Nietzsche and Nihilism

Nihilism, Nihilists, and Nihilistic Philosophy

Friedrich Nietzsche
Friedrich Nietzsche. Photograph from the series „Der kranke Nietzsche“ ("The ill Nietzsche"). by Hans Olde, between June and August 1899

There is a common misconception that the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was a nihilist. You can find this assertion in both popular and academic literature, yet as widespread as it is, it isn't really an accurate portrayal of his work. Nietzsche wrote a great deal about nihilism, it is true, but that was because he was concerned about the effects of nihilism on society and culture, not because he advocated nihilism.

Even that, though, is perhaps a bit too simplistic. The question of whether Nietzsche really advocated nihilism or not is largely dependent upon the context: Nietzsche's philosophy is a moving target because he had so many different things to say on so many different subjects, and not all of what he wrote is perfectly consistent with everything else.

Nietzsche could be categorized as a nihilist in the descriptive sense that he believed that there was no longer any real substance to traditional social, political, moral, and religious values. He denied that those values had any objective validity or that they imposed any binding obligations upon us. Indeed, he even argued that they could at times have negative consequences for us.

We could also categorize Nietzsche as a nihilist in the descriptive sense that he saw that many people in society around him were effectively nihilists themselves.

Many, if not most, probably wouldn't admit to it, but Nietzsche saw that the old values and old morality simply didn't have the same power that they once did. It is here that he announced the "death of God," arguing that the traditional source of ultimate and transcendental value, God, no longer mattered in modern culture and was effectively dead to us.

Describing nihilism isn't the same as advocating nihilism, so is there any sense in which Nietzsche did the latter? As a matter of fact, he could be described as a nihilist in a normative sense because he regarded the "death of God" as being ultimately a good thing for society. As mentioned above, Nietzsche believed that traditional moral values, and in particular those stemming from traditional Christianity, were ultimately harmful to humanity. Thus, the removal of their primary support should lead to their downfall — and that could only be a good thing.

It is here, however, that Nietzsche parts company from nihilism. Nihilists look at the death of God and conclude that, without any perfect source of absolute, universal, and transcendent values, then there can be no real values at all. Nietzsche, however, argues that the lack of such absolute values does not imply the absence of any values at all.

On the contrary, by freeing himself from the chains tying him to a single perspective normally attributed to God, Nietzsche is able to give a fair hearing to the values of many different and even mutually exclusive perspectives. In so doing, he can conclude that these values are "true" and appropriate to those perspectives, even if they may be inappropriate and invalid to other perspectives.

Indeed, the great "sin" of both Christian values and Enlightenment values is, at least for Nietzsche, the attempt to pretend that they are universal and absolute rather than situated in some particular set of historical and philosophical circumstances.

Nietzsche can actually be quite critical of nihilism, although that is not always recognized. In Will to Power we can find the following comment: "Nihilism is…not only the belief that everything deserves to perish; but one actually puts one shoulder to the plough; one destroys." It is true that Nietzsche put his shoulder to the plough of his philosophy, tearing through many cherished assumptions and beliefs.

Once again, though, he parts company with nihilists in that he did not argue that everything deserves to be destroyed. He was not simply interested in tearing down traditional beliefs based on traditional values; instead, he also wanted to help build new values.

He pointed in the direction of a "superman" who might be able to construct his own set of values independent of what anyone else thought.

Nietzsche was certainly the first philosopher to study nihilism extensively and to try and take its implications seriously, yet that doesn't mean that he was a nihilist in the sense that most people mean by the label. He may have taken nihilism seriously, but only as part of an effort to provide an alternative to the Void that it offered.