Nihilism: Falling into the Chasm
People often describe nihilism as a chasm.
I think it’s no coincidence that nihilism is so commonly discussed this way — the feeling of descending into despair is so inherent to the concept.
Nihilism, as a philosophy, simply rejects the notion that there is meaning in the world. This can of course take many forms, such as moral nihilism (the belief that there are no moral truths), epistemic nihilism (the belief that knowledge of the truth is impossible), or metaphysical nihilism (the belief that there is no truth at all). When most people use the term, however, they usually talk about existential nihilism, which is the belief that life itself is devoid of meaning, purpose, or value.
Pretty bleak, eh?
It’s very rare to meet true existential nihilists — many people who feel the despair so strongly unfortunately take their own lives. Camus argues that there is no justification for getting out of bed in the morning if you’re a true existential nihilist. It may be why he so pointedly said that there is only one serious philosophical problem, and that is the question of suicide.
And yet, there are plenty of people who cross through the nihilistic chasm, only to emerge on the other side living a life of greater integrity, fulfillment, and happiness.
In my own experience, I spent about 6 months in the chasm after an existentialism course at the City University of New York. I remember reading Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Kafka thinking it was a miracle that any of these authors lived long enough to write any of their thoughts down! And while each author may have struggled with nihilism to different degrees, they all composed their own philosophical ropes and ladders to help them escape the chasm. It is these escape routes that were so interesting to me, and it was inspiring to read that even the most despairing thinkers were able to lift themselves up from their existential angst.
Even Nietzsche, one of the darkest philosophical figures in history, wrote of his Amor Fati — his love of fate — that propelled him from his teratoid abyss. He may have provided cogent philosophical reasonings for nihilism, but it is a misconception to label Nietzsche himself as a nihilist, since he writes plainly of his lust for life (if you want to read a real nihilist, read Schopenhauer). Despite their despair, Nietzsche and others were able to overcome their depression and emerge on the other side of the chasm, and they were able to a life of greater meaning and integrity because they had taken trek.
By studying these existentialists, I was able to discover a sense of internal purpose, and that purpose has given me a sense of meaning in both my personal and professional lives. While I’d love to write a more in-depth treatise on my own ropes and ladders that have helped me climb out of the chasm of nihilism, I think that saga deserves its own piece in the future.
If you feel yourself slipping near the edge, devolving into despair, and staring at the emptiness of the void into the eyes of monstrous nothingness, remember that when Alice said that she could see nothing in Wonderland, the Cheshire Cat responded “My, you must have good eyes!”
I urge you to dive in and explore the chasm. You may find wonders and wisdom that can only be found in the darkness — though don’t linger too long, for the abyss is staring back at you. And when you’re at the bottom, take comfort in the knowledge that you tread a well-worn path; others have come before you, and others will follow behind.
I recommend reading Victor Frankl, as his writings in response to his experience during the existential cataclysm of the holocaust are some of the greatest antidotes to nihilism that I’ve ever read. There are other methods, too: stoicism, Zen, and positive psychology to name a few. And yet, I sense that Frankl will strike a chord with many readers, especially since a common refrain I hear from people who have flirted with nihilistic tendencies is that if life is devoid of any semblance of meaning, then we get to create our own meaning and discover our own individual purposes. I find that idea extremely compelling, and I imagine you will as well.
So I encourage you to cross the chasm boldly, albeit carefully.
It may be the greatest journey you ever make, and you need not even leave your home.