In my mind nihilism is of a most radical philosophy, it is also a philosophy that runs parallel to atheistic existentialism. The word “nihilist” was first coined by Ivan Turgenev, a 19th century Russian writer, in his work Fathers and Children where he used it to define a radical form of socialism. Not long after that nihilism would become an influential perspective in the Russian academy. Essentially, nihilism can be defined as “negative doctrines, total rejection of current beliefs, in religion or morals; a form of scepticism that denies all existence” (1).
As a philosophy it claims that there is no reason why the universe exists and that there is no goal towards which it is moving; that nothing is of value, that human existence is totally meaningless, that human beings are biological accidents, and that there is no life after death. On nihilism, suicide, one could argue, may actually be the more rational approach than to go on living a purposeless, torturous existence. And when it comes down to values, morals and ethics human existence is fully futile, and as a result of this personal satisfaction becomes the motive behind any form of behaviour.
Nihilism is also not new and we can see some of its sentiments reflected by the famous poet William Shakespeare who once called life “… a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” (2). However, arguably the most influential modern nihilist was that of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, sometimes called the father of modern nihilism. Nietzsche would define human life as being Das Nichtige (the nothingness). He would also poignantly write that “Regarding life, the wisest men of all ages have judged alike: it is worthless” (3), and on the notion of hope for humanity he believed that it was “the worst of all evils because it prolongs the torments of man” (3). And, very sadly, a tormented man Nietzsche would become prior to his death in 1900 at age 55. He would soon pen some letters to his friends that he called Wahnzettel (“Madness Letters”), and not long after was he overcome by dementia (4).
Nietzsche, however, was not the only person to have experienced the despair of nihilism and its philosophy. Some decades later the famous Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung would be equally as bleak when he would say that “The vast neurotic misery of the world could be termed a neurosis of emptiness” (5). Further, in a more contemporary setting, especially in the worldview espoused by modern atheists, we see nihilism stick out like a sore thumb; for example, Richard Dawkins believes that “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference” (6). Similarly, the late William Provine claimed that “There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning to life, and no free will for humans, either” (7).
I believe that atheists who make statements, much like that of Dawkins and Provine, cannot live consistently with their nihilism since they live out their lives as if love, morality, meaning, and value really do exist. I also believe that in the end it comes down to one’s view on the existence of God, as the philosopher John Frame captures. Frame writes: “The choice is between God and chaos, God and nothing, God and insanity” (8).
To this Nietzsche would undoubtedly agree.
1. Concise Oxford Dictionary. p.685.
2. Shakespeare, W. Macbeth, Act V, Scene V.
3. Graham, D. 2014. The Very Best of Friedrich Nietzsche: Quotes from a Great Thinker.
4. Sax, L. “What was the cause of Nietzsche’s dementia?” in Journal of Medical Biography 2003; 11: 47-54.
5. Quoted by Kaushik, R. in Architect of Human Destiny: Who Brings about Peace Or Chaos. p. 167.
6. Dawkins, R. 1995. River out of Eden. P. 131-32.
7. Provine, W. 1994. Origins Research. p. 9.
8. Frame, J. 1994. Apologetics to the Glory of God. p. 102.