Sunday, May 4, 2014

144. Responses to nihilism: faith, resignation and revolution
Marmysz[1] defined ‘pure’ or ‘radical’ nihilism according to three characteristics:

  1. Humans are unable to achieve absolute values of God, the true, the good and the beautiful.
  2. This is not how it should be
  3. There is nothing we can do about it
In combination these three points yield despair and the feeling that life is pointless.
Responses to nihilism can be deduced as deviations from one or more of these premises.

A first type of response is to accept 1, maintaining absolute values, and drop 2, accepting that they cannot be achieved. Kierkegaard did this, and in a related fashion, so did Karl Barth (in his early work) and the ‘dialectical theologians’[2]. Here, nihilistic despair produces a leap of faith. Despair of grasping God and approaching the absolute, in a ‘sickness onto death’, yields a positive impulse, evoking all the more awe for the absolute and infinite, and inspiring utmost dedication to it. Not being able to grasp God we should surrender to him. Paradoxically, despair is needed to leap into faith but then despair is also relieved.

From a more mundane positive perspective, inability to achieve perfection is seen as normal in human life, and it can serve to incite all the more effort, and may strengthen one’s resolve to continue striving. To deal with the discrepancy between absolute values and our inability to achieve them, Marmysz proposed humour and laughter. That yields pleasure in discrepancies.  

In a more passive as well as negative response, one can dodge despair by trying to ignore it and let oneself be engulfed in the trivia of daily life, in conformism to the powers of habit and custom, in what Nietzsche called ‘the herd’ and Heidegger called ‘das Man’ (the ‘one’ in the sense of what ‘one does’).

One may also seek recourse to hedonism, distract oneself in seeking pleasure.

Or one can also face despair and resign to it, accept imperfections, and try to make oneself immune to the resulting vulnerabilities and uncertainties of life, as the Stoics did, and Schopenhauer, in ataraxia.

The existentialist response (Sartre, Camus) is to have the courage to face up to despair, accepting the pointlessness of human life, but with some appreciation for its absurdity, with humanist sympathy for the predicament people are in together, even as an opportunity for emancipation.

A second type of response is to reject point 3, that there is nothing we can do about it, and to take action. This may take a violent, anarchistic, iconoclastic form of aiming to destroy the existing order that keeps us from achieving the absolute. The Russian anarchists come to mind (such as Bakunin).

Another option is to accept that absolute values are needed, and replace existing ones by new ones, in a revolutionary overthrow. Despair is resolved with the claim of offering an alternative, new absolute ideal, in a new religion or ideology that can be achieved, be it at the cost of sacrificing the existing order. This is often seen as nihilistic, but in fact it is opposite to it. It claims that we can achieve new absolutes, if we all make the necessary commitment and sacrifice. Such ideologies tend to be totalitarian, claiming the whole of life as its domain. They evoke missionary zeal.

Communism comes to mind, but also radical capitalist market ideologies. Communism needs no elaboration on this point, I think, but perhaps capitalism does. Its totalitarianism lies in the claim, and the mission, that market logic should apply universally, everywhere, regardless of history, society or culture, in commercial as well as cultural and private affairs.

A third, radical response is to reject that absolute values are needed or even desirable. That is the response of Nietzsche, and of postmodernists, such as Richard Rorty, but with an important difference between them. I turn to that in the next item.   

[1] Marmysz, 2003, Laughing at nothing; Humor as a response to nihilism, State University of New York Press.
[2] See Karen Carr, The banalization of nihilism, State University of New York Press, 1992