Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Is Nihilism Right? A Badly Put Question

Nihilism, we learn in high school, is the claim that nothing matters. The assumption here is that we’re all agreed on what it would mean for something to matter. So that, when a nihilist looks out at the world, he decides that no, the right conditions aren’t met anywhere. He might say: we all die, and there’s no afterlife. And since there’s no reward or punishment, it doesn’t matter what we do. Nor do our accomplishments mean anything, because in the long run, everything which we’ve built or written will turn to dust. Or he’ll say: the world is just a ball of rock with some lukewarm growth on it, and the blind struggle of evolution over the last few billion years has produced some hairless apes who happen to be conscious. But they’re no different than the shrews; than the rocks; than the void for that matter.

And by the same token, when an anti-nihilist responds, he asserts that there are some things that in fact do matter. He might take a religious stand, and argue that God put everyone on earth with a specific purpose. Or he might appeal to the emotions, painting a vivid enough picture of the woods and mountains that it becomes hard to imagine that the world is this beautiful for no reason at all. Or, if he’s clever, he’ll say that everyone is in fact an implicit anti-nihilist. Because everyone does find something to live for, whether it’s their children or justice or their work; and the very fact that the self-proclaimed nihilist got dressed and fed his kids breakfast this morning proves that he’s not what he says he is.

This instinct to treat nihilism as a claim is tempting. If we want to reject nihilism, it’s comforting to be able to say that the nihilists have the facts wrong. Or, on the other side, if we decide to be nihilists ourselves, it helps our case to be able to say that the non-nihilists haven’t figured out the truth yet, but that with a little more information they would reject meaning too.

However: even though it’s a truth-claim on the tongues of English-speaking philosophers, I want to reject our instinct to read nihilism like that. In the first place, how could you test it? Just like it’s meaningless to prove the existence of values, so is it meaningless to deny them. Value is not a theory: You can’t prove that it’s good to feed the starving.

But you can feed the starving nonetheless, and the value you put on charity will show itself in your action. And this gives us a clue to the kind of theory that nihilism is: not a theory at all, but a commitment. Or, more properly speaking, a lack of commitment. So even though nihilism as a truth-claim is meaningless, it can, and does, exist in human lives. A person can live by nothing; can denounce the whole world as a stupid game. Anna Karenina does this, right before she dies:
Neither the conductor nor the people who entered noticed the expression of terror on [Anna’s] face under the veil. She went back to her corner and sat down. The couple sat on the opposite side, studying her dress attentively but surreptitiously. Anna found both husband and wide repulsive. The husband asked if she would allow him to smoke, obviously not in order to smoke, but in order to strike up a conversation with her. Having received her consent, he began talking with his wife in French about things he needed to talk about still less than he needed to smoke. They said foolish things to each other in an affected way only so that she would overhear them. Anna saw clearly how sick they were of each other and how they hated each other. And it was impossible not to hate such pathetically ugly people. (765–6) 
Later, she muses:
‘I’m unable to think up a situation in which life would not be suffering ... we’re all created in order to suffer, and we all know it and keep thinking up ways of deceiving ourselves. But if you see the truth, what can you do? 
‘Man has been given reason in order to rid himself of that which troubles him,’ the lady said in French, obviously pleased with her phrase and grimacing with her tongue between her teeth. 
The words were like a response to Anna’s thought. 
‘To rid himself of that which troubles,’ Anna repeated. And, glancing at the red-cheeked husband and the thin wife, she realized that the sickly wife considered herself a misunderstood woman and that her husband deceived her and supported her in this opinion of herself. It was as if Anna could see their story and all the hidden corners of their souls, turning her light on them. But there was nothing interesting there, and she went on with her thinking. 
‘Yes, troubles me very much, and reason was given us in order to rid ourselves of it. So I must rid myself of it. Why not put out the candle, if there’s nothing more to look at, if it’s vile to look at it at all? But how? Why was that conductor running along the footboard? Why are those young men in the other carriage shouting? Why do they talk? Why do they laugh? It’s all untrue, all a lie, all deceit, all evil!…’ (766–7)
Anna does not come to these conclusions because she has found anything out. It’s not like she had thought there was a point of living, and then forgotten it or realized that it was a lie. Instead she simply finds herself hating the world, which is horribly painful, and the people in it, who are ugly and selfish. Her nihilism grows like a black spore on her hatred.

Okonkwo, the tragic hero of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, ends up a nihilist too. When the Christian Englishmen pull up the roots of the patriarchal society that had given sense to his life, he has two choices: violent revolt, and then suicide. The failure of the first leads him to the second. And so does Achilles. When his beloved Patroclus dies, he tries to kill even the Trojan river in his insane, world-defying fury.


In all of these people, nihilism is not a scientific claim. It’s not even a decision. It is an attitude; a resolution that the world and her rules are fit to be fled from, despised, or destroyed. A person can be a nihilist—or reject nihilism—given basically any conditions. Even if you provide immortal life, clear rewards and punishments for behavior, and voices from heaven to announce the moral truth, there will always be a Don Giovanni to reject it all in angry defiance. (To a medieval Christian, this is what the Jews did.) And even if you take away all semblance of coherence in the world, if you give the Jews over to the Nazis, and promise nothing but annihilation after death, there will always be a Primo Levi to accept these facts, and then stand up for reason and human dignity.

And yet: it would be blind to say that nihilism has no relationship whatsoever to the things that human beings have discovered to be true in the last few hundred years. In thirteenth-century Europe, before Copernicus’ heliocentrism had been dreamt of, the world was a naturally ordered place. The stars and planets overhead circled the earth, which was self-evidently at the center of creation. And it was taken for granted that the wicked would burn, and that the righteous would be reunited with their families in heaven.
The greatest scientist of the day.
These were not conditions under which it was easy to reject everything. The point of life seemed clear: to obey God, and to love your neighbor. Beyond that, you knew your place in the hierarchy that had been appointed for all of human society. A priest had his job, a knight had his, and it was considered bizarre to wish you’d been placed elsewhere in the great chain of being. Take this line from a medieval English textbook:
Swa hwæðer þu sy, swa mæsseprest, swa munuc, swa ceorl, swa kempa, bega oþþe behwyrf þe sylfne on þisum, ond beo þæt þu eart; forþam micel hynð ond sceamu hyt is menn nellan wesan þæt þæt he ys ond þæt he wesan sceal. 
Whatever you are, whether a mass-priest, or a monk, or a peasant, or a warrior, go about or instruct yourself in your craft, and be what you are: for it is humiliating and shameful for a person to be unwilling to be what he is and what he ought to be. —Ælfric of Eynsham (955–1010), Colloquy on the Occupations
So in spite of my earlier point that nihilism is not an empirical claim, there are certain empirical conditions that are conducive to its growth. Schopenhauer’s verdict on the world—that it is a meaningless cry of suffering—would have been hard to understand in the middle ages, before the ordered picture of society and the cosmos had been eviscerated by the emergence of scientific atheism.

But this historical caveat aside, I do want to be clear that nihilism does not need empirical justification. Its conceptual coherence comes from other sources. It is a way of life, and it is therefore more akin to asceticism or homosexuality than it is to, say, heliocentrism or the laryngeal theory. The laryngeal theory is either right or wrong, and I can criticize my friend for not believing in it. But it would make no sense to call asceticism incorrect: a person can simply choose to stop eating. The same goes with abandoning all commitments and taking a nihilist stand.

I have a motive for describing nihilism this way: I want to understand it properly so that I can uproot it. Empirically, I have as bleak picture of reality as it’s been possible to hold in human history. But I don’t think that the facts demand nihilism, because nihilism doesn’t follow from any facts. There are commitments that we can make, and thus values we can hold. Now, we could be nihilists, and we wouldn’t be wrong to. Except in a moral sense, and that’s the one that matters.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Karel Kuchař in his Czech textbook on general relativity explains that - to be exact - we are never able to tell if the presence of matter really does curve the spacetime, or if it affects only our measuring devices (the spacetime being flat). The difference between the two approaches will only change the terminology of our theory, not the results - e.g., the ammount of rocket fuel to fly to the Moon will be the same.
Similarly, the behavior of an atheist or nihilist can be (in most situations) the same as the behavior of a religious man. Not only atheists, but also religious fundamentalist do kill people in the name of their belief. Many people from both groups do a lot of work to alleviate powerty. Nevertheless, their vocabulary is quite contradictory...
For people like me there is still one reason to believe that religion - not nihilism - is a better way to look at the world: a very quiet voice somewhere in my heart, a very similar voice in the hearts of some of my friends, which makes a difference: a difference not measurable, not pronounciable, but insistent and scented with joy.

Anonymous said...

What about Nietzsche? Can anyone consider the question of values without referring to his incredible work? No