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What, According To Nietzsche, Is The Cause of “Nihilism” And How Might We Respond To It?

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What, according to Nietzsche, is the cause of “nihilism” and how might we respond to it?


Among the 19th century philosophers, Friedrich Nietzsche is most commonly associated with the concept of nihilism. Put simply, nihilism is the belief in the nonexistence of truth. Nihilism as a philosophical position is the view that the world, and especially human existence, is without meaning, purpose, comprehensible truth, or essential value. It is more often a charge leveled against a particular idea than a position to which someone is overtly subscribed. Movements such as Dada, Deconstructionism, and punk/black metal/ death metal/ metal/goth have been described by various observers as "nihilist". Nihilism is also a characteristic that has been ascribed to time periods: for example, Baudrillard has called post modernity a nihilistic epoch, and some Christian theologians and figures of authority assert that modernity and post modernity represent the rejection of God, and therefore are nihilist.

Prominent philosophers that have written on nihilism include Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger. Nietzsche described Christianity as a nihilistic religion, because it removed meaning from this earthly life, and focused instead on a supposed afterlife. In texts from the tradition prior to Nietzsche, the term connotes a necessary connection between atheism and the subsequent disbelief in values. It was held
the atheist regarded the moral norms of society as merely conventional, without any justification by rational argument. Furthermore, without a divine authority prohibiting any immoral conduct, all appeals to morality by authority become hollow. By the atheists reckoning then, all acts are permissible.

With Nietzsche's appearance on the scene, however, arrive the most potent arguments denying the necessary link between atheism and nihilism. As philosopher and poet Nietzsche's work is not easily conformable to the traditional schools of thought within philosophy. However, an unmistakable concern with the role of religion and values penetrates much of his work. Contrary to the tradition before him, Nietzsche launches vicious diatribes against Christianity and the dualistic philosophies he finds essentially life denying. Despite his early tutelage under the influence of Schopenhauer's philosophy, Nietzsche later philosophy indicates a refusal to cast existence as embroiled in pessimism but, instead, as that which should be affirmed, even in the face of bad fortune. This essay will study in further detail Nietzsche view of Schopenhauer and Christianity as essentially nihilistic.

Nihilism is often associated with the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who provided a detailed diagnosis of nihilism as a widespread phenomenon of western culture. Though the notion appears frequently throughout Nietzsche's work, he uses the term in a variety of ways, with different meanings and connotations, both positive and negative. One general way in which he describes nihilism is "as a condition of tension, as a disproportion between what we want to value (or need) and how the world appears to operate." When we find out that the world does not possess the objective value or meaning that we want it to have or have long since believed it to have, we find ourselves in a crisis. Nietzsche asserts that with the decline of Christianity and the rise of physiological decadence, nihilism is in fact characteristic of the modern age, though he implies that the rise of nihilism is still incomplete and that it has yet to be overcome. Though the problem of nihilism becomes especially explicit in Nietzsche's notebooks (unpublished in his own life), it is mentioned repeatedly in his published works and is closely connected to many of the problems mentioned there.

Nietzsche characterized nihilism as emptying the world and especially human existence of meaning, purpose, comprehensible truth, or essential value. This observation stems in part from Nietzsche's perspectivism, or his notion that ‘knowledge’ is always by someone of some thing: it is always bound by perspective, and it is never mere fact. Rather, there are interpretations through which we understand the world and give it meaning. Interpreting is something we cannot go without; in fact, it is something we need. One way of interpreting the world is through morality, as one of the fundamental ways in which people make sense of the world, especially in regard to their own thoughts and actions. Nietzsche distinguishes a morality that is strong or healthy, meaning that the person in question is aware that he constructs it himself, from weak morality, where the interpretation is projected on to something external. Regardless of its strength, morality presents us with meaning, whether this is created or 'implanted', which helps us get through life. This is exactly why Nietzsche states that nihilism as "absolute valuelessness" or "nothing has meaning" is dangerous, or even "the danger of dangers": it is through valuation that people survive and endure the danger, pain and hardships they face in life. The complete destruction of all meaning and all values would be tantamount to suicide or mass-murder.

Nietzsche discusses Christianity, one of the major topics in his work, at length in the context of the problem of nihilism in his notebooks, in a chapter entitled 'European Nihilism'. Here he states that the Christian moral doctrine provides people with intrinsic value, belief in God (which justifies the evil in the world) and a basis for objective knowledge. In this sense, in constructing a world where objective knowledge is possible, Christianity is an antidote against a primal form of nihilism, against the despair of meaninglessness. However, it is exactly the element of truthfulness in Christian doctrine that is its undoing: in its drive towards truth, Christianity eventually finds itself to be a construct, which leads to its own dissolution. It is therefore that Nietzsche states that we have outgrown Christianity "not because we lived too far from it, rather because we lived too close". As such, the self-dissolution of Christianity constitutes yet another form of nihilism. Because Christianity was an interpretation that posited itself as the interpretation, Nietzsche states that this dissolution leads beyond skepticism to a distrust of all meaning.

Stanley Rosen identifies Nietzsche's concept of nihilism with this situation of meaninglessness, where "everything is permitted"." According to him, the loss of "higher", metaphysical values which existed in contrast with the "base" reality of the world or merely "human" ideas give rise to the idea that all human ideas are therefore valueless. Rejection of idealism thus results in nihilism, because only similarly transcendent ideals would live up to the previous standards that the nihilist still implicitly holds. The inability for Christianity to serve as a source of valuating the world is reflected in Nietzsche's famous aphorism of the madman in the Gay Science. The death of God, in particular the statement that "we killed him", is similar to the self-dissolution of Christian doctrine: due to the advances of the sciences, which for Nietzsche show that man is the product of evolution, that earth has no special place among the stars and that history is not progressive, the Christian notion of God can no longer serve as a basis for a morality. Alternately, some have interpreted Nietzsche's comment to be a statement of faith that the world has no rational order.

One such reaction to the loss of meaning is what Nietzsche calls 'passive nihilism', which he recognizes in the pessimistic philosophy of Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer's doctrine, which Nietzsche also refers to as Western Buddhism, advocates a separating oneself of will and desires in order to reduce suffering. Nietzsche characterizes this ascetic attitude as a "will to nothingness", whereby life turns away from itself, as there is nothing of value to be found in the world. This mowing away of all value in the world is characteristic of the nihilist, although in this, the nihilist appears to be inconsistent.

Nietzsche's relation to the problem of nihilism is a complex one. He approaches the problem of nihilism as a deeply personal one, stating that this problem of the modern world is a problem that has "become conscious" in him. Furthermore, he emphasizes both the danger of nihilism and the possibilities it offers, as seen in his statement that "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!" According to Nietzsche, it is only once nihilism is overcome that a culture can have a true foundation upon which to thrive. He wished to hasten its coming only so that he could also hasten its ultimate departure.

He states that there is at least the possibility of another type of nihilist in the wake of Christianity's self-dissolution, one that does not stop after the destruction of all value and meaning and succumbs to the following nothingness. This alternate, 'active' nihilism on the other hand destroys to level the field for constructing something new. This form of nihilism is characterized by Nietzsche as "a sign of strength", a willful destruction of the old values to wipe the slate clean and lay down ones own beliefs and interpretations, contrary to the passive nihilism that resigns itself with the decomposition of the old values. This willful destruction of values and the overcoming of the condition nihilism by the constructing of new meaning, this active nihilism could be related to what Nietzsche elsewhere calls a 'free spirit' or the Übermensch from Thus Spoke Zarathustra and the Antichrist, the model of the strong individual who posits his own values and lives his life as if it were a work of art.

Many postmodern thinkers who investigated the problem of nihilism as put forward by Nietzsche, were influenced by Martin Heidegger’s interpretation of Nietzsche. It is only recently that Heidegger’s influence on nihilism research by Nietzsche has faded. As early as the 1930s, Heidegger was giving lectures on Nietzsche’s thought. Given the importance of Nietzsche’s contribution to the topic of nihilism, Heidegger's influential interpretation of Nietzsche is important for the historical development of the term nihilism.

Heideggers method of researching and teaching Nietzsche is explicitly his own. He does not specifically try to present Nietzsche as Nietzsche. Rather he tries to incorporate Nietzsche's thoughts into his own philosophical system of Being, Time and Dasein.[ In his Nihilism as Determined by the History of Being (1944-46) Heidegger tries to understand Nietzsche’s nihilism as trying to achieve a victory through the devaluation of the, until then, highest values. The principle of this devaluation is, according to Heidegger, the Will to Power. The Will to Power is also the principle of every earlier valuation of values. How does this devaluation occur and why is this nihilistic? One of Heidegger’s main critiques on philosophy is that philosophy, and more specifically metaphysics, has forgotten to discriminate between investigating the notion of a Being (Seiende) and Being (Sein). According to Heidegger, the history of Western thought, can be seen as the history of metaphysics. And because metaphysics has forgotten to ask about the notion of Being (what Heidegger calls Seinsvergessenheit), it is a history about the destruction of Being. That is why Heidegger calls metaphysics nihilistic. This makes Nietzsche’s metaphysics not a victory over nihilism, but a perfection of it.

Heidegger, in his interpretation of Nietzsche, has been inspired by Ernst Jünger. Many references to Jünger can be found in Heidegger’s lectures on Nietzsche. For example, in a letter to the rector of Freiburg University of November 4 1945, Heidegger, inspired by Jünger, tries to explain the notion of “God is dead” as the “reality of the Will to Power”. Heidegger also praises Jünger for defending Nietzsche against a too biological or anthropological reading of Nietzsche during the Third Reich.

A number of important postmodernist thinkers were influenced by Heidegger's interpretation of Nietzsche. Gianni Vattimo points at a back and forth movement in European thought, between Nietzsche and Heidegger. During the 60s of the last century, a Nietzschean 'renaissance' began, culminating in the work of Mazzino Montinari and Giorgio Colli. They began work on a new and complete edition of Nietzsche's collected works and made Nietzsche more accessible for scholarly research. Vattimo explains that with this new edition of Colli and Montinari, a critical reception of Heidegger's interpretation of Nietzsche began to take shape. Like other contemporary French and Italian philosophers, Vattimo does not want, or only partially wants, to rely on Heidegger for understanding Nietzsche. On the other hand, Heidegger's intentions are authentic enough for Vattimo to keep pursuing them. Philosophers who Vattimo exemplifies as a part of this back and forth movement are French philosophers Deleuze, Foucault and Derrida. Italian philosophers of this same movement are Cacciari, Severino and himself. Habermas, Lyotard and Rorty are also philosophers who are influenced by Heidegger’s interpretation of Nietzsche.

Nihilism in philosophy

According to the nihilist, the world and especially human existence are without meaning, purpose, comprehensible truth, or essential value. Nihilism in most of its forms can be contrasted with postmodernism in that nihilism tends toward defeatism, while postmodernism finds strength and reason for celebration in the varied and unique human relationships it explores. Nihilism can also readily be compared to skepticism as both reject claims to knowledge and truth, though skepticism does not necessarily come to any conclusions about the reality of moral concepts nor does it deal so intimately with questions about the meaning of an existence without knowable truth.

Nihilism and Nietzsche

Though often called a nihilist, Friedrich Nietzsche defined the term as any philosophy that, rejecting the real world around us and physical existence along with it, results in an apathy toward life and a poisoning of the human soul. He describes it as "the will to nothingness" - in this sense the philosophical equivalent to the Russian political nihilism mentioned above: the irrational leap beyond skepticism, the desire to destroy. He saw this philosophy as present in Christianity and Christian morality, which he describes as slave morality, and in asceticism and excessively skeptical philosophy.

Nietzsche is referred to as a nihilist in part because he famously announced "God is dead!" What he meant by this oft-repeated announcement was not that God has passed away in a literal sense, but that we don't believe in God anymore, that even those of us who profess faith in God really don't believe. God is dead, then, in the sense that his existence is irrelevant to the bulk of humanity. "And we," he says in The Gay Science, "have killed him." Nietzsche recognized that, even though he viewed Christian morality as nihilistic, without God humanity is left with no epistemological or moral base from which we can derive our beliefs. Thus, even though nihilism has been a threat in the past, through Christianity, Buddhism, Platonism and any other philosophy that devalues human life and the world around us, Nietzsche tells us it is also a threat for humanity's future.

Nietzsche strongly placed himself opposite nihilism, advocating a remedy for its destructive effects and a hope for humanity's future in the form of the Übermensch, a position especially apparent in his works Also Sprach Zarathustra and The Antichrist.

Part of Nietzsche’s remedy for nihilism is the revaluation of morals – he hopes that we are able to discard the old morality of equality and servitude and adopt a new ideal: the encouragement of individuals able to shape their and others’ lives through the will. He attributes this concept of morality to the ancient Greeks, and calls it master morality. The Christian moral ideals - slave morality - developed in opposition to master morality, says Nietzsche, due to the resentment of the oppressed class, as their reversal of the value system of their masters.

The nihilist paradox

Nihilism is often described as a belief in the nonexistence of truth. In its most extreme form, such a belief is difficult to justify, because it contains a variation on the liar paradox: if it is true that truth does not exist, the statement "truth does not exist" is a truth, thereby proving itself incorrect. A more sophisticated interpretation of the claim might be that while truth may exist, it is inaccessible in practice. This avoids the immediate contradiction, but still does not avoid the problem of how to evaluate the claim.

Nihilism in ethics and morality

Nihilism in its moral sense is a complete rejection of all systems of authority, morality, and social custom. Either through the rejection of previously accepted bases of belief or through extreme relativism, the nihilist believes that none of these claims to power are valid, and often that they should be fought against.

On the subject of morality specifically, nihilism concludes that relativism renders the project of normative ethics, and the concepts of good and evil, meaningless - though not necessarily with the intent to follow this with any conclusions about society or authority, as there is no correct form for either social institutions or practical morality.


    * Our sense of the moral status of a person's actions, especially in Western society, seems to depend to a great deal on the economic status of the person in question. While it may be argued that this is its self immoral and should be changed, if morality in practice cannot meet its own standards or is to some degree unattainable, it would seem to lack adequate foundation.

    * Without a standard base on which to build a system of morality (God, law, ideals of freedom, justice, etc.), what is right and wrong is to some extent arbitrary.

    * As our knowledge of other cultures increases, it becomes more and more apparent that there is little ground for claims that human beings have some innate tendency toward specific concepts of good and evil.

    * The ideal of democracy taken to its logical extreme suggests that, insofar as society is concerned, right and wrong are defined by majority rule, not by absolute, eternal and unchanging laws of right and wrong. This leaves only one moral standard: "do what everyone else wants you to".

    * The supposed primacy of the individual and individual freedom in Western societies, especially America, when taken to its logical extreme leaves only one moral standard: "do what you think is right". Since what some people believe to be right varies in the extreme with what others may think is right, this leaves morality not only relative but undiscussable.

Epistemology and Nihilism

As an epistemological view, nihilism represents an extreme form of skepticism or relativism with regards to the knowability of truth and the legitimacy of claims to knowledge. In this respect it is identical with skepticism, though while skepticism does not necessarily make any specific moral claims or represent a single worldview, nihilism cannot be divorced from its moral conclusions and outlook.

Among philosophers, Friedrich Nietzsche is most often associated with nihilism. For Nietzsche, there is no objective order or structure in the world except what we give it. Penetrating the façades buttressing convictions, the nihilist discovers that all values are baseless and that reason is impotent. "Every belief, every considering something-true," Nietzsche writes, "is necessarily false because there is simply no true world" (Will to Power [notes from 1883-1888]). For him, nihilism requires a radical repudiation of all imposed values and meaning: "Nihilism is . . . not only the belief that everything deserves to perish; but one actually puts one's shoulder to the plough; one destroys" (Will to Power).

The caustic strength of nihilism is absolute, Nietzsche argues, and under its withering scrutiny "the highest values devalue themselves. The aim is lacking, and 'Why' finds no answer" (Will to Power). Inevitably, nihilism will expose all cherished beliefs and sacrosanct truths as symptoms of a defective Western mythos. This collapse of meaning, relevance, and purpose will be the most destructive force in history, constituting a total assault on reality and nothing less than the greatest crisis of humanity:

Since Nietzsche's compelling critique, nihilistic themes--epistemological failure, value destruction, and cosmic purposelessness--have preoccupied artists, social critics, and philosophers. Convinced that Nietzsche's analysis was accurate, for example, Oswald Spengler in The Decline of the West (1926) studied several cultures to confirm that patterns of nihilism were indeed a conspicuous feature of collapsing civilizations. In each of the failed cultures he examines, Spengler noticed that centuries-old religious, artistic, and political traditions were weakened and finally toppled by the insidious workings of several distinct nihilistic postures: the Faustian nihilist "shatters the ideals"; the Apollinian nihilist "watches them crumble before his eyes"; and the Indian nihilist "withdraws from their presence into himself." Withdrawal, for instance, often identified with the negation of reality and resignation advocated by Eastern religions, is in the West associated with various versions of Epicureanism and stoicism. In his study, Spengler concludes that Western civilization is already in the advanced stages of decay with all three forms of nihilism working to undermine epistemological authority and ontological grounding.

In 1927, Martin Heidegger, to cite another example, observed that nihilism in various and hidden forms was already "the normal state of man" (The Question of Being). Other philosophers' predictions about nihilism's impact have been dire. Outlining the symptoms of nihilism in the 20th century, Helmut Thielicke wrote that "Nihilism literally has only one truth to declare, namely, that ultimately Nothingness prevails and the world is meaningless" (Nihilism: Its Origin and Nature, with a Christian Answer, 1969). From the nihilist's perspective, one can conclude that life is completely amoral, a conclusion, Thielicke believes, that motivates such monstrosities as the Nazi reign of terror. Gloomy predictions of nihilism's impact are also charted in Eugene Rose's Nihilism: The Root of the Revolution of the Modern Age (1994). If nihilism proves victorious--and it's well on its way, he argues--our world will become "a cold, inhuman world" where "nothingness, incoherence, and absurdity" will triumph.



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