Active and Passive Nihilism

We are approaching the end of our journey through Nietzsche’s ideas on nihilism.

In this lecture we will examine the important but often overlooked emotional dimension of nihilism and introduce how individuals, especially today, utilize secular means to avert nihilism. We will then look at some of Nietzsche’s key ideas about nihilism which we have yet to cover; including his view of nihilism as a mere transitional stage, along with his interesting demarcation between active and passive nihilism.

In his book Beyond Good and Evil Nietzsche made a comment which seems especially relevant to nihilists:

“Gradually it has become clear to me what every great philosophy so far has been: namely, the personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir.” (Beyond Good and Evil, Friedrich Nietzsche)

This seems to be especially true of one who tries to defend nihilism; nihilistic philosophical arguments are usually invented afterwards to defend feelings of despair and dread over the utter futility of life, rather than being what leads one to such a position in the first place.

Victor Frankl emphasizes this point; nihilism, he states, cannot be treated as an abstract problem, rather, it is an existential problem that arises when one’s existence in the world becomes problematic. As he puts it: 

“nihilism as it is experienced – the actual ‘existential’ sense of the meaningless and futility of life – is not the product of an intellectual theory….” (Viktor Frankl)

As has been noted in previous lectures, in order for a meaning or purpose in life to be satisfactory, and thus to prevent the onset of the emotional feelings associated with nihilism,  most individuals need to be convinced that the purpose they believe in is objective. In other words, they must believe that such a purpose is not the arbitrary creation of one or a handful of individuals but rather that it exists written in the fabric of the universe so to speak. Nietzsche emphasized the point that historically human beings have been granted  this assurance through teachings espoused by what he called a ‘superhuman authority’.

In The Will to Power he explains:

“The nihilistic question “for what?” is rooted in the old habit of supposing that the goal must be put up, given, demanded from outside – by some superhuman authority.” (The Will to Power, Friedrich Nietzsche)

But belief in otherworldly sources for the answers to our existential questions has for many over the past century been harder and harder to swallow.

However, this need to find a purpose to one’s life is an unrelenting force, and today individuals are increasingly finding ways of averting nihilism which do not involve beliefs in the supernatural. Instead many are utilizing what can be seen as a secular alternative for finding meaning and purpose in life.

This alternative, which is a modern phenomenon, is the participation in mass movements. Such participation often includes supporting a political party or leader, a war, or just strongly identifying one’s self with their nation.

In the early 20th century, which as we mentioned in the previous lecture was the generation which Nietzsche prophesized would witness the rise of nihilism, this secular way of averting nihilism was taken to the extreme, and often resulted in totalitarianism and other revolutionary movements.

The two most infamous mass movements of the early to mid 20th century were Nazism and Communism. In an article titled “The Hungry Sheep” published in the early 1950s an astute writer described the appeal of communism and showed how it provided followers with a purpose:

“From the outside, the communist may look like an ant in an anthill, but to himself he may seem to be a comrade helping to carry out a great design – what in another context would be called the Will of God…”

The author says later in the article in regards to those who joined the communist movement:

“For the first time they ‘belong to’ something, to a ’cause’ – good or bad as it may be, but something at any rate which transcends their narrow personal interests and opens up a world in which each has his part to play and all can ‘pull together.’”

Through the feeling that one is an active and contributing member of one’s society, it is possible for many to obtain, to one degree or another, the existential certitude regarding the meaning of life which religions used to provide.

We will now proceed to examine some more of Nietzsche’s key ideas regarding nihilism. As we have already noted in previous lectures, Nietzsche himself went through a period of nihilism, writing that he had “lived through the whole of nihilism, to the end, leaving it behind, outside himself.” Through the process of enduring and eventually overcoming nihilism, Nietzsche obtained intimate knowledge regarding its nature.

Nietzsche didn’t think of nihilism as a satisfactory philosophical position so much as he thought of it as a disease, calling it ‘pathological’. Like any disease, those afflicted with nihilism should strive to rid themselves of it and for this reason, thought Nietzsche, nihilism could be considered as a transitional stage in one’s life. If one is stricken by nihilism they must use it to their advantage and learn the lessons which it has to offer, but ultimately it should not be the stopping point in one’s philosophical journey.

The reason for Nietzsche’s view of nihilism as a transitional stage was because he saw the nihilistic conclusion that life is meaningless as mistaken; a mistake resulting from an erroneous generalization.  Nihilists, after coming to the realization that the beliefs they had previously held regarding the meaning of life are false, all too often take this to imply that all beliefs in regards to life’s meaning are equally delusional. Instead of merely rejecting their old set of beliefs and continuing the search, they see the search as futile and give up on trying to find meaning altogether.

This erroneous generalization is similar to the line of reasoning taken by an individual who has their heart broken and proceeds to claim that love does not exist. The nihilist, in a similar manner, ashamed at themselves for believing in a meaning to life which they now understand to be false, makes the erroneous claim that there is no meaning to life whatsoever.

“Nihilism”, Nietzsche wrote, “represents a pathological transitional stage (what is pathological is the tremendous generalization, the inference that there is no meaning at all….” (The Will to Power, Friedrich Nietzsche).

It is when the nihilist realizes the error in his reasoning that nihilism becomes a transitional stage. Nietzsche arrived at this insight when he realized that the search for meaning and value in life is not futile, it is just that human beings have traditionally looked for meaning in the wrong places.

In fact, not only did he think it was possible to live a meaningful life, but Nietzsche thought all previous interpretations of existence had greatly underestimated just how meaningful human lives could be.

As we have discussed in earlier lectures, traditionally meaning has been found in a true world, apart from this earthly existence.  But the benefit for the nihilist who rejects true world beliefs is that they are then forced to search for meaning on this earth, if they are to have any hope overcoming the nihilistic disease. Those bold enough to undertake such a task, would according the Nietzsche, soon find that life is far more valuable than they ever could have imagined.

He wrote:

“In sum: the world might be far more valuable than we used to believe; we must see through the naiveté of our ideals, and while we thought that we had accorded it the highest interpretation, we may not have given our human existence a moderately fair value.” (The Will to Power, Friedrich Nietzsche)

Nietzsche didn’t think everyone in a state of nihilism was capable of curing themselves. He in fact differentiated between two types of nihilists; those who have the strength to overcome it, and those who do not. The former he called ‘active nihilists’, while the latter he called ‘passive nihilists’.

“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.” (The Will to Power, Friedrich Nietzsche)

The passive nihilist is the individual, who when confronted with nihilism, sees it as an  endpoint or a sign to stop the search for meaning. In short, this type of individual lacks the strength to make anything of their life, and unfortunately many who reach this stage will, as we discussed earlier, out of sheer desperation  attach themselves to some form of mass movement in a final attempt to find an objective purpose to life.

Eric Hoffer, in his book The True Believer, provides an intriguing analysis  of such an individual.

“To the frustrated a mass movement offers substitutes either for the whole self or for the elements which make life bearable and which they cannot evoke out of their individual resources.” (The True Believer, Eric Hoffer)

Like the passive nihilist, the active nihilist experiences the existential confusion and disorientation which accompanies the feeling that life is utterly futile and meaningless. However, instead of succumbing to this despair or diving blindly into a mass movement in order to soothe one’s fears, as the passive nihilist does, Nietzsche envisioned the active nihilist as an individual who charges forward and consciously destroys all the beliefs which previously gave meaning to their lives.

“[Nihilism] reaches its maximum of relative strength as a violent force of destruction – as active nihilism.” (The Will to Power, Friedrich Nietzsche)

After ridding one’ self of all the beliefs and attachments which previously gave their life meaning, the active nihilist stands alone in the universe, a true independent free spirit able to create meaning instead of having it imposed on him by an authority figure. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra Nietzsche poetically emphasizes  this point:

“A new pride my ego taught me, and this I teach men: no longer to bury one’s head in the sand of heavenly things, but to bear it freely, an earthly head, which creates a meaning for the earth.” (The Will to Power, Friedrich Nietzsche)

In the next lecture, the final of this series, we will investigate some of the ideas Nietzsche thought could help one overcome nihilism and thus allow them to create a fulfilling and meaningful life. We will investigate such fascinating topics as Nietzsche’s attempt to ‘revalue suffering’.

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