Since it became part of the zeitgeist of nineteenth-century Europe, nihilism has been blamed for virtually every atrocity committed by an unsound individual. This “philosophy of nothing” concludes that our universe, if agentless, is without intrinsic meaning. Thus morals and values are not objective, God-given truths but temporary human inventions. In recognizing that they are fictions, a person becomes a nihilist and is fated to confront the emptiness of existence. While nihilism is rationally sound, the philosophy runs counter to the needs of a society that relies on such fictions to maintain order. Traditionalists reason that if people loose the basis of morality, nothing will stop them from committing acts of baseless cruelty—and God help humanity if the cruelty spreads. These suspicions seem to be confirmed by the fact that the most evil figure of the twentieth-century admitted nihilistic influence, as did the century’s most infamous cult leader, and as have serial and rampage killers from Ian Brady to Eric Harris. Nihilism has begun to be ascribed to any person who kills, or orders killings, without good reason. Nihilism has become a catch-all description of violent hedonism.
This is a misunderstanding. An inherently nonaggressive point of view is misperceived as a rally cry for school shooters. We need to pry the philosophy away from the legacies of Hitler, Charles Manson and the Columbine massacre and put it where it belongs: nowhere. Any somewhere is far away from the nihilist ethos. Somewhere entails going out and acting. Mass murder entails acting. No nihilist is, has been, or will ever be, a mass murderer.
But, if not nihilism, what philosophy can explain the actions of a Hitler, a Manson or a Harris? The answer is a desire to overcome nihilism. Nihilism was an important step in their intellectual journeys, as it enlightened them as to life’s meaninglessness, but they betrayed nihilism once they killed—which was not prompted by nihilism, but by whatever ideology they chose to replace nihilism. For instance, Hitler took inspiration from Friedrich Nietzsche, who is considered one of the founding philosophers of nihilism. But Nietzsche was not a nihilist either. Nietzsche also came to the nihilist conclusion that objective meaning does not exist and lays out the faultless reasoning behind this claim, but the majority of his work is about overcoming the self-abasement that nihilism inevitably causes: by venerating one’s self; unleashing the superego; becoming an übermensch, a superman; grabbing meaningless life by the balls and enforcing your own meaning upon it. Nietzsche describes such a person thus:
He must yet come to us, the redeeming man of great love and contempt, the creative spirit whose competing strength will not let him rest in any aloofness or any beyond, whose isolation is misunderstood by the people as if it were flight from reality—while it is only his absorption, immersion, penetration into reality, so that, when he one day emerges again into the light, he may bring home the redemption of this reality: its redemption from the curse that the hitherto reigning ideal has laid upon it. This man of the future, who will redeem us not only from the hitherto reigning ideal but also from that which was bound to grow out of it, the great nausea, the will to nothingness, nihilism; this bell-stroke of noon and of the great decision that liberates the will again and restores its goal to the earth and his hope to man; this Antichrist and antinihilist; this victor over God and nothingness—he must come one day.
It is this triumphant worldview that attracted Hitler and so many others. Hitler indeed became a “man of the future,” but one of whom Nietzsche would have disapproved. The Nietzsche that Hitler knew was not Nietzsche at all, but Nietzsche’s sister, who took over her dying brother’s estate and reworked his novels, giving them a nationalistic and anti-Semitic bent. She would later join the Nazi party. When she died in 1935, Hitler attended the funeral. Nietzsche advocated for the individual, so those who connected his teachings to racial and political ideologies like Nazism did a disservice to his reputation. However, when a person has overcome nihilism, what can he replace it with but ideology? The famous so-called nihilists had been relieved of their morality, but not of certain ideologies. Ideologies cannot be created anew: they are informed by those that came before. The difference, however, between the ideologies that preceded Nietzsche’s doctrine of liberation, and the ones that followed, is that people were able to choose the ideologies that followed. To everyone who has overcome nihilism, the ideology they have chosen to replace it is the greater good. It has to be, because, as Nietzsche reasons, whatever is good for individual superiority is the only worthwhile good. This can’t be the greater good, since, as the multitude of conflicting belief systems attest, there is no single greater good. Rather, it is the individual’s own personal greater good: an ego venerated to such a degree by nihilism overcome that no act can be held reprehensible if it helps that ego achieve its ideal. In effect, nihilism has been, and continues to be, both an excuse to pursue a cause that harms people and an absolution of guilt for harming said people. Hitler was responsible for the deaths of millions because he pursued a racially pure global state, from which he’d emerge as the superman; Manson was in pursuit of a quasi-gnostic apocalypse, from which he would emerge as the savior; Eric Harris helped kill thirteen people to avenge his inferior status in the world and prove that he was, in death, superior to those whom he felt subjugated him. Thus, nihilism has been used as a post hoc justification for the most barbaric actions, which could not be reasonably explained in any other way. But what happens if nihilism is instead simply the conclusion of a rational search for truth? Nothing.
Yes, nothing. The nothing of nothingness. Nietzsche tried to reason something out of nothing to prevent both individuals—and civilization as a whole—from succumbing to nihilism. So it wasn’t pure philosophy but moral and practical considerations that fueled his fight for meaning in a meaningless world. It was a commendable goal, for he wished, ultimately, to assuage despair. He was successful in this, but he also caused people who already wished to cause despair to feel justified in doing so. Perhaps, then, it’s disposition that separates the nihilists from overcome nihilists. Fortunately, just one percent of people are psychopaths, which means that only one out of 100 nihilists would twist nihilism to fit a malevolent agenda. If nihilism predominantly arises as the unintended consequence of a rational search for truth, overcome nihilism will not be the result, since there’s no more intrinsic meaning in self-actualization than there is in Christianity, feminism or Game of Thrones. It’s all vanity. Believing nothing matters does not mean you can make something matter—it means nothing matters. So a moral or rational nihilist has no justification for following her ego to dangerous destinations. In fact, she doesn’t have justification for much of anything. Therefore, knowing the amount of suffering an individual in blind pursuit of her own greater good is liable to cause, isn’t nothing better than something?
Nihilism should not be overcome. Every person who has surrendered himself to nothingness means one less potential atrocity that will devastate society. With terrorist attacks and school shootings on the rise, this seems like an urgent need. Of course, a nihilist doesn’t take his orders from society. He takes them from nihilism, which reduces all action to senselessness. Nietzsche disparages those who were placated by nihilism, but nihilists might, in turn, deride Nietzsche for being a cop-out—so afraid of the implications of his philosophy that he created an invalid one in its place. Nihilists aren’t frightened by their insignificance; they’re frightened by those who don’t believe in their own insignificance and will do untold harm in attempting to prove their superiority. Thus, ironically, inasmuch as limiting suffering is the closest thing to a universal goal, a nihilist is doing the utmost good by doing nothing.
One could frame this as a sort of Pascal’s wager for morality: it’s better to do nothing than something if that something has been responsible for the worst atrocities in human history. In this case, something is the pursuit of an ideology. The rejection of ideologies, while nihilistic, is also a tenet of society’s other bugbear, postmodernism. You may have noticed several parallels between the two, because, after all, they are cut from the same socially constructed cloth. However, like postmodernists, nihilists don’t believe that morality is arbitrary. Good and bad are real terms with real consequences, but they’re dependent on perspective. In the eyes of most humans, the preservation of the human race is the ultimate good. In the eyes of an alien species, who want to build a hyperspace bypass right where Earth is located, this same goal is the ultimate bad. This conflict arises during every question of value judgments, and undermines value itself. The nihilist responds to this stalemate not with subjective, irrational, egoistic certainty, but by acknowledging the improbability of her ability to determine what is best from any or all perspectives. People who see this as an opportunity to implement their own personal greater goods do not possess, or have circumvented, this rational indecisiveness.
This case for nihilism is not about convincing people who think they are doing good that they are wrong: they may actually be doing good from a certain perspective. It’s about separating the public perception of nihilism from that of overcome nihilism, which is the philosophy responsible for countless egotists who have committed atrocities. Nihilism is simply what happens to people who have looked into the void and seen nothing. The void may not be a good thing to see, but those who look into it don’t see a swastika or a hammer and sickle or even their own reflection. They see nothing. Could there be anything more humbling?
The person who peers into the abyss at the edge of reason must take that last reasoned step. Landing at the bottom, he will tilt his head toward the light of the opening and see infinite ropes dangling within reach. The nihilist knows that the light is illusory, and that each rope leading out represents an equally irrational choice. What’s left for the nihilist at the bottom of the pit? At best, enlightened resignation. At worst, suicide. The nihilist who wishes to take out his existential angst on another person, or several, or six million, will not be so lucky.
It’s hard to find victims in the dark.