Nietzsche, Darwin, and the Greeks: On the Aesthetic Interpretation of Life By Michael Steinmann

VOLUME IX, ISSUES I & II, FALL 2015 – SPRING 2016


At the time Nietzsche lived, Darwin had already become an epitome. He stood for a certain idea of life, and Nietzsche usually referred to him not so much as an individual scientist but as a name representing this idea. Nietzsche most probably never read or studied Darwin’s work himself. But “Darwin” had become a powerful symbol which summarized, in Nietzsche’s view, what the entire late nineteenth century held to be true about life’s inner character and purpose. In his criticism of modernity, Nietzsche could therefore position himself as “Anti-Darwin,” as the strict opposite to all modern assumptions about human and biological life. This criticism of Darwin has often been discussed. What gets easily neglected is the fact that Nietzsche’s engagement with Darwin can well be connected to the very beginnings of his work in which he was concerned with the tragic experience of life expressed by the ancient Greeks. What was at stake in his criticism of Darwin was not just the modern understanding of life, but the philosophical understanding of life as whole, which for Nietzsche first became problematic in his reading of ancient tragedy. This makes it necessary to identify as broadly as possible the perspective from which he engaged the modern ideas. As the following will show, what allows us to link the discussion of Darwin to the reading of the ancient Greeks is his attempt at an aesthetic interpretation of life, which in turn sprang from his question how life can be justified. In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche famously came forth with the bewildering idea of an “aesthetic justification of life.” Although he later ridiculed this idea as representing an “artists’ metaphysics” (BT, “Attempt” 2)–an enthusiastic, speculative worldview emerging more from artistic imagination than from philosophical thought–he never gave up the idea that life, and especially human life, is in need of a justification which can only be found through the adoption of an aesthetic point of view.

Our attempt at tracing this theme across very different periods in Nietzsche’s work, and also across very different contexts of discussion, is no doubt risky and exposes us to all sorts of criticism. One might ask whether the interpretation of ancient Greek culture isn’t simply too different from his engagement with contemporary Darwinism to be linked to it in any meaningful way. Especially the idea of an aesthetic justification of life seems to be limited to his early work. A later passage in the Gay Science, for example, only states that “as an aesthetic phenomenon, existence is still bearable to us” (GS 108). This sounds certainly very different from the early approach in the work on tragedy. Still, as we will see in the following the idea of a justification of life is never completely given up, even if it is expressed in different ways. What we are aiming at, hence, is no philological reconstruction of the way in which the ideas have changed throughout the course of Nietzsche’s work. Such reconstructions are no doubt useful and necessary but would lead to a very different paper. We rather want to suggest a broader perspective, which then hopefully allows us to draw connections that remain overlooked if one only focuses on particular contexts and themes. Through these connections, so we claim, one can better understand what drives Nietzsche’s approach to the problem of life as a whole.

The main points of Nietzsche’s anti-Darwinism are well known. Nietzsche opposes the ideas of a struggle for life, of the survival of the fittest, and of the formative role of the environment in the evolution of species. It is, however, not easy to see what exactly he criticizes in Darwinism, and why he criticizes it. What is the ultimate purpose of his posture as the “Anti-Darwin”? After all, Nietzsche shares many of Darwinism’s basic assumptions. From early on, he welcomes Darwin’s new conception of the human being, “the horrible consequence of Darwinism, which, by the way, I consider to be correct.” The human being, he agrees with Darwin, “is wholly a creature of nature” (Naturwesen; UO I, 7). Nietzsche never gives up this idea. In his later work, it culminates in his formula of the “homo natura” (BGE 230).

But Nietzsche also agrees with the idea of evolution. He never questions the basic idea that manifestations of life can be only understood by looking at the process or development through which they emerge. Although he occasionally ridicules Darwinians as “our ape-genealogists” (UO I, 7), his own genealogy of morals will describe the human being quite similarly as an animal that only slowly became domesticated by civilization. Nietzsche is evidently as much the child of the century of history and historicism as Darwin. His point is therefore not to argue whether there is a natural evolution of the human being at all. It rather concerns the question how this evolution has to be interpreted, and what its goals and outcomes are.

This essay follows Nietzsche’s interpretation of life first with respect to the theory of natural selection, then in a broader, philosophical sense. Aesthetic criteria, we will see, provide the main arguments in his criticism of Darwinism. For Nietzsche, every biological theory has to be able to include the aesthetic expressiveness of organic life (2.1. and 2.2). He criticizes Darwin also for conceiving of evolution as a continuous process of improvement in which all surviving species are by definition better than the ones that do not exist anymore. But despite this criticism, Nietzsche’s understanding of life contains what can be called a teleology of his own; a teleology that sees the purpose of evolution in the appearance of beauty as it emerges in and through a higher type of human being. This Nietzschean teleology does obviously not rely on any objective, natural tendency in life according to which life would inevitably strive to reach a certain goal, but rather on the contingent occurrence of higher types which emerge from time to time as an exception to the average character of human beings. Despite their contingency, such higher types can be seen as the goal of human life (2.3.). If this is true, the question follows how one can identify the higher types. Nietzsche’s answer can be summarized by saying that the higher type would also have a higher perspective on life and therefore be able to manifest himself as being different from those adopting another (moral, scientific, etc.) view of the world. This means that while in the beginning of this essay, following his criticism of the theory of evolution, Nietzsche’s aesthetic interpretation of life can appear as yet another objective theory–for which life would be the object of inquiry–it will eventually reveal itself as subjective, insofar as it is based on the individual capacity to experience life in an aesthetic way. The higher type cannot be generally defined by philosophy but has to appear in an individual’s (another individual’s) look on the world (3.) The following section will further explain the aesthetic interpretation of life by showing how it can lead to a form of justification. Life is justified through the creation of a world as an aesthetic vision. However, it is not justified by human beings, that is, by any particular human judgment. Human beings rather have to experience their existence as one that is being justified together with the world to which they belong (4.). Finally, it will become clear that the subjective character of aesthetic justification leads to an aesthetic exceptionalism, insofar as the individual experience on which it is based remains by definition limited, particular, and unique. Nietzsche’s aesthetic theory of life reveals itself ultimately as an expression of hope, as a meditation on the elusive possibility of making such a specifically aesthetic experience (5.). In the final chapter, we will raise the question why life needs justification at all, which will bring us to the, perhaps surprising, conclusion that aesthetic and moral worldviews are not as fundamentally different as they seem but rather share a common root (6.).

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