Nihilism, a philosophical belief that life has no ultimate meaning or purpose. For some it is a relief, for others a source of despair.
Whichever camp you may fall into, it is undeniable that nihilism is a major philosophical theory that shapes modern thought even today.
In one way or another, nihilistic philosophy has existed for thousands of years. However, nihilism as we know it today has been explored in-depth mostly in recent times by nihilist or existentialist philosophers such as Albert Camus, Soren Kierkegaard, Emil Cioran, Friedrich Nietzsche, and more.
Before diving into these nihilist philosophers and explaining their philosophy, it might be interesting to explore some of the major branches of nihilism.
Types of nihilism
The most popular form of nihilism is called existential nihilism, which claims that life and the universe as a whole doesn’t have any sort of meaning, higher purpose, or value.
In regards to humans, existential nihilism claims that human life (and even human civilization) simply “exists” but other than that, it doesn’t serve any higher purpose and doesn’t progress towards an ultimate goal.
Most existential nihilists believe in the notion that “God is dead”. For them, matter exists, but God does not.
However, even the nihilists who do believe in God portray him as an indifferent deity. The Nihilist God is a distant, faraway entity that doesn’t care about human suffering or happiness, sins or virtues, achievements or failures.
The Nihilist God never reveals the sacred knowledge to humans, but he also never punishes or rewards humans for their actions. There is no heaven or hell, no salvation or damnation.
For existential nihilists, any meaning or purpose humans create for themselves is artificial and only exists as a coping mechanism since, without a purpose, humans perceive life as an absurd experiment of existence.
Depending on a person’s perspective, existential nihilism can mean a life of liberation or one of despair. On one hand, there is no “right” or “wrong” way to live life, so a person has the freedom to define their own path as they see fit. On the other hand, any efforts made in this life have no lasting value or purpose, and given time, they will disappear like footprints in melting snow.
Epistemological nihilism is a branch of nihilism that concerns itself with knowledge and whether humans can acquire it.
In this case, epistemology means a true understanding of the world, how it functions, its purpose, mechanisms, and ultimate goal.
Unlike an existential nihilist, an epistemological nihilist might even believe in the existence of a divine figure (God or something else) and that every human life does have its own purpose it is progressing towards.
However, an epistemological nihilist believes that humans senses and rationality are simply too limited to discover the true purpose of life, the divine rules that make the Universe work, how to separate good from evil, etc.
Thus, an epistemological nihilist perceives humans as being trapped in a small cage, where the bars are made of our own limited rationality and senses.
Everything outside the cage is the “true” Universe and God himself, but always out of our reach.
Moral nihilism claims that there is no such thing as a right or wrong action because there is no such thing as a divine or true moral code that says “this is good, this is evil”.
On top of this, moral nihilism claims that even socially constructed moral codes (such as religious ones) don’t have any meaning, and that any claims of the opposite are false.
According to moral nihilists, any sort of moral code of conduct is artificial and socially constructed for a purpose humans believe is important in a particular culture or time period.
However, since there is no “true” or “divine” purpose to anything (see existential nihilism above), any purpose or reason behind human moral codes is inherently false, which in turn makes the morality system around that purpose false.
For example, a Christian moral system might say that adultery is a grave sin because God says it is wrong in the 10 Commandments.
However, a moral nihilist might say that since God doesn’t exist (or if God does exist, it is indifferent to mankind), then adultery cannot be a sin either.
Instead, for a moral nihilist, adultery is an action like any other, neither good nor bad. Thus, for a moral nihilist, cheating on a spouse or drinking a glass of water have the same moral meaning, since they are simply actions that cannot be categorized as good or bad.
Political nihilism is a philosophical approach that believes in the complete elimination of all political ideologies, structures, institutions, and social norms.
At the core of political nihilism is the belief that all forms of political organization, be it democracy, oligarchy, dictatorship, etc., are not legitimate.
Because these forms of political organization are not legitimate, they do not have the right to exist and, by extension, to pass laws that govern how humans should behave and what they can or cannot do.
At first glance, political nihilism is very similar to anarchism and can even be confused with it.
However, there are some subtle differences that have massive philosophical implications that separate anarchism and philosophical nihilism into different political philosophies.
Anarchism, at its core, views centralized authority as oppressive and corrupt and, for this reason, must be destroyed and replaced by voluntary associations that cooperate with one another to achieve a harmonious society.
In essence, anarchism believes in a “reset” of society away from centralized authority and towards a more decentralized, voluntary approach to social organization.
By contrast, political nihilism believes that even an anarchic society is illegitimate and it too must be destroyed.
Crucially, political nihilism never offers a social alternative to whatever political system it destroys. The end goal of political nihilism is achieved when the political system is destroyed, not when it is replaced with something else.
Albert Camus (1913-1960) was a French-Algerian writer, philosopher, and journalist best known for his philosophical works on absurdism and his contributions to existentialism, even though he personally rejected the latter label.
The Absurd: At the core of Camus’ philosophy is the concept of the absurd. The absurd arises from the conflict between a person’s desire to know what the meaning of their life is, which is opposed by a Universe or God that is silent, indifferent, and refuses to communicate why the person exists.
This conflict between wanting to know life’s purpose and the impossibility of obtaining the answer leads to existential despair.
Revolt against Absurdity and Suicide: Camus’s essay “The Myth of Sisyphus,” opens with the sentence:
“There is only one really serious philosophical question, and that is suicide”.
If life doesn’t have any meaning, then why continue living? Camus explores this idea of philosophical suicide, and comes to the conclusion that a person must rebel against the absurdity of living a purposeless life by creating their own internal philosophies and purposes that can give life meaning, even if these purposes are artificial.
The Value of Life: For Camus, even if life doesn’t have a purpose, it still has value. Camus explores this idea through the use of the Greek hero Sisyphus, a man condemned by the gods to push a boulder up a hill for eternity, only to watch it roll back down each time he reaches the top.
Despite the hopelessness and repetition of the task, Camus imagines Sisyphus finding joy in his toil and thus concludes, “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
- “The Stranger” (L’Étranger): A novel that delves into the life of Meursault, a man who lives without concern for social norms, future ambitions, or existential crises.
- “The Plague” (La Peste): A novel depicting a fictional outbreak of the plague in Algeria, serving as a reflection on human suffering and the human spirit’s resilience.
- “The Myth of Sisyphus”: A philosophical essay that explores the meaning of life in a world that is cold and indifferent.
Emil Cioran (1911-1995) was a Romanian-born philosopher and essayist who later adopted French citizenship. His work is characterized by its profound pessimism, and its introspective exploration of existential and nihilistic themes.
Cioran’s philosophy delves deep into the human condition, grappling with topics like despair, suffering, decay, and the futility of existence.
Key themes and elements of Cioran’s philosophy include:
Pessimism: Cioran is known for his deep and unyielding pessimism. He explored the depths of human suffering, despair, and the tragic nature of existence. He often wrote about the inherent meaninglessness of life and the torment it brings.
The Tyranny of Existence and Suicide as Escape: Cioran frequently discussed the idea that existence itself is a burden. He pondered on themes like the curse of birth and the idea that to be born is to be thrown into suffering and decay.
Cioran’s answer to this “Tyranny of Existence” was to frequently contemplate suicide. For him, suicide represented an escape from the tyranny of existence and a potential response to life’s absurdity.
However, rather than acting upon this idea, Cioran wrote extensively about it, using the idea of suicide as a lens to explore the human condition.
Skepticism: Cioran was deeply skeptical of organized systems of thought, especially ideologies that claimed to offer salvation or truth. He was critical of both religious dogmas and secular philosophies that promised meaning or redemption.
Aphoristic Style: Unlike many philosophers who wrote long, systematic treatises, Cioran’s writings are fragmentary, consisting of aphorisms, short essays, and reflections. This style allows for intense, poetic explorations of existential themes.
- “On the Heights of Despair”: His first book, filled with themes of despair and decay.
- “A Short History of Decay”: A collection of aphorisms exploring various themes of nihilism and pessimism.
- “The Trouble With Being Born”: Here, Cioran delves into the problems and tragedies inherent in existence.
Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) was a Danish philosopher, theologian, and poet whose work deeply influenced and shaped the theory of existential nihilism.
Kierkegaard’s philosophy is deeply rooted in his Christian beliefs. Unlike later existentialists, who often focused on the absurdity or meaninglessness of life, Kierkegaard saw a passionate relationship with God as the solution to existential despair.
Below are some of Kierkegaard’s key philosophical positions.
The Concept of Despair: Central to Kierkegaard’s philosophy is that humans live in a constant state of Despair, which manifests itself in different ways for every person. This state of Despair exists because a person either doesn’t understand or is not being true to oneself. For Kierkegaard, the ultimate despair is not being in alignment with one’s eternal self, which is rooted in a relationship with God.
Stages on Life’s Way: Kierkegaard believed an individual passed through three stages of existence:
- Aesthetic: This stage is driven by pursuit of pleasure and the satisfaction of the senses. However, because these pleasures lack true meaning they can lead to despair and a sense of being lost and aimless.
- Ethical: In this stage an individual lives according to moral principles and societal duties. This stage represents a person’s deeper commitment to the society around them and a more structured existence than the aesthetic stage.
- Religious: The highest stage, according to Kierkegaard. An individual who reaches this stage has a personal, passionate relationship with God. Kierkegaard further divides this stage into two: the “Religious A,” where one adheres to religious rituals and societal norms, and the “Religious B,” marked by a deeply personal relationship with God that transcends societal conventions, epitomized by the biblical figure of Abraham.
Leap of Faith: One of Kierkegaard’s most famous ideas is the “leap of faith”, which is a response to the scientific and rational arguments against God’s existence. According to Kierkegaard, there is no way to scientifically or rationally prove God’s existence, so every believer must take a non-rational “leap of faith” to believe in God.
Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) was a French existentialist philosopher, playwright, novelist, political activist, and literary critic. He was one of the most influential figures in 20th-century philosophy and remains one of the primary representatives of existential nihilism in the public consciousness.
Here are some key elements of Sartre’s philosophy:
Existence Precedes Essence: According to Sartre, humans first exist and only afterward define themselves. By comparison, a manufactured object, such as a knife, is created for a predetermined purpose or “essence,” while humans are thrown into the world without any inherent purpose and must create their own essence through their actions and choices.
Freedom and Responsibility: For Sartre, humans are born radically free. However, this freedom comes with immense responsibility since every choice we make defines our essence. Because there’s no predetermined path or inherent meaning to life, every action we take is a reflection of our self-imposed values.
Bad Faith (Mauvaise Foi): This is a behavior where people lie to themselves and deny their own freedom and responsibility, by claiming their life choices were imposed on them by their family, friends, or society.
According to Sartre, bad faith is an escape mechanism for people who cannot handle the stress of total freedom and the responsibility that comes with it.
For example, a person engages in bad faith when they claim they’re trapped in a toxic job because of societal or familial expectations rather than acknowledging it’s their choice to stay in that difficult workplace.
- “Being and Nothingness”: A complex exploration of human freedom, consciousness, and existential angst.
- “Nausea”: A novel that delves into existentialist themes, depicting a historian who becomes deeply unsettled by the absurdity and meaninglessness of life.
- “No Exit”: A play in which three characters are trapped in a room for eternity, leading to the famous line, “Hell is other people.”
Thomas Ligotti (born 1953) is famous for being a writer of horror fiction instead of philosophy.
However, his works frequently touch on philosophical themes, and he is especially noted for his deep exploration of existential horror, cosmic horror, and philosophical pessimism.
His stories often delve into the eerie, brutal, and disturbing aspects of existence.
Below are some of the frequent philosophical themes and elements associated with Ligotti’s work:
Cosmic Horror: Ligotti is heavily influenced by the cosmic horror of H.P. Lovecraft. This type of horror emphasizes how insignificant and trivial human life is when confronted with the horrors of a Universe that is immense, indifferent, and often incomprehensible.
The Horror of Consciousness: In his non-fiction book “The Conspiracy against the Human Race,” Ligotti explores the idea that human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution, a sort of “malignant” development that only brings us suffering by making us aware of our own mortality, that life has no meaning, and that there is no God that awaits us after death.
Anti-Natalism: Drawing from the ideas of philosophers like Emil Cioran and Peter Wessel Zapffe, Ligotti has expressed anti-natalist views, suggesting that it might be morally wrong to bring new life into existence given the inherent suffering of the human condition.
- Conspiracy against The Human Race
- My Work is Not Yet Done
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) was a German philosopher who left a deep mark on modern thought. Nietzsche is deeply associated with nihilism, but there is some considerable debate on whether he is a nihilist himself.
In any case, here are some of the key philosophical ideas of Nietsche:
Death of God: “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.” Nietzsche wrote this idea as religiosity and belief in God began to decline in Europe in the late 19th century.
As belief in God faded, so did the power of traditional Christian morality. Nietzsche feared that this “death” of God would lead to a moral vacuum, where nihilism would reign as the supreme morality.
Nietzsche feared this possibility, so he sought ways to overcome it.
Will to Power (Wille zur Macht): Nietzsche believed that every living being, including humans, is driven by a “will to power,” an innate desire to dominate others, achieve success, or overcome obstacles.
This “will to power” manifests itself in all areas of human life: intellectual, political, artistic, business, war or sports.
Übermensch (Overman or Superman): In “Thus Spoke Zarathustra,” Nietzsche introduces the concept of the Übermensch, a figure whose strength and moral conviction is so great that he can uproot traditional moral values and societal constraints and replace them with the Übermensch’s own values and moral ideas.
This idea often serves as a counterpoint to nihilism.
Critique of Reason and Truth: Nietzsche was skeptical that “truth” was a real concept and also criticized the dogmatic belief in reason. Nietzsche believed that what we call “truth” was simply a social construct, built through social dynamics when one person or social group managed to impose its views on the rest of society.
James Tartaglia is a philosopher known for his works on metaphysics, the philosophy of mind, and more specifically, the implications of nihilism. His works touch on a range of topics, but there are a few key ideas and themes that are central to his philosophical outlook:
Nihilism: Tartaglia argues that while life has no objective purpose or meaning, but that this isn’t a reason for despair. Instead, the acceptance of nihilism can lead to a person living more authentically, free from the constraints of seeking some overarching purpose.
Consciousness: Tartaglia has written on the philosophy of mind, particularly on the nature and significance of consciousness. He has criticized certain prevalent reductionist views that attempt to explain consciousness purely in terms of physical processes.
Transcendental Nihilism: Tartaglia introduces the idea of “transcendental nihilism” which claims that our lives are inherently meaningless, but that this realization can lead to a form of transcendence.
Rather than searching for meaning in religious or non-religious activities, we can overcome our need for a sense of purpose by finding freedom in meaninglessness.
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