International Leadership Conference
International Leadership Association
14 November 2009
Introduction: Nihilism Explained
Nihilism’s dimensions are much broader than the anarchy and destruction of Russia during Pisarev’s and Nechayev’s time. In the modern time nihilism has come to suggest a mood of despair, a sense of emptiness and meaninglessness, a feeling that life finally ends in the nothingness of death. It has also come to mean that moral norms cannot be validated, that relativism and subjectivism render all statements about truth suspect and untenable. In this sense nihilism is an attitude holding that traditional beliefs and values are not founded on any absolute or objective truth, that indeed there is no final basis for making distinctions between good and evil. It gives rise to a feeling that everything is permitted, giving justification to all forms of violence. Such violence is usually accompanied by a sense that life is running down to the nothingness of death, and one has to get whatever one has to get now. The rational behind such acts is that if death is a great nothingness that finally negates and engulfs us all, and if there is no ultimate center for continuance of human existence, then why bother to be civil? Instead pleasure born of despair becomes the primary factor in life. Indifference then becomes a major expression in such forms as boredom, emptiness, purposelessness, despair, resignation, and futility.
Extreme positions are not succeeded by moderate ones but by extreme positions of the opposite kind. Thus the belief in the absolute immorality of nature, in aim and meaninglessness, is the psychologically necessary effect once the belief in God and an essentially moral order becomes untenable. Nihilism appears at this point . . . because one has come to mistrust any ‘meaning’ in suffering, indeed in existence. One interpretation has collapsed; but because it was considered the interpretation it now seems as if there were no meaning at all in existence, as if everything were in vain (The Will to Power, 55).
Nietzsche and the Death of God
The question of nihilism for Nietzsche was a result of his lifelong philosophical quest for the meaning and value of the human existence. He was one of the first philosophers of the modern age to point out that the “psychological state of despair” and the “feeling of valuelessness” (The Will to Power, 12) is at the heart of human existence.
The Gay Science, Nietzsche captures the essence of nihilism through his statement “God is Dead” (125). What does Nietzsche mean by that statement? One could suppose Nietzsche is only expressing a personal opinion of his atheism, a disbelief in the existence of God. But is that what it means? In the fifth volume of the The Gay Science he adds “The greatest recent event – that ‘God is dead,’ that the belief in the Christian God has become unbelievable – is already beginning to cast its first shadows over Europe” (343). From this statement it becomes clear that Nietzsche’s pronouncement of the death of God is not just a matter of personal opinion of atheism but of an event, “which is beginning to cast its first shadow over Europe.” It appears that Nietzsche means the death of the Christian God. But is this just a theological statement of the demise of the Christian God? “God is Dead” for Nietzsche does not mean the demise of the Christian God but “God” in the broadest sense of the term. In Nietzsche’s thinking “God” and “Christian God” are used to designate the supersensory world in general. “God is Dead” means that the metaphysical world of ideas, ideals, and values is no longer alive and that metaphysics is thereby at its end. It should be added here that the God whose demise proclaimed stands not only for the Judeo- Christian God but for all other Gods as well. He does not dispute the decline of the Christian God, but the world “God” embraces above all recognition of the decline of the authority of a supersensible world. In the highest instance, God is synonymous with the transcendent realm of metaphysical ideas and ideals from which ever since Plato; the sensory world of human experience was thought to derive its significance. As Heidegger writes:
Nihilism does not rule primarily where the Christian God is disavowed or where Christianity is combated; nor does it rule exclusively where common atheism is preached in a secular setting…. “God is Dead’ has nothing in common with the opinions of those who are merely standing about and talking confusedly, who “do not believe in God… (It denotes) the supersensory world, the ideas, God, the moral law, the authority or reason, progress suffer the loss of their constructive force and become void (65).
Nietzsche’s Moral Skepticism
Morality can be separated into three main strands: the good, the right, and a general understanding of value according to Nietzsche. He shows what we call ‘morality’ emerged from genealogy precisely because it traces the moral version of each strand back to pre-moral sources. If our moral conceptions are seen to have evolved from more primitive conceptions which we do not consider to be moral, then this would call into question the independent validity of those moral beliefs. This idea is raised not only in the Genealogy of Morals but many places in Nietzsche’s writings. Genealogically speaking not only have our concepts evolved from ones that had a very different meaning, but this makes us realize as well that we are conditioned to our thinking by historical forces of which we often know nothing. The conventions and conceptual structures that we inherit from past generations dictate to us our possibilities of comprehending the world. Through historical analysis Nietzsche removes all distinction between morality and custom. For Nietzsche, to behave morally is to obey a certain code that is to follow a custom. What is good for the community is considered good and what is not is considered evil. To be moral, virtuous, or ethical is nothing more than obeying a long-established law or tradition. Whether one obeys gladly or reluctantly is of little importance, what is important for the community is that one obeys:
He is called ‘good’ who acts according to custom as if by nature, as the result of a long inheritance, and therefore easily and gladly… To be evil is to be ‘not bound by custom’, to have bad habits to fight against tradition, however reasonable or stupid this tradition may be. (Human, All Too Human, 96)
Nietzsche Final Philosophy of Overcoming Nihilism
The positive aim behind all Nietzsche’s inquiries was to establish a new meaning for human beings in a world that was becoming meaningless. Although Nietzsche proposed answer to the problem of nihilism – the creation of new values – was a task he did not complete, he did leave us with his monistic alternative and replacement for God. In his proposed creation of new values – his vision of existence characterized asWille zur Macht or ‘will to power’. It is this principle that underpins his thinking on subjects like culture, art, morality, philosophy, and religion. Will to power provides continuity between his earlier and later writings, despite the fact that this concept did not appear until Zarathustra. Will to power provides a new and interesting perspective on human history and culture, as well as provides the new Weltanschauung upon which the post-nihilistic future would be built. As pointed out the idea that ‘God is Dead’ is not simply theological – or anti- theological – statement, but is primarily a cultural one, and idea with far- reaching cultural and social implications. The bifurcation of existence into ‘mundane’ and ‘transcendental’, ‘worldly’ and ‘divine’, ‘appearance’ and ‘reality’, ‘becoming’ and ‘Being’ conjoined with the understanding that all that is good, meaningful, worthy, and real has its source and origin in that which somehow transcends this ordinary world and life, had, according to Nietzsche, been undermined through the pursuit of one of the West’s highest values; truth. Truth has won but the consequence is that “the highest values devaluate themselves” (The Will to Power, 2). The source of truth, the ‘real world’, has been negated by truth. What, then, is the status of that world previously judged to be an ‘appearance’?
We have abolished the real world; what world is left? The apparent world perhaps? … But no! with the real world we have also abolished the apparent world! (Twilight of the Idols, iv).
The ‘apparent’ world is the only one; the ‘real’ world has only been lyingly added. (Twilight of the Idols, ii).
The Cosmic Order Conclusion
Nietzsche saw the world as chaos:
The total nature of the world is … to all eternity chaos (Gay Science, 109)
With the absence of an Absolute God he feared that the world simply fall apart. With the ‘death of God’, the leader and the resulting disappearance of the ‘regulating finger of God’, the regulating leader, humankind needs to fix its own goals. Unless human beings willfully bring order into this world, the world would go into a complete chaos. His fear shows that Nietzsche was still working under the hypothesis of two-world doctrine? If there were no Absolute God or Leader to bring order to ‘this’ world, this would be chaos.
But the world of phenomena is chaotic only in comparison to the supersensible, is this world still without order? Why do we need something to bring order? Isn’t order the very nature of the cosmos? Is it human beings that are disorderly or is it that very nature of the universe is in disorder?
Heideggar, Martin (1982). “God is Dead”, The Question Concerning Technology and other Essays. Translated Lovitt, W. New York: Harper Perennial
Nietzsche, Friedrich (1996). Human, all too human. Translated Hollingdale. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Nietzsche, Friedrich (1974). The Gay Science. Translated Kaufmann, W. New York: Random House.
Nietzsche, Friedrich (1967). The Will to Power. Translated Kaufmann, W and Hollingdale, R. J. New York: Random House.
Nietzsche, Friedrich (1969). Twilight of the Idols. Translated Hollingdale, R. J. New York: Penguin Books.