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On Nihilism and the Power of Nothing

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“While the mass man is the product of his history, the mass man recognizes no necessary connection or debt to his past. He is ‘the spoiled child of human history’ with a, ‘radical ingratitude to all that has made possible the ease of his existence.'”

Nihilism is a word which, if used at all, seems to be used quite liberally, even flippantly. A television sitcom may be called nihilistic, or the actions of a terrorist; there is even a “nihilist” toothpaste. But as Matt McManus observed in his March essay, nihilism is a persistent and essential peculiarity of the modern experience. But what is nihilism?  How does “nothing” manifest itself?

Regarding the building of a cathedral in Milan in 1398, architect Jean Mignot said, “Ars sine scientia nihil estart without knowledge is nothing.  The architect’s knowledge is not simply knowledge of the parts of a process; the architect’s knowledge is knowledge of the whole.

As its Latin etymology suggests, art has to do with “doing” or “joining.” To affirm a relationship between ideas and doing is to establish a relationship between ideas and experience. To affirm ideas which have no relationship to experiential reality is to affirm nothing. Nihilism is manifest as ideas or knowledge with little or no grounding in experience.

Of all animals, we humans have an amazing capacity to generate ideas about reality. Our ideas can project across space and time, altering our environment and organizing our experiences. The construction of a cathedral begins as an idea, which is then realized in a complex configuration of stone, iron, wood, and glass, which, in effect, acknowledges and then transforms the powers of gravity, weather, decay. The cathedral is a manifestation of the unity of idea and experiential reality. The cathedral embodies a unity of temporal and eternal, visible and invisible, physical and spiritual.

Human ideas are always an approximation of experiential reality, but what are we to make of ideas which have little or even no relationship to the experiential world? The cathedral may embody a unity of the whole, but what happens when that unity is lost? What happens when one aspect is exalted over all others?

This disunification is precisely what happened with aspects of historical Christianity—the invisible became not only disconnected from the visible but exalted as the one true aspect. The physical was denigrated as corrupt and fallen. It was the priesthood who, in effect, distorted the unity embodied in the cathedral, and this is why Friedrich Nietzsche called Christianity a “nihilistic religion”; Christianity affirms a “true” world, not here and not now, which is separate from our physical world of conflict, suffering, and change. What concerned Nietzsche with the collapse of the Christian universe is how the seeds of nihilism carried within Christianity would be transformed and fully bloom in the modern world.

In a preface to an unfinished book, Nietzsche wrote:

What I relate is the history of the next two centuries  I describe what is coming, what can no longer come differently: the advent of nihilism.

The nihilistic tendency of Christians to believe in an unreal world would not be fulfilled by an intensification of this impulse into even more dogmatic and abstract beliefs. Rather, nihilism is fulfilled by a greater cultural and psychological collapse. The orderly, divine universe of the pure being volatilizes into the disorderly, accidental universe of pure becoming. Nietzsche defines nihilism as when, “the highest values devalue themselves.” The extreme Christian idea of absolute truth turns on and dissolves itself. The logic of a need for truth ends in the dissolution of all truth.

The nihilism in Christianity is not shed by the modern world; rather, not unlike light passing through a lens, it is inverted and secularized.

Again, we as a civilization, are incapable of seeing the paradoxical and necessary interrelationship of being and becoming; order and disorder; growth and decay; visible and invisible. The rejection of the authority of powers beyond ourselves gives rise to the equally dubious modern prejudice that reality has no order whatsoever. The orderly Christian universe is displaced by the disorderly Darwinian universe; we recognize nothing outside of ourselves to which we must conform. The nihilism in Christianity is not shed by the modern world; rather, not unlike light passing through a lens, it is inverted and secularized.

And again, we are not reconciled with nature. Nature becomes an object with no inherent meaning outside of ourselves. The powers of modern science to render nature into useful information, which we can manipulate and control, generates euphoric feelings of power, along with dreams of unending human progress. Emboldened by the powers of modern science, we begin to imagine our deliverance from the world of suffering and conflict—not in some afterlife—but in the here and now.

The processes of dissolution and progress manifest in modern man in paradoxical ways. We are simultaneously liberated and alienated. We are liberated from a dysfunctional Christian interpretation of powers beyond ourselves, yet we are alienated from a unified experience of the whole. In the modern world, we have, in effect, traded meaning for power.

The pursuit of material wealth and power inevitably generates cultural and environmental disruption as well as psychological fragmentation. “We murder to dissect,” wrote William Wordsworth—the sense of a unified living whole is lost as our powers to control and manipulate the parts increase. Having lost a sense of a unified reality, we experience a sense of alienation; we are lost in the universe with no apparent purpose. In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s short story “Dream of a Ridiculous Man,” the titular character observes,

“. . . the conviction had come upon me that nothing in the world mattered. . . . I suddenly felt it was the same to me whether the world existed or whether there had never been anything at all. I began to feel with all my being that there was nothing existing.”

Nothing existing. Here nothingness appears as a kind of force, a kind of spiritual black hole, which actually has real world effects. The gravitational pull of the black hole of nothingness silently, almost imperceptibly, rearranges the iron filings of our consciousness. We keep thinking we are getting something for nothing, yet “unintended consequences” keep appearing. One man’s liberation may be another’s alienation. Dostoevsky’s “underground man,” the poster boy of modern alienation, posits this stark choice: “ . . . cheap happiness or exalted suffering? Well, which is better?”

Hyperaware of ourselves as historical agents, we imagine ourselves as beyond the naïveté of traditional belief. We moderns are proud, “stupidly proud,” says Nietzsche, of our “unbelief” and our skepticism, but this is our own form of “divine naïveté.”   Skepticism may dissolve dysfunctional beliefs, but, as an end in itself, it renders modern man incapable of apprehending the whole. For Nietzsche, the emergent epistemological skepticism of modern man was not the cure for what ails him, but the disease itself.

The likes of Dostoevsky and Nietzsche recognized that our inability to see ourselves as part of a larger whole portends the collapse of institutions and values which originated in that whole. This process of psychological and social disintegration would play itself out throughout the 19th century, culminating in early 20th century Europe’s great purifying “war of all against all.” Out of the ashes, the power of nothing would emerge stronger than ever.

In his 1930 classic The Revolt of the Masses, José Ortega y Gasset argues that the complete disintegration of Europe by “The Great War” does not simply leave European man in a state of despair and hopelessness. Quite the contrary, out of the rubble of “the war to end all wars” would arise a new kind of human being with an unparalleled faith in our capacity to remake reality as we please.

The human being with no grounding in tradition, history, or nature is vulnerable to the seductions of ideology, and the more pure the ideology the greater the allure.

What Ortega y Gasset calls the “mass man” represents not a social class but a way of thinking about reality. This mass man does not appear out of nowhere but is the inevitable product of the successful wealth generating and liberalizing processes of the 19th century. While the mass man is the product of his history, the mass man recognizes no necessary connection or debt to his past. He is “the spoiled child of human history” with a, “radical ingratitude to all that has made possible the ease of his existence.”

The mass man may exist in a state of psychological fragmentation and social alienation, but he seeks no unity with history and nature because these have lost all meaning. The mass man feels no “pressure” from any power greater than himself. It is this extreme state of social disintegration and inordinate faith in human ideation and pure will which characterize the “optimism” of the mass man. Reality can be remade to conform to some human generated idea, some total idea—some totalitarian idea.

Benefitting from observing a generation of totalitarian rule, Hannah Arendt amplifies and builds upon many of Ortega’s observations. What most characterizes the totalitarian mindset, says Arendt, is simultaneously a kind of psychological and social “atomization” and a fixation on abstractions. The human being with no grounding in tradition, history, or nature is vulnerable to the seductions of ideology, and the more pure the ideology the greater the allure. Arendt writes in The Origins of Totalitarianism,

“They do not believe in anything visible, in the reality of their own experience; they do not trust their eyes and ears, only their imagination…What convinces masses are not facts, and not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system of which they are presumably a part…Totalitarianism propaganda thrives on this escape from reality into fiction, from coincidence to consistency.”

Human ideas need not be reconciled to experiential reality if reality has no inherent order or meaning. “Ideologies are never interested in the miracle of being,” says Arendt, rather it is precisely their “contempt for reality which makes possible changing the world.” The Christian resentment of reality and nature is perpetuated and transformed into a denial reality and nature. Modern ideologies—ideas of how society should organize itself—begin ex nihilo.

The same forces which have defined the modern world not only persist but have intensified. Reality has been transformed into bits of information which can be manipulated and reconfigured as we please. As we are enveloped by a kind of objectified virtual reality, our consciousness continues to adapt; the more reality is objectified, the more we are convinced of our subjective powers. Arthur Schopenhauer famously said, “The world is my idea.” In our more egalitarian world, we presume to assert: “The world is our idea.”

We appear to be approaching the latter stages of Nietzsche’s “two centuries” of nihilism. A final stage appears when we are convinced all social forms are merely self-serving configurations of power. We are now “woke” to the arbitrariness of all forms; reality, as Nietzsche prophesied, appears to be “mere words.” Nihilism is manifest in the presumption that we can escape the whole: that with the right ideas, the right intentions, the right methodologies, we can, “correct reality.” Nihilism is manifest in the presumption that we can get something for nothing.

Paradoxically, the more sensitized we become to the pieces of reality, the more oblivious we become to the interconnectedness of reality. Reality is whole; we break it up with words and concepts, and we end up worshipping our own creations. Yet the whole persists. Barely acknowledged, “[the whole] leads a wild clandestine life,” says Roberto Calasso, and it “radiates its power over everything.”

How, then, is nihilism overcome?  Nihilism is not overcome by some reaffirmation of belief or a return to some imagined past. It is not overcome simply with better ideas, more facts, or more precise theories. Nihilism is overcome in the fires of experience.   Nihilism is overcome by observing connections which already exist: by the reattachment of language to reality. Nihilism is overcome not by believing, but by seeing. Ex nihilo nihil fit—nothing comes of nothing.

Chris Augusta is an artist living in Maine.

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