Eternal recurrence and nature



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Texas A&M University


Nietzsche has often been interpreted as the champion of heroic, self-sufficient individuals, who manage to fashion some order out of the raw material of Nature through the exercise of free will. On the face of things, Nietzsche's doctrine of eternal recurrence creates a problem for such an interpretation. If history must eternally repeat itself, then it can take only one possible route. Individuals' future actions would then be constrained by the sole possible path of history, and free will would seem to be undermined. In order to avoid the conclusion that eternal recurrence obviates free will, scholars have attempted to show that: (1) Nietzsche does not wish to establish a link between eternal recurrence and cosmology - that is, eternal recurrence should not be read as the cyclical repetition of history; (2) eternal recurrence can be construed so that it aggrandizes the importance of free choice. Contrary to these two trends in scholarship about eternal recurrence, I believe that Nietzsche intends to draw a connection between eternal recurrence and cosmology, and this connection undermines free will. In order to establish this, I examine the textual evidence on eternal recurrence from The Gay Science and Zarathustra to show that Nietzsche employs eternal recurrence as a metaphor for determinism in those works. As a metaphor for a deterministic cosmos, eternal recurrence undercuts free will. Turning to Nietzsche's late works, I show that Nietzsche broadens the scope of eternal recurrence. Eternal recurrence comes to serve as a metaphor for the Dionysian character of Nature. Only by relinquishing one's desire for free will and submitting to necessity and to the trans-individual potency of Nature can the individual see herself as powerful. Hence, it is argued that Nietzsche does not believe individuals manifest strength by asserting their free wills against Nature, as commentators often maintain. Instead, Nietzsche enjoins individuals to cede their desires for free will and to participate in the trans-individual vitality of Nature.