In the last lecture we investigated the connection between suffering and nihilism. We saw that when one comes to realize that suffering is an inescapable part of this life, and that the ideal of lasting happiness is an impossibility, one often begins to wonder what the point of it all is and sets out on a path that could very well lead to nihilism. As a quick reminder, nihilism, as we are using the term, is the conviction that life is meaningless, or that it lacks a purpose.
However, we also noted that even for those who set out on such a pessimistic path, nihilism is not the inevitable end result. Most people, at one time or another, entertain pessimistic thoughts about life and wonder about the purpose of it all, or even if there is one, however, the human race is not populated with an overwhelming majority of nihilists. Why is this?
As Nietzsche explained in a passage from The Will to Power, ‘an escape remains’. This path of escape from nihilism is one which has been used by vast numbers of people throughout history, and involves finding the desired meaning of life by believing in the existence of what is called a true world.
In this lecture we will investigate the nature of true world theories. In particular, we will examine the structure of them, look at the existential fears they help to suppress, and examine the main types of true world theories which have been popular throughout history.
Julian Young provides a perceptive definition of the main characteristics of true world theories, and explains why these theories are so effective in convincing individuals that life has a purpose:
“A true world is a destination; a destination such that to reach it is to enter…a state of ‘eternal bliss’, a heaven, paradise, or utopia. Hence true world philosophies…give meaning to life by representing it as a journey; a journey towards ‘redemption, towards an arrival that will more than make up for the stress and discomfort of the travelling.” (The Death of God and the Meaning of Life, Julian Young)
Nietzsche was very interested in true world theories. He understood that a lot of the great philosophical and religious systems throughout history were true world theories, and was interested in how so many otherwise intelligent and rational individuals could believe in such theories, which he viewed as absurd fantasies. When he began to look at the varying types of true world theories, he noticed a commonality between all of them. Every true world theory shared the same basic structure. Nietzsche called this structure the ‘ascetic ideal’.
The ascetic ideal structures existence into two realms, or domains, which correspond to two different realities. There is a domain of higher value, the true world, and a domain of lower value, this earthly existence. True world theories claim that the true world is more valuable because it is the home of lasting bliss, happiness, and truth, while this earthly existence is of little to no worth because it is filled with suffering and ends in death.
All true world theories, being structured by this ascetic ideal, claim that the meaning or purpose of life is to overcome this earthly existence and obtain entry into the true world.
Nietzsche saw true world theories as the sole source of meaning for mankind so far in history, a thought that is expressed in a passage from On the Genealogy of Morals where he writes:
“Apart from the ascetic ideal, man, the human animal, had no meaning so far. His existence on earth contained no goal; “why man at all? – was a question without an answer…” (On the Genealogy of Morals, Friedrich Nietzsche)
Individuals who ascribe to true world theories look down upon this life as in many ways a nuisance or even a horror which must be overcome and left behind. Nietzsche articulated this idea by stating that such an individual adopts the stance of “judge of the world who in the end places existence itself upon his scales and finds it wanting.”
Not only do true world believers claim that a more valuable true world exists apart from this earthly reality, but furthermore, they feel that their ‘true’ or ‘real’ self belongs in the true world, and not in this deceptive and inferior shadow reality of everyday existence, as some see it.
Such theories satiate two fundamental human needs. In the first two lectures we discussed the first of these needs which true world theories satiate: that being, the need to believe life has a meaning.
The second need which true world theories fulfill is the all too human need for self esteem. Individuals crave a sense of self importance, and while most people search for this through social interactions, believing in a true world is another way in which individuals can feel that their self is of universal importance.
Speaking of the Christian true world theory in particular, Nietzsche understood that part of its popularity lay in the fact that:
“It granted man an absolute value, as opposed to his smallness and accidental occurrence in the flux of becoming and passing away.” (The Will to Power, Friedrich Nietzsche)
Human beings have for millennia felt themselves to be at the center of the universe, thus granting them with the sense of self-importance which every human craves.
Recognizing the intimate connection between the human need to feel important and nihilism, Nietzsche understood that when an individual no longer feels like they are “the collaborator, let alone the center, of becoming”, then nihilism becomes a very real possibility.
It will be beneficial to investigate the various types of true world theories in order to understand just how ubiquitous they have been throughout the history of civilization. We can identify three main types, or categories, of true world theories, which, as we mentioned earlier, all share the same general structure which Nietzsche called the ‘ascetic ideal’. The ascetic idea, as we saw, structures existence into 2 domains, the true world and this earthly existence.
Although Nietzsche didn’t characterize them as such, for the sake of clarity we will label the three types of true worlds as: temporal true worlds, monistic true worlds , and eternal true worlds.
Temporal true world theories do not claim that a separate world or reality exists apart from this reality. Instead, they assert that this reality of becoming or change is the only reality. However, temporal true world theories propose that this reality of becoming is being guided somewhere, and that at some point in the future this earthly existence will be radically transformed into a utopian ideal. The true world, in temporal true world theories, does not lie in some metaphysical realm, but instead exists in the future.
Temporal true world theories are closely related to philosophies of history, and because of this it will be beneficial to take a slight detour to understand exactly what a philosophy of history is.
A philosophy of history can refer either to theories which attempt to discern an underlying general pattern in history, or to the study of how historians can arrive at knowledge of past events. Here we are concerned with philosophy of history in the first sense.
A passage from the great philosopher and economist Ludwig Von Mises reveals the relationship between philosophies of history and temporal true world theories:
“Philosophy of history looks upon mankind’s history from a different point of view. It assumes that God or nature or some other superhuman entity providentially directs the course of events toward a definite goal….” (Theory and History, Ludwig von Mises)
A famous example of a philosophy of history is the one espoused by Karl Marx. Marx proposed that history was inevitably moving towards a period he called the ‘end of history’, driven by an impersonal force he called, but never clearly defined, “the material productive forces of society”. At this so called end of history all the trouble, suffering, wars, and pains that we are afflicted with, will cease and humans will live in a communist utopian reality of bliss.
The defining feature of monistic true worlds is the idea that, just as an individual wave is identical with the ocean it emerges from, an individual’s true self is identical with the universal spirit which it is an expression of. This idea is central to the teachings of Indian philosophy, and in particular Hinduism.
According to Indian thought, the world which most people think they live in, and the self which they identify themselves as being, is an illusion. In reality, everything is a manifestation of the one supreme and universal spirit, called Brahman, which not only gives rise to the universe and everything in it, but also transcends the universe.
Furthermore, while we take ourselves to be individuals set apart, or distinct from, the rest of the world, in reality we are an expression of the Brahman just like everything else. Hinduism calls our true self ‘atman’, and in fact declares that this true self is identical with the universal spirit, brahman.
The goal of life, according to Indian philosophy, is to transcend or shed the veil of illusion which blinds us to the real nature of things, and realize that everything is literally one with everything else because everything is Brahman. This idea is expressed in a famous formula contained in the Upinashads, the most important Indian philosophical text. The formula states:
“Men call it by many names, but the sages know it is one.”
Monistic true worlds confer meaning on life by giving individuals the conviction that their real self is something which transcends their apparent individuality. As Nietzsche wrote in a passage contained in The Will to Power:
“Some sort of unity, some form of “monism”: this faith suffices to give man a deep feeling of standing in the context of, and being dependent on, some whole that is infinitely superior to him, and he sees himself as a mode of this deity.” (The Will to Power, Friedrich Nietzsche)
Eternal true worlds theories have been the most dominant true world theories in the history of western civilization. In our first lecture on Nietzsche and The Will to Power, we referred to such theories as two-world theories. Such theories claim that alongside this earthly reality exists another, more valuable and eternal reality. An eternal true world is held to be the antithesis to this reality in that it is thought to be one of permanence and perfection, as opposed to this earthly reality which is a reality of change and pervaded with deficiencies.
Those who believe in eternal true worlds believe that access to them is possible after death, and because of this such theories have usually posited that individuals have a soul which can maintain an independent existence from the body. Upon one’s death, and given the right conditions, this soul will drift away from the earthly reality and enter the eternal true world.
The most well known eternal true world theory is that of Christianity. Christian teachings were accepted almost unquestioningly by the vast majority in the western world from about the 4th century, when the Roman Emperor Constantine made it legal to practice Christianity with the Edict of Milan, until approximately the 18th century, when a number of thinkers elucidated philosophies that were the seeds of the coming intellectual revolt against Christianity.
The true world theory of Christianity is often seen as imitating in many respects some of the ideas of Plato, most prominently in regards to Plato’s views on the afterlife. Some have suggested a direct Platonic influence on Christian teachings as many early Christian theologians, such as St. Augustine, were greatly influenced by Platonic and neo-Platonic ideas.
One of Plato’s ideas that some believe influenced Christianity was his idea of the soul. Plato claimed that each individual has an immortal soul, which was their true self, and the goal of life was to liberate this soul from the confines of the body and have it enter the true world, which he called the reality of Forms. Thus it is apparent that the notions of the afterlife put forth by Plato and by Christian theologians, although differing in some respects, are fundamentally very similar.
Eternal true world theories, along with all the other true world theories we have investigated in this lecture, stave off nihilism by granting individuals with a meaning to their existence, or in other words with a purpose to their lives which inevitably overcomes the temporal, and sometimes miserable, nature of earthly existence.
Now that we have a clear understanding of the nature and variety of true world theories, we are in a position to proceed to understand Nietzsche’s declaration ‘god is dead’. In the next lecture we will investigate why Nietzsche thought ‘god is dead’, and what exactly he meant by such a pronouncement. This will prepare us for the following lecture, where we investigate the phenomenon of nihilism from Nietzsche’s perspective.
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