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“Time is a flat circle”: Here’s What it Really Means

“Time is a flat circle”: Here’s What it Really Means

Media has a powerful influence on us. It exposes us to fascinating ideas and shows us different aspects of ourselves that we might be oblivious to.

This is not to mention how it can present us with extraordinary characters, the type we would rarely run into in real-life.

As a result, we are mesmerized by this powerful vehicle for entertainment. We all have our favorite movies and TV shows.

And, more often than not, these shows and movies will compel us to search for something online.

Sometimes, when a show presents us with a curious fact, we just want to double-check whether it’s true or not, so we run to Google.

At other times, we hear a word or phrase that we have a hard time deciphering, forcing us to scour the internet for an answer.

If you’re here, odds are you are a fan of the TV show “True Detective.” In its first season, the protagonist Rust Cohle, played brilliantly by the prolific Matthew McConaughey, says that “time is a flat circle,” a statement that might have thrown many of you for a loop. I know it confounded me.


What is the meaning of “time is a flat circle”?

At face value, this phrase means that everything repeats itself and that what happened before is bound to happen again. You can think of this as metaphorically saying that everything repeats itself or as meaning it literally.

However, Cohle meant it literally as in the universe is a cyclic place, one where I’ve written this article an infinite number of times before, and you have read it just as many times.

What’s more, I am bound to write it all over again another infinite times, and you will still read it every single time.

And, even though there are many ways you can interpret this, i.e. whether this repetition is a good or bad thing, you are probably interested in what Rust Cohle meant when he said it. You are probably also curious as to why he would say it in the first place.

But, to appreciate what he was trying to say and why he said it, we are going to have to take a quick excursion into philosophy and to discuss the works of influential figures such as Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche.


Arthur Schopenhauer

If you remember one thing about Rust Cohle, it is probably that he was a pessimist to the extreme. Every time he opened his mouth, you could feel a wave of hopelessness wash over both you and Woody Harrelson.

Well, Cohle was mostly mirroring the philosophy of Schopenhauer.

Arthur Schopenhauer was a German philosopher who was born in 1788. His most famous work, “The World as Will and Representation,” was published in 1818, and it painted a very bleak picture of the world we live in.

Without getting into too much detail, Schopenhauer believed that at the heart of reality existed the Will, a drive inside each and every one of us to live and to satisfy our desires.

The problem is that the Will is never satiated and never placated, making it always on the move and transforming its goal into a moving target.

After all, any time we achieve one of our goals, it doesn’t take long for us to get bored quickly and to start looking for a new mountain to climb.

Now, according to Schopenhauer, all living things bear this same primal force within them yet are never able to satisfy it.

Furthermore, our sense of identity is an illusion of the purposeless Will as it tries to give meaning to life.

So, why was Schopenhauer a pessimist?

Not only did he see the Will as an entity that is never satisfied, but he also believed that it was the source of all of our strife and misery.

After all, the Will has to face obstacles to achieve its goals, and it is this confrontation that is at the heart of strife.

And, since the Will always hungers for more no matter how much we achieve, we are always destined for misery and strife. This is the absurdity that lies at the heart of reality.

The only way the Will ceases its pursuit is through death.

So, how can we meet this absurdity?

Schopenhauer believes that the solution is to deny the Will, to refuse to pursue any goals whatsoever, even that of reproduction.

Rather than perpetuating the absurdity of life, we should deny our desires.

By now, this is starting to feel a bit familiar yet morbid. After all, this is similar to what Cohle says to his partner about walking hand in hand into the ocean, opting out of a raw deal.

And, what about time and the flat circle?

To answer this question, we need to look to Friedrich Nietzsche.


Friedrich Nietzsche

Nietzsche agreed with Schopenhauer on a lot of things. He saw that reality was driven by a Will, he believed that the world was built of constant conflict and strife, and he saw no resolution or respite from this situation.

However, unlike Schopenhauer, Nietzsche didn’t see this as a bad thing.

According to Nietzsche, life can be meaningful and worthwhile. The way he tried to demonstrate is through his concept of eternal recurrence.

In his book “The Gay Science,” Nietzsche performs a simple thought experiment to determine a meaningful life.

He asks what if a demon were to appear in front of you right now and were to tell you that you were going to repeat your life as it is, that you were going to relive everything you’ve ever been through, and that you would relive it infinite times more.

And, there will nothing new in every iteration. It will be exactly the same.

Would you rejoice at the thought, or would it scare you stiff?

The idea of coming back over and over again is Nietzsche’s concept of eternal recurrence, and to the above question, he offers an interesting response.

Only a person who has led a life worth living, a meaningful life, would be happy at the demon’s assertion. This concept is even further explored in Nietzsche’s later book “Thus Spoke Zarathustra.”


But, what did Rust Cohle mean when he said that “time is a flat circle”?

If you’ve been paying attention so far, you might feel that there is a discrepancy here. Rust Cohle wasn’t an optimist, at least not until the end of the series.

So, what did he mean by this phrase?

You aren’t wrong.

But, it is also worth pointing out the other scene where Rust Cohle was arresting this guy who gave him the same line, “Time is a flat circle.” If you’ll remember, Rust Cohle responded to him, “Listen, Nietzsche, shut the F*** up.”

As for Cohle, he meant it in a pessimistic fashion. He was talking about the futility of it all, about how we live in a deterministic world where things are out of our control.

You have to remember that Cohle believed that human beings gave themselves a sense of agency and identity just to feel good about themselves, yet, in reality, they had neither.

So, when Rust Cohle says that “time is a flat circle,” he really is saying that no one learns from their mistakes, that we really have no power to change the world around us, and that we are all puppets on strings being pushed and pulled on the stage of life.

Quite the pessimistic view if you ask me.