An ongoing scrutinization one of modern history's most controversial philosophies
Throughout the varied history of philosophy, theories have come and gone, each one attempting in its own way shed light on the great mysteries of life and death. Most have contributed substantially to this end, weaving countless threads in the greater tapestry of philosophical thought. Alternately, there are a select few schools of thought which would seek to achieve the opposite effect, tearing down the standards of conventional and rational human thought, leaving the idea of human existence utterly bereft of meaning, value, or purpose. In this essay I will scrutinize one such philosophy, called nihilism. Essentially the belief in nothing, this philosophy is often closely linked with misology, or the hatred of reason. Yet one would be mistaken to assert that a nihilst in fact ‘hates’ reason, just as an atheist does not ‘hate’ god. It is, like atheism, a refutation of sorts, though on a much larger scale.
In nihilism the entire structure upon which all life is based is called into question, taking principles which many other philosophies take as given aspects of life and refuting the value or purpose with which the vast majority of human beings believe them to inherently have. While many philosophies seek to find reason, definition, and law in the structure of the universe, nihilism conversely seeks to negate these concepts fully. It is through this reasoning, then, that the philosophy of nihilism reaches its subsequent culmination, in the assertion that truth, along with each of its various precepts (value, logic, meaning,) simply do not exist beyond the words that define them, which are literally nothing more than sound and ink on paper.
It is from this basic outline that one begins to understand the perspective of a nihilist, which is invariably quite distinct from that of any ordinary person. This unique outlook exists in two realms, that of the physical and of the existential, with the two often intertwining at various points in order to strenghten the overall message. Yet it is not this seperation of relams which makes the philosophy so unsual, rather the startling objectivity with which they are viewed. Through their eyes, the universe has and needs no explanation or meaning, it simply is. Even if one were to explain its nature or creation, it would make little or no difference, as it holds no value in the true scheme of life.
The creation of the planet earth as well, and the resulting life forms which evolved from the primordial sludge, cummulating in the existence of human beings, was simply a happy accident, its only uniqueness from the barren howling desserts of Mars being that it is able to support life. While it may be true that the earth is distinct in this regard, it is to a nihilist, no more exceptional than the rings of Saturn or the icy blackness of Pluto. While one’s initial reaction to such notions may be to decry them as fatalistic and defeatist, from the nihilist’s perspective such a response is merely the product of human interpretation, clearly formulated from emotion and ignorance, without the governing precept of pure objectivity as a guide.
As mentioned above, this understanding of the physical realm comprises only half of the nihilist philosophy, the other being rooted in the nonexistance of logic, truth, and value. Again we are presented with the unwavering objectivity of nihilism, which takes the fact that such concepts were created, defined, and perpetuated by mankind as proof of their ultimate worthlessness, as to a nihilist, the actions and words of a man hold no more value than the motion of a speck of dust as it is blown by the wind.
That these concepts may hold ‘value’ to human beings themselves is beside the point, when considered dispassionately and in broader terms. Barring the belief in some inexplicable higher power, such an argument is quite difficult to refute. After all, the one mainstay of nihilism, objectivity, is simply indisputable, invariably defeating the emotional and subjective attempts to refute its logic. Yet in my following critique, I will examine the true value of this objectivity itself, when applied so strictly to universal philosophy. It is my belief that, though apt in its argument, nihilism places far too much emphasis and importance on the aspect of complete and pure objectivity, while flippantly ignoring several insightful philosophical concepts which, in many cases, clearly condradict its governing theory and principles.
At this point in time we have clearly established and defined the concept of nihilism, as well as the basic reasoning behind it. Yet within the structure of nihilism’s argument lie several points of weakness, some obvious, others somewhat veiled. Taken cumulatively, these flaws and deficiencies unify to form an argument against this philosophy which I believe is just as compelling as nihilism itself, if not more so. I will begin with identifying and discussing a few of the more apparent contradictions within the philosophy, outlined below:
- Nihilsim is essentially a disavowment of logic and reason, yet logic and reason are clearly used in order to come to the conclusions made by the philosophy.
- Nihilism denies the existence of truth, yet in that asserting that truth is non-existent, one is simultaneously making a statement to the contrary, as they are making a statement which they believe to be true.
- In denying the existence of truth, nihilism inadvertently claims its own philosophy to be untrue, presenting yet another paradoxical condition.
- While nihilism states that there is nothing of true value in the universe, its strict adhereance to the concept of pure objectivity would seem to indicate otherwise.
- In attempting to adhere to a perspective that is essentially inhuman, nihilism presents a seemingly impossible proposition, asking for human beings to essentially abandon their inherent nature and assume a nearly celestial viewpoint through which to perceive reality.
It becomes apparent through even a cursory examination of the philosophy that it is fraught with contradictions and instances of circular reasoning, none of which can truly be explained or accounted for through nihilistic means. Here nihilism’s own adhearance to objectivity becomes problematic, as it is plainly unable to resolve these inconsistancies and disallows any other mode of thinking to be employed in its place.
Unfortunately, it seems to have been an standard of philosophical conversation to avoid approaching the subject of nihilism, when it is my belief that only through thorough analytical discussion can it's core beliefs be refuted. While many consider the the principles of this philosophy to be potentially dangerous if they were ever to become popularized, allowing them to remain shrouded in fear only serves to compound the problem. I view nihilism not as something to be abhorred or disregarded, but as a challenge, to be overcome just as any other. For what could be better proof of the meaningfulness of existence than the repudiation of a philosophy which states the opposite?
Of course one might ask why such discussion is even necessary when the majority of the population has most likely never even heard of this particular school of thought, and the answer is simple. One must only take a glance through the pages of history to understand the power of ideas. Even those such as nihilism, which even on the surface are deeply flawed and open to criticism have, time and time again, been allowed to hypnotize the masses into committing unspeakable acts in the name of progress. And imagine, if you will, how potentially detrimental this particular philosophy could become should it manage to rise into the popular consciousness. A growing mass of individuals with no conscience, no respect for life or those who inhabit it. It certainly at the very least a disconcerting prospect. To underestimate even marginally that which inherently governs and controls the entirety of humanity is a mistake from which terrible circumstances might arise.
When considering nihilism, one naturally must also contemplate it's relation to one of the only philosophers who ever sought to analyze it thoroughly, Friedrich Nietzsche. While those lesser informed might classify him as a follower of this philosophy, Nietzsche in fact vehemently opposed it's ideals, even going so far as to state that such destructive thinking had the potential to bring about humanity's destruction. He seemed to have thought of it as a test of sorts, hailing it's arrival as an obstacle which would truly confirm the strength of mankind should it be overcome. He believed that nihilism originated from those who had once believed in a 'higher power' but had lost faith, turning instead to earthly values, which they already had deemed to be of no value. To this end he devised a remedy, which he called Übermensch, or 'superman.' This was, simply put, a re-evaluation of human morality, which he believed could replace the typical Judeo-Christian idea of morality with one more in keeping with that of the ancient Greeks. That is, the idea of personal excellence over that of the group mentality. This would, in his view, extinguish the problem of nihilism before it could even begin.
While of course some Nietzsche's views may have been quite well founded, I personally find it quite unjustifiable to lay all blame entirely on any one religious sect. Simply because one Christian or Jewish individual only finds value in that he deems holy or pure does not in any way mean that another of the same faith necessarily shares his view. On the contrary, I have often found religious individuals to be quite compassionate and humane towards their fellow man, often more so than others. It is of course well known that Nietzsche was not particularly fond of most organized religion, which may or may not have had influence on his reasoning in this matter. However, I did not bring up his personal beliefs for the sake of arguing with them. To me, the importance of Nietzsche's reflections on the subject were that he realized the intrinsic danger of this philosophy, so much so that he focused a great deal of his attention on the creation of it's cure. And that even he, the notorious skeptic, believed that humanity could conquer nihilism, even if only through the sacrifice of the moral conventions which we value most. Nietzsche's concerns only serve to illustrate what those aware of the current collective philosophical mindset are already quite aware. Nihilism is a growing problem. Simply because one has never heard it be mentioned or discussed does not dilute it's presence, but only makes it's gradual poisoning of the human conscious all the more surreptitious.
My understanding of it's cause is similar in some ways to Nietzsche's, though not completely. While his focuses almost completely on those disillusioned with religion, I believe the problem to be due to the seemingly ever expanding popularity of materialism as well. While religion very well may be a factor in some cases, it also seems logical to me that an individual would grow disenchanted far more quickly with essentially meaningless material possessions than with a set of beliefs upon which to base one's life, which may very well be exceedingly valuable to the individual in question. Take for instance, the example of a typically wealthy businessman. He is without a partner, has no children, does not actively take practice any particular religious faith, and is exceedingly well-off financially. He is free, unfettered, and without care. He lives for himself, and no one else. While at first this lifestyle may seem incredibly desirable, this individual has unwittingly set out on the path towards nihilism. By focusing his time and effort on the attainment of possessions rather than anything meaningful, he has set himself up for a fall of immense proportions should he merely take a step back and come to understand how insubstantial that which he values truly is. It is at this point where we come to a crossroads of sorts. Here the individual must invariably turn one of three ways, either towards a structured, moralistic basis for living (i.e. religion,) a newly realized appreciation for that which is truly valuable, or towards nothingness.
What naturally follows is the question, what truly has value? And the simple answer is that the response will always depend on who is being asked. However, it has occurred to me that whenever an answer appears to be worthy of acclaim or admiration, the basis of it's reasoning always lies in others. While some labor tirelessly to support their families and others accumulate knowledge for the benefit of mankind, it seems that those who do not appear to be deluded by materialism consistently cite the well being of other human beings as the focal point of their life's work. It is through this simple realization, that those around us are worth caring for, worth protecting, I believe nihilism can be defeated. It is not the re-evaluation of our beliefs, but the consciousness and acceptance of what makes us human that will save us.