Troubled Grandeur in This View of Life

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?

"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.


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

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9 thoughts on “Troubled Grandeur in This View of Life

  1. Cris Post author

    The conclusion is similar but his analysis in getting there is quite different. I was thinking about you today while reading “The Art of Not Being Governed”? Have you read it? If not, you absolutely must.

  2. Sabio Lantz

    You said, …which aren’t so easily resolved as some would like to suppose.

    But all you do is give yourself away to be a constitutional pessimist.

    I guess there may be three positions:
    (1) one focuses looks at the beauty and loves live
    (2) one who focuses on the negative and deplores live
    (3) others who learn to do neither — but maybe they are a myth.

    But I must say, your post seems to laud the negative view. But I am a bit of an optimist.

  3. Sabio Lantz

    Ah, I just read the comments.
    @ J. A. Le Fevre
    Indeed, Schopenhauer did smell of the renunciation view of Theravadin Buddhists. But the Dzogchen view claims that third way, I think. But I am a bit stuck in #1. Smile

  4. Cris Post author

    I must have done well then, because I incline towards optimism (as did Nietzsche). I do, however, take seriously the pessimism that can be induced by this evolutionary view and think that those who espouse it need to be able to articulate an attractive alternative.

    It’s not as easy as one might think, especially if one is not inclined to simply substitute one form of metaphysics for another. Because I am not so inclined, the alternatives are limited and making them satisfactory is not easy.

  5. Cris Post author

    If truth seeking is one’s goal, mono-focusing on the optimistic side isn’t really an option. Truth with a small “t” requires serious acknowledgement of both sides.

  6. J. A. Le Fevre

    Thanks for the tip. Quite a fun read. Had to break out ‘Sandinista’ from the Clash to set the anarchist ambiance for that piece.

  7. Cris Post author

    It really disrupts the prevalent idea that non-state societies have somehow been “left behind” in a developmental sequence. It appears that many of them have simply fled state oppression.

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