In section 55 of The Will to Power, written on June 10, 1887, Friedrich Nietzsche pens a thought, a terrible and distressing thought, terrible for what it proclaims, distressing for the human who is asked to entertain this thought, the thought of nothing, of its eternal recurrence.
Let us think this thought in its most terrible form: existence (das Dasein) as it is, without meaning or aim, yet recurring inevitably without any finale of nothingness: "the eternal recurrence." This is the most extreme form of nihilism: the nothing (das Nichts) (the "meaningless" [das 'Sinnlose']), eternally!1
"Nothing" shall be our topic, the topos from which we intend to set out in this essay. Certainly, the thought of "nothing" seems to invite rather the thought of a certain atopos, a noplace, inviting a strange and uncanny thought into the world. Supposing this thought would assail man as a disturbing emptiness, as an unheard of silence, as an incalculable, unruly dissolution of meaning, it would no doubt defy the prescribed usage of metaphysical-moral discourses in given contexts, interrupting, if not corrupting, constituted normality. To be sure, this does not mean, conversely, that the thought of "nothing" is a thought of the indeterminate, or, as Hegel has it, of indeterminate immediacy. If we cannot yet say what sort of thought it is, we can at least infer from Nietzsche's passage that it is neither immediate to thought or intuition nor conceptually indeterminate. Doubtless, this passage, together with what Nietzsche says elsewhere, poses a perplexing problem. He seems to be saying, on the one hand, that the recurrence of a meaningless and aimless existence, of "nothing," animates the economy of nihilism. But, on the other hand, other texts in Nietzsche's corpus would lead us to suppose that with or in the thought of the eternal return nihilism finds itself overturned, abolished. Does the return, in other words, underscore the life of the nihilist-skeptic, the destroyer of all beliefs, or the life of the overman, the creator and self-creator? To say that the return animates both lives would not get us very much further in disentangling this confusing and confounding knot. So let us start with a simple question. What is nihilism? What does it mean? This seems easy to say. Nietzsche provides us with a succinct definition of nihilism in section 2 of The Will to Power:
What does nihilism mean (Was bedeutet Nihilismus)! That the highest values devaluate themselves. The aim is lacking; "why?" finds no answer. (WP 9, WM 10)
And yet, isn't it strangely paradoxical for Nietzsche to give us a definition of nihilism, for telling us what it means? We say: "What is-nihilism? What is-its meaning?" Ti estin: the form of the question betrays an ancient prejudice, as Heidegger would be quick to remind us, since by asking for a definition of nihilism, we are in effect asking for its essence, its ground, its meaning. But isn't nihilism the very thought which puts an end to metaphysical and moral foundationalism and essentialism, the thought of utter meaninglessness? Presumably so. And yet nihilism has a meaning: the eternal recurrence of nothing, of the meaningless.-Unless nihilism is that thought which compels us to think the impossibility of ever putting an end to meaning, a thought, in other words, which calls upon us to think the impossibility of nihilism, that even as we think the devaluation of the highest values, the reduction of all meanings to nil, we cannot think this thought unless we think the meaning that attaches to nihilism, we cannot have done with meaning and value if we are still thinking of nihilism. There is no doubt something strangely circular to this thought, but we cannot yet be sure whether this is what Nietzsche wants us to think as nihilism, as the uncanny circle of nihilism.
The following essay claims to be an interpretation of the first passage above. Our aim is to bring home the intriguing connection Nietzsche establishes between nihilism and the eternal return, a connection that has scarcely been commented on in the Nietzsche literature. …