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A Brief History of Nothing

“Historically, human beings worshipped gods or God; modern secular man worships Nothing.”

“Look at Stirner, look at him,
the peaceful enemy of all constraint.
For the moment, he is still drinking beer,
soon he will be drinking blood
as though it were water.
When others cry savagely
‘down with the kings’
Stirner immediately supplements
‘down with the laws also.'”

“The Triumph of Faith” by Friedrich Engels                                                     

“Where does it end?” Many of us found ourselves asking this past year as we watched statues toppled and monuments defaced. First, it was Civil War generals, then Ulysses S. Grant himself, then on to Christopher Columbus, then Churchill, Lincoln, Frederick Douglass. Where, indeed, does it end?

Of course, this is not new. Our current revolutionary moment recapitulates many revolutionary moments. These are not simply attempts to alter history or to render history irrelevant. To some degree, they are outright attempts to destroy history and begin anew. The French revolutionists invented a new calendar that began in 1792. The Khmer Rouge declared Year Zero. The Bolsheviks vowed to create a “new man.” Mao Zedong declared an end to the four “olds” etc. etc. Such movements gravitate toward zero; such movements tend to annihilate history.

“Annihilate” is from the Latin “ad nihil,” “to nothing.” When we watch a mob tear down a stature, we are observing forces of annihilation in action. We do not know when it ends, but we do know where it is heading. It is heading to nothing. In such revolutionary moments, nothing may appear both as an idea or an actual force; ideas of annihilation reflect and embody the force of annihilation. The force or power of nothing is manifest in acts of destruction, defacement, deconstruction, decay, and fragmentation. Nothing is not merely a human idea but an actual power that has real-world consequences. The power of nothing draws the mob to itself.

All or Nothing

“…[W]e are straying as if through an infinite nothing,” writes Friedrich Nietzsche in his infamous tale of the madman’s announcement of the Death of God.  Nietzsche’s fable is often interpreted as heralding and confirming our modern condition as being a world without God, a world without some greater guiding power. Secular man acknowledges nothing outside of himself in determining his destiny.

However, Nietzsche’s fable is actually quite ambiguous. God does not die; rather, “we have killed him.” The Death of God is a human deed, and the madman wonders, “How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon?” The powers or forces, which the word “God” had come to represent, are no longer experienced—no longer capable of convincing or compelling belief. But do those powers persist unacknowledged by modern man, or were they never real in the first place?

To better understand Nietzsche’s understanding of the Death of God, it is helpful to understand how Nietzsche thinks of reality—or what he calls “reality as it is.”  In a a notebook, Nietzsche writes:

“The world exists; it is not something that becomes, not something that passes away. Or rather: it becomes, it passes away, but it has never begun to become and never ceased from passing away—it maintains itself in both—it lives on itself: its excrements are its food.”

What Nietzsche is affirming is the interconnectedness of seemingly contrary forces of becoming and passing away, or, as he writes in a later notebook entry, the world is “eternally self-creating, eternally self-destroying.” We see this all the time in nature—there is no growth without decay, no light without darkness, food becomes excrement and excrement becomes food.”

Historically, this interconnectedness of conflicting forces was experienced by all cultures and expressed in terms of myth, whereby the conflicting aspects were often actually named, usually as gods and goddesses. Nietzsche’s celebrated evocation of Dionysius suggests the interconnection of creative and destructive powers. The Chinese Tao, the Greek Logos, and the Hindu Rta are words that embody and affirm interconnection; they affirm that we, humans, are always participants in reality.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the word God describes this transcendent unity; however, over time, the Christian God tended to become increasingly abstract. God came to be seen to embody the divine forces of wholeness, eternity, and love in an absolute form, in contrast to the earthly forces of decay and impermanence. The Christian God becomes an abstract god, the one true God. Also reflective of this tendency towards ontological duality, the Christian God creates the world ex nihilo—out of nothing. This is in contrast to pagan and Eastern conceptions, which tend to understand reality as the eternal play of conflicting powers.

The Death of God is the death of the Christian interpretation of God, and what remains is that modern man only recognizes the self-destroying forces of decay and entropy.

2,000 years of Christianity conditioned us to look at the world as divided: The divine is true, the earthly fallen and corrupt, the spirit is one thing, and the body is something else. For Nietzsche, Christianity carries the seeds of nihilism because it affirms a pure eternal world free of conflict and suffering somewhere other than our ephemeral experiential world of conflicting forces. Our capacity to apprehend connectedness has long atrophied. The Death of God is the death of the Christian interpretation of God, and what remains is that modern man only recognizes the self-destroying forces of decay and entropy. When the power that creates out of nothing is debunked, only nothing remains. “We have sacrificed God for the nothing,” Nietzsche writes in Beyond Good and Evil, “We worship the stone, stupidity gravity, the nothing.” We have leaped out of the frying pan of dysfunctional interpretation into the fires of nihilism.

In the modern world, we experience reality as fundamentally fragmented. We lose a sense of the unity of destruction and creation. What defines modern secular man is, in effect, our affirmation—sometimes explicit, mostly implicit—of the powers of disunity, decay, chance, and entropy. Ideas of unity, order, and transcendence begin to appear fantastical, naive, unbelievable, and oppressive. The guiding principle of the universe is no longer the love of an all-powerful beneficent God but the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Entropy replaces love as the dominant force in the universe. Historically, human beings worshipped gods or God; modern secular man worships Nothing.

We are in Nietzsche’s age of nihilism, in which “the highest values devalue themselves.” If Nothing is the guiding power of the universe, then all forms, all order, all moralities, all social conventions and hierarchies have no inherent authority. “I am the spirit that negates,” says Goethe’s Mephistopheles, “And rightly so, for all that comes to be/Deserves to perish wretchedly.” Even the forms we observe in nature are determined to be the cumulative result of purely accidental forces. We, modern human beings, find ourselves oppressed by forces that no longer command respect. Thus, the modern project becomes one of liberation—liberation from nature, history, and religion, liberation from all powers outside of ourselves. Liberation requires destruction; everything deserves to perish.

Traditional human beings acknowledging creative and destructive powers greater than themselves tended to honor and conform to those powers. But when no greater cohering force or power is acknowledged, then the creative powers wholly shift to us human beings. With the death of God, we become the creators ex nihilo. We are not participants in reality, but rather, we are responsible for making reality. Modern man displaces God. This, then, is our grand Faustian bargain: Acknowledge Nothing, and we get to make everything.

All and Nothing

“I am all and nothing,” begins and ends Max Stirner’s Der Einzige und Sein Eigentum (The Ego and Its Own). First published in Germany in 1844 by an obscure former girls’ school teacher, the book was immediately banned by the Prussian High Council for Censorship. The censors described the book as “an attempt to undermine the religious and moral foundations of all social life.” Ultimately, its publication was allowed, if only because the arguments in the book seemed inherently unbelievable. “One reads this book in large part,” wrote the head censor, “as though it were ironical and loudly refutes itself.”

Der Einzige und Sein Eigentum would cause a significant sensation among many of the most prominent minds of the time. Ludwig Feuerbach described the book as “a work of extreme intelligence and brilliance.” Friedrich Engels, who knew Stirner personally, initially wrote cautiously but enthusiastically of Stirner’s ideas. Ultimately, however, he and Marx would become obsessed with debunking Stirner—hundreds of pages of The German Ideology (unpublished until 1932) deal with Stirner. Stirner’s ideas would find especially fertile soil in Russia. Many of Dostoevsky’s most provocative characters—Raskolnikov, Kirillov, and Ivan Karamazov—appear inspired by the “demon.” Stirner and the Underground Man himself, at times, sound uncannily like the voice speaking in Der Einzige und Sein Eigentum. And with his own rise to fame at the turn of the century, even Friedrich Nietzsche would be accused of stealing Stirner’s ideas.

In a meaningful universe, we once had souls; in a meaningless universe, we now have egos.

More than a generation before Nietzsche’s fable of the Death of God, European intellectuals were commonly contemplating the implications of the absence of the guiding authority of an outside power. But few before—and perhaps, since—have carried the logic of Nothing as far as Stirner. If entropy and chance are the true forces of the universe, does not all creative power—all responsibility for the form of reality—shift to the individual human ego? “All things are nothing to me,” proclaims Stirner, “I alone am corporeal…And now I take the world as what it is to me, as mine, as my property; I refer all to myself.” In a meaningful universe, we once had souls; in a meaningless universe, we now have egos.

Stirner presumes reality to consist of a state of elemental fragmentation—a never-ending conflict of egos, each trying to enforce its powers over other egos. At best, society can only be a loose “union of egos,” functioning “without government or law.” For Stirner, all human ideas concerning order, purpose, law, or morality other than his own are “spooks.” “[The] state, religion, conscience,” writes Stirner, “these despots make me a slave.” Spooks are forces that attempt to control and oppress the individual. Whenever we claim to be operating in the service of some guiding authority or principle or ideal, we are merely allowing ourselves to be controlled by powers outside of ourselves. Only by acknowledging Nothing are spooks vanquished and the ego liberated.

Stirner would fall back into relative obscurity read mostly—according to Roberto Calasso—by “autodidacts and maniacs.” When read at all, he lives on as the patron saint of radical anarcho-individualism. Few modern people would openly acknowledge the implications of Stirner’s logic. Stirner peels back the curtain and provides a glimpse into the raw implications of the Death of God and the dominance of Nothing. If, indeed, Nothing is the guiding principle of the universe, what is left but the human ego—the individuated human ego? On what basis do we have a common anything? Why should I assent to anything other than what I generate? Who, after all, is to say? There is only Nothing and Ego—I am all and Nothing.

The Curse of Halfness

Fredrich Nietzsche was born the year Der Einzige und Sein Eigentum was first published. Although he was thought to have owned a copy of the book, nowhere in Nietzsche’s writings does he make specific reference to Stirner. However, several of Nietzsche contemporaries do recall him as referring specifically to Stirner, and one of Nietzsche’s students even claimed that he once described Stirner as the most “daring and insightful” philosopher since Thomas Hobbes.

Regardless of literal documentation of connection, Stirner is the 500-pound gorilla in the room. Much of Nietzsche’s thinking on nihilism and the Death of God can be understood as a confrontation with the radical implications of Stirner’s logic. Indeed, whole passages of Nietzsche resemble passages from Stirner. For example, he echoes Stirner’s observation that Christian morality cannot be simply retained once the authority of Christian metaphysics collapses. The whole notion of morality—how to behave and by which principles— is, for both Stirner and Nietzsche, radically problematic for modern man. In language as evocative as Nietzsche’s, Stirner writes:

“The web of hypocrisy today hangs on the frontier of two domains, between which our time swings back and forth, attaching its fine threads of deception and self-deception. No longer vigorous enough to serve morality without doubt or weakening, not yet reckless enough to live wholly to egoism. It trembles now toward the one and now toward the other in the spiderweb of hypocrisy, and crippled by the curse of halfness, catches only miserable, stupid flies.”

Stirner himself is not crippled by “the curse of halfness.” He accepts the radical logic of Nothing and Ego. Given the reality of Nothing, we must embrace our liberated Egos; no morality outside of myself commands respect. Nietzsche acknowledges the incipient power of such nihilism in the modern world but understands the devastating implications of Stirner’s logic. Stirner is Nietzsche’s nemesis; to overcome Stirner is to overcome nihilism.

As seductive as Stirner’s exaltation of the liberated individual Ego is, Nietzsche finds the notion of causa sui—of being the “self-cause” of one’s existence—quite unconvincing if not absurd. In Beyond Good and Evil, he writes:

“The desire for ‘freedom of the will’ in the superlative metaphysical sense, which still holds sway, unfortunately, in the minds of the half-educated; the desire to bear the entire and ultimate responsibility for one’s actions oneself, and to absolve God, the world, ancestors, chance, and society involves nothing less than to be precisely this causa sui and with more than Munchausen’s audacity, to pull oneself up into existence by the hair, out of the swamps of nothingness.”

Nietzsche realizes that the notion of causa sui, which is to say the liberated Ego, is nonsensical. How can we separate ourselves from reality? How can we separate ourselves from the whole? How could we even communicate, if not by some common language which can only result from common experience of forces outside of ourselves? As Roberto Calasso has observed of Stirner, the exaltation of pure Ego is not a philosophy or some program for living but, ultimately, at best, a celebration of aphasia. If we know Nothing, how can we say anything?

The above passage from Beyond Good and Evil also belies pop versions of Nietzsche’s ubermensch as the ultimate causa sui, the superhuman whose “will to power” dominates all and wholly determines reality. But it is not just pop versions. Subsequent generations of intellectuals—first German, then French, and more recently American­—would persist in distorting Nietzsche. Such distortions are not so much affirmations of Nietzsche as they are iterations of Stirner. In a footnote to the above passage from Beyond Good and Evil, translator Walter Kaufmann points out that Nietzsche’s quotation is a clear repudiation of French Existentialism, which would claim Nietzsche as an intellectual forefather: “Man is nothing else than that which he makes himself.” Kaufmann quotes Jean-Paul Sartre: “That is the first principle of existentialism…Before the generation of the self, nothing exists.” This sounds right out of Der Einzige und sein Eigentum. Again, the curse of halfness is presumed to be resolved by affirming Nothing and exalting the liberated Ego. To this day, intellectuals insist that we can know Nothing, that we can liberate ourselves from every spook and pull ourselves up by the hair out of the swamps of nothingness.

Moths to the Flame

The great Enlightenment project is the liberation of the individual, but liberated from what, to do what, to be what? Like all humans in history, we look for something “true” to guide us, justify us, to give meaning to ourselves as individuals and as a society. But where do we find meaning in a meaningless universe? We crave the benefits of liberated Egos but shrink from the responsibility of confronting Nothing. This is Stirner’s curse of halfness: We have killed God, yet we are reluctant to fully accept the implications. Is our vague and persistent need for meaning, unity, and wholeness merely a phantom limb?

Nietzsche is a more profound and subtle thinker than Stirner, and he is also a more grounded one. For Nietzsche, the triumph of nihilism as the collapse of transcendent truth (and the feeling of liberation from all forces beyond ourselves) certainly is a historical fact for modern man. But this experience simultaneously generates calamitous delusions. Nietzsche, the great empiricist, confronts the powers of Nothing by, in effect, backing away and asking different kinds of questions: Is nihilism simply a logical insight about the truth of man’s existence, or is it merely a “pathological transitional stage”? What kind of human animal—living in what kind of historical circumstances—would even think they can know Nothing? And how does the corrosive power of nihilism move through the greater whole of history?

Max Stirner is emblematic of our modern condition: He manifests an extreme and perfect faith in Nothing to liberate the individual Ego. Stirner is the prophet of Nothing and Ego. Sometimes explicit, but mostly implicit, Nothing and Ego are the guiding revelations of modern man. In the past two centuries, all of our institutions, all of what we consider knowledge, all of science, art, politics, and religion have redefined and reoriented themselves to these powers. The results have been ambiguous—miraculous and unprecedented power, shadowed by unprecedented catastrophe. And the results continue to be ambiguous. Like the proverbial moths, we circle the flame of Nothing. But does the flame represent liberation, or does it represent annihilation?.

Chris Augusta is an artist living in Maine.

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