In this age of technological miracles, political turmoil and global catastrophes, it’s hard to have any hope for the world. We live in a time period where our lives seem pretty cut and dried. Go to school, get a job, have kids and then retire if you can afford to. The haves and the have-nots are more separate than ever with the richest people in the world using wealth to manipulate democracy in their favor.
Life seems pretty pointless if the world is deteriorating and an uphill battle to fix it. It’s hard not to fall into nihilism, believing that in the grand scheme of things nothing matters. More and more people seem to fall into that mindset, even if unaware. However, nihilism generates apathy which is part of the problem and I think straying away from it is something we as a society should do.
Nihilism comes from the Latin word “nihil” which literally means nothing. Originating from the early 20th century as a crude amalgamation of existential ideas from the philosophers Sartre, Nietzsche and Camus, it’s the belief that there is no inherent meaning anywhere in the universe. Nihilism dictates that man has no purpose and because of that everything we value is meaningless. The idea of right and wrong becomes arbitrary and emotions become just chemical reactions in our brains. The point of nihilism is to take any aspect of human behavior and analyze it till reaching the conclusion that there isn’t a reason for anything.
It’s only understandable that nihilism would grow more popular in the modern age of consumerism. Society functions because humans work and exchange money. When closely examined, money becomes nothing more than numbers and paper that people put value on. Status becomes derived from something constructed entirely by imagination. If money is just an imaginary concept, then work itself is pointless. It ultimately leads to the conclusion that life is pointless and any efforts to live a fulfilling life are fruitless.
I think society fetishizes nihilism in a way. Not caring about anything is a pretty safe way to live life. There’s no chance of being disappointed and even if we fail to achieve our goals it didn’t really matter to begin with. It’s almost “cool” to view politics in an apathetic way, laughing at the absurdity while fearful to have an opinion. Nihilism is essentially a knee jerk reaction to the fear of disappointment.
The problem created by apathy and nihilism is that by denying the importance of meaning in the universe it justifies cruelty and injustice. A lot of historians would cite Nietzsche and his idea of the ubermensch, translated to “superman,” as the justification for the Nazi takeover in Germany. I think the same thing is happening today in the U.S. The ubermensch is the idea that in order for mankind to progress there must be a superior group of humans willing to do things considered “evil” by the rest of society for the “greater good”.
Nietzsche cites people like Napoleon and Julius Caesar as being “supermen”. The alt-right are driven by the idea that “pure blooded” white Americans are the only true Americans because they are willing to murder and deport people to better the country. They relish the idea of offending people and see social alienation as a sign that they are justifiably extreme. Along with this, nihilism cultivates the mindset that nothing is worth caring about because there is no meaning to anything.
I think part of the reason saving the environment seems to be so low on people’s priorities is because people see no point in saving a world that has no purpose. Nihilism is the underlying foundation of Nietzsche’s ideas and though he may not have intended them to be used to justify evil, that seems to be what they are used for.
What makes nihilism wrong, ultimately, is that it makes the assumption that meaning is something that must exist inherently. While many existentialist philosophers of the early 20th century believed that there wasn’t an inherent purpose for our lives, Sartre and Camus believed that meaning was something that must be created. The reason money is valuable to people is because we give it value. Work is only fulfilling because we decide that it is fulfilling. We may not be born with a purpose but we have the freedom to create one. Emotions may be chemical reactions in the brain but we can feel them and that makes them real enough to justify. As a society, we need to shun nihilism and remind ourselves that life does have meaning because we give it meaning and that caring is a good thing.