Nietzsche and Self Overcoming

Nietzsche thought that the universe was the manifestation of an underlying force which he called will to power. “This world is the will to power – and nothing besides!”, he proclaimed. Nietzsche characterized the will to power, the basic underlying essence of the universe, as “an insatiable desire to manifest power”. In this lecture we will discuss what this means in an ethical context, or in other words, in the context of how one should live their life.

To do this, we will first take a look at Nietzsche’s views regarding Darwinian evolution and we will see that it was his understanding of evolution, or shall we say misunderstanding, which provided him with part of his motivation for formulating his doctrine of the will to power

In the year 1859 Charles Darwin published his famous work On the Origin of Species, and it was in this work that he elaborated his theory of evolution by natural selection. The basis of Darwin’s theory is relatively simple: First of all Darwin posited  that all individuals within a species differ in some degree from all other individuals.

Most of these differences are insignificant, but  some are significant enough to provide the individual organism with advantages or disadvantages in their struggle for existence.

Those individuals with traits that are advantageous to their survival are ones more likely to reproduce and hence pass on these traits to their offspring, while those with traits that are disadvantageous to their survival typically won’t live long enough to pass on their traits.  This is Darwin’s famous principle which he called ‘natural selection’.

Darwin understood that natural selection was an unplanned and undesigned process – because of this an organism’s fate often lay in the hands of  chance:

“A grain in the balance will determine which individual shall live and which shall die, – which variety of species shall increase in number, and which shall decrease, or finally become extinct.” (The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin)

Darwin posited natural selection as being an undesigned process, however, he was unsure of whether there might be an overarching goal or purpose to the process of evolution  – some ultimate end all life was moving toward- and he never made any clear statement affirming or denying such an idea.

Yet there were many supporters of Darwin who were unshakeable in their faith that there was a purpose implicit in the process of evolution.

Herbert Spencer was one such individual; he was a prominent advocate of evolution in the 19th century – Spencer  coined the well known phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ and  popularized the term evolution – a term which Darwin had used only sparingly.

In the words of the historian of biology,  Peter Bowler,

“Spencer advocated a system of cosmic progress, which included a theory of the inevitable evolution of life toward higher forms.” (Evolution: The History of an Idea, Peter Bowler).

Spencer thought that implicit in evolution was a goal –  all life was moving towards this goal, and upon its attainment human beings would become  the ‘perfect’ creature which he called the “ideally moral man” – or in other words, individuals who are perfectly adapted to both their physical and social environment.

Nietzsche agreed with the general idea of evolution but was not directly familiar with the work of Darwin, and rather gained most of his understanding of evolution through the works of Spencer. Despite agreeing with the fundamental idea of evolution,  Nietzsche was opposed to in particular two of Spencer’s ideas regarding the nature of evolution.

His first disagreement stemmed from Spencer’s belief that evolution resulted in the inevitable progress of life. In his book The Antichrist, Nietzsche revealed his dislike for such a view saying:

“Mankind surely does not represent an evolution toward a better or stronger or higher level, as progress is now understood. This “progress” is merely a modern idea, which is to say, a false idea. The European of today, in his essential worth, falls far below the European of the Renaissance; the process of evolution does not necessarily mean elevation, enhancement, strengthening.” (The Anti-Christ, Friedrich Nietzsche)

The second idea of Spencer’s which Nietzsche disagreed with was the idea that all organisms ultimately strive after self preservation.

Spencer believed that, in  the words of Gregory Moore,

“the ultimate end of all conduct is the prolongation and increase of life – in other words, the preservation of the individual organism and the species to which it belongs.”

Nietzsche falsely assumed Darwin shared with Spencer the idea that all of an organism’s behaviours were aimed at self preservation, and it was this false assumption that led him to disagree with Darwinian evolution in favour of his own view of evolution based on the will to power.

Darwinian evolution, instead of claiming that all an organism’s behaviours are aimed at survival, states that behaviours which are advantageous are one’s which will be preserved via natural selection – however, it is important to note that according to Darwinian evolution, an organism does not explicitly aim at survival. This is where Nietzsche misunderstood Darwinian evolution.

The idea that all of an organism’s behaviours and actions are aimed at survival has its roots in thinkers who lived before the theory of evolution became popular in the late 19th century.  Arthur Schopenhauer, a philosopher born in the late 18th century and one who greatly influenced Nietzsche, thought  all things in this universe were manifestations of an underlying essence which he called will. As will, all  life forms are dominated by a “blind striving for existence without end or aim”. All living creatures, including human beings,  were dominated by this irrational desire to remain alive. He called this desire the will to live.

Nietzsche was vehemently opposed to the idea that a will to live or drive to survive was the fundamental drive within all organisms.  He thought the drive to remain alive was too cowardly a goal. Instead, he claimed that as will to power the  fundamental drive of all things was an “insatiable desire to manifest power. We will now examine exactly what such a statement means.

In his book Twilight of the Idols Nietzsche called himself an “Anti-Darwin” due to his rejection of the idea that organisms seek above all else the perpetuation and prolongation of their existence. In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche  pinpointed the problem he had with this view:

“Physiologists should think twice before positioning the drive for self preservation as the cardinal drive of an organic being. Above all, a living thing wants to discharge its strength – life itself is will to power -: self preservation is only one of the indirect and most infrequent consequences of this.” (Beyond Good and Evil, Friedrich Nietzsche)

As will to power, the ultimate end of all living things was growth. Nietzsche expressed this idea in a number of  passages:

“It can be shown that every living thing does everything it can not to preserve itself but to become more.”(The Will to Power, Friedrich Nietzsche)

In another passage he  reiterates this idea:

“To have and to want to have more – growth, in one word – that is life itself.” (The Will to Power, Friedrich Nietzsche).

To say that as will to power all things have an insatiable desire to manifest power is to say that they have an insatiable desire for unending growth.

With this idea in mind, we will proceed to consider how  Nietzsche thought that we could maximize our own growth as human beings and therefore synchronize ourselves with the essence of the universe.

In order to grow and expand and thus fulfill the fundamental desire of life itself, Nietzsche thought it was first necessary to desire something – an individual who sits around without a care in the world is an individual who will remain stagnant.  “One must need to be strong”, Nietzsche tells us, “otherwise one will never become strong.” He therefore believed that an individual must set a lofty goal that they desire to attain above anything else, and especially above what he thought to be the petty desire to feel content, as Nietzsche put it:

“That something is a hundred times more important than the question of whether we feel well or not: basic instinct of all strong natures…In sum, that we have a goal for which one does not hesitate…to risk every danger, to take upon oneself whatever is bad and worst: the great passion.” (The Will to Power, Friedrich Nietzsche)

When one sets a lofty goal and strives with all their might to attain this goal, they inevitably encounter resistances. These resistances, Nietzsche maintains, are not painful annoyances, but instead are necessary for growth to occur. Pain, suffering, and being thwarted in one’s attempts to accomplish a goal are the necessary preconditions for growth and hence an increase in one’s power:

“…human beings do not seek pleasure and avoid displeasure. What human beings want, whatever the smallest organism wants, is an increase of power; driven by that will they seek resistance, they need something that opposes it – displeasure, as an obstacle to their will to power, is therefore a normal fact; human beings do not avoid it, they are rather in continual need of it.” (The Will to Power, Friedrich Nietzsche)

It is by overcoming the resistances which stand in the way of attaining a great passion that an individual fulfills the basic desire of all life – that being growth. For this  reason Nietzsche characterizes growth as an act of self overcoming. As will to power, all life in desiring growth of necessity must overcome itself – he therefore claimed that  self overcoming is written into the fabric of the universe. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra  Nietzsche proclaims:

“And life confided the secret to me: behold, it said, I am that which must always overcome itself.” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Friedrich Nietzsche).

In conceiving the world as will to power, Nietzsche thought an individual could have access to a powerful motivating force. In the end, Nietzsche thought, all that matters in life is how much one has grown and overcome their previous limitations as this determines how powerful one is, and in turn determines one’s worth as a human being.  All men are not equal, thought Nietzsche, the powerful individual, the one who is devoted to self overcoming, is the most valuable. He said:

“What determines your rank is the quanta of power you are; the rest is cowardice.” (The Will to Power, Friedrich Nietzsche)

It is important to note that Nietzsche didn’t think the ideally powerful individual was a physically strong individual or even an individual with power over others – psychological and spiritual strength represents the ultimate power, he thought, and it matters more that one has power over one’s own self rather than power over others. And in order to achieve power over one’s own self, Nietzsche thought it necessary to set a lofty goal and strive with all one’s might to achieve such a goal. In doing so, an individual will live a life of self overcoming, and thus fulfill one’s purpose as a manifestation of the will to power.