The nihilist apocalypse

Demonic combat
Warhammer 40,000 image courtesy Stefan02

In the grim darkness of the near future there is no meaning. Nothing is true; everything is permitted.1

What I relate is the history of the next two centuries. I describe what is coming, what can no longer come differently: the advent of nihilism. This history can be related even now; for necessity itself is at work here. This future speaks even now in a hundred signs, this destiny announces itself everywhere; for this music of the future all ears are cocked even now. For some time now, our whole European culture has been moving as toward a catastrophe, with a tortured tension that is growing from decade to decade: restlessly, violently, headlong, like a river that wants to reach the end, that no longer reflects, that is afraid to reflect.
—Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, 1888-ish2

Was Nietzsche right?

According to some authors, we have already had the apocalypse—we called it “the twentieth century”—and its time has passed. Others say it is now under way and will soon get worse; or that it is an imminent danger, but we are not quite there yet. Some think nihilism was never a big deal, and Nietzsche was making a fuss about nothing.

It’s hard to say, because it’s not exactly clear what a nihilist apocalypse would look like.3 The first section of this web page summarizes some common conceptions. Ideas about the details have changed; so the rest of the page is historical. (I discuss the history in much greater detail in How Meaning Fell Apart.) I suggest that although nihilism is, in fact, a civilization-ending threat, the danger can be averted.

Apocalyptic visions

In a world of total license, the masses follow their baser instincts to engage in the worst sorts of depravity. The pernicious denial of absolute truth and absolute moral rules spreads from the decadent elites to the coarse lower classes, who lose all respect for authority, indulge their natural promiscuity, breed like rabbits, play vile noise music, worship blood-drinking demons, casually commit rape and murder, tear down all institutions, destroy Western civilization, and let loose a wave of anarchy and violence that precipitates a thousand-year Dark Age.

Eternalist systems—religions, political ideologies, rationalisms—use the apocalyptic vision to justify themselves by demonizing alternatives. Armed eternalism sees amoral anarchic irrationality as the only alternative to total obedience.

Dogmatic religion portrays atheism, immorality, and sexual license as the only alternative. In the words of the eloquent pseudonymous blogger “Gratiaetnatura”:

Imagine a world with no objective values. In this world, people who get away with horrific crimes such as child abuse, rape, and murder never find justice. It is a world in which there is no meaning over and above individual or societal whims. In this world, people seek their own pleasure without boundaries. If sex between men and men, between women and women, or between people and animals satisfies someone, there is no law in this world that could condemn it other than someone’s individual moral whims. And if something inconvenient gets in the way of one’s pleasure, such as a pregnancy, in this world a woman can find a “doctor” to murder her baby under the full protection of the law.

I can’t get myself as worked up about excessive sexual pleasure as some religious conservatives, but I do frown on murder, and am quite fond of the benefits of civilization.

Political ideologies denounce alternative systems as certain to lead to oppression, civil war, social collapse, and millions of deaths—because they deny sacred political values. This apocalyptic vision is realistic; it has manifested repeatedly. On the other hand, all political ideologies are also eternalistic: unwilling to compromise on their particular sacred values, and therefore capable of murdering millions of innocent people to defend them.

Full political nihilism denies the meaningfulness of all social institutions,4 and results in personal political apathy. This is common; but can an entire society lose its focus on political questions?

Tidal waves of irrationality periodically sweep across nations, or even the globe. The results are predictably bad; sometimes they produce mass starvation. For rationalism, the apocalyptic vision is a universal rejection of reason and evidence, of science and technology, of principles and functions, of systems and methods. The grim dark future replaces these with pseudoscience, tribalism, conspiracy theories, and New Age and Christian Evangelical cults. Inflamed irrationalists condemn the intricate technical, economic, and social systems that enable billions to live in reasonable safety. Having smashed unnatural water treatment methods, environmentally unacceptable food transport systems, and oppressive police departments, most of us would die of cholera, famine, or insane sectarian violence. Is that realistic?

The apocalyptic twentieth century

Prophets usually proclaim the apocalypse as a theoretical but looming and imminent disaster, now partially under way. But maybe it already happened. Maybe it was the fault of rationalism. And Christianity. Eternalism begets nihilism…

For a thousand years, rationalism and Christianity walked as brothers, hand-in-hand, due to the miraculous synthesis performed by saints such as Augustine and Aquinas. Rationality proved that everything the Church said was correct, and God was the Supreme Rationalist, so all His Creation was perfectly rational, as he decreed.

Then everything went to hell, which we call the Age of Enlightenment. The brothers grew apart and they quarreled, even unto vengefulness. Their spiteful words discredited them both: for both critiques were truth, at least in part.

The quarrel exposed and heightened the internal nihilisms of both major eternalist systems. Christianity tends to deny the meaningfulness of the actual world in favor of the transcendent Hereafter. Under attack from empirical science, it abandoned reality for a spiritual fantasy world. Rationalism tends to deny the meaningfulness of anything it can’t immediately find an explanation for. Under attack from religion, it abandoned the domain of meaning to philosophical cranks.

This is the pattern of Fortress Eternalism: defending some territory as absolutely meaningful, while regarding the surrounding wilderness with de facto nihilism. Having divided phenomena between them, and with each ideology having severely wounded the other, all existence became potentially meaningless.

Attempts to reconcile religion and rationality, incorporating aspects of each, proliferated ideologies in the aftermath. Unfortunately, all these were muddled middles: unworkable combinations of detached bits, without addressing the underlying metaphysical error. That error is the denial of the nebulosity, and its misapprehension as non-existence of meaning, which gives rise to both eternalism and nihilism.

Nihilistic rage combined with nihilistic amorality is dangerous. Pervasive resentment of reality plus the belief that, in the absence of an eternal moral code, any action is justified, becomes sociopathic. But when armed eternalism sees any deviation as a threat that must be destroyed, it also becomes sociopathic.

Political ideologies are prime suspects as perpetrators of apocalypse. The more fervently eternalistic they get, the more dangerously nihilistic they become. Vast crimes have been justified in the name of eternalism by fear of the nihilistic apocalypse.

Eternalism sets up abstract nouns as bloodthirsty idols. The French Revolution was a premonition of apocalypse that haunted Europe for the next century. Initiated in the name of Rationality, Democracy, Liberty, Equality, and Solidarity, almost immediately it evolved into the Reign of Terror. The Terror sacrificed tens of thousands of innocent lives to sacred abstractions: real humans executed by the state as obstacles to an imaginary utopia.

Terror is nothing more than speedy, severe and inflexible justice; it is thus an emanation of virtue; it is less a principle in itself, than a consequence of the general principle of democracy, applied to the most pressing needs of the nation.
—Maximilien Robespierre, architect of the Terror, 1794

Pile of skulls
Skulls of some of the estimated 1.5 million Cambodians tortured and murdered by the communist regime, 1975–79. Photograph courtesy Sigmankatie

The two great disasters of the twentieth century, communism and fascism, executed tens of millions each: with wars, murder factories, and deliberately engineered famines.

Was that enough to count as an apocalypse? Many historians and political theorists blamed World War II, the Holocaust, the Holodomor, the Cambodian killing fields, and the rest, on nihilism. How much more apocalypse do you want?

Communism and fascism both interwove eternalism and nihilism.5 Communism is eternalist in justifying everything in terms of salvation in the earthly paradise that will result when the revolution is complete, and in asserting the historical inevitability of that revolution; and nihilist in denying any meaning or ethics outside “class struggle,” with everything reduced to expediency in promulgating the revolution. Nazism sacralized blood and soil, the invincible German Spirit, but otherwise was an incoherent farrago of denials and hatreds: against everything except itself. Both tended in practice to reduce to omnidirectional nihilist rage: cruelty and destruction for their own sake, not even for selfish or tribal gain.

In the end, sociopathic eternalism and sociopathic nihilism are difficult to distinguish. There is not so much difference between “God told us to kill you all” and “God can’t tell us not to—because we already killed Him.”

Somehow, toward the end of the century, it seemed that we had collectively snapped out of it. Worst-case scenarios, such as a nuclear WWIII, didn’t happen, and the Soviet Union and assorted lesser evil empires disintegrated.

So the threat of nihilism receded, we came to the end of history, and everyone heaved a great sigh of relief.6

Then we got nihilistic postmodernity instead. Oops.

Apocalypse now

Today, a new post-Christian barbarism reigns…. Hostile secular nihilism has won the day in our nation’s government, and the culture has turned powerfully against traditional Christians. We tell ourselves that these developments have been imposed by a liberal elite, because we find the truth intolerable: The American people, either actively or passively, approve.
The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, Rod Dreher, 2017

Religious conservatives tell us that the nihilistic apocalypse has occurred, or is occurring. However, if the worst consequence of nihilism is gay marriage (as some suggest),7 this century has gotten off practically scot-free in comparison to the last.

“Postmodernity” means that it is now difficult to take any ideology—Christianity, communism, scientism—seriously.8 Eternalism is less a threat, because its systems have shattered into incoherent jagged shards of meaning.

In 2016, in How Meaning Fell Apart, I described cultural and social conditions of the past twenty years as the “atomized mode”:

Religions decohere into vague “spirituality,” and political isms give way to bizarre, transient, reality-impaired online movements. Atomized politics abandons the outdated convention that political arguments should make sense.

Legacy systematic institutions find themselves increasingly unable to adapt to an environment of pervasive incoherence. States are starting to fail, as parts of the world become ungovernable. Others are abandoning democracy for authoritarianism, in desperate attempts to hold social structures together.

With systematic eternalism collapsing, the character of nihilism has also changed radically. The danger of overlooking meanings may be eclipsed by the danger of being overwhelmed with too many meanings, lacking structures to fit them together:

There is no standard of value, so everything seems equally trivial—or equally earth-shaking, or equally threatening. Our lives are so full of so many crises and outrages that it may all fail to add up to much.

The loss of coherence gives a misimpression of meaninglessness. In the atomized mode, though, there’s overwhelming quantities of meaning. Projects, creativity, and fundamental values suffer when they are challenged by cacophonous internet alerts a million times a day.

Civilization still needs large systematic institutions—states, corporations, markets, universities—to survive. The atomized mode corrodes the social systems we depend on. Some are nearing collapse. I do not know whether people who grew up in that mode, and disdain systematicity, can keep the machinery of civilization running.

Martin Gurri’s excellent 2014 The Revolt of The Public describes current American popular nihilism similarly.

A radical ingratitude makes the nihilist tick. His political and economic expectations are commensurate with his personal fantasies and desires, and the latter are boundless. He expects perfection. He insists on utopia.

Every social imperfection and government failure triggers the urge to demolish. Fortified by the conviction that he deserves more, he feels unconquerably righteous.

The riddle he poses is whether, in any sense, under any combination of events, he could gain enough momentum to damage or wreck the democratic process.9

As of 2021, “damage” at least seems certain.

However, I (and Gurri) worry less about sudden coups transforming democracies into 1930s totalitarian dystopias of active destruction, than about social media gradually transforming them into failed states of passive incompetence, neglect, and decay.

The internet-enabled public is extremely sure what it is against: everything. It has no clue what to be for: no coherent conception of a better future. It will not take “yes” for an answer.

The individual course of nihilism often progresses from rage to depression. Society and culture may be following the same trajectory. The destructive rage of nihilism and the paralyzing depression of nihilism are both potentially catastrophic.

After apocalypse

That an apocalypse has not yet destroyed civilization gives our culture some implicit confidence that nihilism will not bring the End Times, even though God is good and dead.

We are at a point in history in which eternalism and nihilism have both been thoroughly discredited. There is broad (if shallow) recognition that nebulosity is not necessarily a problem.

So perhaps we are ready for the complete stance.

  1. 1.“In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war” is the tag line of the game Warhammer 40,000. The picture at the top of this page illustrates the Warhammer mythos. “Nothing is true; everything is permitted” were the last words of Hassan-i-Sabah, the founder of the Hashshashin (Assassins), according to the historical novel Alamut. William S. Boroughs and Robert Anton Wilson popularized the maxim. More recently, it is the tagline for the video game series Assassin’s Creed, based on Alamut.
  2. 2.Bold emphasis added; italics in original. The Will to Power was produced after Nietzsche’s death by others, drawing mainly on his notes from around 1888. Historians have found that it somewhat distorts his intentions.
  3. 3.I invented the term because, although the nihilist apocalypse has haunted the imagination since Nietzsche’s prophesy, there is no standard name for it.
  4. 4.Here I’m using “political nihilism” as a specialization of “existential nihilism,” i.e. the stance that nothing means anything. Historically, “political nihilism” usually refers to a particular, remarkably incoherent Russian revolutionary movement of the late 1800s.
  5. 5.Albert Camus’ 1951 The Rebel explains the intertwining of nihilism and eternalism in political ideology brilliantly. It is a main inspiration for this web page, and contributed significantly to my general understanding of eternalism, nihilism, and the complete stance.
  6. 6.This might be a dangerous complacency. It may only be continuing good luck that nihilism has not yet been used as an excuse for all-out nuclear heck.
  7. 7.Immediately after the quote above, right as the substance of the book begins, Dreher continues: “The advance of gay civil rights, along with a reversal of religious liberties for believers who do not accept the LGBT agenda, had been slowly but steadily happening for years. The U.S. Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision declaring a constitutional right to same-sex marriage was the Waterloo of religious conservatism. It was the moment that the Sexual Revolution triumphed decisively, and the culture war, as we have known it since the 1960s, came to an end. In the wake of Obergefell, Christian beliefs about the sexual complementarity of marriage are considered to be abominable prejudice—and in a growing number of cases, punishable. The public square has been lost.”
  8. 8.The standard defintion of postmodernity, from Jean-Francois Lyotard’s 1979 The Postmodern Condition, is “the condition of incredulity toward grand metanarratives,” meaning the major eternalist systems.
  9. 9.Quotes from both The Revolt of the Public and my “The kaleidoscope of meaning” edited for concision.