Much has been written about nihilism, most because for any great good in life, one needs an opposite, and that is the belief in nothing: that nothing is worth striving for, that nothing can have any meaning, that the individual and the world together are nothing. I refer to this as fatalism because, quite honestly, if one believes that little - not even in the pleasures of being alive, the basest of joys - then death is a gift and a deliverance. If your fate is so terrible, embrace it, and die well. Perhaps you can bestir yourself long enough to strap an explosive device onto your person and, running into some commercial orgy such as a mall during Christmas shopping, detonate yourself, clearing others of a subtler fatalism from amongst us.
Nihilism, in my view, is the removal of all value to things except what I will call the inherent, leaving that term for later definition. When people wail about Satan, or the war against terrorism, or the great quest for equality, you can look those straight in the eye and say, "These have no value except what we impose upon them." By the same token, when people tell you how important it is to see the latest movie, go to that exclusive party, or own a fancy car, you can similarly dismiss the concerns. Nihilism is a removal of all except the inherent.
It is a gateway philosophy, as I see it, meaning that it is the initial realization on a course of learning. In contrast to the "devotional" philosophies such as Christianity, where all who come and recite an oath are considered to have received wisdom, the philosophies of life that are not a charade embrace esoteric views. Esotericism says that wisdom comes to those who seek it, and in varying degrees; there is no magic threshold to cross after which one can write the holy sign on one's forehead and be considered knowledgeable. Infinite learning and infinite potential pitfalls instead await. When one embraces nihilism, one has undertaken the first step of this initiation, by removing all value externally imposed, including by other humans. Herein begins discovery.
Most philosophies of our time either enshrine some absolute, universal wisdom as the One True Path to righteousness and power, or de facto do the same with the individual, stating "reality is anything you want it to be." These aren't philosophies as much as extreme approaches to the question echoing through eternity, "What is real/true/meaningful?" Nihilism offers a way out of this paradox, by affirming life itself as the answer to the question of life: what is meaningful? renders to "life is meaningful," and leaves us to realize that life is an ongoing process that cannot be quantized into some devotional answer, or even a finite technological answer such as "money." To have a good life is to have beauty, truth, and meaning.
But how to define a good life? If we look for absolutes, such as the best comfortable living, or the most power, or the most money or popularity, we find externally-defined things that do not reflect much of satisfaction, except of material want. It makes more sense to look to the ancients and to say that a good life is fulfillment of destiny, or of taking one's place in the inherent. Nihilism removes the sense of a good life as something that can be created outside of the individual, but also acknowledges the frailty of the individual: none of us will always see "truth" in the sense of what is accurate given the external world around us.
To say this is not to endorse a shallow "objectivism," such as that of Alissa Rosenbaum ("Ayn Rand"), for whom materialism became a philosophical object in the tradition in which she was raised, that of Judaism, which despite its dualistic faith-character sees nothing of supernatural or ideal value above material comfort: power, wealth, stature in community. These philosophies of "objectivism" become a parody of themselves, as they have replaced meaning in life with the means to life, bypassing the question of life in actuality. The objectivism of nihilism is closer to that of science or the ancient religious traditions of the Vedas: we are all enclosed in the same space, which operates according to consistent rules, and it acts predictably upon all of us, whether we perceive it or not.
Another way to say this is that when two people play catch, the ball is thrown and follows an objective course, regardless of whether the catcher has her hands in the right place to receive it. If the thrower misjudges her throw, the ball will land afar from the catcher, but the catcher can also compensate, having seen the ball move, and thus catch it. The motion through external reality is "objective," while the thoughts and perceptions of thrower and catcher are "subjective," and the two do not always come together; the game of catch is a fun way to calibrate one's internal sense of reality to reality the external, which operates much as a machine does, predictably according to its structure and the mechanisms therein.
Marcus Aurelius gives us part of the puzzle:
To dwell in the physicality of life is to be obsessed with the signs of meaning, and not meaning itself. In a game of catch, what is not important is the quality of the ball or the sensation of seeing it whiz by, but the ability to match hand with ball and thus connect the motion of thrower to receiver. A nihilist, initiated in the value of no-value, thus recognizes that while neither objective nor subjective is supreme, bringing them together is a value in the inherent, as it makes the individual stronger as interacting with "ultimate reality," or the physical and very real world that we all share. Similarly, to get too far into symbolism is to create a "dual" world, in which symbol is more important than meaning to life itself; either dwelling solely in the physical, or solely in the symbolic, is an error of reason (these roughly correspond to Judaism and Christianity, respectively).
However, this type of thinking is beyond all but a few, hence the hordes of people who criticize this site for being nihilistic and yet daring to believe in anything more than fatalism. The most educated of this type are the Russell-Wittgenstein devotees, who are victims of essentially the most advanced 419 scam in philosophical history; told that language is frail and thus error, they are asked to invest their belief fully in subjectivism, and through that to achieve objective proof of the truthfulness of non-truth. Zen philosophy offers a more benevolent take on this insight, one that is wise enough not to express itself in language, but to rely on raw experience - and sometimes, a Zen master's slap - to reinforce that reality, itself, indeed, is real.
Nihilism is a gateway to appreciating the inherent. Being thinking machines isolated in ourselves, we are contra-intuitively isolated from the reality of life, and our most common error is to be the catcher expecting the ball in the wrong location or the thrower, blinded by the sun, throwing to the wrong place. It is not a linearization or a moralization to state that the expectation of the ball is at the wrong place in both cases; literally, the humans involved have been deceived into believing their own perceptions higher than external reality, which is the force responsible for space, and time, and indeed all other natural tendencies which make the game of catch possible. This is the ground of the inherent.
Life itself is indefinable, except when we constrain the parameters of definition to be very narrow. Existence might be a better term, but eventually even existence is predicated upon natural law and "reality" coming to being in the first place, at a level lower even than physicality: that natural laws exist such that matter is even conceivable, or that regularity or logic even existing, predicates the being of matter. What Aurelius endorses above is an acceptance of the nature of existence, but a realization that meaning does not exist, except in our minds: it is an abstraction based upon the inherent, which includes life itself.
Another way to phrase this is to say that we find life good when we perceive that life has meaning, which is a factor of life being lived well, or being "good," in the first place. It's a giant loop if one approaches it linearly, but from natural terms, it makes sense. Our environment grants us existence, and either adapt to it or drift off into our own little fantasy worlds, and where we are able to adapt to it, we derive pleasure from having matched our own desires with its tendencies - much like catching the ball thrown by another perceiving being and conveyed according to natural forces through space and time to our hands. This is the nature of the inherent, and there is nothing higher or lower than it.
To get to this stage, however, one must first undergo the cleansing rite of nihilism, by which all "meaning" as told to us by others or "seeming" to us by physicality, is removed. Sex is not what gives meaning to life; the relationship between the two is what does, as pleasure is transient and cannot by itself hold off pain (indeed, as any thinking pothead can tell you, even the absolute bliss of being gloriously stoned loses its luster over time, as the agenda never changes). To counterbalance that, however, the symbolism or love or purity or chastity is equally not what is real; it is a shared perception of the inherent, and not the inherent itself. Only the inherent matters, and each of us can see it to varying degrees depending on our ability.
Additional definitions of the inherent can be found in transcending the "mind/body dualism" of life; most embrace either mind, and the abstractions we consider real such as "good" and "evil," or body, and the material comforts of life as highest value. However, it is more sensible to avoid a mechanistic approach to analysis of life, and recognize that the value of the inherent is "value to whole and self-as-part-of-whole"; we cannot separate ourselves from the whole, nor view it as something independent of us. It created us and equipped us with all that we know, and even in nihilism one recognizes a refutation of fatalism: we are its agents, and what we do changes the course of the future, in varying degrees according to our abilities.
Thus we come to the thorniest realization of nihilism: no, dear hearts, we are not all "equal," either in some cosmological sense or in ability. Some are smarter, some stronger, some of better character, and to realize this is to cast aside the great social illusion that blocks nihilism. The crowd of people who cannot perceive the inherent, or because of their own undifferentiated state in it deny it, would like us to think in terms of equality, such that we could partake in a devotional "truth" where repeating a few simple words would raise us - equally - to the level of holy knowledge. Nature is real, and in nature, many are born and a few survive; this is a failsafe method of producing better versions of the organism each generation, which means that for those who will live in the future, life will be better than in the past.
Nihilism is a gateway, and it is unwise to attempt to summarize it in a tidy essay that one can read on the Internet during lunch, doubtless before returning to a stimulating task such as sending faxes, fixing cars, making speeches or cleaning toilets. Philosophy for those concerned with accuracy is an esoteric task, and reveals itself slowly, through experience, and any attempt to shortcut that is devotional egalitarianism and thus illusion. But for those for whom the normal "meaning" of life is ashen and formless, an invitation to a gateway is issued in this essay; believe in nothing, so that you may find the something which has actual meaning.
December 15, 2004