Introduction to Nihilism

In 1887 Friedrich Nietzsche wrote what was to become one of his most famous passages:

“What does nihilism mean? That the highest values devaluate themselves. The aim is lacking; “why?” finds no answer.” (The Will to Power, Friedrich Nietzsche)

Nietzsche’s views on nihilism are some of the most discussed by both those who study Nietzsche and those who study nihilism. In this series of lectures we will examine nihilism and the role it played in Nietzsche’s thought.

In this introductory lecture we will look at what nihilism means, its history, and its significance in Western Civilization. While in the subsequent lectures we will examine Nietzsche’s views regarding nihilism and his thoughts about how to overcome it.

While the philosophical seeds of nihilism seem to stretch back thousands of years, the term nihilism only began to see widespread use in the West in the mid-19th century.

A novel published in 1862, by the Russian author Ivan Turgenev, titled Fathers and Sons is often pointed to as the work that spurred a growth in the popularity of the term. In the novel one of the main characters is asked what it means to be a nihilist, and he says:

a “nihilist is a man who does not bow down before any authority, who does not take any principle on faith, whatever reverence that principle may be enshrined in.” (Fathers and Sons, Ivan Turgenev)

Today the sense in which the term is used in Fathers and Sons would be considered a form of political nihilism – the rejection of the political norms and institutions of one’s day.

Since the time this novel was published, many writers and philosophers have espoused nihilistic views in a number of different areas, and hence there has also been a growth in the term’s ambiguity, so it will be helpful to clear up its meaning. We can in fact distinguish between four main types of nihilism all of which share a similar characteristic, that being a general attitude of denial or negation of meaning.

Nietzsche alludes to this in the outline for his book The Will to Power where he writes:

“nihilism (. . .the radical repudiation of value, meaning, and desirability).” (The Will to Power, Friedrich Nietzsche)

The four types of nihilism are nicely summed up by Donald Crosby in his thought-provoking work on nihilism, The Specter of the Absurd.

“Moral nihilism denies the sense of moral obligation, the objectivity of moral principles, or the moral viewpoint. Epistemological nihilism denies that there can be anything like truths or meanings not strictly confined within, or wholly relative to, a single individual, group, or conceptual scheme. Cosmic nihilism disavows intelligibility or value in nature, seeing it as indifferent or hostile to fundamental human concerns. Existential nihilism negates the meaning of life.” (The Specter of the Absurd, Donald Crosby)

Based on this passage one can see that the first three types of nihilism; moral, epistemological, and cosmic, each negate meaning from an important area of life where human beings have traditionally searched for it. For most of history people have assumed that an objective basis for meaning is required – an assumption the validity of which we will examine in a later lecture – and as we will see in this lecture this has led to the positing of alternate worlds where such objective meaning can be found.

But when one comes to deny an absolute or objective basis for value, truth, or meaning it becomes very difficult not to slip into nihilism. For example in the case moral nihilism in rejecting the objectivity of moral principles one is claiming that it would not be correct to speak of such principles as being true or false, rather they are dependent on subjective opinions and thus meaningless.

When one accepts these first three types of nihilism one is likely to reach the more general type of nihilism – existential nihilism. Existential nihilism can in a way be seen as encompassing the three other types because when one denies meaning in life they are also explicitly or implicitly denying meaning in the areas covered by the other three types. If one denies that moral principles and truths actually exist intrinsic to the universe, and if one believes that the universe is utterly indifferent or even hostile to human hopes and concerns, then one will most likely become an existential nihilist and claim that life is depressingly meaningless and absurd.

Existential nihilism is not only is it the type that is usually being referred to when the term nihilism is used on its own, but it is also the type of nihilism Nietzsche was most interested in.

Given the importance of existential nihilism to Nietzsche’s philosophy, and the fact that despair over the meaninglessness or pointlessness of life is a problem many individuals in the modern era have to confront, we will focus on existential nihilism for the remainder of this introductory lecture and the future lectures on ‘Nietzsche and Nihilism’.

When discussing nihilism a question that usually comes up is what exactly does it mean to negate meaning? In order to clear this up it is important to understand what the word “meaning” actually means.

The philosopher David Roochnick in his book Retrieving the Ancients: An Introduction to Greek Philosophy points out that the word can be defined in two different senses: “to signify” as in “a pig means a four-legged mammal usually found on farms”, or secondly meaning can be defined as “to intend or have a purpose”, such as “I meant to do it”.

Based on these definitions he suggests that to say that human life has meaning is to believe that “life has a purpose which can be signified or explained”. 

It is important to note that in order for life to have meaning it is not enough for it just to have a purpose, if that purpose is one which no one is aware of. Rather for life to have meaning it must have a purpose which people are able to signify or identify with.

Why do human beings need there to be a meaning of life? There has been much speculation as to the source of the seemingly universal need for meaning among humans, but as with many questions of philosophy there is no clear consensus. The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, who greatly influenced Nietzsche, suggested that it is the inevitability of suffering combined with the awareness of the inescapability of death that creates in human beings the desire for there to be a meaning to life.

But that issue aside, a further question which needs to be dealt with is: ‘where have human beings typically found this desired meaning?’ Strange as it may initially sound, the meaning of life has for a huge number of people traditionally been thought to be located another reality. This alternate reality, which is commonly called the ‘true world’ has often been seen as the source of truth and value and believed to be a destination, with the purpose of life being to attain entry or access to this alternate world either upon one’s death or in some cases during life. In our first lecture on Nietzsche and the will to power we designated such theories as two-world theories.

Two world theories have dominated thought for thousands of years, and in doing so provided meaning for countless individuals. Common two-world theories are Plato’s world of forms, Descartes spirit world, Kant’s noumena, and the heaven of Christianity.

The Christian heaven, in particular, has been the most prominent two world theory in the west for nearly 2000 years. Christian teachings gave individuals the conviction that their lives, no matter how difficult, were for something; that is, there was a purpose to their earthly existence and this purpose was to live according to the will of God so as to attain entry into the kingdom of heaven upon one’s death. This ‘story’ is a powerful ‘antidote’ against nihilism, as it provides individuals with a much desired purpose and meaning to life, ensuring the believer that no matter how much suffering they may endure in this life they will be guaranteed entry into a blissful reality upon their death.

It is important to understand that the roots of nihilism, stretch back well beyond the beginning of the modern period. Nietzsche in fact suggested that a feeling of pessimism was the beginning of nihilism, and pessimism towards the meaning of life can clearly be seen in the writings of many ancients including the Greek poet Theognis, who lived in the sixth century BC:

“The best for man were not to have been born and not to have seen the light of the sun; but, if once born (the second best for him is) to pass through the gates of death as speedily as may be.”

However, as Nietzsche explained, pessimism is only a ‘preliminary form of nihilism’. No matter how much suffering, pain, and hardship one is forced to endure in life, nihilism will not arise as long as one has the conviction that there is a meaning or purpose to life. The popularity of Christianity lay in the fact that it could provide people from all walks of life – even the crippled, incurably sick and dirt poor – the conviction that despite all the suffering and evil they had to endure in their lifetime, their life ultimately had a purpose.

As Ernest Becker put it:

“the most remarkable achievement of the Christian world picture: that it could take slaves, cripples, imbeciles, the simple and the mighty, and make them all secure heroes, simply by taking a step back from the world into another dimension of things, the dimension called heaven.” (The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker)

In his book the Death of God and the Meaning of Life, Julian Young explains that:

“For most of our Western history we have not talked about the meaning of life. This is because we used to be quite certain we knew what it was.” (The Death of God and the Meaning of Life, Julian Young)

And as was mentioned earlier, it was Christianity which provided western civilization with that answer to the question, ‘what is the meaning of life?’ But as is well known, the role Christianity played in the Western world began to falter in the 16th and 17th centuries. And it was the ascendency of science which was primarily responsible for this decline in adherence to Christian dogma. Nietzsche used the phrase ‘god is dead’ to symbolize the loss of faith in the two-world theory of Christianity, and understood that with this loss of faith a crisis regarding the meaning of life was inevitable.

If one looks back to the beginning of the scientific revolution, it is obvious that science and nihilism go hand in hand. This idea is captured by a quote from the modern nobel prize winning physicist, Steven Weinberg, who stated that “the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless.”

Nietzsche, in his book The Gay Science, reiterates the idea that science and the meaninglessness of life go hand in hand:

“A “scientific” interpretation of the world, as you understand, might therefore still be one of the most stupid of all possible interpretations of the world, meaning that it would be one of the poorest in meaning. This thought is intended for the ears and consciences of our mechanist who nowadays like to pass as philosophers and insist that mechanics is the doctrine of the first and last laws on which all existence must be based as on the ground floor. But an essentially mechanical world would be an essentially meaningless world. Assuming that one estimated the value of a piece of music according to how much of it could be counted, calculated, and expressed in formulas: how absurd would such a “scientific” estimation of music be! What would one have comprehended, understood, grasped of it? Nothing, really nothing of what is “music” in it!” (The Gay Science, Friedrich Nietzsche)

A theory espoused by the philosopher Giordano Bruno in the late 16th century has been pointed to as one of the early scientific seeds of nihilism and it is good of example of the way in which scientific theories degraded the meaning that people found in religious worldviews.

In combining the views of Copernicus with his heliocentric universe, Nicholas of Cusa and his idea of the infinite nature of the universe, and the views of the pre-Socratic philosophers Leucippus and Democritus concerning atoms,Bruno put forth a theory where the sun was only one of an infinite number of stars scattered throughout an infinite universe. Bruno also suggested that there could be other planets accompanying some of these stars where like on earth, life might exist. This clearly did not fit in with the Christian view of the day which had maintained a superior place in the cosmos for humans, but rather seriously degraded man’s place in the universe.

While science provided answers to many practical questions and improved life in many unforeseen ways, unlike religion, science did not provide answers to questions concerning the purpose and meaning of life, rather it instigated a skeptical attitude which merely cast doubt on the views of Christianity and other religions.

Nietzsche, writing in the late 19th century, seems to have anticipated the growing wave of nihilism which would grip the Western world especially following World War I, when it played a significant role in the thought of such philosophers as Bertrand Russell, John Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Franz Kafka. He understood that Christianity had thus far provided individuals with the conviction that life had meaning, and therefore with ‘the death of god’ a gnawing feeling that life is meaningless would inflict ever more people. Modern civilization, Nietzsche thought, would be defined by how this feeling was dealt with and eventually overcome. In the opening of Nietzsche’s work titled The Will to Power he says:

“What I relate is the history of the next two centuries. I describe what is coming, what can no longer come differently: the advent of nihilism. . . For some time now, our whole European culture has been moving as toward a catastrophe, with a tortured tension that is a growing from decade to decade: relentlessly, violently, headlong, like a river that wants to reach the end, that no longer reflects, that is afraid to reflect.” (The Will to Power, Friedrich Nietzsche)

Nietzsche had his own unique views on nihilism, which is why he is one of the most read and quoted on the subject. And in the next few lectures we will examine in more detail these fascinating views of his. In the next lecture we will look at suffering and the role it played in Nietzsche’s nihilism.

Further Resources

Good Places to Start One’s Study of Nihilism
The Specter of the Absurd: Sources and Criticisms of Modern Nihilism (1988) – Donald Crosby
The Self Overcoming of Nihilism (1990) – Keiji Nishitani
The Dark Side: Thoughts on the Futility of Life from the Ancient Greeks to the Present (1994) – Alan Pratt
The Banalization of Nihilism: Twentieth Century Responses to Meaninglessness (1992) – Karen Carr

Nietzsche and Nihilism
The Will to Power – Friedrich Nietzsche
The Affirmation of Life: Nietzsche on Overcoming Nihilism (2009) – Bernard Reginster
Nietzsche: A Collection of Critical Essays (1973) – Robert Solomon

Other Nihilistic Works
The Trouble with Being Born – Emile Cioran
A Short History of Decay – Emile Cioran
The Plague – Albert Camus
The Fall – Albert Camus
The Rebel – Albert Camus