything more godly.” If this thought were to gain possession of you, it would change you, as you are, or perhaps crush you. The question in each and every thing, “Do you want this again and innumerable times again?” would weigh upon your actions as the greatest weight. Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to desire nothing more than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?” [2]

Would such a prospect be a devastation or a joyous gift? Nietzsche’s next book, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, provides a dramatic narrative depicting the task of life affirmation in the face of eternal recurrence. Zarathustra comes to humanity in order to “redeem the earth,” to speak for natural life against all life-denying doctrines. Eternal recurrence is presented as the true test of life-affirmation, and Zarathustra goes through a deep trauma in confronting it. Saying Yes to the repetition of life includes all the things we regret and despise, all the things that go against what we find meaningful. Zarathustra has to focus on what he most despises, the Small Man, who cannot rise to the challenge of life and affirm earthly existence, who dodges that task by dwelling in trivial pursuits, cheap satisfactions, and life-suppressing norms. With eternal recurrence, the small man will return again and again, forever. Zarathustra goes through gut wrenching encounters with this terrible prospect, but in the end he comes to say Yes to eternal recurrence, and thus to all of life, including the Small Man.

What is interesting here is that eternal recurrence as a test of life-affirmation should be a traumatic challenge because it forces attention on what counters meaning in one’s life. An easy Yes to eternal repetition would not be an honest and direct assessment of tragic limits in existence. So the initial effect of eternal recurrence should border on the possibility of pessimism. But Nietzsche’s philosophy aims to uncover an alternative to pessimism in terms of how counter-meanings are implicated in meaning. The main avenue for this kind of thinking is the notion of will to power.

Nietzsche’s concept of will to power is often misunderstood. It is not restricted to physical force and it does not imply utter control. Will to power names a structured relation between conflicting forces, whereby meaning is found in overcoming a resisting or competing condition. Resistance is required for such a movement of overcoming, and so the elimination of a resistance would also negate the power to overcome and its meaning. Will to power can manifest itself in any cultural domain of significance. That is why pacifism is a form of will to power because it seeks to overcome human violence. In any case, Nietzsche is able to show how meaning needs counter-meanings in order tobe meaningful. Eternal recurrence presents a global view of how life can be truly affirmed by saying Yes to things that oppose one’s interests. But saying Yes to eternal recurrence affirms opposing conditions as opposing conditions, which one must oppose to find one’s own meaning. Life-affirmation, therefore, in the light of eternal recurrence, does not mean approving of everything that happens. One will eternally repeat one’s opposition to counter-conditions, and eternally find meaning in that conflict. So Zarathustra will eternally oppose the Small Man, which is not endless dissatisfaction but the endless satisfaction of overcoming.

I have been trying to show that the portrayal of eternal recurrence in True Detective is not in the spirit of Nietzsche’s conception. It is more akin to Schopenhauer’s response. Nietzsche finds a way to overcome pessimism by affirming life because of its tragic limits. How can this apply to Cohle’s apparent change of heart at the end of the series? I don’t know. On Nietzsche’s terms, saying Yes to life would entail the eternal repetition of his daughter’s death. No small thing there. Pessimism would not be surprising in the face of such pain, not to mention the many vile acts that a homicide detective must regularly confront. But if the “lightening” of Cohle’s pessimism stems from seeing his daughter and coming to believe in a supernatural dimension where she still exists—and TV today seems awash in supernatural scripts—that would run counter to Nietzsche’s vision of life.

Footnotes & References: 

[1] The World as Will and Representation, Vol. 1, trans. E.F.J. Payne (New York: Dover, 1969), p. 324.

[2] The Gay Science, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Random House, 1974), section 341.

Lawrence Hatab
Lawrence Hatab
Lawrence J. Hatab is Louis I. Jaffe Professor and Chair of Philosophy at Old Dominion University. He is well known for his work in continental philosophy, and is a leading interpreter of Nietzsche's philosophy. Dr. Hatab began teaching at Old Dominion in 1976. He received his Ph.D. from Fordham University in 1976. His areas of specialization include 19th- and 20th-Century Continental Philosophy, Ancient Philosophy, and Social and Political Philosophy. He has published over thirty-five articles and five books, including "Nietzsche's Life Sentence: Coming to Terms with Eternal Recurrence" (Routledge, 2005) His course offerings at Old Dominion University include 19th-Century Philosophy, 20th-Century Continental Philosophy, Heidegger, Nietzsche, Ancient Philosophy, Myth and Philosophy, Social and Political Philosophy, and Postmodernism and Political Philosophy.
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  • Stephen Speers

    The other consequence of eternal recurrence is that the murdered women must eternally repeat their own horrific deaths, and this is the sort of nasty spirit that the murderers sort of get off from– it’s sort of what helps make their “master piece.” I believe this perspective can be seen in how Cohle tells them to cut it off with the “Nietzsche bullshit.” The idea of reoccurrence can be life affirming for the “light” but I think it’s hard practice for those in the “dark.” Perhaps his mission is to make it a little brighter for others. I think as time goes, Cohle may better understand how others may turn to vices or escapism to avoid reality.

  • eldl1989

    Interesting, lucid and thought-provoking essay. One thing that I don’t think is clear is whether Schopenhauer believes that we will actually live life eternally, or whether this is a more general destiny for the human race as a whole. The latter interpretation would make more sense, as I think the idea of eternal return of an individual seems to be very much an original Nietzschean thought. Cohle’s viewpoint – “Time is a flat circle. Everything we have done or will do we will do over and over and over again—forever.” – is similarly ambiguous; by “we” does he mean we as individuals, or we as the human race? If the latter, I find this more plausible, and more philosophically valuable. In this sense, Nietzsche was quite self-focused, but Schopenhauer was looking more generally at humanity and it was clear that he thought once we died, we died and that was it. Nietzsche I think got hooked on the idea of his own eternal return, using Schopenhauer’s idea as a foundation for different thoughts, and propelled this as his key idea.

  • Michael

    Circles are flat. This is the definition of a circle. Thus, “flat circle” is a redundant description of a circle.

  • beenthere

    The character Cohle’s dramatic change of outlook at the end of the series I speculate is more due to external factors, namely the personal beliefs of the actor playing Cohle that manifests itself in a need for a kind quasi religious-political-projection, to correct or balance out all the assertions made by Cohle throughout the series. The ideological narratives in the series that stem from Schopenhauer’s or Nietzsche’s philosophy are inherently anti-spiritual and therefore counter to religious doctrine, even if religious belief is not explicitly discussed. If you take McConaughey’s 2013 oscar acceptance speech as a true reflection of his personal belief system then I have to conclude that Catholic values projection was and is important to McConaughey. As executive producer of the series, and given that the series up until the final few minutes is steeped in thinly veiled agnostic pessimism and highly misanthropic dialog from Cohle, I suspect that McConaughey would only agree to be involved in series and play the Cohle character if, and only if, all of Cohle’s previous assertions about the true nature of human existence could be partially or completely undone by a blatant final tribute to the wonderful human consciousness saving mystical after-life. From a writing-critique perspective, it was to me, very unjustified within the context of all of the previous storyline, extremely out-of-character for Cohle and a very ‘barnacled-on’ attempt to salvage some religious-perspective for Cohle.

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