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, some argue that 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.
Here’s a good video explaining more of Nietzsche on nihilism:
7 thoughts on “Nietzsche: Active and Passive Nihilism”
Interesting distinction between nihilisms. He kind of trivializes the issue of the freedom of the will, and just focuses on despising weak will and extolling the virtues of strong will needed for active nihilism.
He is so right in saying “in response to a lack of meaning and a weak will, passive nihilists often join mass movements…” and alas most politicians exploit that and anything/anyone else they can exploit, including some who might seem strong willed but are actually strongly led. Ha, somehow I seem to keep circling back to the free will issue =)
I agree about Nietzsche not quite grokking Buddhism.
thanks for the comments. JGM
Do you have any direct quotes where Nietzsche made this distinction between active and passive nihilism? Someone has told me this is falsely attributed to him but I dont trust their opinion.
“Nihilism. It is ambiguous:
A. Nihilism as a sign of increased power of the spirit: as active nihilism.
B. Nihilism as decline and recession of the power of the spirit: as passive nihilism.”
― Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power
I remember reading about this is Michel Haar’s essay, Nietzsche and Metaphysical Language in Allison’s “The New Nietzsche.”
If I remember correctly, Haar suggests three distinctions, rather than two (or rather, technically two, but in three stages, with “active” nihilism getting refined in a crucial way in the third stage).
There is first the “active nihilism” of, say, the preacher, who invents moral masks in the spirit of “ressentiment” that will provide ‘local’ meaning and bolster personal agendas, etc. But, crucially, a) the ‘local’ meaning is still in the service of (means to ends toward) some ‘global’ meaning that they can’t explicate, or may not even be aware of. The lack of awareness makes it confabulation, at best. This is the first stage.
Then there is the second stage, “passive nihilism,” or “the last man,” which is closer to the conventional definition of someone who “is aware of their moral-bankruptcy, absence of any meaning, and doesn’t care.”
Then there is a refining of the first stage, which I think Haar (or another writer, it escapes me now) refers to as Dionysian. Where the spirit is ‘active,’ but there’s an awareness that the creation of ‘local’ meaning has intrinsic value that doesn’t require some ‘global’ (absolute) meaning to justify it. Indeed, there is no ‘global’ meaning at this stage.
thanks for this. I’ll take a look at the essay. JGM
I guess you could say that the first stage is “active,” but still in “bad faith,” because it’s manufactured as a “means to an end” toward some ‘global truth,’ either knowingly or unconsciously. It’s distinguished from the third stage in that it isn’t self-aware (or even actively denies) that moral propositions are actually ends in themselves, in terms of metaphysical grounding.