What do you believe in? What gives your life meaning? How do you know what’s true? If you can answer these questions without saying ‘nothing,’ you’re not a nihilist. Nihilism, most simply, means believing in nothing. The word is derived from Latin, nihil, which means ‘nothing.’
Nihilism can mean believing that nothing is real, believing that it’s impossible to know anything, believing that all values are based on nothing, especially moral values, or believing that life is inherently and utterly meaningless. We will discuss these different kinds of nihilism through its history and in section five.
Most philosophers have feared nihilism, believing that it leads to hopelessness, immorality, weakness, and destruction. Nihilism has probably been the most universally demonized philosophy in the Western world. In the East, it’s quite different, because, Buddhism is considered nihilistic by many philosophers, but is thought to lead to compassion and peace. We will discuss this too in the following sections.
Although many philosophers have considered nihilism almost synonymous with amorality and the idea that life has no meaning, this point of view may be outdated. Nihilism gained its fame during the years when people in the Western world were just beginning to cope with the idea that there may be no God, or that all value systems are relative to culture, and they couldn’t imagine living a moral or meaningful life without God and traditional culture to fall back on. However, more recent generations have seen more optimistic versions of nihilism (see section seven).
II. The History of Nihilism
Nihilism was named by the philosopher Friedrich Jacobi in the early 19th century; Jacobi believed that Immanuel Kant’s transcendental idealism implied what we will call metaphysical nihilism—the idea that nothing is real. Although this was not to be the most famous and supposedly dangerous form of nihilism, it was a criticism of Kant’s philosophy. Jacobi was not a nihilist. However, this motivation for nihilism—the analysis of reality as a subjective construction of minds, is a central reason for most forms nihilism—the recognition that in one way or another all meaning in the universe is created by the minds of those that perceive it.
The roots of nihilism in the Western world go back to the Greeks (like everything in philosophy!) The ancient Greek Skeptics believed that one should doubt, question, and examine all beliefs. Whether there would be any truths left afterwards remained an open question. The skeptical attitude became a crucial element of science and reason, but did not bear the fruit of nihilism in the West until after rationalism and materialism became major philosophies in the 18th and 19th centuries. Together, rationalism and materialism implied to many people that the universe was a soul-less machine, therefore devoid of ‘real meaning.’
The first famous nihilist was a fictional character in Russian author Turgenev’s novel Fathers and Sons. And this reflected a reality; nihilism was growing rapidly in Russia at this time and in the late 19th century, it became political nihilism, a movement against both the church and the Russian government—a rejection of all traditional authority. Rationalism, materialism, atheism, anarchism, nihilism, and the possibility of violent revolution all seemed closely related at that time—which is also why nihilism is still associated with violence and destruction in many minds.
At the same time, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, the most famous theorist of nihilism, argued that the world at that time was bound to become increasingly nihilistic for many years, and therefore full of despair, immorality, and pointless destruction. But, he also claimed that it was probably necessary for humanity to go through such a period in order to wipe away the irrationality of age-old traditional beliefs and eventually create a better basis for ethics and life-meaning. Of course, Nietzsche’s ‘superman,’ the perfection of humanity, would be a nihilist, not bound by inherited ideas, creating his or her own meaning, according to their will.
Nietzsche recognized that developments in philosophy were going to encourage all of us towards nihilism—rationalism, materialism, skepticism, science, and the recognition of cultural relativity. Many philosophers saw this ‘problem’ and many agree that Nietzsche’s predictions were correct, that we have been living through the horrors that he foresaw resulting from nihilism. It would be easy to argue that much of the immorality and pointless violence we see in the world today is partially rooted in nihilism; but, we must then also note that a lot of violence is also caused by the opposite of nihilism—faith in traditional beliefs.
If 19th century philosophers saw nihilism as an approaching demon, 20th century philosophers saw it as a fact of life and searched for ways to cope with it. Existentialism, the central philosophy of the 20th century, was certainly nihilistic. And depressingly so for many; existential nihilism focuses on the ultimate meaninglessness of existence. Existentialism taught that there is no objective meaning; but, existentialists also emphasized our freedom to create meaning. And this is where nihilism began to move in a better direction. The existentialists, although often depressed, promoted the idea that we can (in fact must) give life our own meaning.
In the second half of the 20th century, new philosophies developed carrying nihilism in another direction–which many philosophers find at least as distressing as any previous versions! Those are the philosophies / art movements of deconstruction and post-modernism. Deconstruction was a method of analysis which showed in many ways how meanings are constructed, supposedly with no ultimate foundation—no solid reality behind them. And post-modernism consisted mainly of artists playing with the consequences of deconstruction and trying to create new human meaning out of this nihilistic world-view.
Is nihilism necessarily destructive?
Every version of nihilism (see section five) has been feared by people who felt that without a foundation in objective truth or faith, it is impossible to have morality, life-meaning, or knowledge. However, there are many philosophies, such as secular humanism, Buddhism, and post-modernism which claim that it is possible to develop new and better forms of morality, knowledge, and life-meaning, without reliance on faith, which may be seen as deceptive and limiting. Buddhists base their morality on the recognition that all living things suffer and depend on each other. Post-modernists use new artistic techniques that recognize the artificially constructed nature of meaning, such as when characters in movies speak directly to the audience. So, it seems that nihilism can also lead to new and valuable forms of morality and meaning-making.
IV. Famous Quotes about Nihilism
“I praise, I do not reproach, [nihilism’s] arrival. I believe it is one of the greatest crises, a moment of the deepest self-reflection of humanity. Whether man recovers from it, whether he becomes master of this crisis, is a question of his strength”
― Friedrich Nietzsche
As remarked above, Nietzsche is known for sounding the alarm about nihilism in Western philosophy. More interesting is that he saw nihilism as an opportunity for humanity to master itself, and a test of our strength. It can be inferred from his other writings that Nietzsche though human beings could and should create positive meaning, if they could free themselves from the limitations of irrational traditions.
“But today’s society is characterized by achievement orientation, and consequently it adores people who are successful and happy and, in particular, it adores the young. It virtually ignores the value of all those who are otherwise, and in so doing blurs the decisive difference between being valuable in the sense of dignity and being valuable in the sense of usefulness. If one is not cognizant of this difference and holds that an individual’s value stems only from his present usefulness, then, believe me, one owes it only to personal inconsistency not to plead for euthanasia along the lines of Hitler’s program, that is to say, ‘mercy’ killing of all those who have lost their social usefulness, be it because of old age, incurable illness, mental deterioration, or whatever handicap they may suffer. Confounding the dignity of man with mere usefulness arises from conceptual confusion that in turn may be traced back to the contemporary nihilism transmitted on many an academic campus and many an analytical couch.”
― Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
In this quote, Victor Frankl claims that our society values people only for their usefulness, and blames this attitude on a kind of nihilism, which he associates with academics, and psychotherapy. He is talking about the reduction of human meaning, by reason, to materialism and functionalism—that the only things that matter are materials and what things (or people) do, practically. He argues that if you really believe in this world-view you should support the idea of killing off all useless members of society, as Hitler wished to do. Frankl’s fear that nihilism could support Nazi-like policies was a common fear among philosophers in the mid-twentieth century.
V. Types of Nihilism
Here, we define each type of nihilism, most of which are also discussed in sections I and II.
The philosophy that we cannot know anything for sure. Also known as radical skepticism. This might be considered the ‘gateway philosophy’ for nihilism. It seems to be a consequence of rationalism.
The belief that nothing is real, or that nothing ‘really’ exists. Historically, based on idealism—the philosophy that everything is made of either ideas, or consciousness. Buddhism could be considered a kind of metaphysical nihilism.
The rejection of faith in traditional authorities including the government and the church—also specifically a movement of this sort in late 19th century Russia.
The philosophy that existence ultimately has no meaning, including no God, no afterlife, and no transcendental domain of any kind. Often thought of as a philosophy of despair.
The belief that there is no solid basis for morality or any ethos, and therefore, that anything is permitted. Many people have felt this is a necessary consequence of atheism, but most atheists disagree.
Deconstruction and Post-modernism
Methods of literary analysis and art based on the idea that all meanings are constructed by minds and culture, and have no real basis.
Buddhism teaches a form of idealism—that consciousness is the fundamental reality, and that all conceivable objects and thoughts are temporary, illusory, and ultimately empty—like thoughts. “Form is emptiness; emptiness is form” is a major Buddhist quote. However, in Buddhism, this realization is supposed to lead to compassion and peace.
VI. Nihilism versus Atheism
Historically, nihilism has been closely associated with atheism—the belief that there is no God. Because traditionally, people were raised to think of God and religion as the ultimate source of meanings and morality. However, although atheism, or at least agnosticism, would seem to be a necessary part of nihilism, they are not the same. An atheist may still believe in meaning, morality, or even spirituality. For example, nature-worshipper can be atheists but still believe in nature. And some atheists, such as Buddhists, believe in the goodness of human nature and the value of compassion.
VII. Pop culture
Example #1: Fight Club
Popular film has been full of nihilists—Tyler Durden of Fight Club, Agent Smith of the Matrix, Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight all express nihilistic world-views. Fight Club seems to examine the causes and consequences of contemporary existential nihilism, but not necessarily to promote it; although the urge to “burn it all down” has a cathartic appeal to many viewers, in the end, the protagonist tries to save lives, perhaps showing that he is not a total nihilist.
And now, for something completely different:
Eric Idle’s “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” from Monty Python’s film The Life of Brian:
The setting for this musical number makes the main lyrics of this song bitterly absurd; in this context, they express the meaningless absurdity of life. You will notice though, that as the song goes on, the lyrics more and more directly express a philosophy of existentialist nihilism. The Life of Brian was banned in Britain for years, due to its implicit atheism.