Nietzsche’s Circles and Cycles

The Symbolic Structure of Eternal Recurrence in <i>Thus Spoke Zarathustra</i>

by Ivan Zhavoronkov (Author)
©2021 Monographs XIV, 224 Pages


This book argues that Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra employs circular and cyclical (diurnal and seasonal) symbols to communicate both the life-affirmative and the cosmological aspect of "recurrence" as a unifying idea. It shows that twelve day cycles, which run throughout the book’s narrative, and the one full annual cycle, which encompasses the circular and the diurnal images in a continuous cycle of life affirmation, track Zarathustra’s ever-changing identity throughout the text. In representing the eternal recurrence, the circular and the cyclical symbols respectively convey the book’s central message: Zarathustra comes into being in order to affirm existence as the teacher of eternal recurrence in an endlessly repeating cosmos. The study complements recent findings that Nietzsche’s book is on eternal recurrence by establishing the unity among its language, structure, and fundamental conception, which solves the century-old problem of the communication or location of the doctrine within the text. The book is designed for the specialised audience of Nietzsche studies. It would also appeal to both students and professors in various disciplines across humanities and social sciences, as well as to anyone interested in understanding the basic tenets of Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Abbreviations
  • Introduction
  • Chapter One: Circular Symbols and Eternal Recurrence
  • The Meaning of Eternal Recurrence
  • Reasons for Philosophising in Circular Symbols
  • Reason 1: Experimenting with Language
  • Reason 2: Triple Affirmation of Life
  • Reason 3: Analogy between Symbols and Eternal Recurrence
  • Introduction to Literary Interpretation
  • Classification
  • Narrative versus Non-Narrative Analogy
  • Life-Evaluative Framework
  • Geometrical Association
  • Temporal Analogy
  • Transformational Analogy
  • Identity
  • Reverse Association
  • Cosmological Framework
  • Diurnal and Seasonal Symbolisation and Cyclicity
  • Conclusion: The Impression of the Structure
  • Chapter Two: Analysis of the Circular Images in Thus Spoke Zarathustra
  • 1. Eagle and Serpent: Wide Circles in “Zarathustra’s Prologue”
  • 2. The Self-Propelled Wheel in “On the Three Metamorphoses”
  • 3. The Self-Propelled Wheel in “On the Way of the Creator”
  • 4. The Self-Propelled Wheel in “On Child and Marriage”
  • 5. The Ring in “On Love of the Neighbor”
  • 6. The Ball in “On Free Death”
  • 7. The Ring in “On the Virtuous”
  • 8. The Hour Hand in “The Stillest Hour”
  • 9. The Circle in “On the Vision and the Riddle”
  • 10. The Snake in “On the Vision and the Riddle”
  • 11. The Belts in “Upon the Mount of Olives”
  • 12. The Apple in “On the Three Evils”
  • 13. The Circles in “On Old and New Tablets”
  • 14. The Circular Images in “The Convalescent”
  • 15. The Ring in “The Seven Seals (Or: the Yes and Amen Song)”
  • 16. The Encircling Waves in “The Cry of Distress”
  • 17. The Ring and the Ball in “At Noon”
  • 18. The Circular Images in “The Welcome” through “The Ass Festival”
  • 19. The Ring in “The Nightwalker’s Song”
  • 20. The Girded Loins and the Encircling Doves in “The Sign”
  • Circular Structure and Eternal Recurrence
  • Conclusion: The Circle of Circles and the Will
  • Chapter Three: Analysis of the Diurnal Symbols in Thus Spoke Zarathustra
  • Preamble
  • 1st Day Cycle
  • Noon
  • Evening
  • Night
  • Morning
  • 1st Day Cycle Identity and Eternal Recurrence
  • 2nd Day Cycle
  • Noon
  • Evening
  • Night
  • Morning
  • 2nd Day Cycle Identity and Eternal Recurrence
  • 3rd Day Cycle
  • Noon
  • Evening
  • Night
  • Morning
  • 3rd Day Cycle Identity and Eternal Recurrence
  • 4th Day Cycle
  • Noon
  • Evening
  • Night
  • Morning
  • 4th Day Cycle Identity and Eternal Recurrence
  • 5th Day Cycle
  • Noon
  • Evening
  • Night
  • Morning
  • 5th Day Cycle Identity and Eternal Recurrence
  • 6th Day Cycle
  • 7th Day Cycle
  • Noon
  • Evening
  • Night
  • Morning
  • 6th and 7th Day Cycle Identity and Eternal Recurrence
  • 8th Day Cycle
  • Noon
  • Evening
  • Night
  • Morning
  • 8th Day Cycle Identity and Eternal Recurrence
  • 9th Day Cycle
  • Noon
  • Evening
  • Night
  • Morning
  • 9th Day Cycle Identity and Eternal Recurrence
  • 10th Day Cycle
  • Noon
  • Evening
  • Night
  • Morning
  • 10th Day Cycle Identity and Eternal Recurrence
  • 11th Day Cycle
  • Morning
  • Noon
  • Evening
  • Night
  • 11th Day Cycle Identity and Eternal Recurrence
  • 12th Day Cycle
  • Morning
  • Noon
  • Evening
  • Night
  • Morning
  • 12th Day Cycle Identity and Eternal Recurrence
  • Diurnal Structure and Eternal Recurrence
  • Diurnal Plot Structure and Eternal Recurrence
  • Common Circular and Diurnal Plot Structure and Eternal Recurrence
  • Common Climactic Circular and Diurnal Return
  • Common Circular and Diurnal Return—the Parts
  • Conclusion: Zarathustra’s Diurnal Journey
  • Chapter Four: Analysis of the Seasonal Symbols in Thus Spoke Zarathustra
  • Summer 1
  • Autumn
  • Winter
  • Spring
  • Summer 2
  • The Seasons: Identity, Recurrence, and (Plot) Structure
  • Common Seasonal, Circular, and Diurnal Plot Structure and Eternal Recurrence
  • Conclusion: Formal Structure
  • Summary
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Name Index
  • Subject Index

←x | xi→



Special thanks to the acquisitions editor, Meagan Simpson, the editorial assistant, Abhilasha Pandey, the copyeditor, Stuart A.P. Murray, and the production editors Jackie Pavlovic and Sasireka Sakthi for helping to make this book possible.


11 August 2020

←xii | xiii→




Ecce Homo


Beyond Good and Evil


The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music


On the Genealogy of Morals


The Gay Science


Human, All Too Human


Briefwechsel: Kritische Gesamtausgabe


Kritische Gesamtausgabe, Werke


Kritische Studienausgabe


Twilight of the Idols


“On Truth and Lie(s) in an Extra-Moral Sense”


The Will to Power


Also sprach Zarathustra = Thus Spoke Zarathustra

←xiii | xiv→

←0 | 1→



Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra has for a long time been regarded to be the most inaccessible of his works due to the formidable abundance of all kinds of images and symbols employed unsystematically and lacking an actual argument—all only to confuse the reader.1 But what if Nietzsche’s masterpiece, replete with rhetorical figures and devices, turned out to have a system as a work of art, and—supposing that happened—what relation, if any, would it have to the eternal recurrence, the book’s fundamental conception as per Nietzsche’s own well-known clue in Ecce Homo (295)?2 To answer these questions would first require revisiting major existing approaches to Nietzsche’s figurative language generally, and in connection with the eternal recurrence in particular, as well as the relevance of the latter to the book as a whole. This may help to identify and nurture the seeds that have been scattered in Nietzsche scholarship over the last some forty years, but which have not so far sprouted into a fully grown argument that may offer a solution to the problem of the relationship of the work’s main idea, language, and structure.

This relationship problem has generated varied reactions and approaches to the text. Some philosophically minded scholars, accustomed to argumentation and explanations, find it difficult to appreciate the literary form of Thus Spoke Zarathustra and have responded quite negatively to Nietzsche’s language.3 Another reason for those scholars reacting negatively to this work’s form lies in the originality of Nietzsche’s symbolic language, which escaped those who eschewed it. Other ←1 | 2→commentators, however, mostly contemporary, have been more sympathetic and have not ignored Nietzsche’s peculiar use of symbolic language, approaching it in different ways, and the present work is indebted to their contribution to Nietzsche studies.4 Of the language scholars, some have studied or touched upon the symbolic form of the eternal recurrence.5 And although some (e.g., Thatcher and Pappas) do relate their studies of Nietzsche’s symbols to his doctrine of eternal recurrence, they are still unclear about the very nature of that relationship. Generally, while all of the major positive symbolic language perspectives concur on Nietzsche being an artist, they still leave open the question of systematic interpretation, as well as its relationship to the book’s fundamental conception.

Scholarly interest in the form of Thus Spoke Zarathustra has increased over the last three decades, while the doctrine of eternal recurrence has been subjected to a number of interpretations that dwell upon various literary—non-solar—means of its representation or communication6 and on various solar symbolic means (the sun symbol). Whereas the former are diverse in character, being involved in myth, literature, dance, style, music, and much more, the latter revolve around the sun. Of peculiar interest to this study, then, are solar interpretations, whose evolvement can be traced.

Ilona Jappinen (1981) treats the sun symbol as static. Graham Parkes (1983, 342–43; 1994, 137–38) already observes some dynamic qualities of the sun. Philip Puszczalowski (2007) reveals the sun symbol as generating the return of the seasons. Bartholomew Ryan (2012) attempts to trace the rise and fall of Zarathustra’s star and suggests that Zarathustra is born, lives and dies, and is born again just like a star within the recurrence of the universe. Much earlier than the above-mentioned commentators, Harold Alderman (1977, 31) notes that Zarathustra’s prologue “follows the recurrent cycle of the sun […] a cycle which moves from promise to fulfilment to decay, and which then begins again.” Diana Nitske relates the sunrise and sunset to Zarathustra’s eternal recurrence, and Robert Solomon and Kathleen Higgins (2000, 240) view (the return of) midnight as the symbol of temporal recurrence. Paul Loeb (2010, 68) suggests the following relation among diurnal and botanical metaphors and Zarathustra’s view of life and consciousness: “daybreak (childhood consciousness), morning (youth), afternoon (adulthood), twilight-evening (middle age), and night-time (old age).” Finally, Anatoly Nazirov’s Zarathustra (1991) begins in the morning and ends at night, thereby suggesting the poetic eternal return of the wisest poet, Zarathustra.7 Although there is some unity to the diversity of the solar interpretations of eternal recurrence whereby the static sun symbol becomes progressively dynamic, this alone is unable to speak to the book as a whole due to the fact that such interpretations provide merely fragmentary, isolated perspectives.

←2 | 3→

Coming from a different angle, some commentators have observed that Thus Spoke Zarathustra manifests a certain structure, though they have differing views as regards the type of structure the work seems to possess. For example, Eugen Fink (2003[1960], 55) identified the structure of Thus Spoke Zarathustra as “a chain of parables.” Such a structural identification, however, prioritises the particular over the universal since, while the fables can be grasped as individual wholes, it remains unclear what kind of unity of meaning is presupposed by the chain. Hans-Georg Gadamer (1983, 349) is more explicit on Nietzsche’s fiction as a whole, calling it “the drama that happens in the telling of this book,” which, according to him, has a plot, a beginning and an end, though he cannot tell what that is.8

Further comprehension of the question of unity in the text proceeded mostly along the lines of its figurative language.9 Gary Shapiro’s Nietzschean Narratives (1989) is the first to grasp Thus Spoke Zarathustra from the perspective of stylistic devices, arguing that Nietzsche’s work has a rhetorical, rather than dramatic, structure: symbolic (Prologue), metaphorical (Part I), metonymical (Part II), synecdochical (Part III), and ironic (Part IV). According to Gooding-Williams (2001, 315–16),

[t]his reading of Zarathustra is not convincing, because […] Shapiro never explains what makes a trope a “governing” or “tone-setting” trope in parts of the text wherein different tropes and rhetorical modes coexist. He needs some such explanation if he is to avoid the charge that his reading of Zarathustra oversimplifies a very complex use of rhetorical strategies.

Despite Gooding-Williams’ criticism, Shapiro’s view of the text through the prism of figurative language puts forward the problem of the images and their relation to not only Nietzsche’s book as a whole, but also to what will later be seen as its fundamental conception. Gooding-Williams is the first to attempt to solve this problem in his own peculiar manner, and, contrary to Loeb (2007, 79), is not just “the first to emphasize the dramatic aspects of the thought of eternal recurrence.”

Thus, dissatisfied with Shapiro’s rhetorical approach, Gooding-Williams (2001, 4, 186) goes on to argue, first in “Zarathustra’s Three Metamorphoses” (1990) and then, in a more extensive manner, in Zarathustras Dionysian Modernism (2001), that Nietzsche’s work is structured as Zarathustra’s articulate (poetic) stammering that goes through the three modes of action represented by the three metamorphoses of the spirit unfolding as “the ‘thought-drama’ of eternal recurrence,” in which Zarathustra constantly battles the Christian–Platonic values symbolised by the dragon in “Zarathustra’s Speeches”: from the unproductive value-laden camel (Part II) to the defiant value-destroying lion (Part III) ←3 | 4→to the free value-creating child (Part IV).10 As a strong spirit, Zarathustra enacts these forms as he encounters difficulties in coming to terms with his abysmal thought throughout the narrative. The thought-drama of eternal recurrence happens in the telling of the book and culminates in Zarathustra becoming a child at the end of Part IV.11

Yet, Gooding-Williams seems to leave out Part I, which is about the Overhuman, and thus his dramatic approach has two weaknesses. First, as Loeb rightly notes, the eternal recurrence, as Gooding-Williams sees it, does not start—is not intimated—until the appearance of the soothsayer close to the end of Part II—despite Gooding-Williams holding Loeb accountable for his unartful reading.12 Second, and most importantly, Gooding-Williams thinks of that drama and Zarathustra’s self-overcoming in a linear fashion—that is, he still thinks of eternal recurrence in linear terms, and of Thus Spoke Zarathustra as a linear narrative. To put it otherwise, according to his reading, Zarathustra will not return to the beginning of his literary journey to continue or start his struggle all over again as per the requirements of eternal recurrence. What, however, is notably valuable about Gooding-Williams’ metamorphic interpretation with dramatic implications is that it introduces the concept of the transformation of Nietzsche’s images in conjunction with his thought of eternal recurrence, while at the same time attempting to make these two the basis for the Zarathustra narrative.


XIV, 224
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (January)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2021. XIV, 224 pp., 2 tables.

Biographical notes

Ivan Zhavoronkov (Author)

Ivan Zhavoronkov received his PhD in humanities from York University, Toronto, Canada. He is a Nietzsche scholar and an award-winning Russian and English-Canadian poet and poetic translator. His poetry book Philosophical Stones in Poetical Tones re-imagines major existentialists. He is the translator of The Socio-Cultural and Philosophical Origins of Science by Anatoly Nazirov.


Title: Nietzsche’s Circles and Cycles