Nietzsche’s manner of justifying the ways of the cosmos to humanity—his cosmodicy, so to speak—is to put forth his doctrine of the eternal recurrence of the same, in which we are challenged to live and think in such a way that we can desire that everything repeat over in identically the same sequence forever, as a sign of how deeply we affirm this world in all its hurly-burly recalcitrance to our comforting illusions. As his mouthpiece Zarathustra says: “But all joy wants eternity…wants deep, wants deep eternity.”[1]

Why does joy want eternity, and what does that mean? According to Nietzsche, no healthy person can want eternity to mean the mummified stasis he takes to define Platonism as well as “Platonism for the masses” (Christianity):

God is a thought that makes crooked all that is straight, and makes turn whatever stands. How? Should time be gone, and all that is impermanent a mere lie? To think this is a dizzy whirl for human bones, and a vomit for the stomach; verily, I call it the turning sickness to conjecture thus. Evil I call it, and misanthropic—all this teaching of the One and the Plenum and the Unmoved and the Sated and the Permanent. All the permanent—that is only a parable. And the poets lie too much.

It is of time and becoming that the best parables should speak: let them be a praise and a justification of all impermanence.[2]

On this Nietzschean view, only the circular conception of time—thinking of time as a ring in which the same events will repeat—can avoid embittered resent toward the only real existence there is: embodied, impermanent, imperfect—but ours.

Marcuse endorses eternal recurrence in the “Philosophical Interlude” that stands as the ontological watermark of his magnum opus, Eros and Civilization:

Eternity, long since the ultimate consolation of an alienated existence, had been made into an instrument of repression by its relegation to a transcendental world—unreal reward for real suffering. Here, eternity is reclaimed for the fair earth—as the eternal return of its children, of the lily and the rose, of the sun on the mountains and lakes, of the lover and the beloved, of the fear for their life, of pain and happiness. Death is; it is conquered only if it is followed by the real rebirth of everything that was before death here on earth—not as a mere repetition but as willed and wanted re-creation. The eternal return thus includes the return of suffering, but suffering as a means for more gratification, for the aggrandizement of joy.[3]

Notice how Marcuse, following Nietzsche, presents us with a dichotomy: either you love this world or you love another world, either you expect joy in this world or you expect joy in a future world, either you love mountains and lakes or you spurn them for spiritual terrain. Apparently the message of Jesus is to not consider “the lily and the rose,” so that one may more complacently toil and spin in a life of worry for the finery of kings. I find this Feuerbachian trope that we cannot walk and chew gum at the same time a tiresome and destructive form of uncritical common sense, one that unwittingly hinders Marcuse’s critical social thought. After all, Marcuse is constantly wary of confining our view simply to the existing world, and he writes an entire book (One-Dimensional Man) about the need to go beyond the prevailing order and imagine something on the other side of it, something transcending it, since the deflationary impetus of positivism flattens social and individual possibilities into the shallowest platitudes.

Marcuse’s endorsement of Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence is odd in this respect, especially when he valorizes suffering as adding zest to life—for the animating thought in Marcuse’s work is a critique of the equation of suffering with inner worth, and that stands diametrically at odds with the titanic monument to Struggle that Nietzsche wants to build.[4] Indeed, in a lesser-known essay titled “The Ideology of Death,” Marcuse rakes Heidegger over the coals for trying to justify the longstanding idea that death is what gives life meaning, as this functions to placate the oppressed into thinking that the threat of death is ontologically and therefore socially necessary.[5] Instead of accepting death as absolute, we should hope for and demand life that brooks no arbitrary or exploitative constraints, and organize society to work for overcoming death through humane research:

Moreover, the fight for the prolongation of life depends for its effectiveness on the response in the mind and in the instinctual structure of individuals. A positive response presupposes that their life is really ‘the good life’—that they have the possibility to develop and satisfy humane needs and faculties, that their life is an end-in-itself rather than a means for sustaining themselves. Should conditions obtain under which this possibility may become reality, quantity may turn into quality: the gradually increasing duration of life may change the substance and character not only of life but also of death. The latter would lose its ontological and moral sanctions; men would experience death primarily as a technical limit of human freedom whose surpassing would become the recognized goal of the individual and social endeavor.[6]

Contra Heidegger, we do not need death in order to appreciate life, we do not need to suffer in order to cherish the beauty and flourishing of the social and natural world—because life is inherently good and an end in-itself, and not merely a means to something else (on a par with how freedom has no price but dignity in the Kantian system). We do not need the threat of time running out in order to take time seriously, no more than an artist needs to suffer to create art. The demand for a life of free time is inextricable from the demand that life be freed for all time. The hope for immortality means: free time for all time! It therefore also means: a better world is possible. The hope for a life without death is the hope for a life without dead time.[7]


Part 1: Free Time for All Time

Part 2: The Afterlife as Escape and as Engagement

Part 3: A Road Leading Away from Rome: Agamben on Messianic Time

Part 4: Already and Not Yet: How to Do Time without Time Doing You

Part 5: B-Flat Eternity: The Restlessness of Modern Progress

Part 6: Up the Endless Mountains of Desire: Perpetually Progressive Love



[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra in The Portable Nietzsche, trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Penguin Books. 1977. Pp. 339-340

[2] Nietzsche, ibid., pp. 198-199

[3] Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization, p. 123

[4] See, for example, §225 of Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil.

[5] Herbert Marcuse, “The Ideology of Death,” in Philosophy, Psychoanalysis and Emancipation, Collected Papers Vol. 5 Ed. Douglas Kellner and Clayton Pierce. London and New York: Routledge. 2011.

[6] Marcuse, “The Ideology of Death,” p. 126. Marcuse also touches on this briefly in the closing pages of Eros and Civilization, as the full-fledged meaning of his project of valorizing Eros over against Thanatos (Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization, pp. 234-237).

[7] Members of the Situationist International, On the Poverty of Student Life. Detroit: Black & Red. 2000. P. 29: “Proletarian revolutions will be festivals or they will be nothing, for celebration is the keynote of the life they herald. Play is the fundamental principle of this festival, and the only rules it recognizes are to live without dead time and to enjoy without restraints.”