On Nihilism

nothingnessBy James Davison Hunter

Nihilism—from the Latin “nihil,” or nothing—is an endlessly complicated subject. As a philosophy, it has a long and tangled history with roots as deep as the metaphysical ruminations of Parmenides in the 5th century BCE. Its relevance for today was made sharpest by Nietzsche who, when famously declaring, “God is dead,” was, in fact, recognizing that with modernity came the end of all metaphysics and thus the valuelessness of the highest values of human history.

For Nietszche, the substitutes for a dead God—whether nature, eason, humanity, man, life, the soul, democracy, freedom, or the like—were as lifeless as the God whose place they were taking. Nihilism, then, is the clearing or empty space brought about by the negation (or annihilation) of the true, the good, and the beautiful.

Ironically, the intellectual roots of nihilism arose, in part, out of the Enlightenment’s quest for certainty. Yet what was supposed to have been the pursuit of certainty turned out to be, as the late John Patrick Diggins noted, “the ability to question everything and the capacity to affirm nothing.” In other words, the quest for certainty has led us to the conclusion that there is only one necessary or essential truth, and it is that there is no such thing as essential
truth. Thus, confidence has dissolved into doubt, objectivity absorbed into subjectivity, and certainty into the spinning out of imaginative possibilities that are not simply fueled by the powers of reason, but by the force of passion, will, and power.

Part of Nietszche’s brilliance was to demonstrate that nihilism was not just an esoteric question for metaphysicians, but a multifaceted reality everyone in the modern age must confront. As a moral psychology, for example, its central manifestation is autonomous desire and unfettered will legitimated by the ideology and practice of choice. I don’t want to be misunderstood here. The power of self-determination is, of course, our reigning definition of freedom, and such freedom can, indeed, be liberating. For many, not least the disadvantaged and oppressed minorities, such freedoms are rare and cherished, and one can only hope that they will expand. The problem is not with the freedom of will as such but rather its autonomy from any higher value.

The power of will becomes nihilistic at the point at which it becomes absolute, when it submits to no authority higher than itself—that is, when impulse and desire become their own moral gauge and when the will is guided by no other ends than its own exercise. The very nature of pluralism, not to mention the social and economic structures of a market economy, creates conditions conducive to its flourishing. In America, nihilism of this kind tends to foster a culture of banality that is manifested as self-indulgence, acquisition for its own sake, and empty spectacle that makes so much of popular culture and consumer culture trivial.

One can make too much of nihilism in contemporary culture. Conservative jeremiads declaring the descent of Western civilization into the gaping abyss of nothingness are clearly overstated. But in resisting the overly dramatic, one can also underplay its wide-ranging and profound implications for the modern world, implications that deserve careful attention.

This article was originally published in Culture, Fall 2009, Issue 3.2.


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17 Responses to On Nihilism

  1. The power of will becomes nihilistic at the point at which it becomes absolute, when it submits to no authority higher than itself…nihilism of this kind tends to foster a culture of banality that is manifested as self-indulgence, acquisition for its own sake, and empty spectacle that makes so much of popular culture and consumer culture trivial.

    I think that this is true to some extent. However, such nihilism can also be seen as a response or reaction to the higher authority (which you say is lacking when nihilism becomes absolute) of a power hungry, self-indulgent, cruel and remorseless god, as we see depicted in YHWH.

    He would be described as possessing a high quantity of Narcissistic Personality traits. Within this categorical cluster he is described as a controlling, attention seeking figure that tends toward holding grudges and being critical of others. He is articulate in his expression but tends toward the expression of anger and hostility. He is described as seeking to be the center of attention with an exaggerated sense of self-importance. ..As a figure with Antisocial Personality traits, YHWH is described as a critical, angry and hostile figure that appears to seek power and influence over others. He does not appear to experience remorse for the harm or injury he causes others nor concern for the consequences of his actions. (Personality Assessment of YHWH in Two Biblical Selections- A.Varona, M.A. based on the assessments conducted by 46 graduate psychology professionals)

    So, I am suggesting that the nihilism might be a reaction to a depiction of god, or higher authority, that has exhausted and repulsed believers and non-believers. In fact, acquisition, self-indulgence, war-mongering and indifference are more likely to be a result of the modeling of this god rather than of nihilism. The nihilism might be a proposed solution to the existing problem.

  2. what other standards except human ones do we have by which to evaluate? As you said yesterday, what other choice do we have?

    Can we not choose a worshipable object by the virtue which we see in him/her? This is what we do all the time. Why would one choose a god depicted primarily as cruel, angry and unremorseful? It is intriguing to me that such a god has risen to such prominence.

    • Well, I think that as humans we have to evaluate God as he revels himself to us. If he exists, following him is not about what he is like. We have no choice in the matter. He may be angry for good reasons and without remorse as a result. Perhaps God showed a particular face in the OT for a particular reason and other faces eleswhere.

  3. By the way, those descriptors were not invented by me. They were the highly agreed upon decriptors of both believers and non-believers after reading primary texts. They are not anecdotal, rather textually based assessments.

  4. You are describing a god who says, do as I say, and absolutely not as I do. That may be the face of god, but it is a very ineffective morality.

    Respectfully Gurumaharaja, obedience and acceptance of such a god is of no interest to me. As masochistic as I can be, I am not that self loathing. This to me is not a worshipable object. Not even an imperfect human representative of that god, if possessing those qualities, would warrant veneration. How then is that perfect god venerable?

    • Speaking hypothetically my point is that if there is a God, it does not matter what he is like. In other words the argument for or against the existence of God has nothing to do with his personality. If some loud voice comes out of the sky and says do this or else, most people would probably obey. But fortunately there are other faces of God revealed elsewhere.

      • I hope this exchange is understood as respectful to
        you Gurumaharaja. I intend it to be.

        How is the personality of god not pertinent? For one, how would such a booming voice in the sky be distinguished from a malevolent rather than benevolent deity? Secondly, since this ultimately is an intellectual argument, one does not choose to venerate an expression of god arbitrarily. We base such decisions on our capacity to discriminate, at least in part based on the qualities of that divinity. We have long lists of Krsna’s qualities and they are considered quite important in our relationship development to him.

        I guess I am saying that just because there is a description of a god somewhere in some book doesn’t make that god real. It is a depiction not a truth assertion. And should we not use our human capacity to discriminate as a way of avoiding claims to divinity that are from malevolent and indifferent bullies? To use a bit of hyperbole, I would rather be in a hell with kind people and a kind god than in heaven with cruel and callous people and their respective god. In fact, I would define heaven and hell by the beings contained therein.

        • That is a taste of my nihilism. : (

        • Why did the Jews accept this fellow as benevolent rather than seeing him as malevolent? But God could be malevolent. No? The Supreme Controller, the source of the world could just as well me mean as be nice. And if that was our fate—to be ruled by such a person—what could we do about it? Veneration in that case would be the logical choice. Either choose to worship a crabby old man or be punished by him.

          I am not so sure the God of the OT is real. I would have to investigate, but I have doubts that the depiction of him you have cited is sufficient grounds for rejecting him, unattractive as it is. There must be more to the story.

          • You are right. My study does not include all depictions of YHWH There are more abstract (less anthropomorphized) and more benign depictions. However, if this were the primary expression of this divinity I do believe it would beg the question of his existence as a god rather than a demon.

            You ask if god can be malevolent. I guess I would want to distinguish between malevolence and universal arbiter. As a universal arbiter there will be death and annihilation and such. As malevolent I would characterize those same acts as tinged with excessiveness, cruelty and callousness. My study participants evaluated this deity as malevolent if I define malevolence in this way.

            Why would the Jews choose such a god? The Christians do too, but he is buffered by Jesus who had a much kinder (overall) disposition. Well, it is hard to know why such a god would be chosen. This is a complex question that I grapple with. I hear Midrash or Jewish commentary suggests that many other tribes rejected this god and it was the Jews that ultimately accepted him, with reservation. Another possible explanation: Maybe such a god can act as a receptacle for those qualities we do not like to possess as humans. We know we ascribe him with desirable qualities, why not undesirable ones too? I discuss this in my dissertation with greater detail but it is all still a great question for us all. Maybe we are just pain mongerers and like mean authorities.

            I just don’t think every expression of divinity is necessarily true. That is way too relative for me. But I am glad, as you said, that there are other expressions… because in Chaitanyadeva we have a figure who seems utterly sublime. We are lucky in that way… he is the trump card against people like me claiming that god can be a cruel bully.

          • “And if that was our fate—to be ruled by such a person—what could we do about it? Veneration in that case would be the logical choice. Either choose to worship a crabby old man or be punished by him.”

            LOL! This was so funny! You really made my day with this one, Maharaja…

          • Yeah I thought it was pretty funny too. But I also thought, “are those my choices?!” I have been, historically speaking, quite susceptible to fear based surrender. The idea of being punishment by the crabby old guy now just seems like a shallow threat…I don’t allow that possibility to influence my fate. I want love motivated religion. That requires a loving god, who can reciprocate with the full measure of love. That is why Krishna is so enticing. If fear was my only motivation, it would not be veneration anyway. It would be obedience. God knows that is not my strong suit.

          • I think the point of Guadiya Vaisnavism is that humans follow love and beauty. Therefore God must be love and beauty. Otherwise he would not be all powerful, because love and beauty are the most powerful forces as we all experience. We Gaudiyas have then theologized this obvious truth.

  5. I often wondered why did German national socialists liked Nietzsche with all his nihilistic tendencies. On top of that, Nietzsche was not a very strong man himself, and his personal life was marked by many failures. Only later I understood that nihilism does not have to be all bad. In the search for truth, many people question existing authorities and the system of values they represent, only to replace them with new authorities and new values. That is ultimately what happened to Nietzsche and quite a few other one time nihilists.

    Nihilism played some part in the transplantation of the Hare Krsna movement in the West, as it was a step needed by many young American hippies to embrace this radically different philosophy of life.

  6. Gopakumar, I think the character assessment you made for YHWH could just as easily be invoked in the case of Vedic deities with less than flattering results. Kalki killing everybody at the end of Kali-yuga, Parasurama killing all the ksatriyas, etc. Even Krsna could be seen as a philandering womanizer if viewed through that lens. Mahaprabhu’s making an example of Chota Haridasa could be seen as utter cruelty considering that he is the incarnation of mercy. So I think it comes back to what Swami said earlier, i.e., how can we assess God according to human standards?

    • I agree that many deities have very bad behavior and would not do well in such an assessment. That is not a reason to discard the method. Why do we expect so much less of our gods than we do of our friends, family and social group? I find that sad.

      In terms of Mahaprabhu on Chota Haridasa and Krishna with the Gopis, according to our human standards of psychological balance, we make allowance for a broad range of behavior without it being considered pathological. You can have an affair with a married woman, hurt those involved, and abandon your religious standards and not be considered narcissistic. It is all within normative human behavior. Only in excess and in persistence would this be considered a red flag. So Krishna’s behavior as a “womanizer” is not necessarily reprehensible, he was after all an adolescent.

      So for me it comes back to this; how else but according to our human standards shall we assess the qualities of depictions of deities? We will evaluate them through our mind and experience. So far no one has proposed a better standard other that Gurumaharaja Swami Tripurari’s suggestion that we take him as he comes and venerate him even regardless.

      I have to say that a mistake is being made in this discussion. I am not proposing that we evaluate god according to human standards. I propose that we can evaluate textual depictions of god. As such, in my opinion, a depiction of a god that falls short of human standards of balanced well-being is a god that I consider unworthy of veneration. If he appeared to me in such a form I would doubt his divinity. I think that if a being revealed himself to most of us in the form YHWH does in the J & P texts we would be wary to accept him.

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