Shakespeare’s Macbeth speaks the following lines:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Ironically, these lines, as despairing as they are, are also beautiful, and beauty has immense value. Shakespeare was no nihilist. His famous tragedies, Macbeth and Hamlet, reveal the futility and ugliness of revenge; not the pointlessness of all human life. Macbeth’s speech, as one of the most memorable and quotable in the play, is taken out of context by that very fact, as though it summed up the author’s worldview, which it does not. Compare Macbeth with Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand’ring bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me prov’d,
I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.
A consistent brave nihilist would be a dead nihilist. In the Birth of Tragedy by Friedrich Nietzsche, King Midas captures “wise Silenus,” a companion of Dionysus, and asks him what would be the best thing of all for men. Silenus resists, and then laughs shrilly, saying, “Suffering creature, born for a day, child of accident and toil, why are you forcing me to say what would give you the greatest pleasure not to hear? The very best thing for you is totally unreachable: not to have been born, not to exist, to be nothing. The second best thing for you, however, is this — to die soon.”
The opposite of nihilism is faith and hope; things that can be hard to maintain when tired, when experiencing testing life events, or when a nihilistic worldview is embraced. They can take an effort of will to maintain, and giving up the struggle will tend to default to ennui and malaise, depending on someone’s disposition. There is also the fact that things functioning as we think they should can be safely ignored, so our thoughts tend to be dominated by problems; emphasizing the dreariness and wrongness of the world. Saying grace before a meal is presumably designed, at least partly, to combat this.
Then there is the form of nihilism that says life ends in death, and there is nothing more, so carpe diem. This is a kind of superficial and cynical despairing cheerfulness exemplified by The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Among the verses can be found:
Come, fill the Cup, and in the fire of Spring
Your Winter-garment of Repentance fling:
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To flutter–and the Bird is on the Wing.
Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,
Before we too into the Dust descend;
Dust into Dust, and under Dust to lie
Without Wine, without Song, without Singer, and–without End!
Oh, threats of Hell and Hopes of Paradise!
One thing at least is certain–This Life flies;
One thing is certain and the rest is Lies;
The Flower that once has blown for ever dies.
The Revelations of Devout and Learn’d
Who rose before us, and as Prophets burn’d,
Are all but Stories, which, awoke from Sleep,
They told their comrades, and to Sleep return’d.
Omar Khayyam is both giving reasons to be a nihilist and commiserating; a poisoner with a partial antidote. He expresses skepticism about life’s meaning, anything the wise might have to say on the topic, and the possibility of an afterlife. Faith and hope he considers foolish, so let us get drunk and drown our sorrows, while being fully aware that that offers insufficient consolation for life’s pointlessness and irremediable termination. Your child has died, but never mind, here is a coupon for a discount for your next in-store purchase.
The Rubaiyat exemplifies many of the contradictions often found with nihilists. There is a supposed devotion to truth, which is not nihilistic. But the only truths on offer are skeptical. In the case of the poem, the poet is even positing omniscience on the relevant topics. He knows for sure, so he claims, that the flower dies forever, and the revelations of the devout and learned, and the prophets, are all just stories. Lars von Trier does something similar in his execrable movie Melancholia where a character, out of nowhere, offers proof of supernatural omniscience, and then states emphatically that life exists nowhere else in the universe, which is depressing, and that life is evil without qualification – in which case the restriction of life to earth would actually be a good thing. It seems akin to the joke “This soup is horrible,” says one. “Yes, and the servings as so small!” says the other.
Khayyam’s poem takes religion and philosophy as his foil, and makes some valid criticisms of certain theologies – pointing out, for instance, that to make flawed creatures and then to consign them to hell when they act imperfectly is unreasonable.
“Why,” said another, “Some there are who tell
Of one who threatens he will toss to Hell
The luckless Pots he marr’d in making–Pish!
He’s a Good Fellow, and ’twill all be well.”
Nietzsche, stealing this image, calls us shoddy pots with ill-fitting lids, and memorably and archly describes the potter reviling the pots as a sin against good taste.
Scientistic Nihilism – Misery Loves Company
The more modern form of nihilism comes from adherents of scientism. Some among the scientistic rejoice in their nihilism, while others are not aware of the vacuity of their own views. For both kinds, people are mere objects caught up in a sequence of events of which they are powerless to change. There is no God, no morality, no freedom, no creativity, and no reason for our existence. The modern fascination with science and its social prestige lends credence and support to this kind of nihilism. Scientistic nihilism confers in-group belongingness and the easy adolescent pseudo-superiority of the cynic. I may not know anything, but I know you lot are all phonies and liars, in the manner of Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye.
Tolstoy was aware of the limitations of the scientific worldview and wrote in Anna Karenina that every scientist should have to study the Classics, Greek and Roman literature and philosophy. Pestsof remarks “It must be admitted that the influence of the classic writers is eminently moral; while, unfortunately for us, the study of the natural sciences has been complicated with false and fatal doctrines, which are the bane of our time.” To which Sergyei Ivanovitch comments, “Now we know that in classical education lies the medical power of anti-nihilism and we boldly administer it like a pill to our patients.”
The scientistic are like The Grand Inquisitor and his crony priests, the planners and conditioners of C. S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man, and also psychopaths. They know the nihilistic truth, they think, and thus have reason to envy and resent the ignorant. The rest of us continue to live under the illusion that life has meaning and this enables us to bear our suffering with greater fortitude because we consider it to have a purpose. The difference is that out of love for humanity, the Grand Inquisitor will let humanity believe there is a God and an afterlife. Presumably, some of the scientistic take this approach. Clearly, some do not.
Thus, one reason the scientistic nihilist does not remain silent might be because he resents ordinary people. He is angry and alone. He wants the rest of us to suffer in the same way he does. Thus, he wants to call our attention to the “fact” that we are the playthings of our genes, or the result of random mutations and natural selection and nothing more, or reducible to atoms and molecules following the laws of physics. So, there is some pretense of a non-nihilist love of truth, but this truth is being used as a hammer to break the rest of us down and reduce us to the miserable state of the nihilist.
Such people have an incorrigibly adolescent air about them, perhaps because adolescents in the attempt find their own values, often first reject and try to dismantle the values of their parents, in order not to feel like simple clones of Mom and Dad. Mark Twain sums up the situation in his amusing comment, “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to twenty-one I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” The nihilist never makes it to the twenty-one-year-old perspective.
Psychopaths are nihilists and they too tend to resent and hate the non-psychopathic. According to Martha Stout in The Sociopath Next Door, their predominant emotion is boredom. Much of the interest in life involves other people; friends, family, neighbors, and workmates. In watching a movie or reading a book it is necessary to care about the characters to enjoy the experience. Being a psychopath is like being the last human being alive, since the inner lives of other people are mostly irrelevant to them. There is nothing much to say to someone for whom you have no care, concern, or interest. They regard non-psychopaths as suckers who have embraced the lie of conscience. Like the scientistic they regard themselves as better than others for being more honest and having the strength to bear it. The psychopath cares only for himself and imagines that the rest of us are fakes for pretending to be moral. In need of stimulation, the psychopath can get some pleasure out of torturing other people like a cat with a mouse, but nothing could be more futile.
Non-nihilists look in horror at the scientistic and psychopathic and pity them for their blankness. The scientistically deranged will use a phrase like “the computational theory of mind,” and have no idea why someone would shrink back as from someone who admitted to torturing kittens. We turn off machines without a second thought, so if people are machines we can do the same to them. The movie Westworld is based on the premise that androids have been set up in a theme park. They look, dress, and sound like humans, but they are not. Consequently, it is completely permissible to have sex with them or kill them, or both, depending on whim. The robots start to get other ideas and turn the tables on the humans. The scientistic have decided we are all those robots, and it behooves us not to agree with them.
The scientistic totalize science. For them, “life” is a just a subcategory of science. “Life” is something certain scientists sometimes study. In reality, science is a subcategory of life. Science is something that people sometimes do, and then they hang up their lab coats, and go home to their families, if they have them.
For a normal human being who is aware of such things, the scientistic nihilist wrecks everything valuable in life, leaving a wasteland. For the latter, he has simply removed some meaningless illusions, and left reality standing; solidity, figure, motion, number, and extension, those unlovely atoms in the void.
Philosophy, as the love of wisdom, starts with religious intuition and feeling, and then tries to see what meaning it can either find or inject into existence. Meaning is found in man who exists as a profound nexus of all planes of existence. We have ties with the physical world of objects; our bodies are one of those objects. We have an Ego and an interior which is connected to Freedom and the spiritual. The Ego is not transcendent, but it has the capacity to become a nonegocentric Person in communion with the Thou; the Thou of God and the Thou of other people considered as subjects with interiors like our own.
One possible reaction to life is despair. Nihilists have despaired and lost faith and hope. But they remain people seeking communion with others. A meeting of the minds is easier when intuitions are shared in common. As eternal beings having a sojourn on Earth, human life has a tragic aspect. Objective reality, the world of objects, is inherently hostile and foreign to us and our spiritual aspirations are constantly thwarted. We have a nostalgic and messianic longing for heaven – both as our source and our destination. People who have had near death experiences report experiencing the unconditional all-pervasive love that is simply nonexistent on earth most of the time. Nihilism is the nightmare fantasy that this life is all there is. We are homeless. Mayflies flickering into and then out of existence. There is no spiritual hierarchy where the first shall be last and the last first. There is just social existence where the first are the first and that is it. Your life can be judged by your social rank. So, though nihilists have rejected their humanity, spanning as it does various planes of existence, they are, after all, human anyway, though they do not find hope in love which is the only way of transcending loneliness. If they do value love, God knows on what basis.
The essential nature of the nihilist who speaks and writes in order to convince others of the meaninglessness of existence is that of a sadist; a sadist driven by resentment and possibly with an undercurrent of hoped for communion with his victim. If he and his victim feel the same, perhaps they can commune. It seems likely that the psychopath too will enjoy looking into someone’s eyes as hope and faith fade. Now you know what I feel like! He might think. Now you see (my) truth.
The resentful hope to make himself feel better by tearing someone else down. Some people seem to think, for instance, that their mediocre income will seem much more bearable if billionaires did not exist. Fear is a key part of the dynamic; fear that someone is better off than him. The resentful scientistic person’s tool is skepticism. Prove you have an immortal soul, he says. I intuit that I have an immortal soul. What do you say to that? Proofs are for people who do not agree with you and are thus generally ineffective. All proofs are founded on axioms and axioms are known intuitively. Emotion and intuition lie at the core of philosophical thinking. They precede “rationality” and logic. They provide the starting points of thought. Materialist metaphysics are as unprovable as any other. John Lennon attended an “art” installation of Yoko Ono. A ladder was placed in a room and on the ceiling was a word too small to see until the ladder was climbed. Lennon climbed it to find that the word was “Yes.” He said that if it had said “No” he would not have been attracted to Ono. This is not an argument. It is an attitude; an existential stance.
There might be some hope of persuading someone who has not yet made up his mind. But in talking to someone with opposite intuitions the most it might be possible to do is to reduce the other person to frustrated silence. He may not know what to say in response, but he hopes to think of something in the future. The cleverest or most experienced might “win,” but not persuade.
The materialist nihilist has switched teams and betrayed his humanity, and identified with the rock. The scientistic nihilist elects to align himself with the objects – objects that are fundamentally antithetical to the subject. The materialist either denies interiority or downgrades it to machinery, leaving exteriors only.
In siding with science, the nihilist can think of himself as one of the winners. John Locke, at least in his epistemological writings, identified science with truth, and, I am sure, with power and success. Homo Faber. Man as engineer. Practical, money-generating, and at home with objects, though famously not good with people.
So, the scientistic perspective is nihilist and cynical. We are meat machines and nothing more. It is successful and pervasive. Though associated in people’s minds with the possibility of proof, in fact, scientific theories can never be verified, only falsified. Real science is supposed to be provisional, but nihilists and cynics are not tentative. The scientistic nihilist is instead noticeably sure of himself.
A good percentage of scientistic nihilists are probably simply oblivious. They continue to write and think and to try to persuade despite the fact that persuasion as such does not exist in a deterministic universe. Actually, neither the persuader nor his interlocutor exist because agents do not exist if all is a “sequence of events.” Such people really do have a strong constitution, stomaching as they do the complete obliteration of themselves as thinking, feeling, willing subjects, and free, in a qualified fashion, centers of decision-making. The irony becomes truly monumental when they present themselves as arch-rationalists and logicians, while their contradictions erase every claim to that status.
 Seize the day.
 “There are weak people over whom religion has power. The strong ones — yes, the strong ones — can become thorough rationalists, relying only upon knowledge, but the weak ones are unable to do this.” Pavlov: https://ffrf.org/component/k2/item/14872-ivan-pavlov
 John Lennon once poured a glass of beer over the head of an old lady pianist leading a singalong in a pub in the 1960s, just for fun, so I am not holding him up as a role model, but the anecdote of the ladder and “yes” seems appealing anyway.
 Man the maker.
While I agree with your general points – I’m glad that Omar Khayyam in Fitzgerald’s version did not remain Silent; because it is surely one of my favourite poems!
(This chap is a wonderful reader: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4PQdgV1p-MI )
@bruce charlton: My maternal granddad liked it too and used to quote chunks of it. I was surprised when I actually paid attention to the words.
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Before I even settle down to read this, thank you, Richard.
Thanks! This is my best shot at it at the moment. I write these things partly with my students in mind and I thought I would include the Shakespeare and Omar Khayyam quotations since, especially, the super famous Shakespeare quotation sums up nihilist sentiment in a manner second to none.
Having now read it, it’s a very good shot, I would say.
I am mystified as to why this counts as nihilism.
Nihilism is the denial of all values; Khayyam is emphatically not denying that there can be value, he’s saying it is to be found in the immediate (bread, wine, and thou eg) and the transient, rather than in the eternal. That’s what carpe diem means; a real nihilist wouldn’t be motivated to seize anything.
As for the relation of science and nihilism…I’m tempted to argue but I’m not sure it would be productive, and I’m less of a true believer in materialism than I used to be. All I can say is that I’ve known some major scientific materialists, and none of them are nihilists in philosophy or in their personal stance to the world. You may disagree or dislike their belief systems, or draw nihilistic consequences from them, but the portrait of them as psychopaths is just ridiculous.
Yes. Khayyam is a qualified nihilism. As I write, your kid is dead, but now here’s some good news. It’s completely despairing. You just ruined all life, but, it’s OK, We can can just get drunk. He’s not seizing anything worth having.
Yes. This is a topic my father and I have had countless discussions about. The scientistic’s metaphysics are just as nihilist as the psychopath, but the scientistic usually choose not to live in accordance with their principles in hypocritical fashion. And then they pour their nihilistic poison into the ears of children (like my Shakespeare reference?) who have no idea what is being done to them. And then we hope that the kids grow up to be hypocrites too. It reminds me of blaming white males for all earthly problems and then not expecting repercussions. Dawkins and Bertrand Russell, for instance, positively delight in pointing out their nihilism.
Bertrand Russell writes:
That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collisions of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system; and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins—all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be built.
Richard Dawkins concurs and contends:
“In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you don’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”
As you pointed out, they assume the omniscience they deny.
They claim to know with absolute certainty that there is no possibility that all the tragedies, suffering and injustices of temporal life will not and cannot be accounted for and rectified, in the final end. At the least, it represents a very narrow choice from a very large menu of plausible possibilities.
Yes. Uncertainty about what is going on is not the same as adamant condemnation and hopelessness.
There’s a difference between observing the universe’s lack of ultimate purpose and concluding from that that nothing has value.
To seek and construct local meaning in a meaningless universe is not hypocrisy; on the contrary, it’s really the only way to live.
The scientistic simply have no way to justify or explain that move. All is atoms in the void. The only things that exist are measurable. Try constructing meaning out of that!
How do you define “local”? Why?
By “local” I mean things that are part of our actual lived-in world, as opposed to grandiose abstractions or distant deities. To the extent our lives are meaningful, it’s because of our connection to the local, actual world. We are finite creatures, we occupy a small chunk of space and time, and whatever meaning our life has is in terms of how we interact with our local environment (very much including other people of course).
Contrast this with the common view expressed above that if our lives really are finite then they are in consequence meaningless. This seems extremely wrong-headed to me. It’s a denial of reality and aside from just being wrong, it seems to me to be a generator of unhappiness and alienation.
@mickvet – this is where the certainty of nihilists comes in…
@a.morphous – I think we have the best of both worlds. Our biological lives are finite, giving us an incentive to make the most of them, but then we have an immortal soul too. Yay! And that way all our experiences and things we learned don’t just vanish upon our death negating and sending into oblivion everything that just happened.
Thinking of the person as a combo of a finite body and an immortal soul seems to me to be an OK folk theory of human existence. My friend is dead in body; his spirit lives on in my memory and his works, and maybe eternally in heaven, who knows?
It’s not really tenable as a rigorous psychological theory because mind/body dualism doesn’t make any sense.
It also leads to elevating the immaterial soul while despising the physical body, and materiality in general (you can see this bias in your own writing above). This also strikes me as a very bad thing, a source of a great many personal and social ills.
Nothing I say above is about despising materiality. What I despise is a materiality only thesis which is 100% nihilist. Any monism, physical or spiritual, is nihilistic. Monism is “a source of a great many personal and social ills.” Only dualism makes sense. Here, I am just contradicting you, but since you offered no explanation I guess I don’t need to either. Although, any of my past Orthosphere posts from the last few months should provide arguments if you want them.
Despite himself, a.morphous seems to be rebelling against nihilism. From what does he derive the motive to do this? Is it this ‘love’ thing? Great source of delusion, this love thing. As you say, this love thing can’t possibly exist, Richard, because nobody can see it, hear it, smell it, taste it, feel it or measure it in any way.
Quite! “Michael” introduced me to his favorite phrase “sequence of events” which I have found quite useful as a contrast with my own views. Michael writes that he is not even a determinist because determinism tacitly contrasts itself with freedom, but there is none. We, and all things that ever happen, are just “sequences of events.” Sequences of events don’t “love” or confer meaning or actually “do” anything at all.
I’ve just realized that I need to add something to my article, or write another one, perhaps, on the topic of certainty. Quite a few people don’t believe in God or an afterlife because they want both to be certain, and God refuses to provide certainty because it would interfere with freedom. By definition, it is your prerogative to deny God’s existence, so feel free! Of course, freedom is not possible in a materialist universe so that creates a contradiction. The quest for certainty inevitably leads to skepticism and nihilism because nothing at all reaches that standard. The skeptic then claims to know for certain that he does not know and thus, again in contradiction, pretends to the certainty he cannot discover.
Why would I need to rebel against nihilism? I’m not a nihilist and it has no hold over me.
Of course my definition of nihilism may be different from yours, eg I find Omar Khayyam’s views perfectly congenial but I don’t consider them nihilistic.
What do you think of Jung’s “great perhaps”?
I’m afraid I’m not familiar with the expression. I notice that “I go to seek the Great Perhaps” is supposed to be the final words of Francois Rabelais, “Je m’en vais chercher le grand peut-être.” The phrase sounds poetic and attractive, though more agnostic than I happen to be, I was attracted to Jung as a teenager and would have studied psychology if the University of Canterbury in New Zealand had permitted that kind of psychology, which is really philosophy perhaps. But, on their walls, literally, were people like Pavlov and the Behaviorists. My mother did an MA in psychology there and spent most of her time doing stats and running pigeons and rats around mazes. Oddly enough, she found this unsatisfying because she hadn’t gone back to university to find out more about the psychology of rats and pigeons!
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“Khayyam’s poem takes religion and philosophy as his foil, and makes some valid criticisms of certain theologies – pointing out, for instance, that to make flawed creatures and then to consign them to hell when they act imperfectly is unreasonable.”
Are you Christian or are you not?
Yes, I am a Christian although I can sympathize with your skepticism since I recently had a similar reaction to someone who claims to be a theist but hates faith and hope and contends that he believes in God because God’s existence has been scientifically proven. For me he is an atheist since I would reject such a God and I am an atheist regarding a consigning to hell God. I do think we can inhabit a hell of our own creation.