Suffering and the Meaning of Life

In the last lecture we introduced nihilism, discussed its history and significance, and introduced the four main types of nihilism: moral, epistemological, cosmic, and existential nihilism. We explained how existential nihilism encompasses the other three types of nihilism, and defined this type as  the conviction that life is meaningless, or in other words, that it lacks an identifiable purpose.

In this lecture we are going to take the first steps towards understanding Nietzsche’s ideas about nihilism in anticipation of the later lectures which examine his thoughts on how to overcome it. In particular, in this lecture we will explain why it is human beings need there to be a meaning to life, the connection between the need for meaning and suffering, and why traditionally this meaning has been posited to exist in another reality.

In the last lecture we introduced the notion that human beings need to believe that life has a meaning, and in cases where one is incapable of such a belief existential nihilism often results. Nietzsche was a thinker extremely sensitive to the importance and significance of this need. This sensitivity is apparent in a passage from his book, The Gay Science where he wrote:

“Gradually, man has become a fantastic animal that has to fulfill one more condition of existence than any other animal: man has to believe, to know, from time to time why he exists; his race cannot flourish without a periodic trust in life.” (The Gay Science, Friedrich Nietzsche)

Countless other thinkers have examined and attempted to understand this universal need for meaning, or as Nietzsche put it, this need of man to know ‘why he exists’. For example, the philosopher Ernest Becker noted that there have been reports of some primitive tribes who were unable to continue living after they were exposed to the influence of Western society for the first time, as this led to the realization that the meaning to life, of which they had previously been so certain, was not written in the fabric of the universe, so to speak.

In his book the Birth and Death of Meaning Becker explained that:

“Anthropologists have long known that when a tribe of people lose their feeling that their way of life is worth-while they may stop reproducing, or in large numbers simply lie down and die beside streams full of fish: food is not the primary nourishment of man.” (The Birth and Death of Meaning, Ernest Becker)

Becker in fact considered the need for meaning in life to be more important than did Nietzsche. Mankind must not only believe life to have meaning in order to flourish, as Nietzsche alluded to, but for Becker, mankind needs to be convinced life has meaning in order to survive at all.

What is it about human existence which creates the need for individuals to believe life has meaning? In the last lecture we noted that Arthur Schopenhauer argued that it is the inevitability of suffering combined with the awareness of the inescapability of death which creates the need for there to be  a meaning to life. Nietzsche too, likely influenced directly by Schopenhauer, claimed that the need for there to be a meaning to life is actually intimately related with the need for there to be a meaning to suffering. 

In his work On the Genealogy of Morals, he wrote:

“Man, the bravest of animals, and the one most accustomed to suffering, does not repudiate suffering as such; he desires it, he even seeks it out, provided he is shown a meaning for it, a purpose of suffering. The meaninglessness of suffering, not suffering itself, was the curse that lay over mankind so far.” (On the Genealogy of Morals, Friedrich Nietzsche)

More specifically Nietzsche believed that the ubiquitous need for there to be a meaning to life is caused by the fact that this life is filled with suffering, pain, loss, fear, anxiety, and ends not in happiness but in death. Thus, in order to endure the hardships of human existence, it is necessary for individuals to believe that their suffering has a purpose.

As we discussed in the introductory lecture the purpose of life – and hence  if one agreed with Nietzsche – the purpose of suffering, has traditionally been thought to  lie outside of this earthly existence. In order to find a meaning to life, individuals have posited the existence of another reality, thought to be superior to the world we experience in our day to day lives. The goal of life, according to those who hold such beliefs, is to attain entry into this superior reality. The question which must now be considered is why the meaning of life has traditionally been found in another reality, and not in this one.

While for many people human existence seems to be filled with evil, suffering, boredom, loss, and fear, there are moments in virtually everyone’s life where they experience a blissful sense of utter serenity and joy. For most people these moments are few and far between, but when one has such an experience the intensity of it will often leave a permanent mark on their mind.  Such experiences can cause an individual to set up a dichotomy between their  typical experience in life, which the German philosopher Goethe described as a “the perpetual rolling of a rock that must be raised up again forever.” and those rare experiences of pure joy.

The creation of a dichotomy between those rare moments of bliss and one’s typical experience of boredom and suffering, creates the desire to live a life filled only with those moments of joy. Individuals work ceaselessly to satiate their goals and desires, in hopes that in doing so pain and suffering will disappear from their life and they will be left with a lasting happiness.

However, try as we might, this ideal of everlasting lasting joy is an illusion, and individuals with sober minds soon realize that in this earthly existence utopian happiness is an impossibility. Rather, as human beings suffering seems to be an inescapable part of life with complete relief from it only possible with the annihilation of our existence, or in other words death.

This view of earthly existence as inhospitable to lasting happiness has driven many to very pessimistic views on life. Nietzsche in fact believed that pessimism was a preliminary form or doorway to nihilism, as we discussed in our first lecture of the series.

People come to pessimistic views on life from innumerable personal experiences, but those who do reach the view that this earthly existence is completely inhospitable to the ideal of lasting happiness have two main options. The first option is to claim that life, since it is filled with pain and suffering and ends in complete annihilation, is meaningless, or in other words one can become an existential nihilist. However, this is an option which most people attempt to avoid at all costs, for the despair felt over the meaninglessness of life can in extreme cases leave one bed-ridden and depressed, unable to strive or work towards anything.

Leo Tolstoy is a paradigmatic example of an individual who, after a spiritual crisis, became an existential nihilist for a period of time. He wrote:

“My life came to a standstill. I could breathe, eat, drink, and sleep, and I could not help doing these things; but there was no life, for there were no wishes the fulfillment of which I could consider reasonable. If I desired anything, I knew in advance that whether I satisfied my desire or not, nothing would come of it. Had a fairy come and offered to fulfil my desires I should not have known what to ask. If in moments of intoxication I felt something which, though not a wish, was a habit left by former wishes, in sober moments I knew this to be a delusion and that there was really nothing to wish for. I could not even wish to know the truth, for I guessed of what it consisted. The truth was that life is meaningless. I had as it were lived, lived, and walked, walked, till I had come to a precipice and saw clearly that there was nothing ahead of me but destruction. It was impossible to stop, impossible to go back, and impossible to close my eyes or avoid seeing that there was nothing ahead but suffering and real death — complete annihilation.” (A Confession, Leo Tolstoy)”

The second option has traditionally been the much more favoured option, as it is obvious from the passage just quoted that nihilism is not a pleasant state for one to experience. This option involves degrading this earthly existence, and positing the existence of a superior reality. Common examples of this superior reality is the heaven of Christianity, or Plato’s world of Forms, although there are many different varieties of such worlds. Nietzsche referred to this option as an escape in a passage from The Will to Power, as with this option one literally escapes from nihilism.  He wrote:

“…an escape remains: to pass sentence on this whole world of becoming as a deception and to invent a world beyond it, a true world.” (The Will to Power, Friedrich Nietzsche)

This second option staves off nihilism by condemning this world as an inferior and  deceptive world, and claiming that a more valuable true world exists apart from this earthly reality. A true world is an alternate utopian reality, a reality filled with happiness, bliss, and truth. It confers meaning on life by claiming that even though this earthly existence is for the most part a miserable ordeal, by living right one is able to enter into a true world and obtain that which all human beings want: a life filled with indestructible happiness and joy.

William James, in his book Varieties of Religious Experience, echoes the idea that what humans want is to rid themselves of all the detestable aspects of earthly existence and live a life full of lasting happiness and bliss:

“The fact that we can die, that we can be ill at all, is what perplexes us; the fact that we now for a moment live and are well is irrelevant to that perplexity. We need a life not correlated with death, a health not liable to illness, a kind of good that will not perish, a good in fact that flies beyond the Goods of nature.” (Varieties of Religious Experience, William James)

It is this desire to live such a utopian life, along with the realization that this earthly existence is inhospitable to such a life, which leads to an individual believing in a true world, and in doing so staving off the existential nihilism which afflicted Tolstoy.

Hopefully it is clear at this point the argument put forth by Nietzsche, along with other thinkers, that it is suffering and the realization of what one is headed for, which in Tolstoy’s words, is ‘complete annihilation’, that causes individuals to posit the existence of what Nietzsche called a true world. Belief that entry into such a world is possible keeps existential nihilism at bay by creating an identifiable purpose for life and all the suffering which accompanies it. As Nietzsche wrote in his book, the Antichrist:

“Man must be sustained in suffering by a hope so high that no conflict with actuality can dash it – so high, indeed, that no fulfillment can satisfy it: a hope reaching out beyond this world.” (The Antichrist, Friedrich Nietzsche)

In the next lecture we will investigate the nature and variety of true world theories, and come to understand that true world theories come in many subtle and deceptive forms apart from the well known theories of religion. This will set the stage for an investigation into the consequences of what Nietzsche proclaimed as  ‘the death of god’, which is symbolic of the growing skepticism in the modern era of belief in true world theories.

We will then conclude the lecture series by showing that Nietzsche did not think nihilism was a justified position, instead rather he thought of it as a disease. Being a disease, he thought it necessary for any individual afflicted with it to cure themselves, and believed there to be an immense benefit in facing nihilism head on and overcoming it.

 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