Nihilism

Christian von Ehrenfels took a taste to the particularly unsavoury notion of Yellow Peril.

Von Ehrenfels was an Austrian philosopher who ran round in a bow tie, viciously whispering to anyone he could catch, that the West and the East were in a Darwinian struggle for world supremacy; a struggle, he insisted with wild eyes, that the yellow race was winning. His madcap theory posited that monogamy was to blame and that the genetically superior white man was being held back by only being able to father children with one woman. Von Ehrenfels racism had at its core, the concept of nihilism, in that the Asian conquest of the West basically equaled racial annihilation. Europe would be invaded, conquered and wiped out by a Sino-Japanese army of genetically superior soldiers in a race war that Western powers would be unable to win. You get the sense the Von Ehrenfels would not have been good on Twitter.

Getting into nihilism, like dipping your toe in a public swimming pool, is not compulsory. You can do it on a wet weekend when you need to escape the kids, but no one is making you do it. It’s basically a pretty chewy topic, it being a philosophical doctrine that essentially suggests there is nothing meaningful in life. Nothing. Life has no purpose. It supposes a mood of bleak despair. A desperate state of woe. There are no norms, no values, nor rules or laws. It is pretty depressing stuff. That said, it’s something worth having a poke at perhaps, in the interests of having something to hand should you find yourself treading water at a stuffy, bourgeois dinner party.

First pour yourself some gin.

Now there are a few different flavours of nihilism. To pick just a few, in order to get a rough feel for the cumbersome issues involved, we can kick off with metaphysical nihilism which is, as you might imagine, a form of nihilism that offers the idea that concrete objects, yes actual concrete objects, like the recently refurbished National Theatre on the Southbank, might not actually exist. Something at least to think about as you crunch on a brownie in the excellent new café.

Existential nihilism, meanwhile, is the depressing one. It aims it’s canon ball at life as we know it, suggesting that life has no meaning. It has no value. We are all insignificant. We have no purpose. Beachy Head beckons.

Moral nihilism is the tricky one, especially tricky if needed to be explained to a four year old who has just bitten his cousin. Also stickered as ethical nihilism, it is a view that morality does not exist, there is no one action preferable to another action. Biting the cousin, is neither right nor wrong. If morality does exist, it exists merely as a human construct and is, then, artificial. Biting a cousin is not inherently a bad thing, it is just given a higher negative weighting than what is called good. Biting the cousin is bad because it causes pain, but it is only bad as the feeling the cousin has of not being bitten, of not feeling pain, is arbitrarily given a positive weighting. So then with your four year old now paying close attention, you can tell him – or her – that all moral claims are void of any value.

And then time, perhaps, for a bit of CBeebies.

Political nihilism is a branch of nihilism that sounds, in a relative sense at least, a bit more fun. It basically rejects all social and political structures such as government, family and the law, something that usually surfaces in oppressive regimes. The Russian nihilist movement in the 1860s was one; one that involved a thick mob of badly dressed Russians who rejected all forms of authority, taking particular aim at the stiff guidelines of the Eastern Orthodox Church and the heavy handed, diffident, Tsarist monarchy. As you might imagine, the Russian state took a pretty dim view and sent a lot of nihilists to go dig ditches in Siberia.

Nihilism is associated with many of the great thinkers. The term was coined by the German philosopher Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, as he wrestled to characterize rationalism one wet weekend. The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard – all black polo neck and thick horn rimmed glasses – took a particularly bleak view, by flouring nihilism in a concept he called levelling. Levelling was a process of suppressing individuality to a point where an individual’s uniqueness becomes non-existent. Kierkegaard once whispered to a friend in a bar:

Levelling at its maximum is like the stillness of death, where one can hear one’s own heartbeat, a stillness like death, into which nothing can penetrate, in which everything sinks, powerless.”

It must have been difficult to chat a girl up after that.

It’s Nietzsche though that nihilism is most associated with. Friedrich Nietzsche, the German philosopher, poet, and cultural critic who has his finger prints all over modern intellectual history. For Nietzsche, nihilism was a widespread phenomenon of Western culture. We all, at some point, find out that the world does not possess the objective value or meaning that we want it to have, or have long believed it to have, and so – inevitably – we soon find ourselves slumped in the spare room, the lights off, sobbing quietly. We find ourselves in crisis.

Nietzsche, oblivious to our tears, presses on, asserting that, with the decline of Christianity and the rise of physiological decadence, nihilism is in fact characteristic of the modern age. He famously went on to have a pop at God, suggesting that faith provides people with intrinsic value, that believing in God offers people an antidote against the despair of thinking life is utterly meaningless. Christianity though, ends up undoing itself, it being constructed as it is, by humans. It then dissolves for some reason. This dissolution then leads to a distrust of all meaning. Happy days.

I’m not sure Nietzsche would be my first reserve for a Saturday night dinner-party.

So that’s that then. A little nihilism for a Monday morning. On the one hand, all very interesting, on the other, utter claptrap. It is not obvious that there’s much value to be had in staring at a chair wondering if it’s real. If your life feels meaningless get up and do something about it. Find some meaning. And if you can’t think of anything, start by sitting on the chair.

You have one go at life.

You might as well enjoy it.

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