“Because the youth of today are primarily taught that the point of life is simply to achieve satisfaction, they are prone to a kind of easy relativism which seeks to not judge between superior or inferior ways of life.”
I read Henry George’s recent series on Jordan Peterson and religion with great interest. George is characteristically even-handed in his treatment of the controversial Canadian psychologist, highlighting where he thinks Peterson makes some valuable points and criticizing him elsewhere. What caught my eye was the observation that Peterson approaches religion mainly through the pragmatic lens of its social uses. He regards Christianity and Christian culture as socially valuable, while wanting them, “drained of the sacred source that created them and sustains them.” In particular, George observes that Peterson does not personally believe in the Christian triune God but nonetheless wants to preserve the truths and institutions which are associated with him.
Like George, I find this position philosophically implausible and have stated so before in some detail. My point in this article isn’t to rehash these arguments against Peterson specifically. It is instead to examine the tendency to identify with religious culture as a shield against the meaninglessness of nihilism. This is formulated in many different ways: adherence to cultural Christianity or Judaism, defenses of so-called Christian civilization, and Peterson-like defenses of the “order” and wisdom provided by traditional religious mores, which persist even when their metaphysical justification is challenged. The persistence of these positions has surprised many, especially since many who profess adherence to cultural religiosity do so without necessarily believing in God. Instead, they turn to religious values and practices as a counter to nihilistic trends in our society—from overly permissive liberal individualism to more ambiguous criticisms on the secularizing tendencies of cosmopolitanism. In the remainder of this piece, I will examine the problem of nihilism in more detail to showcase why these moves to cultural religiosity cannot actually rectify the problems they set out to solve. Indeed, in many respects, they are reactionary products of the nihilistic culture they seek to overcome.
Two Ways to Understand Nihilism
“Where has God gone?” the madman cried. “I shall tell you. We have killed him—you and I. We are his murderers. But how have we done this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do when we unchained the earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving now? Away from all suns? Are we not perpetually falling? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is it not more and more night coming on all the time? Must not lanterns be lit in the morning? Do we not hear anything yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we not smell anything yet of God’s decomposition? Gods too decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, murderers of all murderers, console ourselves? That which was the holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet possessed has bled to death under our knives. Who will wipe this blood off us? With what water could we purify ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we need to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we not ourselves become gods simply to be worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whosoever shall be born after us—for the sake of this deed he shall be part of a higher history than all history hitherto.”—Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science
There are two interrelated ways nihilism has been understood. The first is as a cultural development. The second is as a philosophical position. I shall discuss each in some detail before describing the limitations of the first way of approaching nihilism, especially as it pertains to solutions given to the problem.
The understanding of nihilism as a culture is perhaps the most common approach to the problem, though it is, by far, the most ambiguous. Since Nietzsche’s famous proclamation that, “God is Dead” in the late 19th century, many have commented on how the advent of what Charles Taylor calls a “secular age” has resulted in nihilism becoming a social and political problem for the first time. Indeed, many definitions of the culture of nihilism have been given as well as explanations for its emergence.
We reject the idea that we should have any deep attachments to others, seeing them at best as objects for our satisfaction, and, at worst, as competitors in a ferocious battle for wealth and status.
For left-wing critics like Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer in Dialectic of Enlightenment, nihilism emerged as a problem due to the peculiarly Western understanding of reason as an instrumental tool. Beginning with the Greeks—but becoming deeply radicalized in modernity—Western individuals saw reason as a means to achieving their given ends. They did this through looking at the world as a collection of laws and objects that could be manipulated for the satisfaction of human desires. For Adorno and Horkheimer, this approach becomes socially manifest in liberal capitalism, where the entire point of life becomes the pursuit of happiness—our private desires—through the power given to us by new technologies and market processes. The problem with this is that eventually we begin to see not just the world as a collection of processes and laws to be manipulated—but ourselves and others as well. We reject the idea that we should have any deep attachments to others, seeing them at best as objects for our satisfaction, and, at worst, as competitors in a ferocious battle for wealth and status. This leads to a growing sense of meaningless and lack of attachment to both others and to the world. This is only deepened by the banal aesthetic distractions provided for us by the, “culture industry.”
For many right-wing critics, the culture of nihilism emerged for a different set of reasons. The most notable is, of course, the advent of secularization and the growth of liberal permissiveness. For critics like William F. Buckley or Russell Kirk, nihilism becomes a problem in a secular world because it erodes the deep existential attachments we have to others and to the transcendent, forcing us to confront the world as individuals isolated from community and God. Latter day critics like Patrick Deneen in Why Liberalism Failed agree with aspects of this positions.
For other right-wing critics, the problem is that the kind of meaningful social attachments we formed in lieu of religion are becoming steadily dissolved by the growing state interventionism and regulation. This, of course, finds its greatest expression in the emergence of global institutions, which, to invoke Yoram Hazony, constitute a kind of imperial super-state trying to quash the particularity of various nations. This helps bring about a more nihilistic world where all are forced to conform to shallow processes of homogenization and utility maximization.
Finally, there are figures like Allan Bloom and other Straussians, who argue that the problem of nihilism emerges due to a lack of exposure to a richer set of moral values. Because the youth of today are primarily taught that the point of life is simply to achieve satisfaction, they are prone to a kind of easy relativism which seeks to not judge between superior or inferior ways of life. This results in youth ceasing to even aspire to such better ways of living, leading to deepening anomie and nihilism.
I think there is something to each of these positions. The culture of nihilism is certainly a major political problem which should be dealt with to the extent possible. However, I find the problem with many conservative critiques is the caution they take in insulating favored mores or social processes from blame for the emergence of nihilism. The most obvious one is that conservatives have been highly reticent to engage in large-scale critiques of capitalism, while lambasting contemporary culture as increasingly hedonistic, shallow, and consumeristic. The most obvious example is Allan Bloom, who in The Closing of the American Mind, spends a great deal of time analyzing the curricula provided to American students at elite liberal arts colleges—and very little to examining the material roots of the problems he is examining. A key example would be his anger at students who swallow the shallow trash of pop music without really examining the market imperatives which might drive the industry towards producing aesthetic products, which are easily consumed and widely popular.
Another—and more complex—example would be the fusionist positions of figures like William F. Buckley. His often snide defense of religious traditionalism was frequently in tension with Buckley’s own support for neoliberal policies, ignoring the often revolutionary way such policies upended small communities, led to demographic change, and engendered an individualistic culture where restrictions on self-expression were increasingly regarded as anachronistic and economically inefficient. The left-wing critiques of cultural nihilism offered by figures like Adorno and Horkheimer—and carried on to this day by figures like Mark Fisher—do not avoid confronting these problems head on and, therefore, have more to offer us when trying to conceive of solutions. Indeed, the clearest example of their worth can be seen in the growing acceptance of their claims about the dilemmas posed by capitalist rationality by many right-wing figures.
But there is another sense in which politics cannot fully come to grips with nihilism, and this is as a philosophical position. In that respect, nihilism is a persistent problem, which I suspect is here to stay.
Conclusion: The Philosophical Problem of Nihilism
The difficulty with understanding nihilism exclusively as a cultural problem is that it ignores the deeper spiritual and philosophical dilemma: Namely that the problem of nihilism is, at its base, a question about whether there is anything of objective value in the universe—or to rephrase Heidegger, would it really matter if there were nothing at all rather than something? Or as put by Shakespeare in Macbeth:
“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day to the last syllable of recorded time. And all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle! 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, signifying nothing.”
To invoke the recently deceased philosopher Derek Parfit, the problem of nihilism is fundamentally about whether anything “matters.” Or is it the case that all our problems and disputes, from the most titanic to the most petty, are simply so much “sound and fury, signifying nothing”? The emotional anxieties provoked by this possibility may be resolved through political efforts to mitigate nihilistic culture. But no amount of politics can ultimately resolve them or push the philosophical and religious specter of nihilism away permanently.
Nihilism cannot be exiled by political fiat, let alone by a reactionary demand that alien elements, which destabilize our sense of what is of value, be excluded from the body politic. It can only be resolved through slow and concerted efforts by thinkers in a variety of different disciplines to try and answer the problem of “what matters,” if anything. This is obviously an extremely complex and difficult question, which puts to shame the often shallow political answers given by some of the more reactionary figures discussed in the Introduction. It may well be that there is no ultimate answer that can be found to the problem, which does not in some way involve manipulation on our part to avoid or look past the primary difficulties out of an emotional desire to shut the door on the problem permanently. But, in my mind, it is better to face the problem head on and politically to undertake efforts to pool human talents and ingenuity towards its potential resolution. Here we can see where efforts to establish a more equitable world conducive to the full use of human talents by all is a very worthwhile aspiration.
Matt McManus is currently Professor of Politics and International Relations at TEC De Monterrey. His book Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law is forthcoming with the University of Wales Press. His books, The Rise of Post-modern Conservatism and What is Post-Modern Conservatism, will be published with Palgrave MacMillan and Zero Books, respectively. Matt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or added on Twitter via Matt McManus@MattPolProf