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Will to Power in the Eternal Recurrence

by Omar Khan

Man doth not yield himself to the angels, nor unto death
utterly, save only through the weakness of his feeble will.
Joseph Glanvill

Of the drives natural to man, the most fundamental and primary drive according to Nietzsche is a will to rule, to overcome — the Will To Power. In the doctrine of will to power, Nietzsche's philosophy matures fully and the earlier dichotomy of Dionysian and Apollonian[1] which had a Hegelian dialectical flavor to it, becomes absorbed into the Will to power and thus becomes one, just as all other drives do. The Will to power becomes a vehicle for the revaluation of decadent values, which for him were the result of two thousand years of slave morality. The Dionysian energy becomes merely a material for will to power which is the most important drive in nature. Thus Nietzsche says:

This world is the will to power — and nothing besides! And you yourselves are also this will to power — and nothing besides![2]

Nietzsche's will to power, unlike Schopenhauer's Will, cannot be fully defined, since it cannot be known directly but rather through its manifestations. This Will to power is what rules the world and its historical behavior; it is the will to power which governs an individual's actions in this world. So fundamental is this Will to power that life could not be even possible without it. Both life and Will to power presuppose each other. Nietzsche has, as appears clearly, inherited the concept of becoming from Heraclitus for whom the concept of being smells of stagnation. Everything is a becoming. Everything is in flux. Will to power in itself is for Nietzsche nothing but becoming. This nature of becoming implies that all values too needs new valuations. Thus the revaluation of values too is a function and manifestation of this will to power. Everything that lives is an expression of will to power. The living beings must discharge their energy and even if it remains suppressed it will seek an outlet, and this energy is released in the form of power, whether in the form of art and music or architecture, or even war. Thus life is nothing but will to power for Nietzsche:

A living thing seeks above all to vent its strength — life itself is will to power.[3]

This will to power of life is not the Darwinian self preservation of species since, 'self preservation is only one of the indirect and most frequent consequences of it. '[4]

I argue that in spite of the fact that Nietzsche's will to power has some destructive aspect to it, it is moving towards creativity. Similar to Freud's concepts of Eros and Thanatos, will to power too must destroy to create, for in the process of becoming everything is constantly being destroyed and created anew. What it will destroy is decadent and degenerated values with the 'Revaluation of values' and will replace them with more noble and healthy values. The example of a carpenter cutting down a tree to shape it into a chair should serve a good illustration of how will to power has to be both destructive and constructive to create what is grand and noble and the apparent destruction and construction is only manifestations of this will to power eternally becoming. The most accurate portrayal of will to power is the drive to create. The desire to be at our best creativity is an important component of this will to power.

For Nietzsche humans are always trying to impose their superiority and will upon each other in one way or the other. Whether the person is physically harming another person, or giving him presents, or praising him or claiming to be in love with someone, the psychological and underlying desire remains the same; to inflict one's will on them. This implies that human beings are basically egoistic by nature and not altruistic as Christianity takes them to be. In fact, Nietzsche accuses Christian concept of bringing inferior ranks of people on equal footing with the superior ranks of people as a hidden Will to power, as he says:

the will to equality is the will to power[5]

The Nietzschean will to power should not be confused with Schopenhauer's 'Will' even though it has many qualities in it which are present in the Schopenhauerian will. Schopenhauer's will is not concerned with power directly the way Nietzsche sees it, and is unintelligently striving as a blind force. Ideas and representations are the outward manifestations of this blind Will, whereas the Will itself is the inner nature and essence of the universe. This 'Will' according to Schopenhauer can never be fully satisfied. It takes many different forms such as lusts, desires and cravings. When one desire is satisfied, it gives rise to another ad infinitum. Therefore it gives rise to all the pains and suffering and the burden of satisfying unrelenting desires. These ideas therefore lead Schopenhauer to a life denying attitude. For him 'instinct urges men to procreation, which brings into existence a new occasion for suffering and death; that is why shame is associated with the sexual act. '[6] Thus instincts are bad and lead towards suffering and a good man's 'Will turns away from life and denies his own nature.'[7]

Nietzsche's will to power, on the contrary, is a life affirming attitude. In this, the creatures affirm their instincts to acquire power and dominance. On pains and sufferings one's back is not shown but rather these are embraced as a necessary part of life. For Nietzsche, lasting pleasure and satisfaction come about as a result of being able to live according to one's instincts or authenticity and to exert will to power and not by running away from one's own nature. Nietzsche in his new valuation has defined Christian 'good' and 'evil' in the light of the will to power. Thus he says:

What is good — All that heightens the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself, in man. What is bad? -- All that proceeds from weakness. ?' Again: 'What is happiness? — The feeling that power increases — that a resistance is overcome.[8]

Nietzsche's Will is in a perpetual becoming, a monster of energies gushing constantly. It is therefore his idea of eternal recurrence which gives this constant becoming of will to power a stability. The idea of everything recurring forever has two aspects, one cosmological and the other a psychological aspect. The cosmological aspect is very much debatable as far as its reality is concerned. But then this is the case with every metaphysical theory. Nietzsche no doubt believed the eternal return of each and every thing and every state of the universe to be actually happening. Even now as I am typing these alphabets in this particular moment while this little sparrow is sitting in the window, this will again happen in the future, as again I shall be typing the same words, while the same sparrow will be sitting in this window. This will happen again and again forever. For Nietzsche there is an infinite time while the events in this world are finite. This means that in an infinite time the finite events are bound to recur again and again eternally. The world therefore is a never ending process of coming to be and passing away. In his Will To Power Nietzsche explains:

If the world may be thought of as a certain definite quantity of force and as a certain definite number of centers of force — and every other representation remains indefinite and therefore useless — it follows that, in the great dice game of existence, it must pass through a calculable number of combinations. In infinite time, every possible combination would at some time or another be realized; more: it would be realized an infinite number of times. And since between every combination and its next recurrence all other possible combinations would have to take place, and each of these combinations conditions the entire sequence of combinations in the same series, a circular movement of absolutely identical series is thus demonstrated: the world as a circular movement that has already repeated itself infinitely often and plays its game in infinitum.[9]

This theory when taken in its cosmological aspect, as it seems to me, is very much like the 'Big bang' theory, which so far is the most reliable explanation for the origin of our universe. According to the 'big bang' theory the universe was once extremely dense and compact. Then an explosion occurred and the universe started expanding and cooling. Whether the universe will keep expanding forever or will return to its own original state to self annihilation is dependent on its density, that is to say, the concentration of mass in the universe. If the universe is very dense, then the force of gravity will eventually overcome the expansion and will start pulling the matter in the universe back together. But if the universe is less dense, in that case it will keep expanding forever. Cosmologists are still trying to find out how dense the universe is.

What interests me here is the denser side of the universe. If the universe is dense enough — which is probable — then the universe will stop expanding one day, and will withdraw into the same initial compact form as it once was. In my view it is quite apparent that Nietzsche thought of the Eternal Recurrence in the same way as the modern theory of big bang suggests the origin of universe. If we look at the big bang theory from the position of Nietzsche's Eternal Recurrence, the universe being limited has stopped expanding due to gravity and is going back to its initial state, the initial state again will result in a big bang and again the universe will expand in the same manner as it did innumerable times before. Thus this contraction and expansion of our universe continues eternally. When Nietzsche says: 'And are not all things closely bound together in such wise that This Moment draweth all coming things after it? CONSEQUENTLY — itself also?'[10], he is pointing towards the necessity of things to become and pass away in a certain fixed sequence, that is to say, B will always be followed by A, and C will always follow B. In a nutshell, nihilism will come again and again, Zarathustra will again teach Superman and again the small and the great will come together, and so on. Thus this contracting and expanding of the universe follows, in the Nietzschean sense, a strict mathematical equilibrium and the manner in which things and their events are arranged will repeat themselves ad infinitum.

The second aspect of the theory of eternal recurrence is the psychological aspect. The psychological aspect of this theory, as I see it, suggests a test of the strength of will, and as such I shall consider it. Whether cosmologically it proves true or not is out of the scope of this discussion. What is of greater importance to me is the psychological effects it can produce in the individual in particular and the society in general in the face of nihilism. Thus this theory in its psychological interpretation acts as a hypothetical and diagnostic tool. Magnus confirms my view by interpreting Eternal Recurrence as a psychological tool, but only partly[11]. He primarily takes this theory as an affirmative attitude towards life — a 'yea! to life'. I will rather have both the cosmological and psychological interpretations as two sides of the same coin, and argue that Nietzsche actually did believe the Recurrence of events eternally as he explains in his Will To Power where he has developed this theory quite systematically on the basis of law of conservation of energy:

The law of the conservation of energy demands eternal recurrence.[12]

The effects of eternal recurrence are dramatic since each moment in itself bears eternity within itself. The eternal recurrence overcomes any dualism and the Christian otherworldliness, as it places on each and every moment the burden of eternity. Life is terrible and tragic; life is beautiful and life is ugly too; there is much that is great in life but equally so, that which is base and despicable. The superior man, the free spirit affirms life as it is and has the strength of will to want every moment of his life — regardless of its beauty or ugliness — to repeat itself as it is, eternally to its minutest details. This is what Nietzsche calls amor fati:

My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be other than it is, not in the future, not in the past, not in all eternity. Not merely to endure that which happens of necessity, still less to dissemble it — all idealism is untruthfulness in the face of necessity — but to love it...[13]

What Nietzsche wants us to do is to affirm life as it is just as the Greeks did in the tragic period. But Nietzsche has gone a step farther by asking us to desire for this life to repeat eternally. But eternity? — and that too without a change? Certainly only those who are strong in their will, 'free spirits', those who embraced even nihilism — unlike those who being passive nihilists fell prey to it — can affirm life in such fashion. Besides the eternal recurrence stamps eternity on every moment in this world where we humans dwell, as opposed to the Judeo Christian and platonic emphasis on the 'other world', and in such eternal recurrence the question of nihilism or beliefs themselves lose meaning. The stage of nihilism is no more a permanent situation but rather a moment in the eternity of return. One accepts the return of life eternally, and does not demand any other life, neither better nor worse.

But this requires superhuman courage, and this courage one achieves when he becomes a 'Free spirit', and denounces the slave morality, for such a morality, Nietzsche contends is the spirit of gravity and attracts the greatness of spirit downwards. By the spirit of gravity Nietzsche means the rational spirit of Socratism or Platonism, the spirit that has mastered the world in various Platonisms for the people[14]. The Dionysian Will to power along with the doctrine of Eternal Recurrence becomes objectified and embodied in a perfect manner in Nietzsche's Ubermench or 'Superman', whose arrival Zarathustra proclaims to his followers.

When Nietzsche asks us to become what we are, he wants us to reconcile with our instincts and our nature. Of the instincts and drives as I said above, he recognizes the 'Will to Power' to be the most important drive in which both the Dionysian and Apollonian drives become one. This will to power has its most spiritual manifestation in art and philosophy and Nietzsche wants the 'philosophers of the future', those who are 'beyond good and evil' to make road for the revaluation of the traditional values. And will to power is justified by his theory of eternal recurrence in which every event repeats itself indefinitely. This is at first glance a very sinister state of affairs and Nietzsche's Zarathustra also shudders to speak of it in Thus Spake Zarathustra, in the chapter The vision and Enigma. Nietzsche, as is proved from his posthumously published notes, believes in the eternal recurrence as a tenable concept.

The eternal recurrence has been all along greatly criticized by many philosophers as far as its cosmological aspect is concerned and has been termed a fatalistic approach towards life. But Nietzschean fatalism is very much like the fatalism of Spinoza. Spinoza achieves freedom in a very different way, i.e., by becoming aware of the fact that one is part of a whole, in which one plays his particular role. Same is Nietzschean amor fati with respect of a constant 'becoming' and one being part of it. Embracing life in spite of its terribleness like the tragic Greek heroes is what Nietzsche's fatalism means. It is will to power itself which needs eternal recurrence. This theory is however still debatable and can be criticized in many ways. For example, Iqbal calls it a worse fatalism and criticizes it by terming it a 'rigid kind of mechanism, based not on an ascertained fact but only on a working hypothesis of science'.[15] We may or we may not like the fatalistic and mechanistic view of life. But what if the whole universe and human affairs are really mechanistic? The debate continues.


Nietzsche's Works

1) Nietzsche, Friedrich, 1990: Beyond Good and Evil, Trans: R. J. Hollingdale, 1st Edition, Penguin Classic Books, New York and London.

2) ________, 1992: Ecce Homo, Trans: R. J. Hollingdale, Penguin Classics, New York.

3) ________, 1997: Thus Spake Zarathustra, Trans: Thomas Common, Wordsworth Classics, Great Britain. 4) ________, 1985: Twilight of the Idols and The Antichrist Trans: R. J. Hollingdale, Viking Penguin Inc. , New York. 5) ________, 1968: The Will to Power, Ed & Trans:Walter Kaufmann, Vintage Books, New York.

Secondary Works

1) Iqbal, Muhammad Allama, 1989: Reconstruction Of Religious Thought In Islam, Iqbal Academy Pakistan and Institute Of Islamic Culture, Lahore.

2) Lampert, Laurence, 1986: An Interpretation of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Yale University Press, New Haven and London.

3) Magnus, Bernd, 1986: Nietzsche as Affirmative Thinker. Ed: Yirmiyahu Yovel, Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, Dordrecht. .

4) Russell, Bertrand, 1999: History of Western Philosophy, 2nd edition, Routledge, England.


1. Nietzsche, Friedrich: Birth of Tragedy, 1872

2. Nietzsche, Friedrich: The Will to power, Ed & Trans:Walter Kaufmann, Vintage Books, New

York, 1968, p. 550

3. Nietzsche, Friedrich: Beyond Good and Evil, Trans: R. J. Hollingdale, 1st Edition, Penguin classic books, New York and London, 1990, p. 44

4. Ibid.

5. Nietzsche, 1968, p. 277

6. Russell, Bertrand: History of western Philosophy, 2nd edition, Routledge, England, 1999 p. 724

7. Ibid. p. 725

8. Nietzsche, Friedrich: The Antichrist, in Twilight of the Idols and The Antichrist, Trans: R. J. Hollingdale, Viking Penguin Inc. , New York, 1985, p. 127

9. Nietzsche, 1968, . , p. 549

10. Nietzsche, Friedrich: Thus Spake Zarathustra, Trans: Thomas Common, Wordsworth Classics, Great Britain, 1997, p. 154

11. Magnus, Bernd: 'Nietzsche and the end of philosophy', in Nietzsche as Affirmative thinker. Ed: Yirmiyahu Yovel, Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, Dordrecht 1986. p. 53

12. Nietzsche, 1968, p. 547

13. Nietzsche, Friedrich: Ecce Homo, Trans: R. J. Hollingdale, Penguin Classics, New York, 1992, p. 37

14. Lampert, Laurence: An Interpretation of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1986, p. 162

15. Iqbal, Muhammad Allama: Reconstruction Of Religious Thought In Islam, Iqbal Academy Pakistan and Institute Of Islamic Culture, Lahore, 1989, p. 92

© Omar Khan 2006