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Troubled Grandeur in This View of Life

By Cris

In the celebrated closing of the Origin of Species, Darwin hits his lyrical stride with a paradox:

Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

From war, famine, and death, we get exaltation and grandeur? This has always been a bit much for those who don’t have Richard Dawkins’ nerves of steel. And for religious evolutionists, it raises the vexing issue of theodicy. Why would Omnibenevolence create through overproduction, struggle, suffering, and destruction?

Troubled Grandeur in This View of Life

"Nature Red in Tooth and Claw" by Nigel Fletcher-Jones

These are troubling questions for those who seriously contemplate the Janus-face of evolution. The dialectic of creation and destruction can be disturbing. Look at one face and see joyous creation. Look at the other and see harrowing destruction. It is all matter of perspective and focus. I suspect that constitutional optimists fixate on creation and constitutional pessimists on destruction.

One of the great 19th century pessimists was German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), who wrote before Darwin published the Origin but seems to have anticipated one possible reaction to an evolutionary view of life:

Schopenhauer had concluded that existence is utterly unjustifiable and valueless, except in the negative sense that the inevitable preponderance of suffering endows it with an actual disvalue; and that, for anyone who considers the matter soberly and clearsightedly, oblivion must be acknowledged to be preferable to life.

Schopenhauer’s reason for taking this darkly pessimistic position was that in his view existence in general and life in particular are characterized by ceaseless struggle and striving, inevitably resulting in destruction (among sentient forms of life) involving incessant suffering of one sort or another. The whole affair, as he saw it, is quite pointless, since nothing of any value is thereby attained (the perpetuation of life merely continuing the striving and suffering).

No transcendent purposes are thereby served; no pleasures, enjoyments, or satisfactions attainable can suffice to overbalance the sufferings life involves…and so life stands condemned at the bar of evaluative judgment. It is, in a word, absurd. (Schacht 1995:130).

After reading Darwin and recognizing that this view of life cannot simply or glibly be dismissed, Nietzsche was galvanized. He spent the better part of his productive life grappling with these issues, which aren’t so easily resolved as some would like to suppose.

Reference:

Schacht, Richard. 1995. Making Sense of Nietzsche: Reflections Timely and Untimely. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

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