Nothing you ever wanted to know about Nihilism.

(And couldn't be bothered to ask.)


Nihilism is the characteristic value-disease of our times. The word comes from the Latin root for "nothing", with more ancient connexions with the word for "trifle". Nihilism is the general phenomenon of human values having no evocatory power, in that questions about meaning fail to yield answers that are trustworthy or in the truth, but rather a void of senseless silence. While episodes of nihilism could be identified throughout our species' cultural history, the label is usually applied to the crisis of valuation that now grips the planet's pre-eminent culture, the so-called 'Western' or Euro-American culture.

The concept of nihilism recieves its most penetrating analysis in the work of the German genius Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), who called nihilism "the most uncanniest of guests". Writing in the twilight of the nineteenth century, Nietzsche sketched an overall theory of value, in which the human animal invents value mattrices with which to survive within, and perhaps to dominate, his physical and psychological environments. Nihilism is the result of a faulty value-system turning back on itself and its human creators, ultimately devaluing itself and causing the experience of nothingness on the many levels of human consciousness.

Specifically, Nietzsche accuses the platonic/christian schema of being inadequate to the needs of superior human beings, in that it promotes an anemic and unaesthetic worldview. This worldview is based on the illusion of another, more real world than the one we inhabit on earth, a supersensible world for which our actions here become merely derivative rituals. Plato's Ideas and the Christian God become the guarantors of all meaning for our lives. But Nietzsche maintained that this was a fiction that detoured us from being human, and that made men and women into slaves fettered to a herd mentality that strangled our profound creative urges. Nietzsche saw this platonic/christian worldview coming apart at the seems in the twentieth and twentyfirst centuries. The results, he said, would be an increasingly frantic search for new sources of meaning by the European mind, including cataclysmic wars and the pursuit of ever more powerful forms of intoxication.

The history of our century, with its global conflicts and increasing chemical, sexual, and materialistic orgiastics are instructive in this regard. For even if we indulge in ever more intense means to pleasure, behind it all still looms the life-shattering question: Why?, the question that in the presence of nihilism admits no answer. Why exist, why strive, why love and create? Why not untruth? Why not nothing rather than something, why not pain rather than pleasure? Nietzsche's formulation is that the nihilist is the person who judges the world as it is that it ought not to exist, and that in this light our lives are essentially in vain, sealed off from any "ought", from any meaning. In other words, our value-systems do not allow themselves to exercise power or attempt to seek and create happiness, but instead are mired in resentment and endless rationalization. We are machines that are constructed so as to inform ourselves that we have no purpose and no beauty.

Nietzsche saw nihilism as both the great curse and the great opportunity. Man, he said, might very well destroy himself because of nihilism, either through physical destruction or by turning to a nihilistic religion in which man would die spiritually. But he also hoped that perhaps a new race of philosophers would arise, who could both look into the sun of nihilism without blinking and who could legislate a new order of value, new "tablets", Nietzsche called them, for the strong creative minority to live by, values that would serve their creators rather than enslave and demean them. This effort Nietzsche called the revaluation of values, and he went mad in the effort to shape the course of this revaluing. It remains for us to be honest and cheerful in the light of nihilism. We are all nihilists--those who deny it have not yet awakened to the necessary evolution of their own diseased value structures, or refuse to see out of cowardice. Those of us who look over the edge and peer into the void must call up new tablets of values out of ourselves. It cannot be done so long as we are human.

For Nietzsche, at least, the answer lay in becoming more than human. He postulated the Ubermensch, the so called Superman, who could make meaning for himself, a creature as different from the human as we are from the ape. Unless we become Supermen, we are really nothing at all, and are destined to remain so. As to how the Superman can be brought about, Nietzsche and his alterego Zarathustra give us hints, but nothing more. It is up to a new race of philosophers with hammers to teach themselves the Superman.


Amazingly Nietzsche is still alive, you can e-mail him at: