“What I relate is the history of the next two centuries. I describe what is coming, what can no longer come differently: the advent of nihilism… For some time now, our whole European culture has been moving as toward a catastrophe, with a tortured tension that is growing from decade to decade: restlessly, violently, headlong, like a river that wants to reach the end, that no longer reflects, that is afraid to reflect.”
Nietzsche, The Will to Power, Preface, 2
Nietzsche provided the first detailed diagnosis of nihilism as a widespread phenomenon of Western culture. There are various forms of nihilism: epistemological (in which knowledge does not exist or is unattainable for man), cosmic (where the cosmos is distinctly hostile or indifferent to humanity), moral (that no morality or ethics exists whatsoever), etc.
Nietzsche was concerned primarily with existential nihilism – which encapsulates all forms of nihilism since it posits that life as a whole has no intrinsic meaning or value.
However, Nietzsche thinks that we are always in a process of valuing. It would be virtually unrecognisable as a human form of life for us to exist completely without valuing. His central concern on nihilism is what people take to be valuable. He thinks valuing something is better than not valuing anything. But it is not sufficient to escape nihilism that one values something in a committed way. It also matters what one values. Nihilism consists in an inability to find value and meaning in the higher aspects of this life and world. It empties the world and purpose of human existence. Nietzsche defines nihilism as:
“the radical repudiation of value, meaning, and desirability”
Nietzsche, Will to Power, Book I: European Nihilism
The problem of nihilism becomes especially explicit in Nietzsche’s posthumously published work: The Will to Power, an anthology of selections from his notebooks. However, these notebooks should be considered with caution since they were not ideas that he himself published and must be viewed carefully with the work he published during his lifetime.
There are various manifestations of nihilism for Nietzsche throughout his works, which we can classify as: nihilism as despair, nihilism as disorientation and nihilism as lack of higher values.
Nihilism as Despair
Nietzsche associates nihilism as despair with Schopenhauer and Buddhism.
The Schopenhauerian nihilist maintains strong value commitments which say that suffering is extremely bad. The world contains a great predominance of suffering over pleasure, we are perpetually buffeted between the unpleasant states of pain and boredom. The little respite we receive is fleeting. Existence is bad, and it would be better for us never to have come into being.
Likewise, the Buddhist condemns existence and seeks to detach himself from it, they seek to liberate themselves from the cycle of aimless drifting in mundane existence, while Nietzsche believes that one should remain faithful to the earth.
Nihilism as Disorientation
Nihilism as disorientation is associated with Christianity. The Christian is not a despairing nihilist, for he is reassured by the possibility of a heavenly redemption. Christianity is an antidote to the despair of meaninglessness. Heaven is the most valuable place in the world, it is the salvation of man, the entry into the kingdom of God, a source of eternal bliss and peace.
The disorientation is best seen in Nietzsche’s famous parable of the madman:
“What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing?… 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?”
Nietzsche, The Gay Science, §125
Nietzsche acted as the seismograph that detected the great earthquake caused by the death of God. Nietzschean scholar Walter Kaufmann writes:
“[Nietzsche] felt the agony, the suffering, and the misery of a godless world so intensely, at a time when others were yet blind to its tremendous consequence, that he was able to experience in advance, as it were, the fate of a coming generation.”
Walter Kaufmann, Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist, Part I: “The Death of God and the Revaluation”
The melancholic proclamation of the death of God is the result of religion having been the purpose and meaning of life of humanity for millennia, but being undermined by the Age of Enlightenment brought about by scientific rationality. Science shows us that we should remain sceptical about the idea of an afterlife, it shows our smallness in the cosmos, that we are the product of evolution, of an accidental birth in the flux of becoming and perishing.
“For why has the advent of nihilism become necessary? Because the values we have had hitherto thus draw their final consequence; because nihilism represents the ultimate logical conclusion of our great values and ideals—because we must experience nihilism before we can find out what value these “values” really had.— We require, sometime, new values.”
Nietzsche, The Will to Power, Preface, 4
When we find out that the world does not possess the objective value or meaning that we want it to have or have long since believed it to have, we find ourselves in a crisis. For the Christian, there is no God to guide us, recompense us for suffering, grant us meaning.
Christianity had thus built a self-destructive tool. It is a lower form of nihilism, but nihilism, nonetheless. The end of Christianity lies at the hands of its own morality (which cannot be replaced), in the sense of truthfulness that is nauseated by the falseness of all Christian interpretations of the world and of history. We have outgrown Christianity not because we lived too far from it, rather because we lived too close. Christianity was an interpretation that posited itself as the interpretation, Nietzsche believes that this dissolution leads beyond scepticism to a distrust of all meaning.
It is based on the error of placing the highest values as the first ones, rather than the last ones:
“The last, the thinnest, the emptiest is posited as the first, as a cause in itself, as ens realissimum [the most real being]…”
Twilight of the Idols, Chapter 4: “Reason” in Philosophy
As such, the highest values are in fact the emptiest values. Nietzsche tells us to start from the bottom, focusing our attention on this life and building up from there.
The Christian is a nihilist in disorientation because he is failing to respond favourably to the most important values associated with this life and world. His energy instead remains invested in the collapsing Christian worldview. It is a matter of not being able to find this life and world valuable. He writes:
“The ‘apparent’ world is the only one: the ‘true world’ has only been lyingly added…”
Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols: Chapter 4: “Reason” in Philosophy
To escape nihilism—which seems involved both in asserting the existence of God and thus robbing this world of ultimate significance, and also in denying God and thus robbing everything of meaning and value—that is Nietzsche’s greatest and most persistent problem.
Ascetic Ideal as Nihilistic
Those who follow Schopenhauer, Buddhism and Christianity are all under the influence of the ascetic ideal, which Nietzsche describes in his Genealogy of Morals. The ascetic has historically renounced his earthly pleasures in favour of a self-denying and abstinent life, living in:
“poverty, humility and chastity.”
Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morals, Essay III: What is the Meaning of Ascetic Ideals? §8
This is a means for dealing with exhaustion and disgust with life, and gives meaning to one’s suffering, staving off nihilism.
However, Nietzsche argues that it brings a more venomous suffering into earthly existence, this world is to be transcended and is a mere bridge to another existence. In other words, Nietzsche does not devalue the ascetic ideal, for any meaning is better than no meaning. He observes, however, that it is still a form of nihilism insofar as it is a “will to nothingness”, a will opposed to life.
All of Nietzsche’s work has one important theme: life affirmation. This is his main focus. He wrote for a minority, hence the subtitle of Thus Spoke Zarathustra: “A Book for All and None.”
Nihilism as Lack of Higher Values
Finally we have nihilism as a lack of higher values, represented by the “last man”, one who is conformist, mediocre and perfectly happy to be virtually the same as everyone else, they simply do what others do. They are the mass men who seem very satisfied with their lowly comforts. Nietzsche describes him in Thus Spoke Zarathustra:
“Alas, the time is coming when man will no longer give birth to a star. Alas, the time of the most despicable man is coming, he that is no longer able to despise himself. Behold, I show you the last man. “What is love? What is creation? What is longing? What is a star?” Thus asks the last man, and he blinks. The earth has become small, and on it hops the last man, who makes everything small. His race is as ineradicable as the flea-beetle, the last man lives longest. “We have invented happiness”, say the last men, and they blink. They have left the regions where it was hard to live, for one needs warmth. One still loves one’s neighbour and rubs against him, for one needs warmth… One still works, for work is a form of entertainment. But one is careful lest the entertainment be too harrowing. One no longer becomes poor or rich: both require too much exertion… Who still wants to rule? Who obey? Both require too much exertion. “We have invented happiness”, say the last men, and they blink.”
Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Zarathustra’s Prologue
The “last man” has adjusted his standards so far downward, that they are able to be met easily. He is under a woolly blanket, snuggled by the fireplace, drinking his instant cocoa with miniature marshmallows from his ‘Life is Good’TM mug, thinking this is as good as life can get.
The last man does focus on this life but on the lowest values, his culture is that of entertainment. Does this warm satisfaction mean that he is not nihilistic? By Nietzsche’s lights, absolutely not. Nietzsche wants us to think of such as person as the very worst form of the condition of nihilism.
Yet what is nihilistic about the “last man” is neither despair nor disorientation. It is rather, his failure to appreciate and attach himself to the most important values – he blinks in the face of the star, he finds nothing worthwhile where there is something profoundly worthwhile. He is content with the meagre “happiness” he has “invented” and he lacks worthy higher goals.
In summary, we have: nihilism as despair (Schopenhauer and Buddhism), nihilism as disorientation (Christianity) and nihilism as a lack of the higher values of life (the last man).
This account offers a historical trajectory of nihilism, and why things are getting worse in the descent toward the “last man”. Christianity valued lives in which one was devoted to more than just animal satisfaction, lives in which something that could give meaning to existence was sought. In their way, Schopenhauerianism and Buddhism played this role as well, in valuing (however perversely) a saintly form of life-negation as the highest condition of human life. These views are still nihilistic, but at least they contain acknowledgement of the need for higher values, however misguided they may be.
With the “last man” the highest values have no value at all, they make everything small and live mediocre lives, in contrast to Nietzsche’s idea of the higher man or the Übermensch, who affirms life in its entirety.
However all these nihilists have something in common. They are people who have become detached from what is most valuable. These higher values come from hard-won achievement and experiences of struggle and striving. Sometimes this causes people to want to escape human existence since it is so difficult, which can take the form of life-negation or even worse, indifference to all of the most important values, even to such things as human excellence, creativity and beauty.
According to Nietzsche, the world surrounding us matters more than any beyond, and is the locus of such higher values, yet for the most of the past two thousand years of human history, we haven’t been able to appreciate this.
In a beautiful Nietzschean turn of phrase in one of his letters, Austrian poet Rilke writes:
“Not until we can make the abyss our dwelling-place will the paradise we have sent on ahead of us turn around and will everything deeply and fervently of the here-and-now, which the Church embezzled for the Beyond, come back to us; then all the angels will decide, singing praises, in favour of the earth.”
Rilke, Letter to Ilse Jahr, 22 Feb 1923
This is the life-affirming perspective Nietzsche wants to shift us toward, or to remind us to cherish. Some will not be able to bear this, and life-negating nihilism will, ironically, be more conducive to their continued happiness and survival. But to those of us who can shift, or have shifted, this is our pagan salvation.
Active Nihilism and Passive Nihilism
Apart from the forms of nihilism discussed, Nietzsche distinguishes between two formal types of nihilism in The Will to Power:
“Nihilism. It is ambiguous: A. Nihilism as a sign of increased power of the spirit: as active nihilism. B. Nihilism as decline and recession of the power of the spirit: as passive nihilism.”
The Will To Power, Book I: European Nihilism, 22
Nietzsche associates passive nihilism with the ascetic ideal and the systems of thought that are built on it (Schopenhauerianism, Buddhism, Christianity).
Active nihilism, on the other hand, is associated to the construction of a new meaning after being faced with the destruction of all value and meaning, such as with the event of the Death of God. Nietzsche views this as a sign of strength, instead of succumbing and resigning like the passive nihilist, the active nihilist seeks to replace the old values and overcome the condition of nihilism, he is a strong individual who posits his own values as an independent creator. Nietzsche, however, did not call this person an active nihilist, Nietzsche calls this person the Übermensch, one who is not afraid to gaze into the abyss, one who after going through nihilism, overcomes it and affirms life.
Nihilism and Modern Man
We may encounter meaninglessness in our life when faced with the loss of what was most meaningful for us: this can be the death of a loved one, the loss a job, a natural disaster destroying our home, etc. The danger arises when one is so attached that one becomes passively stuck in this state of mind, the end result of which is that life is not worth living, and that it is better to end it. Nietzsche tells us that we must actively fight it and overcome it, which is by no means an easy task.
Nietzsche attacked the value problem that stares our generation in the face – the dilemma that haunts modern man and threatens our civilisation:
“The end of the moral interpretation of the world, which no longer has any sanction after it has tried to escape into some beyond, leads to nihilism. “Everything lacks meaning”… Since Copernicus man has been rolling from the centre toward “x” … What does nihilism mean? That the highest values devaluate themselves. The goal is lacking; the answer is lacking to our ‘Why?’”
The Will to Power, Book I: European Nihilism
Modern man finds that his values are worthless, that his ends do not give his life any purpose, and that his pleasures do not give him happiness. Nietzsche’s basic problem is whether we can find new values in this world; whether a new goal can be found that will give an aim to human life.
In the present age, nihilism has been diverted into more secular alternatives to give meaning to one’s life, such as, the participation in mass movements. People who do not know what to do with their lives can fall into passive nihilism which can lead to conformism (risking falling into the last man) or totalitarianism, a need for destruction, which was taken to the extreme in the 20th century and lead to two world wars, the consequences of which have forever scarred humanity.
Is Nietzsche a Nihilist?
Many mistake Nietzsche as a nihilist because of his destruction of the values mankind had preserved for millennia, he wanted to expose the false values through “philosophising with a hammer”, not to smash but rather gently tap the idols in order to receive that hollow sound which speaks of false and empty ideas of gods that we idolise. Nietzsche did this because he saw nihilism as an inevitability. He writes:
“what is falling, that one should also push!”
Thus Spoke Zarathustra, III, 12
Since the old values are already collapsing one should help to speed up the process and replace the old values with new ones as soon as possible. He is therefore not a nihilist, he rather wants to overcome it by means of a “revaluation of all values”. This new table of values contains life-affirmation, with concepts such as the Übermensch, the Will to Power, the Eternal Recurrence.
The Übermensch is meant to be the solution to nihilism, by conquering it, he is the meaning we should give to our lives. He overflows with strength and well-being. He is the meaning of the earth. Nietzsche tells us to remain faithful to earth and focus on maximising our potential in this life, to prioritise our body above everything else. Only the Übermensch can accept the eternal recurrence, the idea that we’d have to experience the same life for eternity. This is the heaviest weight that closes the gap of nihilism which only the Übermensch could accept, as he is the highest life-affirmer, who loves his fate.
“My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity.”
Nietzsche, Ecce Homo: On the Genealogy of Morals
And finally the will to power is to be master of oneself, which requires the greatest increase of power over oneself. It is the lifelong journey of self-realisation, of becoming who one is. Happiness is the feeling associated to overcoming resistances and suffering, which gives way to an increase of power. Thus, the will to power and the eternal recurrence carve the path for the Übermensch, who is the happiest person and the meaning and justification of existence.
Nihilism – Friedrich Nietzsche’s Warning to The World
Friedrich Nietzsche provided the first detailed diagnosis of nihilism as a widespread phenomenon of Western culture and warns the world of its consequences.