It’s time to entertain our inner Carl Sagan by comparing the cosmological views of Nietzsche versus those of the Epicurean school. Two distinct naturalist models of the cosmos can be discerned here.
Let me attempt to explain the different cosmologies in my own words, and then I will cite Nietzsche: it seems like Nietzsche does not accept the infinity of atoms and of space, so that rather than a doctrine of innumerable worlds existing in all directions, his paradigm produces a doctrine of eternal recurrence of similar things because–as the ancient atomists noted–when we study the nature of things, we see that there are limited possible COMBINATIONS of atoms.
In N these combinations happen in limited space and time. Because we reject that notion, we instead can imagine innumerable worlds, similar and different from our own, and this is an important feature of the cosmology of the ancient atomists–which includes living beings from other planets, some with intelligence. In Nietzsche’s paradigm, because all in nature is cyclical in limited space and time, and because there is a limit to the possible combination of factors allowed by the laws of nature, eventually there must exist a repetition of phenomena. N concluded that all things must eventually happen over and over again in infinite time. This is what’s known as the eternal recurrence.
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.
This conception is not simply a mechanistic conception; for if it were that, it would not condition an infinite recurrence of identical cases, but a final state. Because the world has not reached this, mechanistic theory must be considered an imperfect and merely provisional hypothesis. – WtP 1066
So the key distinction between the cosmologies of E and N is innumerable worlds versus innumerable times. I have shared these reasonings with our friend Cassius, from New Epicurean, who adds:
I can see the appeal of the observation that (1) if something has happened, that means that it is the result of a possible combination of the elements, then (2) if it happened once, in an infinite and eternal universe it will then happen again (?) and in fact (3) it will happen over and over repeatedly. It’s point 2 that seems to me the problem. If the universe is infinite and the number of elements is boundless, even though a combination has proved to be possible in the past, why would the elements ever rearrange into the same position again? Nietzsche’s point might not even be reasonable in a “closed system” universe, but it doesn’t seem reasonable to me to suggest under an Epicurean boundless/infinite system.
What N’s theory does is add a layer of myth to each one of our lives, our days, our occurrences–which have all happened an infinite number of times–and so adds transcendence and meaning to life, maybe. In WtP 462, N says that eternal recurrence is a “means of breeding and selection” … “in place of metaphysics and religion”. I am unsure exactly what he means by this, but I do know that one of the ethical repercussions of the theory is that we are to live our lives heroically so that, at the end of our lives, we will have no regrets and, if we were to re-live our entire existence an infinite number of times, we would be happy to do so.
On the other hand, the Epicurean accepts that he will only live once, and must therefore capture in the pulsations of his life all the pleasure he can in order to make his one life worth living. The eternal recurrence and the innumerable worlds models both lead to a ‘seize the day’ mindset, each in their own way. A life well lived!
Here conclude my reasonings on Nietzsche’s Will to Power, the purpose of which was to imagine a productive and engaging conversation between the Nietzscheans and the Epicureans, and to accentuate the similarities and differences for the benefit of philosophy students everywhere. If you have enjoyed them, please discuss them and share them! You may also support Epicurean content on Patreon!