Nihilism – Abandoning Values and Knowledge
Nihilism derives its name from the Latin root nihil, meaning nothing, that which does not exist. This same root is found in the verb “annihilate” -- to bring to nothing, to destroy completely. Nihilism is the belief which:
- labels all values as worthless, therefore, nothing can be known or communicated.
- associates itself with extreme pessimism and a radical skepticism, having no loyalties.
The German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), is most often associated with nihilism. In Will to Power
[notes 1883-1888], he writes, “Every belief, every considering something true, is necessarily false because there is simply no true world.” For Nietzsche, there is no objective order or structure in the world except what we give it. The objective of nihilism manifests itself in several perspectives:
- Epistemological nihilism denies the possibility of knowledge and truth, and is linked to extreme skepticism.
- Political nihilism advocates the prior destruction of all existing political, social, and religious orders as a prerequisite for any future improvement.
- Ethical nihilism (moral nihilism) rejects the possibility of absolute moral or ethical values. Good and evil are vague, and related values are simply the result of social and emotional pressures.
- Existential nihilism, the most well-known view, affirms that life has no intrinsic meaning or value.
Nihilism – A Meaningless World
Shakespeare’s Macbeth eloquently summarizes existential nihilism's perspective, disdaining life:
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, Signifying nothing.
Philosophers’ predictions of nihilism’s impact on society are grim. Existentialist, Albert Camus (1913-1960), labeled nihilism as the most disturbing problem of the 20th century. His essay, The Rebel1
paints a terrifying picture of “how metaphysical collapse often ends in total negation and the victory of nihilism, characterized by profound hatred, pathological destruction, and incalculable death.” Helmut Thielicke’s, Nihilism: Its Origin and Nature, with a Christian Answer2
warns, “Nihilism literally has only one truth to declare, namely, that ultimately Nothingness prevails and the world is meaningless."
Nihilism – Beyond NothingnessLearn More!
Nihilism--choosing to believe in Nothingness--involves a high price. An individual may choose to “feel” rather than think, exert their “will to power” than pray, give thanks, or obey God. After an impressive career of literary and philosophical creativity, Friedrich Nietzsche lost all control of his mental faculties. Upon seeing a horse mistreated, he began sobbing uncontrollably and collapsed into a catatonic state. Nietzsche died August 25, 1900, diagnosed as utterly insane. While saying Yes to “life” but No to God, the Prophet of Nihilism missed both.
Beyond the nothingness of nihilism, there is One who is greater than unbelief; One who touched humanity (1 John 5:20) and assures us that our lives are not meaningless (Acts 17:24-28).
1 Camus, Albert, The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt, Random House, Inc., New York, 1991.
2 Thielicke, Helmut, Nihilism: Its Origin and Nature, with a Christian Answer, Greenwood Press Reprint, Westport, CT, 1969.