Charles Darwin, Meet Friedrich Nietzsche

by Max Andrews


To attribute nihilism to Friedrich Nietzsche’s works would be a complete misunderstanding of his teleology.  Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra is a calling and desire for the übermensch to create a transvaluation of values.  To categorize Nietzsche as a nihilist would be a misunderstanding and misinterpretation of his work.

When referring to nihilism there must be an understanding of all that the word entails.  Nihilism refers to nothingness and is a denial of all worldviews.  There are apparent problems with being consistent in rendering a nihilist understanding.  Referring to everything having no meaning renders a meaning of nothingness.  There is no objectivity, knowledge, truth, or virtue.  There is a claim of paradigm independent referents.  For the advancement of understanding Nietzsche’s teleology this self-referential incoherence must be set to the periphery.  To discard Nietzsche so quickly in such a manner would be to misunderstand his teleological claims.

Nietzsche’s paradigm for truth was based on biological development.  This, by all admission, was a relativistic understanding and rendition of truth; it was a social construct.  This was in response to the proclamation that “God is dead.”  In the fifth chapter of Twilight of the Idols Nietzsche deduces the implications of stripping God from Christianity [in reference to morality].  Under the Christian paradigm, morality is a command originating from a transcendent source.  Because it is a transcendent command it cannot be criticized, and it is only contingently true given the existence of God and that God is the source of all truth.  This worries Nietzsche because he believes that there is no reason for God to exist any more being that God is only a social construct that was once useful.  As a result, Nietzsche calls for the übermensch.


It would be an appropriate evaluation of Nietzsche to state that his mere calling for the übermensch is a teleological claim.  To call for the redemption of something and to set a standard model is a purposive and meaningful proclamation.  The desire appears to be motivated by the very thing Nietzsche is often accused of, nihilism.  Nietzsche was in despair over the implications of Christianity with no God—that was nihilism, which was a catalyst to his philosophizing with a hammer.

Nietzsche never denied there being any meaning or purpose.  His qualm was that if Christianity continues without God, it would be meaningless and purposeless.  He understood that there had to be meaning and purpose.  The teleology, for Nietzsche, was a pursuit to overcome those things, which were life denying.  Christianity, God, idols, and false ideas were all life denying and life prohibiting concepts.  Nietzsche recognized the human nature and need for a teleology, but how?  In his pursuit for meaning and purpose he calls for the übermensch to do just that.

Charles Darwin heavily influenced Nietzsche’s biological basis for truth.  There is a stark similarity between Darwin’s natural selection and Nietzsche’s übermensch.  Darwin attempts to account for the advancement of species (or mankind) by the upward struggle for something greater on a scientific and biological basis.  In comparison, the übermensch is what enabled a higher man to advance.  Nietzsche is philosophy’s Darwin.

In Darwin’s Decent of Man he argues that human nature is not the result of God but the fact of it having risen by evolution instead of having been placed there by God may give hope for a still higher destiny in the distant future.  The parallel as outlined in The Will to Power is that an aspect of truth was the will-to-power:  “Let us admit to ourselves… how every higher culture on earth so far has begun.  Human beings whose nature was still natural… were still in possession of unbroken strength of will and lust for power.”  The übermensch was the higher state of being.  Darwin attempted to account for teleology by natural means, Nietzsche merely capitalized on that and spiritualized it into a secular teleology.

Throughout Nietzsche’s work, and particularly Zarathustra, there was an emphasis on hardship, suffering, and sacrifice.  Those who pursued teleology adopted the doctrine of eternal recurrence.  Nietzsche really develops and outlines this in Twilight of the Idols as the Dionysian ethic or attitude.  The Dionysian ethic was an unconditional embrace of life-affirming attitudes.  This was particularly emphatic on suffering and hardship.  In Beyond Good and Evil Nietzsche describes the doctrine of eternal recurrence.  The doctrine states that anyone who is life-affirming would live their life over for eternity, an eternal repetition, without denying any “negative” or “life-denying” aspect of the life lived.

The other attitude or ethic Nietzsche discusses is that of Apollo.  The Apollonian ethic is a symbol of light, measure, and restraint.  The problem with the Apollonian ethic was that it embraced a nay saying attitude, an element of a life denying aspect.  Despite the life denying elements of the Apollonian ethic, Nietzsche appreciated the aesthetic value from within the ethic.  There was an idea of beauty, charm, art, and attraction, an aesthetic element that could not have been denied.  Nietzsche’s ideal culture was a union of the Dionysian and Apollonian elements with each other.  The “yes” and life affirming aspect of the Dionysian ethic and aesthetics of the Apollonian created the ideal model of achievement, truth, and goal for the individual and culture.  All this was found manifested in the übermensch. For the advancement of man, for a better future, he must abandon his beliefs in theism, particularly Christian theism, and embrace atheism.  This belief is weak, cowardly, a sign of decadence, and a no-saying attitude to life.

There’s an alienation that man possesses within himself and others that Nietzsche does not explicate but is there by implication.  Despite this, man is capable of transcending himself but he needs motivation, a goal, a path, and a sense of direction—the übermensch. Science and nature cannot and will not provide what is needed for this transcendence.  Without the transcendence there is no teleology, there is no purpose or meaning in a closed system.  In his writings, Nietzsche affirms Darwin’s scientific account for the biological advancement of man.  In The Will to Power Nietzsche takes the scientific account and capitalizes on it by stating that philosophy should set itself with ruthless courage to the task of improving that aspect of the world which has been recognized as susceptible to being changed.”  In the same work, Nietzsche states that man is a rope between animal and the übermensch—a rope over an abyss.

Why did it come down to hardship, suffering, and sacrifice?  These are the same things that nature demands for advancement, that is, survival of the fittest and natural selection.  Nietzsche spiritualizes the science and provides a model of the übermensch as a catalyst for this to come to fruition for man.


Returning to the misunderstanding that Nietzsche promoted nihilism, Nietzsche understood and affirmed a need for teleology.  It would be incoherent and inappropriate to predicate nihilism to a person who called for meaning and purpose to exist, whether the call is from natural and scientific means or from a spiritual mean.  It is still appropriate to incorporate nihilism in the discussion when evaluating Nietzsche and his work.  What the paramount correlation between nihilism and Nietzsche is that Nietzsche was emphatically anti-nihilistic.  It was the false idols and false ideas, like those discussed in Twilight of the Idols, which cause Nietzsche to overcome nihilism.  Nietzsche’s teleology is based in the attributes of the übermensch.

Zarathustra is a prophet of the übermensch and proclaimed the doctrine of eternal recurrence, where Nietzsche finds his teleology.  Eternal recurrence is the highest form of a “yes” attitude, that of the Dionysian ethic.  Nietzsche formulates a doctrine of becoming with eternal recurrence.  The becoming process is a desire and goal to attain a higher state of being.  In Nietzsche’s later works he does not refer to the übermensch as much relative to his earlier development.  The übermensch is laid aside as a referent and he often refers to this state of becoming as “higher men.”

Nietzsche’s attempt to construct a secularized teleology is subjective and produces no objective purpose or meaning.  He understands this to be true, particularly more so if God is dead.  The übermensch does produce a savior-like complex, the idea or myth that one must bear the burdens of knowing that there really are no meaning or purpose.  Though the übermensch understands this, he is that standard for the rest of humanity.  Nietzsche’s development of his secularized teleology should not be dismissed as wholly arbitrary or nonsensical.  From Nietzsche’s references to animal’s states of becoming and man’s states of becoming, it is quite evident that he extended Darwin’s scientific work into the philosophical realm.  Darwin’s work gave account for not only a scientific approach to the advancement of man, but it is also categorically different to what or who is advancing.  For Darwin, it was the species that advanced by such means.  For Nietzsche, it was an emphasis on individuals who were able to excel beyond the others and overcome the rest.

By combining the empirical warrant and the spiritual or philosophical warrant, Nietzsche’s teleology is complete.  Each contribution would have been inadequate if left alone.  Hardship, suffering, and sacrifice on a scientific level promote a natural advancement of the animal whereas if hardship, suffering, and sacrifice is combined with a purposive and conscious goal there is an appearance of meaning to the process.

Nietzsche is internally consistent within his own paradigm.  His construction of becoming is an expression of the will to overcome, to become the greater, that which is of the übermensch.  The Dionysian ethic is particularly attractive in reference to becoming and the will-to-power. The Apollonian ethic’s aesthetic value brings a balance to the becoming, an aspect of yea saying from the Apollonian position.  A problem with that of the übermensch and the doctrine of eternal recurrence is that at some point the two will conflict down the road.  Initially, they are harmonious, but eventually consistently applied through an eternal reference frame it begins to conflict.  If one were to have a repetitive life entailing all the same circumstantial sufferings as before and then accumulated even more would reach the state of the übermensch at some point.  If the übermensch is the greatest state of being, of becoming, and overcoming, how applicable can eternal recurrence be?

At this point the objectivity and paradigmatic reference must be examined.  As previously discussed Nietzsche is inconsistent in how he understands corresponding models for beliefs.  Nietzsche makes the best of his teleological model of becoming.  This teleology fails in being objectively true.  It falls short of an absolute meaning and purpose.  Everything is arbitrarily contrived.[1]  There is nothing teleologically binding to hardship, suffering, sacrifice, and an embrace of the aesthetic.  These aspects of teleology are circumstantially dependent on whether or not they ought to be considered virtuous or harmful.  There are situations where suffering and pain are not advantageous in any way and should be avoided.  Similarly, there are states of affairs where suffering and pain are advantageous and virtuous.  To apply these teleological aspects as [relative] necessities is wholly arbitrary and paradigm and circumstantially dependent.

With regards to Nietzsche’s entire work concerning becoming via hardship, suffering, and sacrifice, that which makes up the Dionysian ethic, and the aesthetics of the Apollonian, he focuses more on these and the übermensch in his earlier work.  In his later work, the idea of the übermensch was never replaced but became a referent as “higher men,” a spiritual evolution of becoming and the will-to-power, which pushed the goal setting and progress to greatness.

[1] I need to clarify this point.  As I have previously stated, Nietzsche continues Darwin’s scientific account for the biological advancement of species (man) from a philosophical approach spiritualizing the matter.  That which follows from Darwin’s initial progress is arbitrary.

5 Comments to “Charles Darwin, Meet Friedrich Nietzsche”

  1. Max,

    Fantastic post here. I don’t know as much about Nietzsche as I should, and I found this really enlightening. Could one say in response that while Nietzsche may not necessarily have been a nihilist due to this telos, his view still operated under (or as a response to) nihilism?

  2. Max, I’ll admit to being only superficially familiar with Nietzsche, but it is my understanding that the vast majority of writings on him suggest he is indeed a nihilist. I’m a bit confused by what you’re suggesting. You say that he “hated and despaired over” nihilism, but never clarify what exactly his system of thought is. Does he hold nihilism, in your opinion, but hate and despair over it? I’d appreciate the clarification.

    • I suppose the generally accepted notion that attributed Nietzsche as a nihilist was due in part to the public’s reception of his controversial worldview. At a time when even the modern West was uncomfortable with anti-theistic views, his outright atheism evident in his theses may have associated his image as a bomb-throwing nihilist. Just look what “The Satanic Verses” did for Salman Rushdie!

      I’m not too much familiar with Nietzsche myself, having been interested in his philosophy only lately. But from what I’ve read so far, he describes the rejection of legacy values as necessary. Values are not absolute, he claims, and much like any other facets of life, can be updated, superseded, or completely rethought. This departure is called passive nihilism, and is sort of a conduit to a complete reevaluation of principles. Nihilism — the destruction of outdated morality, values, truth — was upheld by Nietzsche only as a transitional phase. His Ubermensch ideology was a portrayal of the perfect sense of self: a person with high regard to individuality, to individualistic morals and ideals. Through his writings, Nietzsche actually encouraged defining a personal sense of meaning and purpose.

      God bless! Hope this helped.

  3. Hi Max,

    Thanks for such a good account of FN’s understanding and use of Darwin. Ditto his standing with regard to nihilism.

    Your suggestion that the doctrine of eternal recurrence would become a self-contradiction for the ubermensch really interests me. I don’t think that it needs to pan out that way, because the DER is a thought experiment and happens in the subjunctive tense, so to speak. Nor is the ubermensch a material break with humanity past.

    The DER is me looking at my life and saying, “Yes. I would live this life over again in all its details.” That doesn’t equate to me being identified with that and no other scenario. There’s no contradiction between the past and a possible future.

    Indeed, I wonder if here Nietzsche isn’t a Lamarckian. The moral evolution that he’s talking about will be the result of human effort—to achieve the ubermensch as a race beyond humanity, mustn’t acquired traits be passed on? For this and other reasons, I see FN’s ubermensch as in actuality realizable only by the individual, where the will to power is exercised over oneself, as self-overcoming.

    Unfortunately, because of Nietzsche’s premature death as a thinker, we can’t talk about his work as a complete oeuvre. I use him more for the purpose of raising questions than seeking answers.

    Thanks again!

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