I Don’t Get It: Nihilism

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Words | Harry Fraser

Guten Tag readers and welcome back to I Don’t Get It, where each issue we explore something that gives off some complicated vibes but actually isn’t really complicated at all. For Extinction we are going to be delving into nihilism; the idea that everything is hopeless and meaningless. If you’re like me, 2020 really isn’t the time to be getting into this but trust me reader, there is some solace to be found in the rather beguiling idea of nihilism. 

Nihilism first came onto the scene in the late nineteenth century with German philosopher Fredrich Nietzsche’s grim diagnosis of modern society. Literally, nihilism means to believe in nothing, but such a definition is sorely lacking in my opinion. More detail is needed in order for nihilism to really make sense. 

According to Nietzsche, nihilism describes a particular occurrence in society, where established standards and frameworks of meaning have come undone and in this vacuum arises a sort of existential crisis and a sense of despair. This can most be seen in the loss of value. Here we aren’t talking about ‘values’ per se (although we kind of are in a sense), but rather the act of valuing something, which is detrimental to finding purpose and meaning in life. 

Putting this into the material terms, for Nietzsche nihilism was the disintegration of the foundation of moral meaning and value in Western civilisation. Judeo-Christian values and the inherited philosophical tradition from those like Plato once offered a metaphysical explanation for life. By metaphysical I mean the sense of a reality outside of human perception, a realm where nothing can truly be verified by us. For example, the soul or a metaphysical being like God. 

Despite my philosophy lecturers’ pleas to eschew negative definitions, to help define and understand nihilism it is useful to distinguish it from other ideas, such as pessimism and cynicism. Pessimism is the antithesis of optimism, the glass half-empty approach to life. It is easy to see how nihilism and pessimism can be confused but there is a crucial difference between the two. 

Nolen Gertz neatly explains this difference in reference to Woody Allen’s 1977 film Annie Hall, in which one character Alvy Singer, an obvious pessimist who is struggling to see the point of living, interacts with a couple on the street. The exchange goes something like this:

ALVY (He moves up the sidewalk to a young trendy-looking couple, arms wrapped around each other): You-you look like a really happy couple. Uh, uh … are you?

YOUNG WOMAN: Yeah.

ALVY: Yeah! So … h-h-how do you account for it?

YOUNG WOMAN: Uh, I’m very shallow and empty and I have no ideas and nothing interesting to say.

YOUNG MAN: And I’m exactly the same way.

ALVY: I see. Well, that’s very interesting. So you’ve managed to work out something, huh?

YOUNG MAN: Right.

Alvy is a pessimist and the couple are nihilists. Let’s explore why. While the pessimist is overtly grappling with a lack of meaning and purpose, restlessly stumbling through life with a sense of cynicism and melancholy, the nihilists are seemingly happy. Under scrutiny however, it becomes clear that the nihilist couple are not really happy but experiencing a sort of hollow and equally meaningless contentedness. 

When confronted by a pessimist, a nihilist is questioned as to what lies beneath, they discover there is actually nothing there to find. There is an optimistic complacency that underpins the nihilist couple’s outlook; they are at best wilfully blind and at worst delusional as to the superficiality of their happiness. 

Another associated school of thought is cynicism. A cynic ultimately sees society as false and all the morals and values within that society carry no value. Morals are a mirage for self-interest and ardent individualism and anyone who claims to be bound by morals is a liar. The cynic believes only in self-interest and again, it is easy to see how cynicism and nihilism can be confused. 

Just as pessimists are not nihilists, neither are cynics. A cynic gains fulfilment and purpose in life by uncovering and exposing the naivety of those who respect and believe in the power of morality and norms. They are dubious of people who believe that the world is good, rewards goodness and time unfolds in a positive progression, always improving. Once more, a cynic can reveal a nihilist by challenging their lack of cynicism. 

This is seen in the argument between Socrates and Thrasymachus in the opening of Plato’s seminal work Republic. Thrasymachus is introduced as mocking Socrates for asking people about what justice means. Thrasymachus asks to be paid in return for telling Socrates what justice truly is and ultimately defines justice as a trick used by the powerful to trick the weak into believing that obedience is justice. It follows then that injustice may be better than justice.

In response, Socrates likens political leaders to doctors who have power and knowledge to help others rather than themselves. Thrasymachus characterises such a view as naïve and argues that Socrates is like a sheep who think his shepherd that protects and feeds him does it because he is good instead of because he is fattening them for slaughter. Socrates then spends the rest of his time trying to prove that justice is better than injustice and appeals to metaphysical notions of the soul to do so. 

Cynicism can only really be counteracted by faith in a metaphysical world that rewards justice for the good of the soul, a claim that has no real grounds in the physical world. It is in this way that Socrates’ nihilism is revealed. We are confronted by the knowledge that under scrutiny, the justification of societal morals and values (at least in their traditional conception from philosophical and religious doctrine) does not exist in the real world. 

Nihilism then can be described as a mindset that is subliminally aware of a lack of meaning and value but by clinging to superficiality, you can avoid the existential dread that naturally follows this knowledge. This is the basis for Nietzsche’s famous aphorism: God is Dead. And we have killed Him.

Let’s unpack this. What Nietzsche is saying is not that God existed and is now dead, but rather that our belief in him is dead. God never existed except as an illusion and now we don’t even really believe in the illusion. 

This is where it starts to get good.

When we are unable to deny nihilism, the lack of inherent value and meaning in the things which we once considered, albeit misguidedly, full of meaning and value there are two typical responses: passive and active nihilism. 

Passive nihilism, or also described by Nietzsche as decadence, is a cultural phenomenon where people react to nihilism by clinging to the decaying values and morals. Instead of  facing the challenge of nihilism in critically evaluating existing moral structures and even positing new goals and values, passive nihilists engage in a form of pessimistic indulgence. 

The characteristics of such a society are decline, decay and despair; innovation is replaced by stagnation. The source of the problem lies in the fact that people are wilfully shutting their eyes to the reality that there is no metaphysical justice and people can actually do as they please. Yet stunningly, they continue to appeal to this non-existent source of metaphysical good. 

Let’s take some real-world examples to see decadence in action.

Harry Styles wearing a dress on the cover of Vogue magazine. Some conservative commentators like Candace Owens and Ben Shapiro signalled this act of dismantling fragile notions of patriarchal masculinity as an attack on Western values. They even went as far to coin the phrase “Bring Back Manly Men”, a call to action for proponents of toxic masculinity everywhere. 

If you’re like me, I found these responses to a man wearing a dress…intriguing. Firstly, why is wearing a dress not manly? Owens claims that no society can survive without strong men. To which a cynic responds, why is a man in a dress not strong? Any answer some conservatives might give to this are going to be problematic due to sexism or absurdity. 

The only argument I can think of is that it’s not commonplace in the West for men to wear a dress and our conceptions of masculinity have been normalised to the extent that breaking with norms is uncomfortable. Unfortunately, that is not a good enough reason to take on the role of fashion police. 

Under scrutiny, there is no valid reason as to why a man should be discouraged from wearing a dress. Yet in the face of expanding notions of masculinity and femininity, some still cling to values that have no basis. When confronted by the meaninglessness of the norm that men should not wear dresses (at least in the West), Owens and Shapiro are engaging in pessimistic nihilism. They cannot move beyond the sinking ship that is hegemonic or toxic gender norms and so they baselessly adhere to them.

But reader, there is another way. This is my favourite part, because in the face of nihilism, you can be active and respond to meaninglessness in a way that embraces the liberation is offers. Nietzsche himself regarded nihilism as a sign of increased power to the spirit. 

Despite the brutal reality that comes with nihilism, that the old has fallen away to leave nothing in its place, it is possible to find new values and goals. Rather than whipping a dead horse so to speak, one can engage in a process of re-evaluation of morals and values and in doing so, pushing beyond the pessimism and decadence. 

When you find that there is no reason, for example, for men to not wear dresses because it doesn’t threaten the fabric of society, you can instead form a new value that says, clothes are for people. Period. Why? Because it is of no consequence in the world whether someone wears one type of fabric or another. It doesn’t matter. 

You might be slugging away at a job you hate and think to yourself, “one day I’ll be dead, and no one will care that I felt a duty to do this job for whatever reason”. You can either feel a sense of dread at the futility of it all. Or, you can free yourself from whatever pointless factor that made you think you needed to take that job. 

If you ask yourself why you need to do or not do something and can’t find a good enough reason, it might be because there isn’t one. 

Nihilism has the potential to liberate. Using a critical lens to evaluate moral norms and societal values is an extremely helpful tool when navigating life and finding meaning for yourself. The key is seeing the freedom it offers.