Inevitably, nihilism will expose all cherished beliefs and sacrosanct truths as symptoms of a defective Western mythos. This collapse of meaning, relevance, and purpose will be the most destructive force in history, constituting a total assault on reality and nothing less than the greatest crisis of humanity:.
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.
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Will to Power. Since Nietzsche's compelling critique, nihilistic themes--epistemological failure, value destruction, and cosmic purposelessness--have preoccupied artists, social critics, and philosophers. Convinced that Nietzsche's analysis was accurate, for example, Oswald Spengler in The Decline of the West studied several cultures to confirm that patterns of nihilism were indeed a conspicuous feature of collapsing civilizations.
In each of the failed cultures he examines, Spengler noticed that centuries-old religious, artistic, and political traditions were weakened and finally toppled by the insidious workings of several distinct nihilistic postures: the Faustian nihilist "shatters the ideals"; the Apollinian nihilist "watches them crumble before his eyes"; and the Indian nihilist "withdraws from their presence into himself.
In his study, Spengler concludes that Western civilization is already in the advanced stages of decay with all three forms of nihilism working to undermine epistemological authority and ontological grounding. In , Martin Heidegger, to cite another example, observed that nihilism in various and hidden forms was already "the normal state of man" The Question of Being. Other philosophers' predictions about nihilism's impact have been dire. Outlining the symptoms of nihilism in the 20th century, Helmut Thielicke wrote that "Nihilism literally has only one truth to declare, namely, that ultimately Nothingness prevails and the world is meaningless" Nihilism: Its Origin and Nature, with a Christian Answer, From the nihilist's perspective, one can conclude that life is completely amoral, a conclusion, Thielicke believes, that motivates such monstrosities as the Nazi reign of terror.
If nihilism proves victorious--and it's well on its way, he argues--our world will become "a cold, inhuman world" where "nothingness, incoherence, and absurdity" will triumph. While nihilism is often discussed in terms of extreme skepticism and relativism, for most of the 20th century it has been associated with the belief that life is meaningless.
Existential nihilism begins with the notion that the world is without meaning or purpose. Given this circumstance, existence itself--all action, suffering, and feeling--is ultimately senseless and empty.
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In The Dark Side: Thoughts on the Futility of Life , Alan Pratt demonstrates that existential nihilism, in one form or another, has been a part of the Western intellectual tradition from the beginning. The Skeptic Empedocles' observation that "the life of mortals is so mean a thing as to be virtually un-life," for instance, embodies the same kind of extreme pessimism associated with existential nihilism.
In antiquity, such profound pessimism may have reached its apex with Hegesias of Cyrene. Because miseries vastly outnumber pleasures, happiness is impossible, the philosopher argues, and subsequently advocates suicide. Centuries later during the Renaissance, William Shakespeare eloquently summarized the existential nihilist's perspective when, in this famous passage near the end of Macbeth , he has Macbeth pour out his disgust for 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. In the twentieth century, it's the atheistic existentialist movement, popularized in France in the s and 50s, that is responsible for the currency of existential nihilism in the popular consciousness. Jean-Paul Sartre's defining preposition for the movement, "existence precedes essence," rules out any ground or foundation for establishing an essential self or a human nature.
When we abandon illusions, life is revealed as nothing; and for the existentialists, nothingness is the source of not only absolute freedom but also existential horror and emotional anguish. Nothingness reveals each individual as an isolated being "thrown" into an alien and unresponsive universe, barred forever from knowing why yet required to invent meaning.
It's a situation that's nothing short of absurd. Writing from the enlightened perspective of the absurd, Albert Camus observed that Sisyphus' plight, condemned to eternal, useless struggle, was a superb metaphor for human existence The Myth of Sisyphus , The common thread in the literature of the existentialists is coping with the emotional anguish arising from our confrontation with nothingness, and they expended great energy responding to the question of whether surviving it was possible.
Their answer was a qualified "Yes," advocating a formula of passionate commitment and impassive stoicism. In retrospect, it was an anecdote tinged with desperation because in an absurd world there are absolutely no guidelines, and any course of action is problematic. Passionate commitment, be it to conquest, creation, or whatever, is itself meaningless.
Enter nihilism. Camus, like the other existentialists, was convinced that nihilism was the most vexing problem of the twentieth century. Although he argues passionately that individuals could endure its corrosive effects, his most famous works betray the extraordinary difficulty he faced building a convincing case.
In The Stranger , for example, Meursault has rejected the existential suppositions on which the uninitiated and weak rely. In Caligula , the mad emperor tries to escape the human predicament by dehumanizing himself with acts of senseless violence, fails, and surreptitiously arranges his own assassination.
The Plague shows the futility of doing one's best in an absurd world. And in his last novel, the short and sardonic, The Fall , Camus posits that everyone has bloody hands because we are all responsible for making a sorry state worse by our inane action and inaction alike. Polish independence was not of particular interest to the nihilists, and after a plot to incite Kazan peasants to revolt failed, Land and Freedom folded Thus begins the first period of nihilist secret societies.
In addition they had a secret sub-group called Hell whose purpose was political terrorism, with the assassination of the Tsar as the ultimate goal. This resulted in the failed attempt by Dmitry Karakozov on the 4th of April Dmitry fired a revolver, but had his arm jostled by an artisan who died, before the potential assassin, of the excesses of drink as a result of his change of social status at the last minute.
Dmitry was tried and hanged at Smolensk Field in St Petersburg. The leader of The Organization, Nicholas Ishutin, was also tried and was to be executed before being exiled to Siberia for life. Thus ended The Organization and began the White Terror of the rest of the s. The two leading radical journals The Contemporary and Russian Word were banned, liberal reforms were minimized by reactionary afterthoughts, and the educational system was reformed to stifle the revolutionary spirit that lived there. This action by the Russian state marks the end of the foundational period of nihilism.
The lifestyle of the nihilist, or New People, is worth reviewing, if for no other reason, because of its similarity to youth movements of the modern era. While advocating for a callous hedonism and radical subjectivity, in practice nihilists actually tended towards a utilitarian and ascetic lifestyle.
The fashion is a case in point. Other common features were a heavy walking-stick and a rug flung over the shoulders in cold weather; they called it a plaid, but it was not necessarily a tartan. The nihilists attempted to challenge the values of the day in a more meaningful way too. For the nihilist the issues were regarding work and sexual freedom. This allowed for an emancipation of women de jure if not de facto. This resulted in women having the freedom of mobility to pursue some academic pursuits which were curtailed during the White Terror and some enterprise.
Finally, the nihilists adopted the credo that adultery was a natural, and even desirable trait, in contrast to the spirit of their time, or their own cultural composition i. More influential for the New People than philosophy, or political texts, was literature. Within its pages was a vision of the socialist values of the nihilist, an exposition of how to live with radical values intact, and how to practice nihilist non-monogamy. The power of literature on the movement is ironic because, of course, most of our modern understanding of the nihilist movement comes from the novels of Turgenev and Dostoyevsky.
While Turgenev was non-judgmental in his depiction of the New People and respected by the nihilists, Chernyshevsky having held correspondence with him , Dostoyevsky was in violent reaction to them. The last five novels of Dostoyevsky dealt with nihilism to some degree either centrally or as a major theme. Revolutionary Nihilism. The entrance on the scene of one person symbolizes the transformation from the foundational period to the revolutionary period.
Sergei Nechaev, the son of a serf which was unusual as most nihilists came from a slightly higher social class, what we would call lower middle class , desired an escalation of the discourse on social transformation. The struggle against such powers must therefore be carried out by any means necessary.
The image of Nechaev is as much a result of his Catechism of a Revolutionist as any actions he actually took in life. The Catechism is an important document as it establishes the clear break between the formation of nihilism as a political philosophy and what it becomes as a practice of revolutionary action. It documents the Revolutionary as a very transformed figure from the nihilist of the past decade. Whereas the nihilist may have practiced asceticism, they argued for an uninhibited hedonism.
Nechaev argued that the Revolutionary, by definition, must live devoted to one aim and not allow for distractions of desire, compassion, or feelings. Friendship was contingent on Revolutionary fervor, relationships with strangers was quantified in terms of what resources they offered revolution, and everyone had a role during the revolutionary moment that boiled down to how soon they would be lined up against the wall or when they would accept that they had to do the shooting. The uncompromising tone and content of the Catechism was influential far beyond the character of Nechaev.
Part of the reason for this is because of the way in which it extended nihilist principles into a revolutionary program. The only revolution that could be beneficial for the people would be that revolution which destroyed at its roots any elements of the state and which would exterminate all the state traditions, social order, and classes in Russia.
Nechaev appears to be attempting to bridge the gap between Machiavelli and a nihilistic anarchism in this thesis. Which, beyond anarchist hand-wringing to the contrary, is a sobering take on what horrors may be necessary for the abolition of the standing order. Which is not to say that there is much to reclaim from the personality of Nechaev in general.
The facts are clear. Nechaev imagined a secret revolutionary organization the Russian Revolutionary Committee, with himself as the fugitive member from which he was taking refuge in Geneva, where he met Bakunin. One student member of the organization Ivan Ivanovich Ivanov questioned the very existence of the Secret Revolutionary Committee that Nechaev claimed to be the representative of. He was found dead in his cell in under mysterious circumstances.
Among the revolutionary movement nihilist or not in the post-Nechaev period there was a clear division. This was inspired, in large part, by the belief that the Russian institution of the village commune was the shortest path to Russian socialism. The commune was a self-governing body that managed some village affairs and made decisions collectively. The rural effort was a complete failure.
The peasants often handed the nihilists over to the police before even getting a sense of what they were around for. Furthermore, the concept of rural revolt was a-historical at the least, as the peasants did not have the ability to arm themselves in a meaningful way and did not actually have a tradition of successful uprising. The Russian, Ukranian, and Cossack revolts in the 17th and 18th centuries were quickly suppressed. The only near success, which began before the nihilists arrived on the scene, was in the Chigirin area on the River Dnieper near Kiev. In three revolutionaries, Stefanovich, Deutsch and Bokhanovsky, drafted a charter purporting to come from the Tsar calling on the peasants to take up arms — which they did, in the form of antiquated pikes, other farming equipment and a body of peasants one thousand strong.
Hundreds of peasants were arrested and sent to Siberia, and the three nihilists were imprisoned in the Kiev gaol in what became known as the Chigirin affair. A preliminary note on the role of women in the nihilist organization is in order. While, given their tenuous social gains under Alexander II, women were less easily convincible to join the project of dismantling society, once engaged were, if anything, more committed to action, violence, and seeing the project through, then their male counterparts.
This is best exemplified by the direct taking up of arms during the revolutionary period beginning with the action of one woman, Vera Zasulich. Once the taking up of arms and the formation of secret societies was in full swing, women took no small part in the proceedings. Nearly half of the Executive Committee were women. There were many secret societies formed in the revolutionary period. Two of them, the Troglodytes and the Revolutionary-Populist Group of the North eventually settled into forming the second iteration of Land and Freedom in although the name was not settled until This group resolved itself as firmly in the Bakuninist camp in reaction to the failures of the rural campaigns of years past.
The notable events of the seventies originated in this reaction. When the police broke up the meeting they arrested, and convicted to 15 years of prison, a latecomer to the protest, a known revolutionary named Bogolyubov. The infuriated General beat him on the spot and demanded he be flogged the next day, which was done with such vigor that Bogolyubov went mad. This resulted in a prison riot. Vera Zasulich was not personally acquainted with the principle actors but took it upon herself to take action. She sought an audience with the General in a reception room of Russian officials where upon she drew a revolver from her muff and fired, killing him.
In an unexpected move the regime allowed for Zasulich to be tried by a jury, assuming that because she confessed to the act, they had the weapon, and there were witnesses, that the result was guaranteed. Instead the jury acquitted her and upon leaving the courthouse, where the police awaited her for additional arrest, a small riot occurred resulting in her being whisked away by her comrades. This act, and the accompanying scandal, launched a several-year wave of action from the nihilists against agents of the state, and attempts, mostly failed, at repression by the state.
In January of the Odessa police raided the printing press of Ivan Kovalsky who defended himself and his press with revolver and dagger thereby creating a tradition of nihilists fighting it out till the end with the police while his comrades burnt incriminating documents and attempted to incite the crowd gathered around for the spectacle. These each have many sub-categories, but for now I will just consider them in general.
Deontology suggests that there are some actions that are always wrong, regardless of the outcome. Examples include lying, killing usually only referring to humans or some subset of all sentient minds , and stealing. Deontology often, but not always, draws on the principles of a particular religion. Consequentialism is somewhat the opposite of deontology. For example, lying or killing someone might be good if it saved people from dying. This is sometimes known as total classical utilitarianism.
I argue that this is the case because it is the only code of ethics that actually includes the felt experiences that sentient minds care about again, this could instead be some slight variation of total classical utilitarianism. To make my case, I will use several examples. Killing humans is bad because a societal norm of killing people for no reason causes suffering. At the end of the day, people only care about suffering and wellbeing — they are the only felt experiences. Everything else is a means to that end whether they accept it or not.