Nietzsche posited the eternal recurrence, the idea that our life will come back to us exactly as it was for eternity, as a kind of thought experiment:
“The greatest weight.– 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; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to 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 upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!”
Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus?… Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?”
The demon comes to us in our ‘loneliest loneliness’, at a time when we are defenceless against being overpowered by the thought. The answers we give to its questions, if we reply honestly, reveal our attitude toward the lives that we lead. If thinking about our lives as our eternity makes us afraid then we are wasting them. Of course, each of us has regrets, has made mistakes that we would undo if given the chance. Yet, if our life as a whole seems empty then it falls on us to make the decisions that would correct this, in order to be able to affirm it if it came back to us exactly as it was down to the smallest detail. The challenge then is to live in such a way that you could smile at this prospect.
By severing our ties to a life other than this one across eternity Nietzsche asks us to think hard on the choices we make in our personal infinity. If there is no afterlife and the heaven and hell of the idealist pale in comparison to this life, the only reality, then all that is left to us is to focus our attention on it and live it as well as possible in view of the fact that it is all there ever will be. Thinking of the eternal recurrence prevents us from imagining that we can be saved from this life to find redemption in the next.
Considering the thought encourages us to take decisions and act in such a way that we could desire the eternal return of what we are about to do. The greatest weight is placed on our actions because whatever choice we elect to take forms part of our personal infinity. The aim of the thought experiment is then to overcome the life-denying attitude of the idealist to encourage us to affirm this life. If it is all there is then there can be no excuses for failing to live it fully, one stands to lose everything if they look beyond it.
To avoid being crushed by the thought we must change so we can bear our fate, by becoming so well disposed to ourselves and our life that we want nothing other than its eternal recurrence. The ideal is to become the kind of person who would consider the demon’s message divine. This means resting the weight of eternity on each of our actions in order to make certain that what we are about to do can be affirmed eternally. The effect of the thought of eternal recurrence depends on it overpowering us and exercising mastery over our lives. If it takes root and has personal significance it holds the transformational power to make a life-changing impact insofar as it challenges us to create a life that we wish to repeat eternally.