Sisyphus by Titian, 1549
For the past ten days or so I’ve been discussing various views about the meaning of life that I’d classify as nihilistic. I’d now like to briefly summarize my response to nihilism.
I believe that suffering and death count strongly against meaning—they detract from meaning. I also believe that the challenge posed by nihilism is the challenge for contemporary individuals and culture. We have argued that rejecting or denying nihilism, by accepting a religious metaphysics for example, is philosophically problematic, inasmuch as there are good reasons to doubt the truth of these systems. Accepting nihilism is either self-defeating, useless, or both. Finding meaning by affirming nihilism is a brave response but it is not all that different than accepting nihilism in the end. So questions remain. Why give up so easily? What do we gain by embracing nihilism?
Camus’ Sisyphus supposedly found happiness in his revolt, but one has to wonder whether that suggestion is mere romanticism. And neither Nagel’s nor Feinberg’s irony provides solace; they merely counsel passive acceptance. Maybe we should simply reject meaning and all salvific narratives, reveling in the pleasures and joys of this world, the extraordinary ordinary. But can we really do it? In his play “Our Town” Thorton Wilder suggests we cannot, it is too hard to appreciate life while you live it. When responding to Emily’s query as to whether human beings can appreciate life every minute while they live it, the narrator tells her: “No—saints and poets maybe—they do some.”80 But even if we could affirm nihilism would this be satisfactory? If we think of Critchley as advocating living lightly, Kundera responds that such a life is unbearable; perhaps even more so than living heavily.
We thus find ourselves at an impasse. Nihilism looms large and none of our responses are completely viable. Rejecting nihilism seems intellectually dishonest, passively accepting it appears fatalistic, actively rejecting it with Camus is futile, embracing it looks pointless, and yet our consciousness of it is unbearable. The only way forward—if we do not want to accept the verdict of nihilism—is to consider other responses. It is to these responses that we now consider over the next few months.