The emotional dynamics of nihilism

The Who—Won’t Get Fooled Again

Nihilism begins with the intelligent recognition that you have been conned by eternalism. Nihilism is the defiant determination not to get fooled again. Having been swindled over and over by false promises of meaning, the nihilist stance refuses to acknowledge even the most obvious manifestations of meaningfulness—lest they, too, turn out to be illusory.

Betrayal and loss

Eternalism makes seductive promises: that you are always loved, that the universe is in good order, that right and wrong can be known for certain, that your suffering has meaning, that you have a special role in creation, that there will be cosmic justice after death.

When you have been disappointed often enough, you start to realize these sweet lies are poison. Such grand promises cannot be kept. Discovering that you have been betrayed by eternalism, and have lost out on the promises it made, is a horrendous emotional blow.

On the last page, I compared eternalism with the Nigerian “419” fraud. Many retired people have lost their entire life savings to this spam-based scam. They face the same set of emotional reactions we have to any other catastrophic loss, such as a divorce following infidelity: denial, anger, arguing, depression, anxiety, and acceptance.1

On this page, I’ll explain briefly the dynamics of these reactions to loss of faith in eternalism. Then I’ll devote a full page to each strategy separately.

Denial: wavering eternalism

One’s first reaction to recognizing the nebulosity of meaningness is to deny it. On some level, you realize that not everything has a definite meaning; that eternalism is false. But since that seems too awful to contemplate, you refuse to admit it. You redouble your insistence that everything is peachy keen—and prepare to do violence to anyone and anything that contradicts you.

This is wavering eternalism. You try to maintain the eternalist stance using ploys such as kitsch, arming, and mystification. These are not nihilistic strategies; but they can easily flip into nihilism, when nebulosity becomes so obvious that pretending becomes impossible.

Anger

Nihilism is a simple inversion of eternalism. It denies that there anything is meaningful at all. At times when meaning is particularly evanescent, when you are particularly bitterly disappointed in it, you may commit to nihilism. “I’ll never get fooled again!”

But this commitment is difficult—probably impossible. Meaningfulness is, at other times, obvious. As a result, in practice all nihilism is wavering nihilism.

Whereas wavering eternalism consists of eternalism plus secret doubt, wavering nihilism consists of nihilism plus secret passion. Passion is the recognition of meaningfulness. To maintain wavering nihilism, you must blind yourselves to meaningfulness, which is even more difficult than blinding yourselves to the nebulosity of meaning.

Rage is one way wavering nihilism reacts to evidence of meaningfulness. This is a defiant negativity: “I don’t care! No matter what you say, I will not admit life is meaningful!” Nihilistic rage wants to destroy whatever has meaning, and whoever points to meaning. (This is the mirror-image strategy to armed eternalism.)

I mentioned that the people most prone to nihilism are sociopaths, intellectuals, and depressives. These are the people best able to deploy the corresponding approaches of rage, argument, and depression. Almost everyone adopts all these strategies at times, however.

Arguing with reality

Eternalism uses willful stupidity to not-see nebulosity. Realizing that you have been duped, and seeing through eternalism’s lies, is intelligent. Mostly, only unusually smart people explicitly commit to nihilism.2

Smart people are used to using clever arguments to get what they want. So it is natural to apply intellectual brilliance to the difficult task of maintaining wavering nihilism, to fight its greatest obstacle: the obviousness of meaningfulness. Nihilistic intellectualization is the counterpart to eternalist kitsch: calm insistence on plainly false claims.

Somehow meaningfulness must be explained away by conceptual sleight-of-hand. A theory that proves “nothing is really meaningful”—in which “really” is the gate to a hell writhing with logical demons—can distract you from the obvious.

This theory has to get complicated quickly in order to be sufficiently confusing, or seem so insightful as to dazzle you into submission. Typically, nihilistic intellectualization involves extreme abstraction, voluminous intricacy, sesquipedalian diction, non-standard logic, and often reflexivity (meta-level analysis). These insulate the argument from checking against everyday experience.3

Because nihilistic intellectualization is often colored by its sister-strategies of anger or depression, it is often aggressive, hostile, cynical, or pessimistic; whereas eternalistic justifications are typically cloying, simpering, naïve, and Pollyanna-ish.

Depression

Realizing that eternalism will always fail often results in anguish, pessimism, depression, stoicism, alienation, apathy, exhaustion, and paralysis.

The loss of guaranteed meaningfulness is a real one, and it is natural to feel sad about it. Depression goes beyond spontaneous sadness, however. It is active and deliberate—although it feels passive and externally imposed.

Nihilistic depression suppresses the feelings (positive and negative) that go with recognition of meaning. Depression can be thought of as rage turned inward. It tries to kill your passionate response to reality.

Depression copes with loss by lowering the stakes. It wants to disengage from problems of meaning by refusing to admit that they are important. If nothing is really meaningful, then the loss of meaning does not matter. Of course, you do care about life. But that is unacceptable when you have committed to nihilism. That caring is the main obstacle to accomplishing nihilism, and depression tries to annihilate it.

Acceptance

Acceptance of both meaninglessness and meaningfulness is the way out of nihilism, and into the complete stance.

One has to fully allow the emotional loss that comes with the collapse of eternalism. The pain of loss is real and cannot be destroyed, talked away, or minimized (as the nihilistic coping strategies attempt to do). You have to admit that you do care, that the world is meaningful, so the stakes are high. But you also have to learn to turn away from eternalism’s alluring promise to remove the pain by restoring fixed meanings.

Conceptual understanding of nebulosity is probably required. Until you understand how meaningfulness and meaninglessness coexist, confused stances alternate, jostling for position as meaning and lack of meaning become more and less obvious. The complete stance remains invisible until you learn the sideways move to nebulosity. Nebulosity allows the coexistence of pain and joy, and reveals the benefits of meaninglessness.

Appropriation

Nihilism’s analysis of the defects of eternalism is largely right. That analysis can be appropriated in the complete stance.

Nihilistic rage can be transformed into clear-minded rejection of fixation; nihilistic intellectualization into non-conceptual appreciation of nebulosity; nihilistic depression into enjoyment of meaninglessness with equanimity.

  • 1. This list is close to Elizabeth Kübler-Ross (On Death and Dying) observation of the stages of emotional reactions to one’s own impending death. Not everyone necessarily has all the same reactions; but it’s a useful framework for the discussion here. She did not consider anxiety a stage, but it is a pervasive feature of grieving, and other experts have suggested that it should be included in the list.
  • 2. This is a generalization, of course. It is possible to make brilliant conceptual arguments in favor of eternalism (usually in defense of a system, such as an eternalist religion or political ideology). There are probably also stupid people who commit to nihilism (although I have not come across one).
  • 3. Nihilistic intellectualization is characteristic of postmodernist thought. I will have much more to say about postmodernism later in the book.

Navigation

This page introduces a section containing the following:

This page is in the section Nihilism: the denial of meaning,
      which is in Meaning and meaninglessness,
      which is in Doing meaning better.

The previous page is Spam from God.

This page’s topic is Nihilism.

General explanation: Meaningness is a hypertext book (in progress), plus a “metablog” that comments on it. The book begins with an appetizer. Alternatively, you might like to look at its table of contents, or some other starting points. Classification of pages by topics supplements the book and metablog structures. Terms with dotted underlining (example: meaningness) show a definition if you click on them. Pages marked with ⚒ are still under construction. Copyright ©2010–2017 David Chapman.