Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
—William Shakespeare, Macbeth
Many have asked whether we live in a nihilistic age. Political pundits often chide their opponents for embracing a nihilistic disdain for the facts and challenges of the era. Religious pundits discuss the culture of nihilism, in which we are all apparently embedded. Even pop culture figures like Batman and the Joker have increasingly become symbolic ciphers, playing out a conflict against meaninglessness and madness in our society.
Despite these ubiquitous concerns, it remains highly unclear just what is meant by nihilism. Some critics associate it with postmodern skepticism of universal truths, or even just the simple rejection of liberalism. Others claim its roots lie in the abandonment of a religious metaphysics, which held society together for centuries.
Nietzsche is perhaps the philosopher most associated with the problem of nihilism. In The Gay Science, he develops a searing parable of the madman who lit a lantern and ran into the marketplace, crying “God is dead.” The madman then goes on to articulate how our entire sense of the world must fall apart, without the divine figure to anchor us:
The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers. But—how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.
This sentiment remains powerful in our postmodern epoch, when long cherished certainties are increasingly under assault from every angle. An understanding of nihilism can help us get a better grip on the problem.
One of the ways in which nihilism can be understood is as a deepening psychological skepticism as to whether there is anything of true value. This should not be understood as classical skepticism, which was an intellectual project, dedicated to deconstructing foundationalist arguments about truth. While there are some parallels between the two schools of thought, the classical skeptics remained committed to the idea that there was some ultimate truth and value to the universe. They were simply reticent to say that it had been discovered, or that human reason was even capable of discovering it. By contrast, nihilistic personal skepticism does not just doubt that truth can be discovered, it argues that there is no truth to discover. Like Macbeth, such nihilists see the world as so much sound and fury, signifying nothing. There is therefore no real need to look too deeply into philosophical or other problems, since there is nothing to be gained from such activities. There are many different expressions of this psychological disposition. Some nihilists embrace subjectivist outlooks, claiming that the only meaning to be found in life is the individual’s personal opinions about good and bad. Others take a more dramatic view, closer to the Scottish tyrant’s: they see life as something approximating an accidental deviation from true reality, which is nothingness and annihilation. Life is but the shadow of death, a faint and thin specter cast on a wall, which vanishes when the light all too quickly burns out.
These stark psychological conclusions do not necessarily follow from the skepticism adopted by the personal nihilist. As Bernard Williams discusses in his book Morality, individual nihilists often hold that because nothing matters they can believe and value whatever they wish. This is not so, since there is such a thing as being a consistent individual nihilist: not anything goes. To be a consistent nihilist, one needs to accept that even one’s own beliefs cannot be prioritized, since that would be akin to valuing the personal self and its private satisfactions and opinions. If a person comes to value the personal self and its private satisfactions that implies she believes that something matters, even if only herself. This is why it is not clear that any person can be so consistently nihilistic that they would cease to value their own life and its pursuits, unless they take the option suggested by Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus and commit suicide. It may be that the individual nihilist is forced to value something so long as they remain alive, because otherwise they could not derive any reasons to act. For some existentialist philosophers, this necessity may provide some basis for deriving meaning from life.
While many of us have nihilistic moments, the need to find something to value likely keeps many of us afloat. For this reason, the problem of individual nihilism is often given less weight than the danger of cultural nihilism. The distinction is important. Critics of cultural nihilism don’t necessarily argue that individuals should value nothing in their personal lives—they may even express concern that questions of meaning are becoming increasingly personalized. Instead, they claim that cultural nihilism is engendered by the widespread rejection of shared values. They acknowledge that private individuals may still believe strongly in their value systems. But, without an almost universal consensus, we run the risk of cultural nihilism: a scenario in which we share very few opinions about what is important, and may even insist that those who reprimand others for their choices are being intrusive and tyrannical. The kind of culture which emerges is then one of broad pluralism and easy relativism, in which we aspire to create political structures that are inclusive, but that inhibit the pursuit of truly meaningful collective projects. Such a culture also tends to be materialistic, since, in the absence of a shared set of values, the only force that can truly hold us together is economic interest. A nihilistic culture is therefore kept in order primarily by excitement about the next iPad.
Critics of cultural nihilism often—though not always—tend to be critics of liberalism. Such critics include conservative traditionalists like Patrick Deneen, who wish for a return to more local communities, defined by shared values, and leftist analysts of capitalism, who bemoan the commodification of all areas of life by capital. The critical theorists of the Frankfurt School provide some good exemplars.
Suggested solutions to the problems of cultural nihilism vary. For conservatives, we need to re-entrench traditionalist values through a return to relative cultural homogeneity. They are often accused of illiberalism and excessive nostalgia—a desire to turn back the clock to some earlier, idealized time. Left-wing critics often claim that the solution is to look forwards, rather than backwards. With the end of capitalism, and the accompanying stultifying impact of what Mark Fisher calls “capitalist realism,” we will finally be able to create non-alienating communities, where individuals can cooperate harmoniously as a collective, while developing all sides of their personal natures.
Which is the best solution is beyond the scope of this essay. But, ultimately, nihilism is not primarily an individual or a cultural problem. It is a philosophical challenge that we must think our way through with integrity.
The former delusion of the happiness of life that had concealed from me the horror of the dragon no longer deceives me. No matter how much I tell myself that I cannot understand the meaning of life, that I should live without thinking about it, I cannot do this because I have done it for too long already. Now I cannot help seeing the days and nights rushing toward me and leading me to death. I see only this, and this alone is truth. Everything else is a lie.
—Leo Tolstoy, A Confession
One final way to conceive of nihilism is neither as an individual predisposition nor a cultural phenomena, but a philosophical problem. Of course, each of these conceptions is interrelated in important ways. Individuals living in a culture that is increasingly convinced that there are no firm answers to questions of value are likely to think there are good philosophical reasons for holding such a view. The difference is in the reasons for adopting the nihilistic standpoint. Individual nihilists believe that there is no truth to be discovered, so the only serious question is how to respond to the absence of meaning. They are largely uninterested in a deep analysis of why and whether their belief is true, since they are convinced of it for psychological reasons. For them, the solution to nihilism—if there is one—is therefore to value life and its pursuits for their own sake. Commentators on cultural nihilism may accept that private individuals have beliefs about what is of value, but are concerned that there is no shared acceptance of such beliefs. So, for them, the solutions must be political and social.
Philosophical nihilists are closer in spirit to Tolstoy. Nihilism is both a personal and a cultural problem, but it is first and foremost a challenge for the intellect. Unlike the individual nihilists, philosophical nihilists attack the problem using reason. They are therefore deeply committed to an analysis of philosophical, scientific and moral problems, and convinced that we must discover the truth reason reveals to us, regardless of our most sincerely felt convictions. The problem emerges when reason leads to the conclusion that nothing truly matters—not even a commitment to the truth, because the truth, seen unflinchingly, is that there is no truth. This is a serious problem for the philosophical nihilist, since it means that the psychological solution of simply committing oneself to valuing life and its pursuits for their own sake may not be enough. Philosophical nihilists need to live for something beyond themselves—they are looking for an external source that gives value to the world. This is probably why many philosophical nihilists have either taken the solution Tolstoy himself pursued—a return to religion—or accepted the need to develop an entirely new philosophy of life and mores.