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Nihilism: Four useful life lessons from a bleak mentality

In a #fakenews and #posttruth era, the 19th-century philosophical bad boy of nihilism has reared its head. Nihilism stems from the Latin word “nothing”, and in essence, that’s what it’s all about. While there are different branches of nihilism, the general ideas are: that nothing is real—not absolute truth, not morality, not true knowledge—and that life is inherently meaningless. That can sound pretty depressing to some. So why is nihilism suddenly popular again, and can we take anything useful from it in the modern world?

The birth of nihilism

Nihilism arose in 19th-century Russia, though its approach stems back to the Ancient Greek sceptics and their notion that we should question and doubt all of our beliefs. The term was coined by philosopher Friedrich Jacobi but made famous by another Friedrich—Nietzsche. He argued that our world would become increasingly nihilistic as society adjusted to a changing culture and the idea that God may not exist.

All doom and gloom? 

Many philosophers of the time, especially in the Western world, believed that nihilism would lead to despair, destruction, and a lack of morality. Nietzsche didn’t disagree with them, but he believed it was necessary to form a better basis for ethics and meaning than the traditional, religious approach. However, in the Eastern world, nihilism wasn’t necessarily seen as hopeless. Buddhism, while metaphysically nihilistic in its view of reality, believes in peace, compassion, and goodness.

Finding meaning 

In the 20th Century, the theory of existentialism—that existence is meaningless—became popular. A key message of theory was that we must create our own meaning in life, rather than assuming a meaning of life that stemmed from tradition or religion. Likewise, when Nietzsche described his “superman”, he was a perfect human who created his own meaning through his will. Looking at nihilism this way, it’s not entirely hopeless and may actually provide a useful way of viewing life.

Modern nihilism

In modern times, nihilism has seeped into popular culture (perhaps unnoticed by many) in books such as A Clockwork Orange and Fight Club. But recently, a new form of nihilism has emerged—”optimistic” or “sunny” nihilism. While these notions seem contradictory, the idea is that if there is no inherent meaning in life, we’re free to find our own, try new things, and stop worrying about the details. For some, it’s a liberating idea that one day, we’ll all be dead, so it doesn’t really matter.

Four lessons from nihilism 

So what, if anything, can we take from nihilism? Can it help us in difficult times—in our world that has been redefined by COVID-19, for example? We can take several lessons straight out of Nietzsche’s book Man Alone with Himself (aptly titled, don’t you think?)…

Lesson 1: “Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies.”

This famous opening line suggests that when we’re utterly convinced we’re right, we can cause a lot of damage. In our #fakenews and #posttruth times, it’s arguable that we should question our own convictions, assumptions, and beliefs—just like the sceptics of Ancient Greece did. Importantly, we should be wary of blindly following the beliefs, opinions, or traditions of others. How often do we read something in a newspaper or on social media and take it as gospel without any further exploration?

Lesson 2: “A man is unwittingly noble if he has grown accustomed to never want anything from men, and always to give to them.

Often, we think of life in terms of what we want from the world—be it money, possessions, status, or popularity. But if we flip this on its head, we may approach life in terms of what we can offer instead. Thinking about what we can give to the world, rather than what we can get out of it, may enable us to develop our own meaning of life, one that benefits more than just ourselves. For business owners and entrepreneurs, this may mean leaning into the idea of “doing great by doing good”.

Lesson 3: “Life as the product of life. However far man may extend himself with his knowledge… ultimately he reaps nothing but his own biography.”

While this view may seem pessimistic, it’s a helpful reminder that one day, we’ll all be a handful of dust in the wind. In the grand scheme of things, the minor details we worry about are often pretty trivial, so we may as well stop sweating the small stuff. Instead, we can focus on what we want to make of our life and what legacy we want to leave, whether that is writing a book or something else that makes a difference.

Lesson 4: “Out in nature. We like to be out in nature so much because it has no opinion about us.”

As humans, we spend a lot of time considering what other people think of us—be it our personality, actions, status, or physical appearance—especially with the rise of social media. By spending time in nature, we are free to simply be, to absorb the smells, sights, and sounds of the world. In challenging and stressful times, absorbing ourselves in nature helps us switch off our minds from the constant chatter, pressure, and expectations, and just experience.

In summary 

While nihilism has often been seen as a bleak and hopeless way of viewing life, it can provide food for thought in our modern world. Whether you can stomach the idea that nothing is real—including truth, morality, and a single meaning of life—or not, you may find solace in the idea that one day, we’ll all be gone, and until then, we may find our own meaning and path in life. 

In the words of Nietzsche, “The hour-hand of life. Life consists of rare, isolated moments of the greatest significance, and of innumerably many intervals, during which at best the silhouettes of those moments hover about us. Love, springtime, every beautiful melody, mountains, the moon, the sea — all these speak completely to the heart but once, if they ever do get a chance to speak completely. For many men do not have those moments at all and are themselves intervals and intermissions in the symphony of real life.” 

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