What Nihilism Is Not
Nihilism, not unlike time (according to Augustine) or porn (according to the U.S. Supreme Court), is one of those concepts that we are all pretty sure we know the meaning of unless someone asks us to define it. Nihil means “nothing.” -ism means “ideology.” Yet when we try to combine these terms, the combination seems to immediately refute itself, as the idea that nihilism is the “ideology of nothing” appears to be nonsensical. To say that this means that someone “believes in nothing” is not really much more helpful, as believing in something suggests there is something to be believed in, but if that something is nothing, then there is not something to be believed in, in which case believing in nothing is again a self-refuting idea.
It is easy therefore to fall into the trap of thinking “Everything is nihilism!” which of course leads to thinking “Nothing is nihilism!” Thus in order to preserve nihilism as a meaningful concept, it is necessary to distinguish it from concepts that are often associated with it but are nevertheless different, concepts such as pessimism, cynicism, and apathy.
Nihilism versus Pessimism
If optimism is hopefulness, then pessimism is hopelessness. To be a pessimist is to say, “What’s the point?” Pessimism is often likened to a “Glass is half empty” way of seeing the world, but since it’s only half empty this scenario might still be too hopeful for a pessimist. A better scenario might be that, if a pessimist fell in a well, and someone offered to rescue him, he’d likely respond, “Why bother? In the well, out of the well, we’re all going to die anyway.” In other words, pessimism is dark and depressing. But it is not nihilism.
In fact, we might even go so far as to say that pessimism is the opposite of nihilism. Like nihilism, pessimism could be seen as arising from despair. The fact of our death, the frustration of our desires, the unintended consequences of our actions, the tweets of our political leaders, any or all of these could lead us to either nihilism or pessimism. However, where these two roads diverge is over the question of whether we dwell on our despair or hide from it.
To be with a pessimist is to know that you are with a pessimist. But you can be with a nihilist and have no idea. Indeed you could yourself be a nihilist and have no idea. Such a lack of awareness is the point of nihilism, as nihilism is all about hiding from despair rather than dwelling on it. This difference was illustrated by Woody Allen in his movie “Annie Hall” (1977) when his alter ego Alvy Singer has the following exchange with a couple he stops on the street for advice:
ALVY (He moves up the sidewalk to a young trendy-looking couple, arms wrapped around each other): You-you look like a really happy couple. Uh, uh … are you?
YOUNG WOMAN: Yeah.
ALVY: Yeah! So … h-h-how do you account for it?
YOUNG WOMAN: Uh, I’m very shallow and empty and I have no ideas and nothing interesting to say.
YOUNG MAN: And I’m exactly the same way.
ALVY: I see. Well, that’s very interesting. So you’ve managed to work out something, huh?
YOUNG MAN: Right.
Alvy Singer is a pessimist. The man and woman are nihilists.
What is most illuminating about this scene is that it shows how a pessimist can reveal the identity of a nihilist, just as it might be argued that the pessimism of the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer helped reveal to Nietzsche his own nihilism. Before they are confronted by Alvy, they are just a happily shallow and happily empty couple. However, when he asks them to explain their happiness, they are no longer shallow and empty; they are instead forced to awaken from their reverie and to become self-aware. It is not that they are happy that reveals their nihilism; rather it is their attempt to explain to a pessimist why they are happy that reveals their nihilism. On the surface, they are soul mates who have found each other. But surface is all that they are. The attempt to go any deeper reveals that there is nothing deeper. And it is precisely a pessimist who, when confronted with such a happy couple, would ask the “Why?” that reveals their nothingness.
If, as I suggested earlier, nihilism and pessimism are opposites, then nihilism is actually much closer to optimism. To see the glass as half full is to think that we should be happy with what we have rather than focusing on what is missing. But being happy with what we have can also be a way of remaining complacent, of ignoring what is missing so as to avoid having to seek change. Similarly, to believe that everything will work out in the end, that there is always light at the end of the tunnel, is to believe that life is teleological, that there is some goal or purpose — whether God or Justice — operating invisibly behind what we experience.
It is by believing in the existence of superhuman goals and superhuman purposes that we lose sight of human goals and human purposes. Likewise, when we elevate someone like Martin Luther King Jr. to the status of a saint or a prophet, we see him as more than a mere mortal, thus freeing ourselves from the responsibility of trying to emulate him since we simply have to be hopeful that someone like him will come again. If optimism leads us to be complacent, leads us to wait for something good to happen, or for someone else to make something good happen, then optimism leads us to do nothing. In other words, it is not pessimism but optimism that is similar to nihilism.
Nihilism versus Cynicism
In Ancient Greece, a Cynic was someone who lived like a dog (the Greek kynikos means “doglike”), or, to be more precise, was someone who lived by the Cynic philosophy of staying true to nature rather than conforming to what that person saw as social artifice. Today, a cynic is similarly someone who looks down on society and sees it as fake, though not because the cynic sees society as unnatural, but because the cynic sees the people who make up society as fake. To be cynical is to assume the worst of people, to think that morality is mere pretense, and to suppose that even when people seem to be helping others they are really only trying to help themselves. Believing in only self-interest, the cynic appears to others to believe in nothing. Consequently, cynicism can appear to be nihilism. But it is not nihilism.
Cynicism, like pessimism, is about negativity. However, whereas pessimism is about despair, about the feeling that life is pointless in the face of death, cynicism is instead much more about disdain than despair. A cynic wouldn’t say that life is pointless but would just say that what people claim about life is pointless. A cynic can even enjoy life. In particular, a cynic can take pleasure in mocking those who claim that altruism exists, or that politicians are self-sacrificing public servants, and especially finds laughable the idea that we should try to see the good in people.
Pessimists are not nihilists because pessimists embrace rather than evade despair. Cynics are not nihilists because cynics embrace rather than evade mendacity. A key part of evading despair is the willingness to believe, to believe that people can be good, that goodness is rewarded, and that such rewards can exist even if we do not experience them. But to a cynic such a willingness to believe is a willingness to be naive, to be gullible, and to be manipulated. The cynic mocks such beliefs not because the cynic claims to know that such beliefs are necessarily false, but because the cynic is aware of the danger represented by people who claim to know that such beliefs are necessarily true.
A skeptic waits for evidence before passing judgment. A cynic, however, does not trust evidence because the cynic does not trust that anyone is capable of providing evidence objectively. The cynic would prefer to remain dubious than risk being duped, and thus the cynic sees those who do take such risks as dupes. For this reason the cynic is able to reveal the nihilism of others by challenging people to defend their lack of cynicism, much like how the pessimist reveals the nihilism of others by challenging people to defend their lack of pessimism.
Perhaps the best example of the revelatory abilities of a cynic is the argument between Thrasymachus and Socrates in the opening book of Plato’s “Republic.” Thrasymachus is first introduced as mocking Socrates for questioning others about the definition of justice and then demands that he be paid in order to tell them what justice truly is. Once appeased, Thrasymachus defines justice as a trick invented by the strong in order to take advantage of the weak, as a way for the strong to seize power by manipulating society into believing that obedience is justice. Thrasymachus further argues that whenever possible people do what is unjust, except when they are too afraid of being caught and punished, and thus Thrasymachus concludes that injustice is better than justice.
When Socrates attempts to refute this definition by likening political leaders to doctors, to those who have power but use it to help others rather than to help themselves, Thrasymachus does not accept the refutation like the others do, but instead refutes Socrates’s refutation. Thrasymachus accuses Socrates of being naive and argues that Socrates is like a sheep who thinks the shepherd who protects and feeds the sheep does so because the shepherd is good rather than realizing that the shepherd is fattening them for the slaughter. Socrates is never able to truly convince Thrasymachus that his definition of justice is wrong, and indeed Thrasymachus’s cynicism is so compelling that Socrates spends the rest of the “Republic” trying to prove that justice is better than injustice by trying to refute the apparent success of unjust people by making metaphysical claims about the effects of injustice on the soul. Socrates is thus only able to counter cynicism in the visible world through faith in the existence of an invisible world, an invisible world that he argues is more real than the visible world. In other words, it is Thrasymachus’s cynicism that forces Socrates to reveal his nihilism.
Here we can see that nihilism is actually much more closely related to idealism than to cynicism. The cynic presents himself or herself as a realist, as someone who cares about actions, not intentions, who focuses on what people do rather than on what people hope to achieve, who remembers the failed promises of the past in order to avoid being swept up in the not-yet-failed promises about the future. The idealist, however, rejects cynicism as hopelessly negative. By focusing on intentions, on hopes, and on the future, the idealist is able to provide a positive vision to oppose the negativity of the cynic. But in rejecting cynicism, does the idealist also reject reality?
The idealist, as we saw with Socrates, is not able to challenge the cynic’s view of reality and instead is forced to construct an alternate reality, a reality of ideas. These ideas may form a coherent logical story about reality, but that in no way guarantees that the ideas are anything more than just a story. As the idealist focuses more and more on how reality ought to be, the idealist becomes less and less concerned with how reality is. The utopian views of the idealist may be more compelling than the dystopian views of the cynic, but dystopian views are at least focused on this world, whereas utopian views are, by definition, focused on a world that does not exist. It is for this reason that to use other-worldly idealism to refute this-worldly cynicism is to engage in nihilism.
Nihilism versus Apathy
Along with pessimism and cynicism, nihilism is also frequently associated with apathy. To be apathetic is to be without pathos, to be without feeling, to be without desire. While we are all occasionally given choices that do not particularly sway us one way or another (“Do you want to eat Italian or Chinese?”), such disinterestedness is what someone who is apathetic feels all the time. To be apathetic is thus to be seen as not caring about anything. The pessimist feels despair, the cynic feels disdain, but the apathetic individual feels nothing. In other words, apathy is seen as nihilism. But apathy is not nihilism.
Apathy can be an attitude (“I don’t care about that”) or a character trait (“I don’t care about anything”). However, in either case the apathetic individual is expressing a personal feeling (or, to be more precise, feelinglessness) and is not making a claim about how everyone should feel (or, again, not feel). The apathetic individual understands perfectly well that other people feel differently insofar as they feel anything at all. And because the apathetic individual feels nothing, the apathetic individual does not feel any desire to convince others that they should similarly feel nothing. Others may care, but the apathetic individual does not, and because they do not care, the apathetic individual does not care that others care.
Yet apathy is still often seen as an affront, as an insult, as a rebuke by those who do care. For example, in MTV’s “Daria” (1997–2002) — a show about a “highly apathetic” high schooler — Daria Morgendorffer and her friend Jane Lane have the following conversation:
DARIA: Tragedy hits the school and everyone thinks of me. A popular guy died, and now I’m popular because I’m the misery chick. But I’m not miserable. I’m just not like them.
JANE: It really makes you think.
DARIA: Funny. Thanks a lot.
JANE: No! That’s why they want to talk to you. When they say, “You’re always unhappy, Daria,” what they mean is, “You think, Daria. I can tell because you don’t smile. Now this guy died and it makes me think and that hurts my little head and makes me stop smiling. So, tell me how you cope with thinking all the time, Daria, until I can get back to my normal vegetable state.”
DARIA: Okay. So why have you been avoiding me?
JANE: Because I’ve been trying not to think.
The apathetic individual can thus, like the pessimist and the cynic, reveal the nihilism of others, though, unlike the pessimist and the cynic, the apathetic individual does this without actually trying to. Whereas the pessimist and the cynic challenge others to explain their lack of either pessimism or cynicism, the apathetic individual is instead the one who is challenged, challenged by others to explain his or her lack of pathos. In trying to get the apathetic individual to care, the person who does care is forced to explain why he or she cares, an explanation which can reveal just how meaningful (or meaningless) is the reason the person has for caring.
The apathetic individual doesn’t care. However, not caring is not the same thing as caring about nothing. The apathetic individual feels nothing. But the nihilist has feelings. It’s just that what the nihilist has feelings for is itself nothing. And indeed it is because the nihilist is able to have such strong feelings, strong feelings for something that is nothing, that the nihilist is not and cannot be apathetic. Nihilists can have sympathy, empathy, and antipathy, but they cannot have apathy.
Nietzsche tried to demonstrate the feelings at work in nihilism in his argument against what he called the “morality of pity.” The morality of pity holds that it is good to feel pity for those who are in need, and it is especially good to be moved by such pity to help those who are in need. But, according to Nietzsche, what is often motivating the desire to help is how we are able to see ourselves thanks to how we see others in need, in particular how we see ourselves as capable of helping, as powerful enough to help.
The morality of pity is for Nietzsche not about helping others, but about elevating oneself by reducing others, by reducing others to their neediness, to a neediness that we do not have and that reveals how much we do have by contrast. Pity is nihilistic insofar as it allows us to evade reality, such as by allowing us to feel that we are better than we are, and that we are better than those in need. Consequently, we are able to avoid recognizing that we have perhaps only had better luck or have been more privileged.
The morality of pity drives us to feel pity and to feel good for feeling pity. Having such feelings is worse than feeling nothing, for if we feel good when we feel pity, then we are motivated only to help the individuals we feel pity for rather than to help end the systemic injustices that create such pitiful situations in the first place. Whereas apathy may help us to avoid being blinded by our emotions and to see situations of injustice more clearly, pity is instead more likely to motivate us to perpetuate injustice by perpetuating the conditions that allow us to help the needy, that allow us to see ourselves as good for helping those we see only as needy.
This is not to suggest, however, that we should try to achieve apathy, that we should try to will ourselves to feel nothing. Popular versions of Stoicism and of Buddhism advocate for calmness, for detachment, for trying to not feel what we feel. To force oneself to become apathetic is nihilistic, as to do so is to evade our feelings rather than to confront them. There is thus an important difference between being apathetic and becoming apathetic, between being indifferent because that is how one responds to the world and becoming indifferent because we want to be liberated from our feelings and attachments. Similarly, to become detached, not because of Stoicism or Buddhism, but because of hipsterism, is still to try to detach oneself from oneself, from life, from reality. So pursuing irony can be just as nihilistic as pursuing apatheia or nirvana.
Nolen Gertz is Assistant Professor of Applied Philosophy at the University of Twente in the Netherlands, and author of “Nihilism,” from which this article is excerpted.