Howard Phillips Lovecraft was an American writer of weird and horror fiction, who is known for his creation of what became the Cthulhu Mythos and the creator of the literary philosophy known as Cosmicism, emphasising the cosmic horror of the unknown.
“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”
H.P. Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927)
The main idea in Cosmicism is that there is no god in the universe and that human beings are insignificant in the vast realms of space and time. Some of Lovecraft’s greatest work portrays us human beings as ants on a vast stage. The main theme being humanity’s fear of their insignificance in the face of an incomprehensibly large universe: a fear of the cosmic void.
We are going to be exploring this peculiar philosophy and its similarities with absurdism, existentialism, and nihilism.
These three movements arose from the human experience of anguish and confusion stemming from the Absurd, ultimately diverging to different perspectives on life.
But before this, I’d like to give a brief new perspective on what could be improved from the definition of these three movements explained by Nihilist Enigma:
In this framework, Existentialism is viewed as the pursuit of meaning (most often in the context of death and or suffering).
Nihilism is recognising the reality that meaning is a phenomena of mind. That, in other words, meaning is not a thing that exists in any other context beyond minds.
And absurdism as being defined in the adherence to existentialism, despite the reality of nihilism.
In other words, the nature of absurdism is in the stark contrast between the seeming meaninglessness of the universe, and our endeavour to forge it.
It is the pursuit of meaning, with awareness of the reality that existence precedes the creation of meaning.
If you are interested in learning more about this, check out Nihilist Enigma.
But for now, let’s move on to the current belief of absurdism, existentialism, and nihilism.
Albert Camus, who gave rise to the philosophy of Absurdism, describes the Absurd in The Myth of Sisyphus as:
“the conflict between the human tendency to seek inherent value and meaning in life, and the human inability to find any in a purposeless, meaningless or chaotic and irrational universe.”
In other words, the inherent meaninglessness in the universe in which humans, nevertheless, are compelled to find or create meaning. In The Stranger, he refers to the universe as a “benign indifference”.
The solution to the absurd is embracing it as a human condition, without falling into the trap of physical suicide (which is going along with the absurd) and philosophical suicide (which is believing in a ready-made belief system).
Camus proposes us to rebel against the Absurd creating our own meaning, while simultaneously accepting it as a reality. In this way, the pursuit of inherent meaning is not possible, but the pursuit itself may be meaningful.
This is the only way our resolution to seek meaning can be found, until one is inevitably annihilated by death – rendering the activity “ultimately” meaningless.
Camus devalues or rejects free will, encouraging that the individual live authentically and defiantly in spite of the psychological tension of the Absurd.
In Existentialism we can find two different paths: monotheistic existentialism and atheistic existentialism.
Monotheistic existentialism is most commonly associated with Søren Kierkegaard, who wrote extensively on the absurdity of the world a century before Albert Camus. He proposes that one can only find inherent meaning in the universe through a leap of faith, believing in God – instead of embracing the absurd, which he regarded as “demoniac madness” in the Sickness unto Death.
Atheistic existentialism strongly diverges from this point of view – this path is mainly attributed to Friedrich Nietzsche.
Both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche provided the basic foundations of 19th century Existentialism, with Atheistic existentialism being formally recognised after the publication of Being and Nothingness by Jean Paul Sartre in the 20th century.
Without God, however, there is no inherent meaning in the universe – this became a reality, expressed in Nietzsche’s proclamation of the Death of God, with the decline of Christianity opening the possibility for the void of existence.
Of all types of nihilism (epistemological, metaphysical, moral, and so on), we are going to focus on existential nihilism, which has received the most literary and philosophical attention. It is the belief that we are insignificant, without purpose and unlikely to change in existence’s totality.
We sometimes experience an existential crisis, a state in which we re-examine our life in the context of death and are impacted by the contemplation of the meaning, purpose, or value of life.
This opens the possibility for passivity (a sign to stop the search for meaning) or to find a meaning regardless of the meaninglessness of life. Nietzsche who was the first philosopher to seriously study and write about existential nihilism, tells us to create new values, through self-overcoming and being one’s autonomous creator – avoiding passive nihilism.
In Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the main character can be seen as achieving a superhuman status because he laughs at the comedy of existence, including his own existence, because he knows that in the background there is nothing but absurdity and emptiness.
If you are interested in learning more about this, I have made a post specifically on Nietzsche’s notion of Superhuman Laughter.
The very goal of atheistic existentialism is then precisely this meaning-making in a world without inherent meaning, through an individual’s free will.
Let’s now move to Lovecraft’s Cosmicism. Although it is a literary philosophy, it has some interesting parallels with the other three philosophies mentioned earlier.
In Cosmicism, one is not to feel terror of the absence of meaning, but rather of one’s powerlessness in the vast, indifferent universe that one is surrounded by. This is similar to Camus’ “benign indifference” of the world.
Cosmicism shares some characteristics with existential nihilism. However, an important difference is the emphasis on the insignificance of humanity and its doings, rather than rejecting the existence of a higher purpose.
Lovecraft wrote a famous statement when he submitted his first major story on this subject in The Call of Cthulhu, which encompasses the main idea of his philosophy:
“[…] all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large … To achieve the essence of real externality, whether of time or space or dimension, one must forget that such things as organic life, good and evil, love and hate, and all such local attributes of a negligible and temporary race called mankind, have any existence at all […]”
Lovecraft had a pretty bleak view of life therefore Cosmicism may strike one as nihilistic and extremely pessimistic, however this is not quite so. Lovecraft thought of himself as neither a pessimist nor an optimist but rather as a “cosmic” indifferentist, a theme expressed in his fiction.
Things are important to humans on the human scale, but we simply don’t matter in the cosmos.
Lovecraft created his own fictional universe with powerful extraterrestrial beings and other cosmic forces, which function as symbols for the extent to which we don’t know about the universe, emerging from the depths of space and having accidental relations with human beings, casting us aside as if we were mere ants. In other words, they are not so much malevolent as they are indifferent toward humanity.
We can have no view of the scheme of things or our place in it because there may be no such scheme. The final result of scientific inquiry could well be that the universe is a lawless chaos. This is a disturbing vision with which Lovecraft would struggle throughout his life.
Lovecraft believed myth existed in order to shield the human mind from reality, however his own mythos seems to do the opposite: the “Outside” is more frightening than the world in which human beings live.
Many philosophies and religions are focused on the human, that humanity is the aim and end of everything, Lovecraft says no – that we are mere little specks in the midst of the Cosmos, and that there is so much out there that has nothing to do with us. He was a strong and antireligious atheist, considering religion not merely false but dangerous to social and political progress.
On the other hand, although fascinated by science, he was sceptical of our ability to cope with scientific discoveries that would reduce our inflated self-importance in the universe. In the opening paragraph of “The Call of Cthulhu”, he states:
“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”
The crucial question here seems to be whether there can be in principle any fact, any phenomenon or any knowledge that would really have for humankind in general, or for that vanguard who will have to bear the brunt of “first contact” with alien spheres and the unknown, such devastating consequences as set in this quotation.
This idea has never happened in human existence, even with such harsh blows to human pride as those struck by Copernicus, Darwin, and Freud, none of which caused any such reaction of cosmic despair, but rather rage. In other words, to settle the matter of science and truth into a matter of politics.
In Lovecraft’s fiction “hideous” knowledge is suppressed and locked up, but in our world, what was outrageous to one generation has been accepted almost as a banality by the next.
The human mind is not the centre of the universe. For Lovecraft, human beings are too feeble to shape a coherent view of the universe. He describes humanity as:
“miserable denizens of a wretched little flyspeck on the back door of a microscopic universe.”
This is a refreshing alternative to the anthropocentric philosophies in which so many find intellectual reassurance. It may seem an unsettling view of things; but an inhuman cosmos need not be as horrific as Lovecraft seems to have found it.
One might strike him as misanthropic, but this isn’t quite right – a true misanthrope would find the inhumanity of the universe liberating. There is no intrinsic reason why a universe in which people are marginal should be a horror-inducing place. A world vastly larger and stranger than any the human mind can contain could just as well evoke a sense of excitement or an acceptance of mystery.
Rejecting any belief in meaning beyond the human world, he also rejected the meanings human beings make for themselves. He had no interest in the lives of most people, and from his early years seems to have believed his own would count for very little. He was left without any sense of significance.
So, obeying an all-too-human impulse, he created his own realm of dark forces as a shelter from the deadly light of universal indifference, as a way of expressing this confusing and contradictory reality.
It seems that he found his way to express the paradoxical claim that the absence of meaning to be some sort of meaning.
Lovecraft’s indifference of the cosmos and the insignificance of human beings in it might be imbued with an overwhelming negative feeling. However, it might be argued that conventional religion puts mankind in a much worse position. For compared to an infinite being: omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent God, man as a finite being is much more insignificant. Psychologically it is quite satisfying to give oneself up to a powerful father-figure, and a consolation to have been created in “God’s image” and therefore to partake a little of His properties.
But is it really as depressing as Lovecraft puts it? Can a world without God, where there exists only a number of other finite species in the universe, perhaps wiser and more powerful than us, but in principle of the same limited and finite nature, however strange in appearance, and therefore logically more similar to us strike as much fear as an all-powerful God?
This non-existence of absolute values in the cosmos might very well guarantee our independence and autonomy and our freedom to establish our own meaning and value, unfettered by external laws imposed on us by a god.
That is, it could be a source of extreme optimism, a feeling of freedom – to construct and to pursue our meaning, ultimately serving as a resolution to our desire to seek meaning in an apparently meaningless universe.