What is Nihilism?
Nihilism is the philosophical doctrine that denies the existence of one or more of those things thought to make life good especially truth, values, or meaning. A nihilist doesn’t believe that knowledge is possible, that anything is valuable, or that life has meaning. Nihilism also denotes a general mood of despair or pessimism toward life.
As a consequence of considering nihilism, we are forced to see that reality may be random, irrational, futile, worthless, and meaningless. Thus nihilism serves to break down the illusions, myths, and other social and cultural constructions that have hitherto given us security, hope, and, most of all, meaning. Given the stakes, many philosophers have wrestled with the problem of overcoming nihilism.
Nietzsche and Nihilism
Nihilism is often associated with the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who thought that nihilism was a widespread phenomenon of Western culture. Traditionally, Christianity supplied an antidote to nihilism by providing a source for truth, value and meaning for Christians. But as the influence of Christianity declined, so too did its cultural power to assuage fears of nihilism. Then, as Christian beliefs were undermined, especially by the rise of modern science, they could no longer serve as the source for truth, value, and meaning.
As a result, Nietzsche believed that when we find out that the world doesn’t possess the objective value, meaning or truth that we want it to have or have long believed it to have, we find ourselves in a crisis. We find ourselves confronting nihilism.
However, Nietzsche thought of nihilism as a disease, calling it ‘pathological.’ He argued that we should strive to rid ourselves of it. We should remember that simply because our previous beliefs about how life had meaning were false, that doesn’t mean that life is meaningless. And our search for meaning may be successful if we look in the right places, which for Nietzsche was in this world, not in an imaginary supernatural one.
However, Nietzsche didn’t think everyone was capable of curing themselves of nihilism. What Nietzsche calls passive nihilism is a view that accepts nihilism as the endpoint of the search for meaning. Passive nihilists lack the strength to be the creators of their own values and meanings. For Nietzsche, a passive nihilist is characterized by a weak will, by the inability to create meaning, and by the tendency to withdraw from the world.
In response to a lack of meaning and a weak will, passive nihilists often join mass movements—supporting a political party or leader, a war, or a country—as a way to give their lives meaning. This provides followers with a sense that there is still some authority in the world and the movement functions as a kind of narcotic. Individuals in such movements experience a belonging that used to be called being part of God’s plan. (Sometimes they straightforwardly conflate the two as in “Trump has been called by God.”)
Nietzsche recognized passive nihilism in the pessimistic philosophy of Schopenhauer and in Buddhism. (Life is an “unprofitable episode,” in Schopenhauer’s words.) It involves turning away from life and rejecting all the values of this world. In other words, passive nihilism accepts the destruction of value and meaning.1
The other response is what Nietzsche calls active nihilism. Active nihilists don’t stop at the destruction of value and meaning but construct new ones, instead of succumbing to despair or joining a mass movement to ameliorate their fears. Nietzsche envisioned active nihilists as people who bravely forge ahead even after losing the beliefs which previously gave meaning to their lives. These strong-willed individuals overcome nihilism by freely creating their own values and meaning.
After ridding yourself of your previous beliefs you stand alone as a free spirit rather than having meaning imposed by authority figures. Active nihilism is not an end then but the beginning of the search for values and meanings. Put differently, active nihilists rebel against the situation they find themselves in. (Albert Camus is another example of an active nihilist.) But in their rebellion, they find strength in the creative power that allows them to be the source of their own meaning. For Nietzsche, this is the heroic path.2
- I don’t think this is a fair characterization of Schopenhauer or Buddhism in that both embrace the value of sympathy. Perhaps this goes to the tension of whether passive nihilism continues to accept some values or not.
- It is easy to see how Nietzsche is a forerunner to existentialism with his emphasis on creating your own meaning. This idea is expressed most clearly by Jean-Paul Sartre.