Nihilism is a misinterpreted concept nowadays. The term “nihilist” is vulgarly intended to depict a pessimistic person, who does not find meaningful aspects to their life. However, what does it really mean to think nihilistically? In this article, we explore why nihilism can be a constructive mental attitude to free our mind from invisible cultural impositions, and look at reality and at our personal life for what they truly are.
In everyday life, the term “nihilist” is commonly used to refer to a person that only formulates negative thoughts, and only finds negative aspects to their life. Essentially, “nihilist” is often considered a synonym of “pessimist”. While, over time, this definition has become the most popular one, from the philosophical and psychological point of view, a genuine nihilist does not adhere to what we have just introduced. For this reason, in the next paragraphs I will try to illustrate what it truly means to think nihilistically, and why I consider this trait a founding virtue for the development of critical and self-awareness.
If nihilists are no pessimists in the literal sense, how can we define them?
Perhaps, the most simple definition of a nihilist might be the following: “Someone who thinks that there is no intrinsic meaning or value in reality.”
Let us try to elaborate on this intellectual position.
As humans inescapably embedded in our culture, the moment we are born, we make immediate contact through language. Thus, human comprehension of the world is bounded by human language. If you are born in Italy, and your parents are Italians, this language will be the first tool at hand to interpret reality. Also, there is no way to communicate cultural content without engaging with words, signs or symbols that stand for what they refer to. It follows that what humans know about reality, is not reality itself, but the language humans use to describe it. Indeed, we have already seen that certain types of language – such as poetry – although not capable of grasping reality in itself, can attribute multifaceted meanings to it, thereby enriching human interaction with it.
Now, let’s accept that human knowledge is just a tiny, obfuscated and biased perception of reality itself, which eludes human understanding. What are we left with? For sure, we’re left with a set of languages that cannot grant access to any intrinsic meaning.
Thus, the first challenge a nihilist accepts is philosophical: whatever is claimed, is also disputable. Regardless of a tradition that for millennia might have tried to persuade people otherwise. There is no progression in history, there are no good or bad civilizations. Cultural contents, especially ones that are given as unquestionable founding elements of an individual’s existence, must be challenged. According to the historian Yuval Noah Harari, every human being happens to be born in an “Imagined Order”, a contingent, human superstructure – made of rights, laws, virtues, sins and so on – which is not objectively true, but simply allows cooperation between people and furthers their wellbeing (1). If you were raised in the 18th century BC, in Babylonia, you would consider the existence of slaves “natural”. But if you were born after 1948, when the United Nations officialised “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights”, you would think the opposite, at least in certain countries. For instance, in 2020, Indian society is still stratified into castes, with people convinced they have less rights than others.
Most of what ancient civilizations thought to be natural is now considered fictitious, and this is going to happen over and over again in the future. Each civilization is structurally convinced of being genuine, of reflecting certain laws that are intrinsic to the universe. But this is essentially not true. It is therefore evident that there is no universal, untouchable truth in the history of humanity. Despite the courage it takes to rationalize and accept this fact, nihilists still then have to deal with the progression of their lives. It is one thing to think logically, it is another one to deal with the psychological consequences. Thus, we each come to wonder: if there is no universal meaning in what I learn, in what I do, then what is the purpose of my life?
There are extraordinary literary characters that personify the existential condition of living a meaningless life. One of best is the protagonist of Alberto Moravia’s novel Boredom (2), who feels that the usual relationships between “things” established by humans have no significance for him. For instance, in the opening part of the book, he describes his interaction with a glass of water. As long as a person can picture an object filled by a liquid as a means to drink, they can establish a meaningful relationship with that object. But what if a glass of water, in its essence, meant something completely different, which belongs to a plethora of meanings that humans cannot understand?
If we think about it, this is the primordial psychological condition of every human being who, as an infant, has to learn the “human” way to interpret reality. Why, for example, does a baby cry once their mother turns off the light? Because for a baby, darkness means nothing. They cannot rationalize the absence of light, as they are left with no intellectual tools to comprehend the world. That is why, experiencing nihilism, they feel desperate. Therefore, the cultural context in which newborns grow is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it gives them essential tools to defeat their anguish and to fruitfully interact with the world. But on the other hand, it is tacitly presented as the only possible way to deal with reality. Once adults realize this paradox, once they realize that they have access only to a limited, biased version of reality, in Moravia’s conception they experience an unprecedented state of boredom, according to which the world becomes absurd, losing every beauty and strength, and any meaning.
Perhaps in 1960 – when Moravia’s “Boredom” was released – there were no other words but “boredom” or “perpetual melancholy” to describe this mental attitude. But now, we can surely call it depression.
Thus, we can conclude that the philosophical position of a nihilist can correspond to the psychological state of a depressed person.
But, is being depressed necessarily something bad?
Let us take a practical example. One day you wake up and you feel sad, weak and unmotivated, but you do not know why. Let us assume you are not physically ill. At some point, you start to think that your life does not make sense anymore, as you feel detached from your own daily routine, perhaps even from your affections. In a while, you realize that you have adhered for years to certain cultural traits without questioning them. Consequently, you realize that everything you have learned about life is a human construct, which you accidentally fell in with just because you were born.
In his poem To himself (3), Giacomo Leopardi describes precisely the feeling that follows this realization.
Bitter and tedious,
Life is, nothing more: and the world is mud.
To our race Faith
Gave only death.
In his extreme materialism, Leopardi tells the reader that the only tangible, fact-checked purpose of every life on Earth is to end. When we look at the natural behaviour of organisms, we realize that the only inevitable event they encounter is indeed death. Coming back to the previous example, this is exactly what you feel once you accept that you did not consciously choose the path of your life: you feel that your life is gone, and the deadly embrace is the only logical consequence to wait for.
At this point, two options are offered. Either you fall in love with your misery, or you accept that nihilism is not an end point. It is a precious eye-opener on the status of your self-awareness.
Giacomo Leopardi, as many other poets did and still do, sacrificed his happiness to lucidly dissect the essence of his nihilism. He used his poetry as an artistic medium to expose the unconscious state of every human being: that they are victims of a cultural superstructure, which is given as granted.
Deconstructing the structure is a personal journey, and a road to authenticity.
The truth is that we live in a paradox: life is meaningless per se, but humans need a meaning to live.
Let us try – at least – to find our own.
- Harari, Y., N., “Sapiens – A brief history of humankind”, 2011
- Moravia, A., “Boredom”, 1960
- Leopardi, G., “To himself”, 1833