21st Century Nihilism
“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, / And then is heard no more. It is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.”
Macbeth, (act 5, scene 5, lines 26–28)
You might recognize this passage from Shakespeare’s famous tragedy. In this scene, Macbeth expresses his utter despair. Not only is the scene bleak, but it captures Macbeth’s nihilistic attitude, that life signifies nothing.
Although predating established philosophical nihilism, this excerpt captures the essence of the belief — or lack of one. An idea that nothing matters, life is meaningless. It’s a rejection of spiritual belief and morals.
Macbeth, sensing the end is near, suffers a psychic crisis which resembles the condition that Friedrich Nietzsche — who suffered one of his own — describes hundreds of years after Shakespeare. The German philosopher diagnosed this condition, this perspective on life, as nihilism.
What is nihilism?
Nihilism may summon sulking, black-clad bohemians smoking cigarettes in a post-war Parisian bistro while rain blurs the windowpane and the waiter pours another round of apricot cocktails. But this 19th century philosophy is far more exciting than a bunch of moping barflies. It’s politically charged and can be a rather dangerous and destructive notion.
- Nihilism is a theory based on the rejection of traditional systems of belief. It refers to the idea that nothing in this world matters, that the world is without meaning.
- In other words, it’s a philosophy which rejects established social order, religion (Christianity), humanistic values and meaning. A belief akin to cynicism and pessimism. However, the latter two philosophies recognize the existence of morality, whereas nihilism does not.
- Historically, nihilism was a political movement that arose in 19th century Russia before the liberation of the serfs, and was partly responsible for a quasi-successful political reform the in the latter part of the century.
Picture the 19th century cultural divide that occurred in Europe between the religious establishment and the scientific, secular and anti-religious movements.
In Russia, there were the Westernizers (advocates of Enlightenment ideals like political liberalism, democracy, atheism and science)
And there were the Slavophiles (Russian traditionalists, aristocrats, conservatives and members of the Orthodox Church).
Nihilists sided with the ideals of the west, and thus considered a threat to the establishment by reigning Slavophiles.
21st century life
In modern culture — thanks to Hollywood — the word nihilism conjures the sullen-looking thugs form the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski (1998). They are a band of ultra-violent posse that wreak havoc on The Dude and his friends.
In the film, their appearance is entirely comical. But the truth is far from that.
The Coen brothers’ nihilists take themselves very seriously. “No funny schtuff,” as one says. No funny stuff, indeed. They are dangerous and organized. They mean business.
Even the Coen brothers recognized that nihilism is a destructive and dangerous force, unbridled by morality.
Nowadays, nihilism describes what happens when one becomes hopeless. It’s a perspective on life rather than a political affiliation. But disillusionment is an aspect that catalyzes political movements, as with the current rift in American society.
Most people agree that a divide exists between supporters of Donald Trump and the rest of America. He’s a typical Marmite figure. Love him or hate him.
January 6 is an example of what happens when nihilism is left unchecked. The rally which turned into an insurrection harnessed the disenfranchisement of the former President’s base. More on this in a minute.
Life without meaning
Considered a precursor to existentialism, nihilism is quite dissimilar to the latter. Existentialism and it’s pioneers like Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus touted the positive benefits of realizing that life is without meaning — allowing for a more creative and generative existence.
Existentialists believe that possessing a nihilistic worldview allows one to control their own lives. It is a belief that promotes one’s own self-determination.
While nihilism, the rejection of traditional value systems, offers nothing in return for believing in nothing, other than… well… literally nothing. Nil.
A nihilist believes that everything is worthless and nothing matters. No matter what one does, it is neither good nor bad since they possess no moral rubric with witch to measure their lives.
This is without a doubt a troubling concept. One is liable to spiral into despair if left to brood on this subject. So consider what these important 19th century figures had to say on the subject.
Nihilists advocated for the dismissal of the religious establishment — the Church — in exchange for a new social order, one that relied on science, materialism and not faith.
Fyodor Dostoevsky, the lauded novelist and firm anti-nihilist, believed that the rejection of traditional values — specifically Christian belief — led to moral and social decay. He argued that spirituality was the greatest defense against this catastrophic outlook on life.
Ivan Turgenev, another celebrated Russian author, wrote about nihilism in his novel Fathers and Sons (1862). Turgenev’s anti-nihilist commentary focused on the polarization of Russian politics, namely the western-influenced Liberals who advocated for large-scale social and political reform.
He emphasized this in his novel by depicting the generational divide between — you guessed it — fathers and sons.
Both Dostoevsky’s novel Demons (1871)and Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons recognized that the threat to society was grave and that the threat of violent reform was not unfounded.
Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, was another figure that recognized the threat of nihilism. He claimed that it caused a “leveling” of one’s psyche, something that would destroy one’s sense of self, individuality and self-worth.
In short, he believed that one lost sight of their value in the bigger scheme of things, since one’s value — and the value of everything — was reduced to nothing.
Kierkegaard’s solution, not unlike Dostoevsky’s, was spirituality — Christianity, again.
Friedrich Nietzsche, perhaps a name synonymous with nihilism, wrote extensively on the matter. After diagnosing the society in which he lived as suffering from meaninglessness (spiritually, morally and psychically), he expanded the established pessimistic philosophical outlook and advocated the extreme, which is:
- There is nothing worth living for, nothing worth dying for; life is nothing, there is no God. One’s suffering or joy, pain or pleasure has no meaning.
Rather grim, no?
Nearly a century later, Sartre, de Beauvoir and Camus, the existentialist trio, offered a humanistic relief from the perils of nihilism, arguing that meaninglessness grants people free will. This freedom elevates one’s individuality and humanity instead of crushing one’s spirit or “leveling” it as Kierkegaard argued.
Existentialism offers a constructive path forward.
In sum, in opposition to nihilism, philosophers suggested some remedies to combat symptoms of disillusionment and despair: spirituality, existentialism, or something in between.
But there’s more to it than that
Of course, it’s a lot more complicated than that. One ought to consider nihilism alongside:
- Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Arthur Schopenhauer, Martin Heidegger, Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze and Foucault’s work.
- The concepts organized in the schools of materialism, metaphysics, empiricism, post-structuralism, post-colonialism, post-modernism…
But really, the list could go on and on.
So we continue.
Nihilism in our modern world
Thus, nihilism is a personal interpretation that, in short, everything is meaningless. To the average person, this idea is preposterous.
But whether or not one has actually uttered the phrase everything is meaningless, one has likely felt despair.
In our time, the year 2021, it’s not a ridiculous idea at all to reckon with meaninglessness. Things are strange and unusual. What was unbelievable today could be completely logical tomorrow.
For example, just this summer, the US government released previously classified footage of UFOs and suspected extra-terrestrial sightings.
Let that sink in…
The US government publicly recognized the possibility of aliens. Not only that, they offered their own footage. There was no data leak. There was no hacking involved. They simply released the footage.
Strangeness can be disillusioning, and so can constant fear of war and other crises.
The 1950s was filled with daily anxiety and panic caused by the Cold War and the threat of nuclear fallout. Today, Covid-19 and its numerous variants continue to haunt us and cripple our daily lives — in addition to the ever-present threat of nuclear fallout.
The problems created in the 19th and 20th century have not only affected our grandparents and great-grandparents’, but are still with us today causing a compounded and collective sense of suffering.
In fact, people today carry immense trauma from the last three-hundred years of colonialism, genocides, civil-wars, slavery, plagues and pogroms that it’s no wonder nihilism is an appropriate diagnosis of our current condition.
Especially today, with the threatening, irreversible, man-made warming planet and looming climate catastrophe,
- multi-generational economic recessions
- dictators and ethnic cleansing
- unchecked apartheid states
- mass-migration and a global refugee crisis
it’s no wonder why our youth — and adults — choose to hide behind their screens and scroll through infinite and meaningless dance videos and cooking tutorials.
It’s time to reduce the forces that generate feelings of despair and psychic distress. What’s needed is a more hopeful outlook on life, not a series of coping mechanisms that allow people to deal with hopelessness.
These current remedies, like yogic breathing and mindfulness, are not panaceas. One can apply salve to the burn, but the fire still rages. So perhaps identifying the sources that contribute nihilism in the 21st century, we can combat them.
Not only does an acute awareness of the world disturb us, media companies reap in revenue by scaring the shit out of their audience.
Fox News is guilty of this. Namely, Tucker Carlson is one of America’s well-recognized rage and fear-mongers. Although not singularly responsible for the nihilism epidemic in the US, he’s a formidable proponent of fear and despair.
The media has never been so successful in controlling the reactions of citizens. Media here refers not only to mainstream outlets like Fox News, CNN, NYT etc. but social platforms like Twitter and Facebook, with their algorithms set to show you more of that with which you just interacted or reacted to.
More than ever before, since the terms “fake news” and “alternative facts” were coined during the Trump presidency, how and by whom one is informed is not only politicized but polarizing.
As the divide widens, names of political parties lose their meaning and a general “us” vs. “them” attitude is embraced by both sides. Partisanship is ubiquitous “from sea to shining sea,” and everyone seems to be picking a side.
The middle ground is getting slimmer by the day.
This can leave anyone feeling hopeless, like nothing matters at all.
On January 6, when a mob of insurrectionists stormed the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., it was a shocking display of nihilistic enthusiasm. The mob sought to wreak havoc and upturn the government.
This isn’t the first time in American history that a group of sidelined citizens attempted violent reform. But January 6 was the first occasion that a nihilist mob comprised of conspiracy theorists, white supremacists, anti-government militants and far-right group members managed to infiltrate the Capitol with shocking ease.
Dostoevsky and modern America
Dostoevsky’s Demons is a satirical story about what happens when political nihilism is left unchecked. Chaos, revolution. But ultimately, failure. A simple interpretation of Demons arrives in the form of a cautionary tale.
Turgenev’s Fathers And Sons also offers insight into how to deal with nihilism. A more heartening story than Dostoevsky’s, Fathers and Sons offers an ending in which the characters find homeostasis, a middle-ground, where tradition is not completely rejected and western ideas are not totally eschewed. It is a solution that, for a satirical story, is inoffensive and easy to digest, quite unlike the explicit, dramatic and copious pages of Dostoevsky’s Demons.
Although both novels are deeply enmeshed with Russian political ideology and cultural themes of the 19th century, they are stories about human beings who encounter moral dilemmas. Most importantly, they addressed the threat of nihilism.
Today, nihilism is afflicting the American public. Anti-establishment sentiments are high, especially among supporters of former president Trump and fringe groups like QAnon.
In January, when rally-goers formed a mob after getting the green light from outgoing president Trump and former mayor of New York City Rudy Giuliani to storm the Capitol, citizens around the country got a sense of how radicalizing a nihilistic worldview can be.
January 6 insurrection
Rioters, seditionists, insurrectionists. They have been called many things. Above all, the people who stormed the Capitol were organized, intent on committing acts of violence and to subvert the American government. Some members of this group were veterans who travelled hundreds of miles.
They came from all over America, from red and blue states.
They were certainly a motley crew. But can we call them political radicals?
From one angle, they were spearheaded by figures from within the government who acted as political outsiders advocating for a regime change. They broke into the Capitol to seize power and demonstrate their own.
But were these characters ideologically organized?
Meaning: did they aim to reform or overturn the existing value system and instate a new order?
Experts believe that plans to storm the Capitol were made in advance.
So, political radicals: yes.
When former President Donald Trump lost the 2020 election and was voted out of office, his loyal supporters suddenly reckoned with disillusionment. This caused a dangerous wave of nihilism amongst the President’s base.
In the last months of 2020, a figurehead in charge of a volatile base was turning to his supporters and saying: See? I told you not to trust them, referring to government officials across the country, effectively painting a target on the Capitol.
His base disillusioned, with no trust in the establishment and desperate to restore their reality — to restore Donald Trump as the President — a plan was put into motion.
Their January 6 scheme was a slow boil. But by the new year, a frothy scum had surfaced on the steps of the Capitol.
On January 6, the lid blew off. Egged on by rally speakers Donald Trump and Rudy Giuliani, armed and dangerous citizens fought their way through barricades and into the halls of the Capitol Building while America watched on in horror.
Many of these insurrectionists even live-streamed as they fought their way past Capitol police officers and destroyed federal property.
On a positive note, many of these insurrectionists are now facing federal charges and their footage is being used as evidence against them.
However, the insurrectionists are not a ideologically unified bunch.
But their violence and enthusiasm were truly frightening things to behold. One shudders to think what might have unfolded if their attempt were better orchestrated instead planned hastily of a handful of zealots (an ironic name for a group of nihilists, I know).
A chilling reminder: nearly all the insurrectionists wielded deadly weapons and underwent combat training. There were veterans among them, as well as officers of the law.
As a result, Capitol police officers were injured and lives were lost.
Truly, January 6 was a catastrophic day. Yet despite the Capitol’s infiltration and the pipe bombs that were placed around the Capitol, it is lucky nothing worse happened.
The nihilism exhibited by the insurrectionists — as seen by their rejection of the presidential election results and the insurrection — is similar to the 19th century Russian movement in its extreme behavior. How it unfolded is an indication of the clear and volatile political rift that has been formed in American life.
The nation is again a “house divided”, as Abraham Lincoln said about the Civil War — which, coincidentally happened around the same time that the Russian Nihilists were causing a stir across the Atlantic.
Except this new rift is not along state lines as it was nearly two hundred years ago during the Civil War — at least not strictly speaking.
The rift is cultural, ideological. Left unchecked, the Steve Bannons, Tucker Carlsons and Rudy Giulianis will continue instilling fear and hate in our society.
An American remedy
Yet, during the American Civil War, the country not only witnessed great sorrow, but also observed the height of the transcendentalist movement. Perhaps it was a remedy to America’s own variety of nihilism.
In 19th century New England, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Bronson Alcott, Walt Whitman and Margaret Fuller — to name just a few — were engaged with civil disobedience, labor reform, women’s suffrage and a new spiritualistic attitude.
Humanistic, idealistic and ideologically sophisticated, these figures advocated for a reform in American life through non-revolutionary, non-violent means.
These thinkers would lay the groundwork for the Civil Rights movement, inspire the reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as numerous others around the world in advocating for political reform.
It’s no surprise that spirituality is one of the key pillars of transcendentalism.
Another pillar is individualism, or the elevation of the individual, personal independence, freedom of thought and one’s soul.
Certainly these values sound familiar to Kierkegaard, Turgenev and Dostoevsky’s philosophical views. This is because they offer relief from nihilism and despair.
Given the tumultuous world in which we live, one constructive course of action is to examine history. Even reading a novel written two hundred years ago in St. Petersburg can offer significant understanding of what is going on today in America and around the world.
People do not live in a vacuum. We are more connected than we know. Embracing an interdisciplinary and holistic view of cultural and political events offers enlightenment.
Although life can be bleak at times, that does not mean that nihilism is the only outlook.
Consider Macbeth, once again. He was wrought with guilt, lost faith and abandoned morality. Poor Macbeth’s condition is hopeless, nihilistic by the end of the play.
But remember, he killed King Duncan. Then he had Banquo killed.
He was quite a corrupted character. Even the ghosts that visit him tell him so.
While Macbeth tells the story of a character who seeks no redemption for his crimes, Dostoyevsky offers a more hopeful version of the same tragic tale.
In one final example of the destructive behavior that nihilism breeds, consider Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866), a novel with an anti-nihilist message.
A young Rodion Raskolnikov succumbs to selfish and irrational impulses and commits double homicide.
However, he ultimately submits to his guilty conscience and confesses his crimes. He hopes that by paying for his sins, he can be redeemed.
Here the lesson in morality — Christian values à la Dostoevsky — is that we can at least try to be good, even if it’s the last thing we do.
Life is not one miserable trudge from cradle to grave. Humanity is marked by the choices people make, the lives that they live, the things that they create.
Faith, love, art, freedom. These are all things that give life meaning. They are qualities of humanity. Meaninglessness is a pit from which we all must continuously strive to climb out.
So instead of thinking of nihilism as the final destination on the expressway of existence, be like Mark Renton — Ewan McGregor’s character from Trainspotting (1996) — and “choose life”.