Nihilism: an essay on a social and historical misconception

01 Jan 2016 - keyser

This was originally posted in early 2016.


Firstly I would like to clarify this is anything but an unbiased piece. I indeed believe and agree with many nihilist views; however my sole intention is to correct a common misconception. The reader is then of course free to agree or disagree with them.

Introductions tend to be redundant, which is the reason behind why I occasionally like to alter my approach towards them. “Hello, I am Keyser, I am a student, polyglot, musician, and a nihilist”. The last part creates a reaction.

The response is every time and without fail delivered with a shocked expression, although the actions that follow suit vary greatly, going from a nervous laugh to upmost anger. Should the person not express their desire to continue on the topic, the conversation shifts to the dreaded-by-all small talk, usually the weather. Should they do, it never fails to be enlightening and entertaining. I am fond of people who choose the latter.

Astonishment soon wears off only to come back at the mention that their sometimes negative reaction is caused by misinformation; which, as I found out when asking to friends, family and acquaintances, is often too common in regards to nihilism. I have heard the word being used frequently but when asked what they thought it meant, they either did not have an answer and so I was met with silence, or they gave me incorrect ones: some associated it with religion (when in reality a number of religious groups antagonize nihilists), or had attached positive or negative connotations to it, without really understanding why.

This is not, most of the times, to blame on the person, not even on society for reinforcing the idea that nihilism is pessimistic and toxic. The sources are the only ones who can be deemed guilty.

We live in an era where, as the now overly-used phrase says, ‘Information is a click away’. Many times people have taken this in the literal sense and forgot about the joys and most importantly the advantages of researching; causing news, terms, and even individuals to be warped to such extent the original meaning or essence of them is ultimately lost. This online phenomenon is precisely what sealed the already cemented idea that nihilism is tied with negativity. This is not, by any means, meant to point the finger solely on the media and the internet. The issue goes as far back as the mid-1800s, when the word started gaining traction being used both for the philosophy and Russian groups comprising of men fascinated with the idea of anarchism as a way to overthrow all figures of power.

As a result, the term was tainted. Nihilism, with a capital N, represented radical political views, and a group who is historically viewed as crucial for Russian history. The word is in disuse contemporarily, with ‘anarchism’ having been widely spread instead, no longer in dire need to distinguish between the same groups of extremists who deem the hierarchy of power unnecessary or ineffective. It should only be used when writing or speaking about that period of time and in that specific context. The word nihilism, with lowercase n, on the other hand, refers to the philosophy (many people do not know non-religious philosophies are not capitalized, adding to the confusion), whose main concept sees life and existence as without any intrinsic meaning. At first it may appear depressing and even as radical as the other definition, resulting in people who follow the one-click-away formula religiously might still try to stand their ground and argue it is pessimistic. To which most nihilists would argue against.

Suggesting there is no meaning is not inherently negative or depressing, the approach towards such statement can be, however it does not have to. The former implies taking the statement as one filled with despair, as humans needing some force or element to guide their life and indicate their path. However, do individuals need that?

A second approach can be taken towards the lack of meaningfulness. If there truly is no key to happiness, fulfillment, and dreams, who is to say someone cannot create their own? It is no longer a matter of looking for purpose, but creating the illusion of one. The knowledge that it is nothing but made up should not deter one nor stray one away from their goal, but grant them the satisfaction of being assured they are free to decide to such a degree nothing they set themselves to do will have more than subjective meaning. If someone takes the decision to vote for a certain political party, it will not make the Earth stop orbiting around the Sun (despite, as morbid as it sounds, the Earth breaking from the Solar System would not have any objective meaning either).

Not one of the approaches that can be taken should, regardless, be confused as right or wrong, because it is but subjectiveness being attached to an objective fact. Most people, myself included, would be horrified if a person gets robbed and stabbed, just as most would be happy to see someone succeed in graduating. We choose to think harming someone and stealing is bad, and acquiring knowledge is good- we put value behind words, objects and actions.

That is why coming to the realization that there is no objective meaning is not pessimistic, it does not mean believing that translates into falling into constant desperation, it is just acknowledging a fact. The added feeling to it could make an individual feel depressed or ecstatic; the choice is within each and every person.

Should this still not seem a topic worthy of discussion or worthy enough to speak out about (after all, the reader may not care about philosophy or think it is dead, just as Stephen Hawking does), it can be thought about by replacing the word: Picture waking up and discovering the entire world population now uses ‘happiness’ as a synonym to ‘crime’.

‘She is happy’, ‘That is happiness’. She is a criminal, that is a crime. It sounds frustrating, wrong, because it would be. A word that can be associated with so many good memories which make one reminisce would be misused to such an extent its essence would be lost. If that sentence has a familiar sound, it is because it is almost exactly what I explain happens with the world nihilism. It went from ‘nihil’-nothing- to an equivalent of flaw.

In conclusion, the rapidness with which we elect words can at times lead to errors in concept and so, nihilism and nihilists have been caught in the whirlwind of confusion caused by it. It is not a matter of agreeing with its or their views or not. One may even hate the philosophy and idea but in order to be hatred there has to be understanding. That is all this essay aimed, and hopefully succeeded, to do: correct a mistake. By starting to create a change and educating we are preventing this from happening again. Because who knows if the next misconception will fall upon the one word that perfectly describes you?