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,
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
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.
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!”
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
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,
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
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
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.
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.
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.
Nihilism’s analysis of the defects of eternalism is largely right.
That analysis can be appropriated in the
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’s observation of the stages of emotional reactions to one’s own impending death, in her On Death and Dying. 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