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On nihilism

April 25, 2009

I guess I’m a notorious SparkNotes armchair philosopher.

Let me explain. I don’t consider myself a reader at heart (to be quite honest…reading doesn’t captivate me. I remember being in English class reading an essay by Annie Dillard about how “the written word is weak.” And I remembered that this was the first essay I had ever strongly identified with in my life. Movies and video games and all of these other media can immediately use visual effect and auditory effects to captivate your attention, but traditional books just have words on a page. The goal is to write in such a way that people get past the mechanics of words-on-page and instead experience the story behind that. But for me, I rarely get past words-on-page. I think I wrote about how I liked the internet, blogging, shorter articles, and the like for a similar reason.)

So, anyway, what I’m trying to say in a roundabout way (shame on me for using such a gigantic parenthesis) is that this is going to be an article about nihilism…coming from a guy who never read a book by Nietzsche from cover to cover, but has read enough internet articles about those books to think he has the idea down.

Once upon a time, I had no contact with Nietzsche. I had heard that phrase, “God is dead,” and I brushed it off. The most I knew about Nietzsche was that pseudointellectual teens liked to quote lines from him, completely missing his point. (ex- “God is dead.”) So, for a while, I was turned off from Nietzsche simply because I didn’t want to be seen as pseudointellectual.

But then I realized that there was no escaping it.

I was not about to read a translation of 19th-century German piece of philosophy (my dislike of reading is only outmatched by my dislike of reading translated 19th century works), so instead, I went from blog to blog, wikipedia article to article, and so on. And as I read, I thought that perhaps I was understanding what Nietzsche was saying, and I thought I might be able to agree.

In the first place, what these pseudointellectual teenagers failed to realize was what “God is dead” means. And I don’t know if I have it right, but here’s my interpretation.

God’s death needs to be taken in a context. It is just part of a quotation.

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?

From this and other ideas of Nietzsche, I get the idea that “God” stands for some organized universal Truth. (See my ideas in Truth vs. truth). Over time, we have anchored an idea of universalized Truth that keeps people in control. We have done so through mysterious and mystical forces. This has worked, as long as we took these mystical forces for granted. Over history, however, these forces have been whittled away (in Nietzsche’s time, I guess it was industrialism and the secularizing trend in Europe, but in our time, we still face secularizing trends). And so, we began to scorn the very foundation that allowed us to have universal Truths. And I think this is apparent in the idea of apatheism, which I’ve also written about. Even among many believers and theists, they do not internalize the reality of God (because God is dead), and so they are, at best, apathetic about their belief. Even though most Americans claim to believe, their belief is not transformative to create more Christlike (or whatever religious ideal the people follow) people. Instead, people follow religion only culturally and ficklely.

Nietzsche predicted that this death of God — or rather, the idea of the mystical and supreme — would eventually cause people to doubt morality at all…because since for so long, we have anchored morality with God, if God has no sway over people, how can morality have sway over people?

This is nihilism. Nihilism arises from God’s death…it is the eventual realization, through the pervasive and irreverent spotlight of forces such as secularism, empiricism, naturalism, etc., on the dark areas of superstitution that gets us to realize that Santa Claus isn’t real, and the devil is a ‘metaphor’, and the very Meaning we interpreted into the universe isn’t real. The universe is meaningless, cold, and desperate.

Where I think pseudointellectual teens go wrong is that they take the snippet but fail to realize that that was not all Nietzsche said. Nietzsche latered elaborated about the need for Ubermenschen, or Overmen, to rise forth and create new values on new tablets. In fact, it was rather…dare I say it…existentialist. Even if we figure out that there is no objective meaning, we still use a will to power to create meaning. We don’t have an essence (uselessness) that precedes our existence (we are here). Rather, we are here, so now because we are here, it is up to us to create subjective meaning from the ground up.

I am fan of nihilism and existentialism. I think that many times, believers come to this conclusion that it is just too frightful to consider the possibility of not having a Universal Truth, so they will believe anything as long as they don’t come to that level. And then other times, people fail to realize that even if someone accepts nihilism, this doesn’t mean their life is a cesspool of nothing. Because on the other end of nihilism is the fact that people still have the option to press through meaninglessness with subjective meaning and subjective perspective.

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10 Comments
  1. I think you’d better go back and read Nietzsche himself. I’m not sure you realize just “how” subjective meaning gets created. It doesn’t come from reading, I’ll tell you that much.

  2. who suggested that it did come from reading?

  3. Patrick permalink

    I prefer Kierkegaard’s great optimism to Nietzsche’s emo garbage

  4. Why read? To learn how to avoid pain.

    Enjoy your “subjective meaning”.

  5. jeffsdeepthoughts permalink

    One of the challenges of Neitzsche is that even he is not consistent in how he uses terms, phrases, and ideas. I suspect that there are a number of different meanings to “God is Dead.”
    The other thing to be clear on is that generally speaking, the “morality” of the overman isn’t a morality in any sort of conventional sense. The novel “Crime and Punishment” is a fairly powerful refutation of what the morality of an overman might look like.

  6. re Patrick:

    And in fact, I think that in the end, the goal is to realize that Nietzsche isn’t the end-all be-all. I just think that where I have disagreements with Kierkegaard is that he’s trying to turn God and Christianity (things which are not generally existentialist at all…these are things that have traditionally tried to define the essence of life, the essence of humanity , the essence of the universe) and then he tries to make them work with existentialism.

    He does find some of the same things as Nietzsche though (e.g., when secularization hits the church, it nullifies the message and impact of Christianity.)

    Re FJ:

    One day, I wish I could become as cryptic as you.

    Re jeffsdeepthoughts:

    I certainly agree. Not to mention in the last years of his life he completely went insane with his ideas.

    What I meant to say though is that even if we take nihilism from a base level, this isn’t all there is. He didn’t advocate, “Oh hey guys, let’s just wallow in this nihilist conclusion.”

    I guess you can also see that the specific ‘morality’ of the overman itself is not the goal, the idea of the overman as opposed to the last man is critical.

  7. Just happened to be thumbing through the blog pages when I ran across this. Interesting article for one who has read nothing of his work in itself. I’m glad that you were outspoken against those who misconstrue Nietzsche over that one phrase, “God is dead”. Not even the highlight of his work!
    Your last paragraph is very interesting though. I think that it is the case that people would rather have belief in something tangible (i.e. universal truth, etc) instead of this anxiety of creating their own meaning. I think that subjective meaning has a problem all in itself though; it is inherently individualistic and selfish, and because the latter of the two has been identified as a vice for so long, it may be quite some time before anyone can fill the shoes of the Ubermensch.
    I think that you should read about Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence theory (the metaphysical one, not the material one). It might give another insight into dealing with nihilism.

  8. Adam,

    Thanks for commenting.

    The way I see it, I think that believing in something tangible (i.e., universal truth) doesn’t escape the inherent individualism and selfishness of the process…after all, people can resonate with a particular framework…like, say, a religion and its universal truth. They can fail to resonate with others. So, if this is the case, then people can still be picking what is meaningful to them in an individualistic and selfish way.

    It’s just that they do it in an inauthentic way. They do it in a way that gives them the comfort of saying, “OK, this is what God wants, so I’ll do it,” so they can abdicate a bit of the responsibility.

    I’ll look into it. I need to start reading a lot of these things anyway so I can know what the heck I’m talking about when I post (haha)

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Variability in human purpose « Irresistible (Dis)Grace
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