Nihilism gets a bad rap.
My dictionary says, “Nihilism: the rejection of all religious and moral principles, often in the belief that life is meaningless.”
That’s a bit harsh. The belief that life is meaningless is more accurately described by the term existential nihilism. However, nihilism, as Friedrich Nietzsche described it, simply proposes that objective order doesn’t exist; there is no right or wrong, except that which we subjectively choose. We won’t have any luck finding a list of directives that definitively tell us how to live and what is best. Out the window goes the supernatural and along with it a huge collection of mythologies, conventions, and associated nonsense. What’s left? Existence. The individual’s experience and perceptions. The subjective.
This idea strikes many religious people as abhorrent. How can we live meaningful lives without something or someone telling us what we should believe, value, and cherish? Thus my dictionary’s leap from rejection of religious principles to meaninglessness. Contemporary society has largely come to view the nihilist as an immoral, despairing, lost soul.
The subjective is, at heart, René Descartes’s maxim: cogito ergo sum – I think therefore I am. Well, that’s kind of a jump, René, but whether objective existence is true or not, who cares? It seems to be, so let’s go with it. As long as we do, we’re jammed into human brains that come at life with individual wiring and histories. There may be an objective reality out there that makes impressions on us, but how else can we take it in except through the personal mind?
A human mind arrives in a world filled with chaos and ruled by natural selection. Even the nihilist will agree that some ground rules will help things move smoothly and make existence more convenient, if only for enjoyment’s sake. The rules aren’t codified somewhere. Rather, we choose as individuals and societies to endorse a list of behaviors we decide are right or wrong. And why not? We need to get along in this world. Better to make up a rule forbidding murder than being killed ourselves. Hence, Thou shalt not kill. It’s a way to protect the individual, the subjective. After all, if we don’t have the subjective, we have nothing. Moses knew that.
Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophical predecessor, held the will to live as a central tenet of his philosophy.
Good and Evil
“Would that he had remained in the wilderness and far from the good and the just! Perhaps he would have learned to live and to love the earth – and laughter too.”
–Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra
Humans have gone beyond right and wrong. Now many believe in good and evil, which are ostensibly viewed as objective manifestations of right and wrong. A person or entity will do right if they are good. A person or entity will do wrong if they are evil. To the tribal human mind, this is a simple way of transforming our subjective experience into a pretend objective truth. Consequently, it’s easy to know why others behave the way they do. What a clever trick! Instead of saying, that person did something we have agreed is wrong…I wonder why, we say, that person is messed up and we already know why; he’s evil. Oh, how the human mind gloms onto absolutes!
Nietzsche addresses the subject in Thus Spoke Zarathustra: “Do not be jealous of these unconditional, pressing men, you lover of truth! Never yet has truth hung on the arm of the unconditional.”
Friedrich Nietzsche rejected the idea of good and evil. He advocated for the individual to follow his own compass, not the strictures of society. Veering from Schopenhauer slightly but staying true to his own subjective character, Nietzsche took a different view on human will, which he calls, the will to power. This iteration of the basic human drive leans toward ambition rather than simply staying alive. Consistent with his striving nature, Nietzsche envisioned an ideal “superman” who is confident and capable of living a life without compromise and regret, a person who will choose his own fate. Though he may travel beyond good and evil, the superman is not beyond humanity.
Nietsche’s ideal man, the superman (Übermensch, in German, sometimes translated as “overman”), cultivates and expresses a unique will. Zarathustra informs his audience, “Whatever in me has feeling, suffers and is in prison; but my will always comes to me as my liberator and joy-bringer. Willing liberates: that is the true teaching of will and liberty.”
If the individual’s will is supreme, does this mean he can act only with self-interest? Certainly not. Many (perhaps most) people want what is good for themselves and for their kin too. Kin can be defined as family, tribe, nation, or even species. Nietzsche’s writings have led many to believe that he advocates for pure hedonism. However, the will is far more complex. Zarathustra urges his follower: “You shall build over and beyond yourself, but first you must be built yourself, perpendicular in body and soul. You shall not only reproduce yourself, but produce something higher.”
Nihilism as Meaning Maker
When the intrinsic value of beliefs and constructs has been tossed out, what’s left? A world ready for us to fill in the blanks. Yes, we will fill in those blanks with private meaning. Yes, many people will disagree. But this is more honest than pretending to know the truth and chastising others for their mistakes. It’s a world where we can begin to understand others not as evil or good but as individuals with unique histories and personalities. And it’s a world where the divine transcends our errors and lands squarely on everything else.
I have become one who blesses and says Yes; and I fought long for that and was a fighter that I might one day get my hands free to bless. But this is my blessing: to stand over every single thing as its own heaven, as its round roof, its azure bell, and eternal security; and blessed is he who blesses thus.
For all things have been baptized in the well of eternity and are beyond good and evil; and good and evil themselves are but intervening shadows and damp depressions and drifting clouds.
Verily, it is a blessing and not a blasphemy when I teach: Over all things stands the heaven Accident, the heaven Innocence, the heaven Chance…
–Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra