We all know how it goes. One day we’re born, one day we die. Everything that happens in between we know and understand, but everything that happened before and will happen after, we know nothing about. As a result, it’s really difficult to say what exactly the meaning or importance for us being here is.
If we can’t tell how we came or where we came from, how can we know why we are here? In the same vein, if we don’t know where we’re going or what we’re going to become, how can we tell if any of our present actions have any significance at all?
It is this uncertainty of both our collective pasts and futures that has allowed the question “what is the meaning of life?” to plague humanity ever since we became sentient. We’ve never been able to objectively answer this question as a species, however, a lot of us have found comfort in many different ideologies to at least subdue the anxiety that it causes.
In many different religions, a deity made the entire universe, put us all in it, and whatever we do on this Earth will be used to determine when and how we spend eternity afterward.
For some others, the meaning of life is the love we share with friends, family, and our loved ones. Some others believe the existence of life in itself is what makes it worth living. But for nihilists, life is meaningless. All action, suffering, emotions both good and bad, are entirely senseless and meaningless.
This is Nihilism, the belief in nothing.
At some point in our lives, many of us must have been faced with nihilistic thoughts. We’re hit by a strong sense of purposelessness, like our lives have no meaning, and we have no intrinsic value. Usually, this happens when we begin to question our old beliefs, but also just before we get new ones to hold on to. It’s in that phase where you’re growing out of your parent’s beliefs, learning new things, getting new experiences, and forming your own views about the world. And usually, all of these thoughts begin with one simple question – why?
A three-lettered monosyllabic word that’s capable of making anything and everything that feels like the rock of your foundation start to become slippery. Like quicksand dragging you into the misery that maybe, just maybe, your whole life hasn’t been what you thought it was.
Just pause and take a moment to think about your core values and just ask the question – why? Why do you believe those things? Where did they come from? Who did they come from? Keep asking and eventually, you’ll arrive at a point where there’s no longer an answer, you’ll arrive at nothing.
All the religions of the world, all our scientific discovery, but yet the question “why” is one that we still cannot answer. And so for the nihilist, it is at this point that they come to the conclusion that there is no why. There is no answer, there is simply nothing.
As Alan Watts once wrote, “life is nothing more than a trip from the maternity ward to the crematorium.”
It’s really in the name, the term “nihilism” comes from the Latin word “nihil” which translates to “nothing,” and “ism” which translates to ideology. It’s the ideology of nothing, but that doesn’t really help us in understanding it completely.
Usually, people confuse nihilism for pessimism, but they are very different from each other.
Pessimists believe in the worst outcome. They have a down-trending view of the world, and tend to focus on the negatives in life, because they believe that, in the end, evil will always overcome good. And this is what makes them different. Pessimists believe there’s good in the world, but they just don’t think humans are capable of doing it, at least in its entirety.
Nihilists, on the other hand, do not believe in anything. They don’t believe that there is evil in the world, neither do they believe that there is good in the world. In the mind of the nihilist, the world simply exists and humans created morality, thereby creating good and evil.
Let’s take the glass cup metaphor for instance. Optimists say you should see the glass as half full, while pessimists say we should see the glass as half empty. Nihilists? They say throw the entire cup away, because what does it matter if it’s full or empty? Full, empty, good, bad, it’s all irrelevant, we’re all going to die anyway.
Nihilism is also often compared to several other philosophies like cynicism and apathy. But again, they are all very different from one another, and correctly categorizing your thoughts in these baskets might be harder than you think.
Cynics believe that people are always motivated by self-interest. They do not believe that anyone can have intrinsically good motives. They have no faith in the human species and believe we are all entirely selfish, only fighting for our own benefit.
However, the idea that humans are not good means that in the mind of the cynic, good exists out there somewhere, just not in humans. In the mind of the nihilist, nothing exists out there, there’s no good or evil. They don’t see people as evil, neither do they see them as good, because they don’t believe either of those things exist. They are simply traits we’ve applied to things.
Apathetic people don’t care. They might believe that there’s meaning to life, but they simply don’t care about it. Nihilism, on the other hand, is the idea that there’s no grand design or purpose. Nothing to believe in, and therefore, no meaning. This brings to mind the paradox of nihilism. If you believe in nothing, then that nothing becomes something that you believe in. But since you now believe in something, then there is no nihilism, because nihilism is the belief that there is nothing.
Nihilism is quite different from other philosophical ideas because it was first a literary invention before it ever became philosophical. As a result, it’s not as clearly defined as many of the other philosophies that exist. Many different people explained it in different ways, but eventually these different definitions got categorized, forming many different kinds of nihilism.
There’s political nihilism. Political nihilists believe that for humanity to move forward as a species, all political, social, and religious order must be destroyed.
Then there’s ethical nihilism. It rejects the idea of absolute ethical or moral values. With this type of nihilism, good or bad is only defined by society and as such, it shouldn’t be followed if we as a species will ever attain absolute individual freedom. We can kind of just do whatever we want.
And then we have existential nihilism; it’s the understanding that life has no value or meaning. It’s the most popular kind of nihilism, and the one we’ve been talking about for most of this video.
For nihilists, the existence of things like the state, religious bodies, and even communal morality is a breach on our freedom as individuals. If we cannot do absolutely anything that we want to do, then are we truly free? Or have we simply bound ourselves by some kind of invisible mental chain for reasons we cannot explain?
One night I was scrolling through Reddit and I came across the question – “if you had the chance to save your pet or a stranger, who would you save?” An overwhelming number of people said their pet, pretty obviously. When one commenter was confronted, they simply asked the question “why do you think a human life is worth more than that of an animal?” And no one had an answer. Of course people tried to beat around the bush, but the question “why” was never answered, and that right there is the point of the nihilist.
If we cannot answer why we bind ourselves by these rules, then why do we choose to do it?
Well, it might be because of the existential horror and the emotional anguish that comes with agreeing to the fact that life is meaningless.
Think about it for a minute, if life is truly meaningless and everything we’re doing has no value, then all the feats of science, the wonders of technology, things like space exploration and human rights movements, look at how far we’ve come, and then think about the fact that it all might just be a waste, a blip in time with no consequence whatsoever in the grand scheme of things. Knowing that all the things we experience, the ups and downs we go through, that in the end, it’s all for nothing.
We aren’t obligated to understand the chaos of reality, just to laugh at it.
Friedrich Nietzsche was a strange philosopher because he argued both for and against nihilism at the same time. Arguing for, he explained that there is no objective structure or order in our world except the one we create for ourselves. He once said, “every belief, every considering something true is necessarily false, because there is simply no true world.”
He believed nihilism would expose all of humanity’s “beliefs” and “truths” as nothing but a symptom of a defective Western mythology. As he famously said, “God is dead.”
He wasn’t talking about the actual deity of the religions, he was talking metaphorically about the power that religious orders held at the time, and how people were starting to chart their own paths, find their own meaning in life, denying what was the status quo at the time.
But then in the same breath, Friedrich argued against nihilism saying that in the coming centuries, the advent of nihilism would drive civilization towards a catastrophe, a disaster waiting to implode. A river that has reached its end.
And if you look at the most destructive civilizations in human history, we can clearly see that this is true. Longstanding cultural traditions, beliefs, religious institutions, and even financial systems are broken down and nothingness starts creeping in.
Think about it, if nothing matters and we are just a random combination of transient atoms, then how can we ever truly say that despicable things such as slavery, apartheid, and nuclear warfare are bad? How can we call Adolf Hitler objectively one of the worst humans to ever live for trying to wipe out an entire culture?
At a fundamental level, most of us understand that all of these things are indeed terrible, but the danger is that because we cannot explain why we feel that way logically, we can never convince another person to follow the same path.
And that is exactly what Friedrich feared. A lot of people actually still blame him for the Nazi era, because although he saw all these dangers, he still continued preaching nihilism. He believed that if we could work through the breakdown of civilization that nihilism would eventually cause, we can then create a new course of action for mankind. He believed that to move forward as a species, we must create a new morality, one that does away with the prejudice of what existed before. Because at the end of the day, tearing down your old house shouldn’t make you homeless, rather, it should present you with an opportunity to build a bigger and better home.
Pause and look around you for a moment, observe everything that’s going on, particularly on social media, and you can see that we as a species might just be heading for another nihilism outbreak. Think about it, religion no longer holds any say in what is morally acceptable, people are destroying long standing beliefs and cultural practices, and are instead charting new courses for themselves. Anything, no matter how despicable you think it is, now has a loyal fan base defending why they have a right to do whatever it is they want to do, and in reality, why not?
That’s the question no one can answer. Humanity will keep shifting the needle forward ever so slightly until one day, none of us will be able to tell the other that they’re wrong, because “why are they wrong?”
William Shakespeare once wrote, “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, but signifying nothing.”
If life is truly meaningless and we have no purpose for being here, our response should be to make the best out of a bad situation. Instead of seeing the glass half full or half empty, we can simply throw it out and drink directly from the faucet until we’re satisfied. Because at the end of the day, life alone is reason enough for living.