In popular culture, the philosopher Nietzsche is usually associated with moral nihilism. We might define nihilism as the absence of the highest values. Associated with moral nihilism is moral relativism. Moral relativism is the belief that all values, precisely because there are no higher values, are merely the expression of personal preference. Ironically, however, is it exactly this kind of moral viewpoint that Nietzsche is criticising. Rather than being a nihilist he is an anti-nihilist. Nihilism is a diagnosis of the decadence of Western culture, rather than a position that Nietzsche wants, and still less, wants us to aspire to.
What is the cause and origin of nihilism in contemporary society? It is the continued destruction of all meaning and signification. It is the belief that nothing really matters any more, because nothing really has any meaning. We have no system of beliefs or values which could orientate us. The old systems of belief, like religion and morality, still exist, but at best we only follow them half-heartedly, and at worst, think that they have no meaning whatsoever. They exist only at the edges of our lives and consciousnesses. But it isn’t just the world that doesn’t have any meaning anymore. We ourselves don’t have any meaning for ourselves. Why should we choose one course of action over any other? What does it really matter anymore, since no-one’s individual life really has any significance in the grand scheme of things? As Michel Haar describes:
Nothing is worth much anymore, everything comes down to the same thing, everything is equalized. Everything is the same and equivalent: the true and the false, the good and the bad. Everything is outdated, used up, old dilapidated, dying: an undefined agony of meaning, an unending twilight: not a definite annihilation of significations, but their indefinite collapse. (Allison 1985, p.13)
It would be quite absurd, therefore, to claim that this is what Nietzsche actually desires. On the contrary, he wants to diagnose how we got there. Our culture is like the character God in Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy: old and worn out, barely alive, and certainly nothing to really believe in anymore.
The most dangerous side of this nihilism, however, is that in the end it becomes happy and satisfied with itself. Once we used to feel horror and terror at the fact that religion, morality and philosophy don’t really have any meaning, but now we’re quite happy to live in a world without meaning. One example of this satisfaction is the death of God. Again we have to remind ourselves of the passage in the Gay Science, where Nietzsche writes of the madman who rushes into the marketplace and declares that God is dead. Many people read this as Nietzsche is simply celebrating atheism, but if we read this passage more carefully we can see that what it really describes is how the ordinary people don’t really care at all whether God is dead or not. This is what is truly terrifying. Not that God is dead, but that no-one even noticed that he had died:
Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly: ‘I seek God! I seek God!’ – As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, the provoked much laughter. Has he got lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? Emigrated? – Thus they yelled and laughed. (Nietzsche 1974, p.181)
How can this famous scene be a declaration of atheism, when the people that the madman announces the death of god to are in fact already atheists? No, this is not what Nietzsche thinks is significant for us understand. The truth of this passage comes a little later, when the madman tells them that it us who have killed God: ‘We have killed him – you and I.’(Nietzsche 1974, p.181) And yet, even though we are the murderers of God we still have no idea of what a universe without God, without any values really means, because as such we still cling to the ideal world even though it is absent. It is not enough to negate values, because then all you are left with is negativity, and negation is dependent on the very thing that it negates. I say that I don’t believe in God, but paradoxically this non-belief is just as much dependent on the idea of God, as the belief in God is, for without the idea of God how would it be possible to be an atheist. We have to get beyond both the belief and non belief. We have to get, to use a title to one of Nietzsche’s books, beyond good and evil.
The real source of nihilism is negation, and therefore to understand nihilism we have to understand negation, or what Nietzsche will call negative will to power. There two sources of values for Nietzsche in the world: reactive and active. Nihilism in all its forms is reactive, and this is precisely the reason why Nietzsche’s philosophy cannot be nihilism, for it is against reactive will to power that it is written.
Nietzsche’s critique of morality is that in fact it is secondary. Morality presents itself as a disinterested objective valuation of the world, but underneath it is just another form of will to power: the desire for self preservation, even if that means dominating others by stealth and cunning. All morality is hypocritical, not because it is false or wrong, which would be too simplistic, since all human beings live by values, even if the supreme value in our age might be to value nothing, but because it presents itself as though it were not of this world, above petty politics and striving, objective and absolutely true.
Nietzsche is not criticising values in general, but reactive values, and it is these values that have led to the nihilism of the West. Having negated the world, and seen nothing positive in it, it has ended up with the ultimate negation of destroying itself. Active will to power, on the contrary, can be vanquished by another active will, but it does not seek its own auto-destruction.
Active and reactive values describe the relations of dominance and subordination. What is reactive is always a response to what is active. It subordinates itself to more dominating forces. But it is important to realise that this subordination is not an absence of power. It is just as much an expression of power, Nietzsche believes, to dominate as subordinate oneself. In the second case, one obtains power by accommodating and regulating oneself to the status quo. This is exactly how the power of modern societies operates. It is the power of adaptation and utility, and those who are better adapted have more power, and those who refuse to adapt, conform and fall into line, have little or no power. Be like everyone else, or else! This is the motto of our societies, and our schools and universities are nothing but machines to produce this submission.
Because our societies, or perhaps society itself, is essentially reactive, it is much harder to describe what active forces are. One thing that we do know is that they must be first, because without active forces, there would not be any reactive ones, for what would they be reacting against? This is the first step away from nihilism. For nihilism says that what is first is negation. But this is precisely how reactive forces speak: negate! What is active, on the contrary, is what is creative, what imposes forms and dominates. Its first word is not ‘no’, but ‘yes’, and what one must first create is oneself beyond the reactive forces of society. Again simply to negate society, and the values implicit within it, is not enough, for this is to be dependent on the values of the very society one despises, and have negated it all that one is left with is a black hole. The point is to create new values that leap beyond the negative values of society. This is what Nietzsche calls, as described by Deleuze, the ‘Dionysian power’ (Allison 1985, p.83).
Perhaps the best way to understand this power is through the distinction Nietzsche makes between Dionysus and Jesus. The life of Jesus, as those who have seen Gibson’s film The Passion know, is a life that is the justification of suffering and which makes of life itself something that causes suffering and which must be justified and legitimated as suffering. This must be distinguished from Dionysus, or at least what this Greek god represents for Nietzsche. Here life does not need to be justified, and even if there is pain, then this is a justified part of life. It does not have to be paid for somewhere else, as in the suffering of Jesus does, for example. Life does not need to be redeemed, for this is nothing to be redeemed. Rather life is to be affirmed as it is. This is what Nietzsche means by the Eternal Return, which is perhaps one of his most difficult ideas:
What if some night or night a demon were to steal into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life that you now live it and have lived it you will have to live once again and innumerable times again.” […] How well disposed would you have become to yourself and to life to long for nothing more fervently than for this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal? (Nietzsche 1974, p.343)
Why then is Nietzsche not a nihilist? Because the nihilist is the one who reduces life to nothing. In this sense it is the Christian or the moralist who is the nihilist. For without Jesus, or morality, life would be exactly nothing. It is because they experience life as nothing in itself that they need the extra moral or religious order above life. The modern nihilist is merely the believer without God, the Christian without Jesus, the moraliser without morals. They are left with the negation of the world, but simply have no belief system to replace religion, morality and philosophy. Without God life is meaningless. But this means that Christianity has to prove that life without God is meaningless. Now that God is dead, all we are left with in the meaningless of life. All that could happen in the future is that we would get new beliefs (capitalism, nationalism) that would simple cover over this the death of God. Nihilism is merely the last symptom of belief, its last stages and final development. It is not the opposite of belief, but merely its final form, as Deleuze so eloquently describes it:
Previously life was depreciated from the height of higher values. Here on the contrary, only life remains, but it is still a depreciated life which now continues in a world without values, stripped of meaning and purpose, sliding every further towards its nothingness. (Deleuze 1983, p.148)
One cannot be a nihilist and affirm life, and Nietzsche’s philosophy is nothing but the affirmation of life as what it is. This is why he is so critical of religion, morality and philosophy. For they all begin with the same presupposition that life doesn’t amount to much, and must be supplemented by a religious, moral, and essentially metaphysical ‘other world’. Yes the nihilist gets rid of this ‘other world’, but she is still left with the hatred of the world that all these beliefs first began with as their original impetus. In one sense, nihilism is worse than morality, religion and philosophy, for it denies life, but has no recompense at all for the life which has been destroyed. What we need then is a new faith, a Dionysian one, which affirms all of life, even suffering that is just as much part of life as joy.
Allison, D.B. ed., 1985. The New Nietzsche : contemporary styles of interpretation, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Deleuze, G., 1983. Nietzsche and philosophy, New York: Columbia University Press.
Nietzsche, F.W., 1974. The Gay Science : with a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs, New York: Vintage Books.