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8 November 2007

Nietzsche and nihilism

Keith Pearson explains in what sense Nietzsche was a nihilist, before entitling him "philosopher of

By Keith Pearson

In a note of 1886-7 Nietzsche writes:

The whole idealism of humanity…is on the point of tipping into nihilism – into the belief in absolute valuelessness, that is, meaninglessness…

The annihilation of ideals, the new wasteland, the new arts of enduring it, we amphibians.

This process must be endured and persisted with: there is no going back, there should be no ardent rush forwards. For the time being we assume a parodic relation to all previous values and, Nietzsche hopes, out of plenitude.

By idealism he simply means that way in which humanity has understood its own existence on the earth and posited values and ideals: it has not known itself or known what it has been doing.

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Two modes of thinking are now shown to be deficient: first idealism, because with the categories we have at our disposal we can no longer make sense of the whole of what happens; second, mechanism: ‘mechanistic theory no use – creates the impression of meaninglessness’.

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Nihilism, then, denotes the experience of the devaluation of the highest values. The aim is now lacking, and the question ‘where to?’ finds no answer. In part, this denotes what Nietzsche calls ‘radical nihilism’: existence becomes untenable in terms of the highest values one recognizes.

In addition, there is the realization that we lack the right to posit a beyond as the source of truth and value, an in-itself of things that would be divine or morality incarnate.

Nihilism is to be regarded as a ‘pathological transitional stage’, a psychologically necessary affect once belief in God and a divinely sanctioned moral order becomes untenable. The pathology comes from the tremendous generalisation, the inference that there is no meaning at all.

We have lost the main stimulus (our existence has no charm for us), and are now weary: we cannot reach the sphere where we have deposited values and we do not know how to value the sphere that remains, the one in which we live and are bound or fettered to (the earth).

We now feel a new shame towards ourselves: how could we have deceived ourselves for so long? (the old shame was directed at our animality). ‘Morality’ is now taken as a problem by us: what is it?

It is a way of turning our back on existence through the fiction and fantasy of purity, peace, goodness, beatitude, etc. We now experience an overwhelming sense of disappointment.

When we realise that it is our psychological needs that have fabricated the world, there comes the ‘last form’ of nihilism: this takes the form of disbelief in any metaphysical world and forbidding ourselves belief in the ‘true world’.

Can we now endure the pluralistic world? Nietzsche writes tersely in one note:

‘Against the wish for reconciliation and the love of peace. This includes every attempt at monism’.

Nihilism in its positive sense can be the ideal of the highest degree of powerfulness of the spirit, the over-richest life, which is partly destructive, partly ironic (it is this nihilism that inspires the work of ‘post-modern’ thinkers such as Richard Rorty and Gianni Vattimo).

As the denial of a truthful world (a world of true being), nihilism might be a divine way of thinking.

The arrival of nihilism in our consciousness is ambiguous for Nietzsche: on the one hand it could be a sign of the increased power of the spirit; on the other hand it could equally be a sign of the decreased power of the spirit.

The very same symptoms could point to decline and to strength. Close beside our modern malaise is an untested force and powerfulness of the soul, so that the same reasons that produce the increasing smallness of man drive the stronger and rarer individuals up to greatness.

Nietzsche wonders whether it’s not the case that every fruitful movement of humanity does not create at the same time a nihilistic movement: ‘It could be the sign of a crucial and most essential growth, of the transition to new conditions of existence…’

For Nietzsche nihilism must be faced and completed since any attempt to escape it without revaluing our values so far will only produce the opposite and make the problem more acute.

There are many ‘incomplete’ forms of nihilisms for him. One is socialism. The problem with socialism for Nietzsche is that it is entirely secular; it has no conception of the ‘eternal’ (which is to be understood now in terms of our actual or real life, not the fantasy life of religion and metaphysics).

Socialism is a teaching addressed to entirely transient individuals who devote the energies of their existence to living a solely ephemeral life and a life of socialisation.

Moreover, socialism has no respect of the noble (the higher, the rarer, the singular); it respects only the common and wants a this-worldly solution to the problem of existence that is designed to pacify, placate, and make things as easy as possible (it encourages laziness or lack of self-responsibility).

There is also the fact that a socialist society, because it seeks only to preserve life, would have to be a society that is anti-life, it has a hidden will to negate life. Socialism has its roots in life, it must do so, and yet it would cut off its own roots.

Nietzsche envisages a crisis taking place in which different forces will come together and collide and there will be assigned common tasks to human beings with opposite ways of thinking, leading to the initiation of ‘an order of rank among forces’.

He asks who in this struggle will prove to be the strongest and states that it is not a matter of numbers or of brute strength.

The strongest will be the most moderate ones who do not need extreme articles of faith, but can concede a good deal of contingency and nonsense and even love it, and who can embrace the human animal with a moderation of its significance.

These are the ones who are rich in health, equal to the misfortunes of life and therefore less afraid of them, and who are sure of their power.

Nietzsche is the philosopher of the superhuman in this sense. It really is a new philosophy of modesty. And it is revolutionary.