Nihilism is a view of the world that denies that therein exist meaning, purpose, and moral values. At bottom, it is a denial of the reality of God. Human beings must form their own response to this meaninglessness including the possibility of suicide. We must find our own meaning, if we desire to at all, without the assistance of a higher power, that is, God who is dethroned while humanity is enthroned as the arbiter of the world.
Albert Camus had detailed a less stark view than philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre, that Camus calls absurdism, defined as a view that the world is meaningless in light of our desire that there be meaning in life. He calls on us to create meaning out of our own resources rather than from a God who does not exist or is absent or inadequate. By our determined acts, we are to repudiate an unjust God and rebel against the injustice of the world. It is in human hands to make sense of a world without intrinsic meaning or purpose. Humanity takes the place of God in this philosophical system as is also true in pure nihilism. We are the creators, and there are no others. Camus rejects the totalitarian aspects of political nihilism that take us into the dark night of mass murder and death. He rejects the utter meaninglessness it accepts and the despair nihilism engenders.
Camus’ absurdism calls on us not to reject morality and moral choice. We should not believe that we may do anything we want, and we should adopt some form of meaningful purpose, even belief in God if we desire. Camus didn’t accept the existence of God nor did he see God as the foundation for meaning in the world. No certain purpose or morality in the universe can be ascertained by us; but, we must nonetheless create a moral system.
Seventeen Observations (some extended)
Elements of criticism of these interrelated and corroding philosophies include:
- On a logical level proofs of God can be put forward that are more compelling than atheistic counterproofs. Thus, belief in God has a stronger foundation than atheism though no absolute certainty can be proved by either side.
- To accept nihilism is to cast aside completely the trustworthiness of previous human experience of the reality of God. It maintains that the biblical writers, as an example, are persistent liars and that religious experience is always self-delusional or a projection (Feuerbach).
- Nihilism is as much a choice as theism; but, theism has greater cogency as a claim with fewer conundra and more compelling arguments.
- Moral relativism is an insidious invitation to wholesale human destruction and murder.
- Nihilism is a philosophy of death that makes nonsense out of the very existence of the universe and the human inhabitants in it.
- Nihilism is an excuse for mass self-destruction.
- Nihilism represents a profound human psychological disorder. It can lead to the great darkness of depression based on a negative and pessimistic existential assessment of reality.
- Denial of transcendence rejects an intrinsic human need for meaning; and, therefore, is contrary to human thriving.
- Nihilism is counter to human testimony of the divine for which we have evidence throughout history from the cave paintings of the Neolithic period.
- The despair of nihilism comes from modern humanity’s failure to obey the higher moral life as represented in philosophers, prophets, and especially found in the teaching of Jesus. We don’t need another ethic. We need to take seriously the moral content we have inherited, especially from the Christian Church. The ethic has not failed; humankind has failed; for, we are sinners from birth (original sin).
- Nihilism is a philosophy of solitariness. It rejects the communal nature of human beings. It leads to selfishness and narcissism. The nihilist solitary is a hater of humankind and can not love.
- Human beings have shown no evidence of being competent in the task of building an ethical system. In fact, there is no comparison between God’s ability and human inability on this matter. God is not good; He is goodness. In the end God’s creation will be vindicated. While this can not be proven, it is a matter of hope among the believing community, based on Christ’s promise. The Last Judgment and God’s victory in the world are of far greater rationality than the idea that human beings can create a utopia while remaining sinners. Our history is a century by century proof of our profound inadequacy. The Twentieth Century was one of the worst centuries of all (two world wars and millions killed including those in the death camps).
- Nihilism is motivation to do nothing and to do nothing for one’s fellow human beings. Nothing produces nothing. Nothing produces nothing constructive or helpful for oneself or others.
- The ‘full of sound and fury’ of Macbeth has more to do with his evil choices than with the nature of the universe. The thane of Glamis and of Cawdor contributed everything to his difficult predicament and depressed state of mind (except perhaps for the collaboration of his wife), not the universe. Justice is done in Shakespeare’s great play when the regicide himself is killed. Macbeth had the freedom to choose, and the situation was resolved justly. It is true that not all situations end thus, but many do in a world of fallen sentient creatures, that is, you and me and everyone else. That justice triumphs as much as it does is a miracle. God Himself in His Son Jesus Christ was a victim of our injustice; but, God will make all things right. Final justice is teleological, that is, all will be resolved in the end time. We must not blame external things but accept our responsibility for the way the world is.
- Along with the best of pagan philosophy, Christianity provides resources for reflection on the nature of justice. Where does Camus find the proper criteria and foundation of justice? He seems to espouse moral relativism since everyone may choose his own ethical system.
- Only God can assure true justice. The elect who cry to God for justice, will receive it speedily as Jesus in Luke 18 tells us. Only in the end are things sorted out, not by humanity in historical time, but by God in the end time. Without a final reckoning brought to us by God Himself, there exists not the slightest possibility of justice.
- Nihilism engages more in asseveration than proof of its viewpoint. Proofs must back up assertions. Nihilism and absurdism contain too many assumptions without proof. Only first principles, the starting points of any argument, require no proof.
Next time we return to the teaching material in Matthew.
Michael G. Tavella
The Conversion of Saint Paul
January 25, 2024