“Time is a flat circle” by Nietzsche: Meaning & Origin Explained

It’s once again time for us to look at a quote from Frederick Nietzsche. We’ve written about him in the past, and today, we’ll be taking a look at one of his quotes “Time is a flat circle”.

Today, I want to look at what it means, why it matters, and where you might have heard it before.

What does “Time is a flat circle” mean

When Nietzsche said that “time is a flat circle”, in his book “The Gay Science”, he said that human kind have a habit of making the same mistakes repeatedly. If we were able to live forever, we would keep on doing what we’re doing now, for eternity.

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“Time is a flat circle” was used on True Detective

Somewhere you might have heard the phrase before is in the TV detective show, True Detective.

This show is dark, a little bit gory, and often looks at the deeper themes of how the world works and morality.

Rust Cohle, the character who initially says the phrase, is a pessimist, and perhaps a nihilist. He doesn’t often see much point in anything. As a result, he generally shows a lack of empathy towards victims of the crimes he’s investigating.

The reason for him being like this is likely that he’s worked as a detective for so long, he’s used to seeing the worst of humanity.

“Time is a flat circle” comes from the book ‘The Gay Science’

“The Gay Science” has nothing to do with queer folk. Back when it was written, “gay” had nothing to do with homosexuality, it was just another way of saying happy.

This book’s idea is that even though meaning is not part of the universe itself, we can find it in ourselves. It preaches the virtues of science and scepticism.

In the book, Nietzsche argues that understanding the world through science, and questioning everything is the key to mental freedom.

Nietzsche is known for being a bit of a miserable philosopher, but in this book, he takes a more optimistic approach.

Nietzsche and Ancient Indians have a similar philosophy.

Nietzsche put a scientific twist on an old Indian philosophy known as Aatma.

Aatma is the idea that we’re born, we live, we die, we’re born again. The name for being born again is “reincarnation”, but “aatma” refers to a whole process, of which reincarnation is just one part.

Indian philosophers will often believe that we’re likely to make the mistakes we make in our current life in our next life.

If Nietzsche and an Indian philosopher were to talk, Nietzsche would probably say “We don’t come back when we die. But if we did, you’re right! We would make the same mistakes again”.

What if time is not a flat circle?

Some philosophers take issue with Nietzsche when he says “time is a flat circle”. They have a slightly more optimistic view of human nature.

Yes, we do make mistakes. And yes, many of us keep making the same mistakes over and over again. But learning from your mistakes is possible. Some people have spent most of their life behind bars, and now, they spend their time volunteering in the community.

Often, when people lose things, they reevaluate what matters most to them. I know people who used to be upset when they couldn’t afford an expensive pair of shoes. But after going bankrupt, they became grateful they could put food on the table.

At some point in our lives, most of us will have epiphanies. A moment where we realise something, and it changes our life for good.

Why people deny that time is a flat circle

However, supporters of Nietzsche would argue back. To say that time is not a flat circle is to be denying the reality of human nature.

We often like to think of ourselves as free beings who control the choices we make. Being told otherwise makes us feel attacked, shattering how we view ourselves.

When who we are is questioned, it can feel like a personal attack, but in philosophy, nothing ever is.

How to break out of the flat circle

Are you finding that time is a flat circle for you? Here are my tips on how to break out of it!

1. Go through some hardship. Whether it’s related to money, mental health, physical health, or any other form of adversity, going through a painful experience can put into perspective what actually matters.

2. When you make mistakes, learn from them. To do this, you will need to understand what you have done wrong and improve in the future.

3. Appreciate what you have. There are people in the world that would do anything to be in your situation. Instead of trying to have a perfect life, focus on enjoying the life you have.

Why mathematicians take issue with “Time is a flat circle”

Of course, mathematicians would take issue with “Time is a flat circle”, because all circles are flat!

A circle is a 2d shape, and you cannot pick up 2d shapes. If you were to have a circle that wasn’t flat, it would either need to be a sphere or a cylinder.

However, Nietzsche was a philosopher, not a mathematician, so we can’t blame him.

Alternatives to “Time is a flat circle”

Here’s a collection of some of my favourite alternatives to “time is a flat circle”.

Monkey Brain

Even though we’ve become clever, our brain’s underlying software is the same as it was when we lived in the caves. This causes us to make mistakes based on our human nature.

The human condition

Could refer to many things. Part of the human condition is that there are certain things most of us do. For example, we will often try to blame others for our mistakes.

Life’s a bitch, and then you die.

Life is unfair, and then it ends.

What has been will be again,

what has been done will be done again;

there is nothing new under the sun

The Bible verse, Ecclesiastes 1:9. Interesting how a philosopher who was so anti-religion is paraphrasing a bible verse.

Conclusion

When Frederick Nietzsche said “Time is a flat circle”, he was saying that if we could live forever, we would keep living the same day over and over again. Maybe he had a point, or perhaps his whole approach was wrong, either way, it’s interesting to think about.