Nietzsches Denkweg: Theologie – Darwinismus – Nihilismus. By Edith Düsing


Pp. 601 , Wilhelm Fink Verlag , München , 2006 , $99.69.

When a small group of devoted followers gathered in Highgate cemetery on the morning of Saturday, 17th March 1883 to bury Karl Marx, there were, in addition to the close family members and political allies standing around the grave, two ‘representatives of the natural sciences’ (Engels' words), Professor Edwin Ray Lankester and Professor Carl Schorlemmer. Unlike Schorlemmer, Lankester was neither an old friend of Marx nor a political ally: he was instead a prominent young evolutionary biologist and disciple of Darwin and Huxley, who was later to rise swiftly in his career to become Director of the Natural History Museum in South Kensington from 1898 to 1907.

Engels himself explained in his funeral oration why they were there. ‘Just as Darwin discovered the law of development of organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history,’ he said. That law was not only the one which Engels had expressed in the title of a 1876 essay, ‘The Part played by Labour in the transition from Ape to Man,’ nor indeed simply the well-known Marxist view that politics, religion and philosophy were merely ‘superstructures’ of pre-existing economic structures. It was, more profoundly, and as Wilhelm Liebknecht (father of Karl) said in his own oration after Engels', that, ‘The natural sciences free us from God.’ As Engels wrote limpidly in the ‘Dialectics of Nature’, Darwinism caused this emancipation of mankind from a religion-based view of the world because his discoveries ‘reduced the gap between inorganic and organic matter to a minimum’ and thereby showed that nature was in fact in a state of permanent transition and motion. ‘Everything which had been held to be eternal became transitory, the whole of nature was proved to be moving in eternal flux and circulation.’

Edith Düsing does not discuss Darwin's crucial influence on Engels and Marxism generally, but it is clear from her account that the great biologist's influence on Nietzsche was identical. That influence was in turn very similar to that of David Strauss, the author of the view that the gospels are historically unreliable documents: as Düsing shows, Nietzsche was initially shocked and repelled by the theories of both men, only later to be ever more inextricably drawn ever deeper into them. For the young Nietzsche was a committed Christian, the son of a pastor, and who understood immediately the terrifying consequences of Darwinism but who (unlike Engels and the Marxists) did not welcome them, at least not at first.

Düsing shows how Nietzsche's reception of Darwin was as fundamental for his metaphysics, ethics, anthropology and epistemology as it was for the Marxists. Reading Darwin made Nietzsche lose his faith and come to believe that the world was a brutal chaos about which God could not care less. It was precisely Nietzsche's acute sense of loss and fear, the result of his correct understanding of the implications of Darwin's theory of random genetic mutation, which made him, Düsing says, ‘the most consistent and radical thinker of de-Christianisation’. Nietzsche saw that Darwinism destroyed Christianity because it was itself a rival metaphysics: Darwin was like Heraclitus, holding that the world is in a state of permanent and meaningless flux. Darwinism means that man does not have God as a father but an ape, and that mankind itself is but a transitory blip on the evolutionary scale.

It was perhaps the ethical implications of Darwinism which Nietzsche felt most acutely. When still a Christian, he had been overwhelmed by the sense of God's love and by the way Christ prepared man's salvation: after reading Feuerbach and Strauss, he began to think that Christianity was merely a matter of feeling, not grounded in truth. By the time he read Darwin, he understood that the structure of the world was the precise opposite of what Christianity said it was: it was not based on mercy and meekness, but instead on ruthlessness and strength.

Nietzsche's loss of faith, Düsing argues, was an extremely long and painful process. But once it had occurred, his hatred of Christianity became truly terrible. As he became convinced that the world was governed not by a good and loving God, but instead by chance, cruelty and the fight for survival, he turned his ire against Christianity as a ‘life denying religion’. His came to believe that morality itself was a mere product of evolution and the right for survival – the ‘Genealogy of Morals’– and at this point his philosophical nihilism turned into a veritable love of evil.

My feeling is that this point cannot be stressed too much. Nietzsche's sister famously edited her brother's texts after his death, to make them appear explicitly anti-Semitic, but in recent times there has been an equal and opposite tendency to bowdlerize him in the opposite direction as a sort of agnostic or even liberal. The fact is that the late Nietzsche wrote that the noble man, untrammelled by the slave morality of good and evil, would happily and gaily commit acts of mass killing, rape and torture, and return from these atrocities exhilarated like a student from a prank; the fact is too that Hitler said exactly the same thing. It is this veneration of evil which makes Nazism, like Nietzsche's philosophy, truly Satanic.