Nihilism hangs in the air like a bad fog. While it is not a new phenomenon historically speaking, the pervasiveness of nihilism in American life today is truly ominous – and may be accelerating.
“Nihilism” is a basic and complex term that stands as one of the central dynamics of our unthinkably complex times. Hence it is one easily clichéd or weaponized in the culture wars. I take it to refer to persons or groups who have given up on meaning, value, duty, truth – given up, that is, on both God and themselves. Nihilism is distinct from the ways of passivity in which many find apparent shelter from the humanly impossible situation we have built for ourselves. These include ways of going limp or “lying flat” (as in the current Chinese “tang ping”). While passivity can become compliance and normalization of uncivilized behavior, nihilism is fundamentally active, aggressive, angry with an edge of self-righteousness.
Nihilists, as Nietzsche pointed out, are those who would rather “will the void than be void of will.” They tear down and obstruct with no reason other than to assert their negating will. So they are not interested in reason (sometimes taken as another liberal ruse), truth, or morality, or even their own well-being (and that of their children). But to see them only as high-speed opportunists is to miss their jihad against life in the present. They will the void because they feel excluded, replaced, betrayed, despite ever more shrill claims of their superiority.
We encounter nihilism all around us, in the uncivilized behavior of politicians, media and business types, and sometimes in people close to us with whom the revelation of their nihilism comes as a shock. We see it as some slide off the American Founders’ ideal of “ordered liberty,” into the quagmire of Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts,” and the politics of identity, obstruction, and mob rule.
The best vaccine against nihilism is to understand it, drag it into the light of day and talk about it – with it if possible also, to see it with others who retain common sense. In this spirit I offer the interpretation which follows, one in which nihilism is an inevitable and necessary stage in an utterly crucial developmental process. It reflects what Karl Jaspers spoke of, from the Nazi era, as our need in the midst of cultural collapse to “recall our origin” in nothingness.
The nihilism of our time is embedded in the culture of moral disease which breeds and normalizes it. The disease is the terminal point of the dominant Western ethic of the modern period, coming to full force in the Natural Law philosophy of the Seventeenth Century, wrapped in myths of exceptionalism, manifest destiny, and the common good which was thought to arise automatically, “as though the presence of an invisible hand,” when “everyone” is pursuing their interests. Moral disease reflects what happens when the ethic of isolated and competitive individualism comes into contact with other ways of life over which it can no longer dominate. Nihilism is what the modern ideal comes to as it plays out in history.
In the smash up of a tenuously interdependent world which results from several centuries of religious and economic colonizing by Western Europe, all values, including those of “the common good” and “the public,” are relativized, and thereby reduced to interest and power. Public – and increasingly private – discourse come to be mediated by the values and myths of market capitalism. The resulting nihilism is profoundly depressive (as in reductive and “canceling”) of anything resembling “common humanity” or “the public.” And, especially as the supposed satisfactions of private life evaporate and/or become unsustainable, “depression” becomes a widespread personal and cultural problem as well. It is hard not to hear the voice of T.S. Eliot in the background of any serious consideration of these matters: “… this is the way the world ends, not with a bang but with a whimper.”
Claiming that awareness and overcoming of nihilism and disease which is its medium represents a stage in a journey through the collapse of one culture and the emergence of another can be dangerous. For one, there is the assertion of a knowing of history – of what is going on in the larger drama. This, of course, is something no human being could possibly possess. On the other hand, constructing and adopting some kind of interpretation as to the broader drama and context of life seems necessary, certainly to the living of a full life, if not something that is inevitable due to childhood socialization – either by virtuous parents or by “Sponge Bob.” Either way, it seems fair to ask each other to take responsibility for the interpretation through which we live into the world.
All cautions acknowledged, there is no exemption from the need to venture an interpretation, at the very least as a major support for our best intentions and actions in the crossing and navigating of the territory beyond. As Viktor Frankl and others familiar with living in a society which has gone nihilistic point out, interpretation involves the essential human act of creating meaning, as articulation of our underlying affirmation of life, and what humans do when we are living well.
I have attempted to describe the pathology of nihilism and moral disease in greater detail elsewhere, and have argued for decades that these streams of culture are closely associated with a threshold we must cross, a ground over which we must pass. That crossing involves what Rinehold Niebuhr called the “sublime madness” of living with hope in a hopeless world, into an orientation to life that is very different from that which guided the vast majority of our ancestors. As some have said about the death of parents, now there is nothing between us and the Void.
From the perspective of this madness, what we need is not the one, best description, in the form of a doctrine, orthodoxy, or final revelation, but rather a prescription as to what to do and how to position ourselves in the turmoil of the present, as we learn how to thrive in the great pluralism that is given by life on Earth. Having an effective description is certainly one component of a healthy life-interpretation, understood as a lifeway – with descriptive and prescriptive aspects — that nurtures living well in a world which includes others who have descriptions different from our own. But it can no longer be assumed, as in industrial production and much of traditional religion as we receive it, that living well will occur by simply following (or agreeing on, submitting to…) a single, correct formulation, from which all else becomes a matter of deduction, implementation, application, and rule-following – with little concern for the process, relationships, and the complex life-situations in which we live our actual lives. Maybe a simpler way to make this point is to say that metaphysics must follow ethics, not, as it did for so long in the West, the other way around (recalling a phrase from one of my greatest teachers, Joseph Sittler: “man [sic] creates the truth he must when it is confronted with the deed he ought”).
But living with these dynamics in a post-ideological world requires that humans step beyond both the dependence and the adolescent rebellion of the past, into a new world of pluralism and expanded responsibility, in an environment populated by fascists who are ready to do their work of terrorizing frustrated and confused people into accepting their preposterous interpretations. In fact, the more outrageous the better for the fascist, the better to demonstrate complete power over their subjects.
The new orientation to life I am pointing to arises from and is expressive of a life-affirmation on the far side of the dark night of encounter with nihilism and the post-apocalyptic conclusion of doom. It entails the decision to proclaim to oneself and the world – against massive evidence to the contrary – that life is worth living. In the language of Kyoto School Zen, we are talking about the “negation of negation.” With American Wallace Stevens, it is the “Yes” that follows “the final no” on which “the future world depends” (or what William James is pointing to when he speaks of “new ranges of life succeeding upon our most despairing moments” – or Paul Tillich with “God is the god who appears when ‘God’ has disappeared in the anxiety of doubt.” We are speaking about a very distinctly religious phenomenon.
The consciousness being expressed in these statements is profoundly – one might say impossibly – challenging for human beings. It involves an understanding of humanity, as beings “created in God’s image,” not as cookie cutter miniatures, but rather as beings who are capable of participating directly in the ongoing act of creation, of “creating something out of nothing.” Humans cease cowering at the feet of the patriarch, and stand up to become co-creators through whom reality passes directly into that mutual project known as the world. Etty Hillesum, the Jewish Dutch nurse who was executed at Auschwitz, made much the same point when she said, in the conclusion to her efforts to understand how a loving God could let the Holocaust happen, that “God needs our help.” This kind of consciousness leads to a way of life in which one is respectful of both self and others, in the shared vocation of waking up each day to create the world anew, bringing order out of chaos, justice out of oppression, and love out of deceit – to “be the change you wish to see in the world” (per Gandhi). It is an attitude and a choice, emerging from many “dark nights” such as we have in these times.
Yet, again, all this may just be asking more of human beings than we can handle. For the stress of living with the dynamics we’re discussing is loaded with uncertainty, awareness of danger, and a high level of ambiguity, something very few human beings have been able to tolerate in the past, a weight that can drive to disease in one form or another.
One reason why the new orientation and worldview is so difficult to talk about, especially given the inherited Western need for a displaced and static metaphysic, is that it is fundamentally both pluralistic and relational. As pluralistic, it acknowledges the limitations of all interpretations, including our own, since we are beings who are radically limited in language, society, and responsiveness to that which is ultimate in life. In pluralism, this acknowledgment does not lead to frustration, cynicism, and relativism – paving the way for fascism, because it also recognizes the presence and value of other partially correct descriptions from which we can learn and grow. The new worldview, then, is also relational in that meeting with others is not just an arena for exchange or transaction, but of discovery, and even the space through which fresh energy enters persons and the world.
Here it is important to be aware of how we are using the key word, “new.” For the new we are talking about is not – as in the modern dream – completely out of nowhere. Rather, it will contain elements of tradition which are retrieved from the wreck, cleaned up, and woven into a post-traditional culture in which traditional elements serve as much more than decoration. For example, I have long advocated for what became a sub-tradition of the broader modern liberation movement, one that identifies and cultivates faithfulness to precisely the kind of relationship to which I keep referring, one which “gives more energy than it takes.” Hence some of us speak of “relatedness as locus of the ultimate” – as the temple or holy place.
I have been able to do my own work of retrieving this largely forgotten Western sub-tradition in a most fruitful dialogue with Chinese colleagues and friends who are doing something both similar and different: reappropriating Confucius and his vision that “it is not the way that makes the human great, but the human that makes the way great” (Analects 15:29), as richly parallel with the Hebrew injunction to “choose life, that you and your descendants may live” (Deuteronomy 15:29).
On the more practical aspects of prescription, our planet contains a magnificent array of yogas (in Hinduism, yokes), disciplines, methods for moving from negation to affirmation, from ego-centered to reality-centered self. This ambiguous situation in which vast riches become available at the same time we have thrown out or deconstructed all criteria for judgment beyond personal preference or authoritarian command is complicated by the fact the method – even within a tradition — that may be appropriate to one person may not be to the next. The choices – and the necessity of choice — can be overwhelming, can seduce in the direction of relativism with its high tolerance for indifference.
To find — or be found by — one of the world’s great disciplines, especially the one most effective for us in particular, both among and within the variety of traditions, as well as non-traditional sources appropriated by the growing “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR) population and elements of cognitive science, is by no means easy.
However we might navigate these impossible waters (like the bird which, by the laws of physics, is unable to fly – until it does), it seems that the engagement of a spiritual practice is necessary in order for us to be anything other than spectators in the human journey. This would include work with a mentor and community who can guide, observe, correct, and encourage. The crossing over we so urgently need cannot be accomplished by the individual alone, so it may be that healthy spirituality requires a religion, a relatively stable integration of myth and ritual, word and deed.
Do the dangers associated with these “practical aspects” of a most challenging passage constitute the reef on which civilization breaks up? We press on beyond this question.
Perhaps it is best to conclude with saying that before the various questions identified above can arise in any meaningful sense there is the decision as to whether to be alive, to accept the gift of life, even like an animal with no awareness of its mortality? –Or not. A positive response, the deepest “Yes,” is not just a smiley face on Pollyanna, but an expression of co-creativity, and the faith Hannah Arendt so beautifully articulated: “that the manifold points to a Oneness which diversity conceals and reveals at the same time.” Diversity ceases to be threat, and becomes inspiration in the full and literal sense of that old term.