Nihilistic Existentialism

Nihilism, Values, and Existentialist Thought

Although existentialism is not by necessity nihilistic, nihilism does share a close affinity with existentialism because it depicts human life as ultimately trivial and meaningless. Where it parts company with existentialism, however, is in the level of resulting despair and the conclusion that therefore perhaps the best course of action is suicide.

We can find a good expression of the nihilistic existentialism in work by Dostoyevksy.

In The Possessed, his character Kirilov argues that if God does not really exist, then only individual freedom in life is genuinely meaningful. However, he also adds that the most free thing that a person could do would be to end that life rather than live under the control of social systems created by others. Albert Camus explored a the same issue in The Myth of Sisyphus, published in 1942, where he addressed the question: should we commit suicide?

There are two aspects to this position which merit attention: whether the absence of any gods renders human life meaningless and whether that meaninglessness forces us to conclude that suicide is the best course of action. The first aspect is technical and philosophical in nature. The second, though, is much more psychological.

Now, it is certainly true that large numbers of people throughout history and even today have believed that the existence of some divine purpose to the universe is necessary for them to have purpose and meaning in their lives.

What that majority believes to be true for themselves is not, however, dispositive for the rest of humanity. Quite a few people have managed to live very purposeful and meaningful lives without any belief in any gods — and no one is in a position of authority that would allow them to contradict what those people say about meaning in their lives.

For the same reason, the fact that people have experienced great anguish and despair over the apparent loss of meaning in life when they have doubted the existence of God does not, therefore, mean that everyone who doubts or disbelieves must necessarily go through similar experiences. Indeed, some treat that doubt and disbelief very positively, arguing that it provides a superior basis for living that do faith and religion.

Not all claims that life today is meaningless are entirely dependent upon the assumption that there is no God. There is, in addition, the vision of the “postmodern man,” the image of the conformist who has become dehumanized and alienated by the nature of modern industrial and consumer society. Political and social conditions have rendered him indifferent and even baffled, causing him to direct his energy towards hedonistic narcissism or simply a resentment that might explode in violent behavior.

This is a nihilism depicts human beings who have become stripped of even the remotest of hope for meaningful lives, leaving only the expectation that existence will be little more than sickness, decay, and disintegration. It must be pointed out here, though, that there are some differences in how the concept “meaningful life” is being used.

Those who insist that a meaningful life depends upon God mean it in the sense of a life that is meaningful from an objective perspective.

Those who disbelieve in God will usually agree that there is no “objective” meaning to their lives, but deny that therefore there is no meaning at all. Instead, they argue that their lives can be fulfilling and purposeful from the subjective perspectives of themselves and other human beings. Because they find this satisfying, they do not sink into despair and they do not feel that suicide is the best option.

People who cannot be satisfied with personal meaning may not be able to resist such a move; for them, then, suicide would be appealing. Nevertheless, that is not the conclusion typically reached by existential nihilists. For them the objective meaninglessness of life can often be viewed as quite liberating because it frees humans from the demands of tradition which are themselves based upon false assumptions about the binding wills of gods and ancestors.

This is the conclusion that Camus reached in The Myth of Sisyphus. A mythical King of Corinth, Sisyphus was condemned to spend eternity pushing a rock up a mountain, only to have it roll back down to the bottom. Sisyphus’ had no meaning, no goal that could be reached — and it would never end. For Camus, this was a metaphor for life: without God, Heaven and Hell, all we have is a terrible struggle that in the end we are condemned to lose.

Death is not a release from our struggle and a move to another plane of existence but rather a negation of all that we might have accomplished by our efforts.

How, then, can we be happy in this knowledge? Camus argued that we can be optimistic in the face of this by refusing to be blinded to the fact that this life is indeed all we have.

Pessimism is only merited if we assume that life must be given meaning from outside our lives, but that assumption should have been dispensed with along with the assumption of God because, without God, there is no position “outside our lives” to hand down meaning in the first place.

Once we get past that we are able to rebel, not against a non-existent god, but instead against our fate to die.

Here, “to rebel” means to reject the idea that death must have any hold over us. Yes, we will die, but we shouldn’t allow that fact to inform or constrain all of our actions or decisions. We must be willing to live in spite of death, create meaning in spite of objective meaninglessness, and find value in spite of the tragic, even comic, absurdity of what goes on around us.

Thus, existential nihilism shares with other forms of nihilism the idea that life lacks any objective meaning or purpose because of the lack of gods to provide such purpose. Where they differ, however, is in the fact that existential nihilists do not regard this situation as a reason to despair or to commit suicide. Instead, given the right attitude and understanding of life, the possibility for personal meaning is still possible.