The Appeal to Nihilism

By Emmanuel Gautier

First of all let’s distinguish nihilism from both depression and pessimism. Depression is a psychological state that often involves, among other things, the feeling that life is without positive meaning. Nihilism is a philosophical position, which, although denying many of the meanings traditionally attributed to life, does not entail that one is depressed or otherwise feels life to be meaningless. The nihilist might, indeed, be someone who very much enjoys life and finds purpose in it — just not those purposes, or even those kinds of purposes, that are typically ascribed to it. Notably, nihilism is also different than pessimism. The nihilist, unlike the pessimist, is in no way committed to the idea that things always or usually work out for the worse.

Now, if it is indeed true that young people are especially drawn to nihilism, I think it is likely for the following reasons.

Young people — let’s say those who are in their teens or early twenties — have perhaps not yet bought into the system, are not yet beneficiaries of the existing order of things. That means they have the room, psychologically speaking, to question the values of society in a way that someone who is part of the franchise does not. This allows them the space to doubt — and potentially to reject — everything. For many older people, careers, marriage, parenting, and so on, make this completely open-ended attitude too strenuous. They crave absolutes and certainties. They want to settle down, lock into a program, and not question everything all the time. The young nihilist has no such investment; he therefore has the freedom to doubt all those certitudes in which his society finds structure and security.

Furthermore, the young nihilist has probably noticed that ideas and values often function as ideology or otherwise as rationalizations of some sort — that is, they are held not for their own sake but rather as means for legitimizing the status quo or perhaps justifying some revolutionary alternative to the status quo. Young people have the purity of vision to see that the real game being played, in one form or another, is the politics of domination. They understand that ideas and values, of whatever sort, are often used as weapons to advance personal interests. This can result in someone stepping back and saying fuck it, I am not playing this game. This is all bullshit.

Finally, I think young people often find the freedom entailed by a nihilistic outlook to be invigorating. Contrary to popular opinion, a nihilist’s life need not be without meaning. Indeed, nihilism can, in a surprising way, be a source of meaning — a different kind of meaning. A nihilist can adopt an experimental attitude towards beliefs and values. The difference is that he sees his beliefs as provisional, as always reflective of a particular point of view, and in no way as exhausting the total truth of things. In this way, nihilism owes a certain debt to epistemological skepticism and relativism. For the creative nihilist, our beliefs and values are models, useful for a while but meant to be discarded when necessary. The nihilist thus denies absolutes and certainties, and sees truth, whether in matters of belief or value, as something that is always relative to the needs of the occasion. He judges ideas by their fruits, and constantly subjects his beliefs to re-evaluation, revision, and rejection. One can create many meanings, as many as necessary, but the point is always just the service of life.

The motivating value of the nihilist, therefore, need not be an assertion that life is bad, or otherwise not worth living. Nihilism is not pessimism. Nihilism, rather, is the denial of any absolute truth in matters of value or belief — the rejection of any authoritative lens through which one must look upon life and find meaning in it. Nihilism in this way becomes a kind of anarchism, an unwillingness to hold any principles over life itself. It is a sort of commitment to let life guide belief and value and not the other way around. This faith of the nihilist need not involve the (self-contradictory) idea that life can be trusted, or that nature will take care of us, or anything like that. The nihilist’s commitment to the world, as it is, is very much a marriage for better or worse, through sickness and health, prosperity and poverty.

There is a kind of tenderness in this attitude, a profound sort of faith, for the nihilist accepts life as it is and embraces it entirely, with no illusions mediating between himself and the world. He is ready to take life for what it is and make what can be made if it.

It is just the sort of optimistic sweetness, tinged with feisty rebellion, we should hope for in our young people. My concern is not that there are too many young nihilists, as the question perhaps implies, but that there are not enough. Perhaps the prevalence of depression among the young has to do with this lack of healthy nihilism. Perhaps our young people are overstuffed with the old, dead, oppressive meanings of previous generations and therefore not sufficiently alive to the possibilities of life.

Nihilism clears the fields, makes way for a new crop.

What philosophy could be more appropriate to the years of one’s youth?

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