You are a special, superior individual. Your intelligence overmatches the meek-minded herd: you have discovered the truth of meaninglessness. You are harder and bolder than the lazy weaklings who take refuge in comforting lies: you face up to the pitiless cold glare of the bleak, empty universe.
Or, more likely: you don’t consider yourself a nihilist at all. But sometimes you nihilize anyway. There are domains of meaning you don’t want to look at—so you don’t. Understanding nihilist motivations may clarify reasons you choose that, and its costs and benefits.
Nihilist elitism is half right. It takes uncommon intelligence to recognize that eternalism is categorically wrong: that no belief system can provide a foundation for meaning, and that there are no ultimate, transcendent, or objective meanings. It takes uncommon courage to defy social conventions of meaning, and to accept the outcaste label “nihilist.” It takes uncommon grit to accept the agonizing amputation of meaning.
And, nihilist elitism is half wrong. Meaning is obvious everywhere, and it takes deliberate stupidity to pretend not to see it. If you are smart enough to figure out that eternalism is wrong, you should be smart enough to figure out why nihilism is also wrong. Eternalism is cowardly in clinging to illusory meanings, but nihilism is also cowardly in clinging to illusory meaninglessness. If you are tough enough to let go of the comforting simplistic certainty of religion or scientism, you should be tough enough to let go of the comforting simplistic certainty of nihilism.
Adopting the nihilist stance renders you dazed and confused. Intellectual arguments can’t fully suppress the jarring dissonance between “nothing means anything” and the obvious meanings of everyday life. When you are genuinely nihilistic, not merely materialistic or existentialistic, usually you are hurting, scared, and lost. Your brave front of sophisticated contempt may go about two millimeters deep.
Bolstering your ego with feelings of elitist superiority is a poor substitute for figuring out how to work with meaningness effectively.
Defying eternalism is sexy
Children take the social world as it comes. Your parents’ community’s ideas about meaningness are brute facts of life.1 Sometime in your teens or twenties, you may figure out that it’s largely hypocrisy, posturing, and mindless pious verbiage. Most of it has no basis, and overall it does not make sense.
You learn—from experience, or observing others’ rebellion—that calling out polite lies results in punishment, more or less severe, by your parents and community. Then you can try to make yourself stupid enough not to notice them; or you can silently pretend and obey; or you can rebel.
It takes some intelligence to recognize self-serving nonsense. It takes some courage to oppose a corrupt eternalistic system. It takes some grit to deal with society’s disapproval when you do. That is a mark of maturity and independence.
Rebellion shows that you have emerged from unthinking embeddedness in your family and their social group and their limited understanding of meaningness. You are now a sophisticated man of the world, with a broader, harder, more realistic view. You are strong enough to navigate the demands of harsh environments with concrete constraints, in which pious abstract eternalist fantasies are irrelevant and misleading.
These are stereotypically male traits, ones that stereotypically women find attractive for sex and marriage, and that men seek in team members. If you are a man, or a teenage boy, you might do well to develop them, and advertise them. And if you aren’t there yet, you could fake it.
Rebellion can be genuinely heroic, when it involves significant risks and aims to free others as well as yourself. In a relatively tolerant environment, adopting a cynical posture—going around saying “everything is fake” in a knowing, world-weary way—is a cheap way of simulating heroic qualities. The pose may not impress anyone over the age of fourteen; but, I don’t know, I was doing it well into my twenties, and sometimes it works? Besides, much of culture is fake, and not everyone notices, and pointing it out is often useful. (See, I’m still doing it!)
Once you are past fourteen, sometimes someone is going to call you on it. Why is patriotism/God/love/ethics fake? You can bluff: “Yeah, everyone knows that, unless they are a total dupe.” Often you’ll get away with that; sometimes not. As you grow up, you gradually learn what it’s profitable to be cynical about, and what not. You may even figure out what actually is and isn’t fake, and be able to explain why. That’s hard work, though.
It’s easier to adopt some alternative belief system that has ready-made answers; and nearly all rebellious young people do. You can find them on the internet. You might find “nihilism,” which apparently says that everything is fake. That’s much easier than keeping track of a long list of what is and isn’t and why. Plus you get to wear all black clothes, and everyone looks sexy in black. It’s fun being a rebel without a clue for a couple years, and then you grow up and get on with real life.
Nihilism is not cynical enough
Nihilism is the shadow of eternalism: it would never occur to you that meaning doesn’t exist if authorities didn’t keep making such a big deal about how it definitely does. It is usually those who take eternalism most seriously, who are most devoted to some Holy Truth, who become serious nihilists, when they realize it’s bogus. And the more rigidly eternalistic your community is, the more outrageous its bogosity is. It is only when you pursue Truth to its utmost that you come to see that all eternalisms are false.
So it’s failure to be cynical enough that results in authentic nihilism: genuine commitment, beyond an adolescent pose. It comes from failure to recognize that eternalism is highly unstable. Most people aren’t particularly eternalistic; their commitment to their religion or political ideology is quite superficial. A serious nihilist is over-earnest, and assumes others’ seemingly passionate declarations of belief are also earnest, whereas often they are mere social conformity. However eternalist they may claim to be, most people adopt materialism most of the time. That is the pragmatic stance for getting on with an ordinary life. The nihilist gets upset that eternalist beliefs are false, whereas mostly they are just fake. They’re false too, but that’s irrelevant for most people.
The nihilist mistakenly accepts the eternalist melodrama of cosmic meaning and inverts it,2 instead of recognizing that it’s dumb and hardly anyone else takes it seriously.
This earnestness is admirable, even heroic, although a bit dopey and naive.
Grandiosity is self-loathing
The nihilist takes his seriousness and heroism too seriously, and decides it makes him special. He explains to anyone who will listen how smart and rational and scientific he is, because he has figured out the Truth of meaninglessness.
He also dramatizes and exaggerates the pain and horror of nihilism, to look manly and tough.3 He may work to make it worse in reality as well, diving into depressive agony with relish, to prove to himself (and to his increasingly imaginary audience) how hard and committed he is. He must be superhuman to continue functioning, however shakily, in the face of his knowledge of the horrifying truth, and the consequent loss of all possible motivations to live. It would drive lesser mortals insane with fear and trembling, if they could even understand it.
Simultaneously, he realizes his obsession with meaninglessness is sick, that he’s torturing and progressively crippling himself, that he can’t be all that smart if he was so committed to eternalism and it is so stupid, that he’s missing out on life and turning himself into a repellent monster. And for what?
Nihilist elitism depends on the implicit belief that recognizing the meaninglessness of everything is meaningful. But at some level, the nihilist recognizes that’s self-contradictory. The angry intensity with which he insists that nihilism is The Truth is self-refuting: meaninglessness is meaningless, so there’s no purpose in shouting about it. All value is illusory, which implies his pride must be delusional. Meaninglessness renders him—along with all other human animals—helpless and pathetic, impotent ever to make a mark on the universe.
The teenage rebel without a clue may think “becoming a nihilist” means joining the Cool Kidz Club, but you don’t get much confirmation from other nihilists. It’s not a functional subculture. It’s isolating, because friendship would be meaningful, and we can’t be having that.
So the nihilist is full of lonely self-hatred, which he tries to hide, but can’t help expressing occasionally in unguarded moments. Mostly he projects the hate outward, as contempt for ordinary people, who are too stupid and cowardly to accept the truth. He rages at them for not recognizing his superiority, for continuing to mouth pious socially-required idiocies, and for enforcing their meaningless morality on him.
Dating advice for nihilists
Hip cynicism is attractively edgy, but serious nihilism is well over the edge and down into the abyss. It might seem kind of cool when you are fifteen; it’s immature and uncool if you are twenty five. It’s a miscalibration. It goes way too far to work as a dating strategy. It looks like a dangerous mental health problem, not sexy sophistication. You’re going to need to grow out of it.
You’ve got an unfair advantage. Taking problems of meaning seriously, as nihilists try to, can lead to actually figuring them out—if you let go of the juvenile dramatics and the self-destructive refusal to watch meaning at work. With experience, you can discern accurately what is meaningful and what is not.
Then you can be the right amount cynical, about the right things, and you can make it snarky and entertaining—because the paradoxes of intertwingling nebulosity and pattern are hilarious. And eternalism does deserve condemnation, scorn, and ridicule. But eternalists deserve help with their confusion, not derision, so you can also be the right amount sincere and supportive at the right times.
Nihilism can be a lot of fun, if you don’t take it too seriously. Secretly, you knew this even when you were indulging in nihilistic agony. It was part of your motivation, although you wouldn’t officially admit it to yourself.
The whole thing is amusingly absurd: eternalism is absurd, nihilism is absurd, life is absurd, death is absurd. You can point out the surreal humor of it all, and many people will laugh. The ones who aren’t too scared—and making it funny takes the edge off the terror.
You can play with the magic shadow-dance of meaning and meaninglessness as they turn into each other. You can turn that into artistic creation that is smart and tough and fearless like nihilism at its best, and joyful, confident, and insightful, like eternalism at its best. You can gather and spearhead a creative community of like-minded smart, confident people.
What do women want in a man?4 Yeah, all that.
- 1.If your circumstances as a child are unusually bad—if your parents are abusive or neglectful, or if their own circumstances are chaotic and they cannot protect you—you may not internalize their attitudes toward meaning at all. This can be another path to de facto nihilism.
- 2.Relatedly, we’ll see later that many of the standard justifications nihilists give for nihilism are taken from Christian apologetics, rather than rationality or science as claimed.
- 3.Many of the writers most closely associated with nihilism, such as Nietzsche and Cioran and Mishima, go on at tedious length about how masculine it is, since it proves pain tolerance. Nietzsche idolized strength and power, but he was mostly too sick and weak to function, and had nearly zero influence during his working lifetime.
- 4.I don’t always give dating advice, but when I do, it’s for heterosexual nihilist men. Apparently! The “dating advice” framing is partly a joke: this is a sketch of how to transition from nihilism to the complete stance, which is the same regardless of gender and sexual orientation. Since depressed, angry, anxious, delusional people are unattractive to everyone, and humorous, playful, creative people are attractive to everyone, it probably also can work as a dating strategy for women and for guys into guys. It’s not a secret that generally improving yourself and your own life makes you more attractive. That said, the specifics here are in line with academic research on heterosexual dating dynamics.