Nihilism, Nietzsche, and Our Cultural Crisis

Western culture and civilization are rooted in Christianity.  Remove Christianity and the foundations crumble to dust.

Originally appeared at: American Thinker

Nihilism is now a pervasive feature of Western society.  Friedrich Nietzsche gave us the formulation of nihilism that is now commonly accepted: a sentiment that nothing really matters, and that there is no point in life.  In the most extreme manifestations, life itself is considered worthless.

Passive nihilism consists of simply withdrawing from life-affirming activities (this was Nietzsche’s verdict on Schopenhauer’s pessimistic philosophy).  It is demonstrated in the hopelessness and despair of those seemingly condemned to a life constrained by adverse circumstances or their own lack of imagination or resourcefulness.  Some go further than resignation -- for example, the slow suicide of opioid addicts attests to the life-denying motivations of passive nihilism. 

Active nihilism – Nietzsche’s own contribution to the philosophy of nihilism – consists of seeking the destruction of what is viewed as being worthless. Contested values -- and their expression -- are marked for abolition and destruction. The idea of value itself may be replaced by the goal of getting one’s own way, which does not qualify as a value in itself because it could involve the destruction of the world and everything in it -- the ultimate expression of active nihilism.

The political activism of the radical progressive liberal-Left is actively nihilistic in that they are intent on destroying all that stands in the way of imposing their worldview on others.  They do not seem concerned that their dismantling of Western culture and civilization will result in the collapse of the West.  All that matters is getting what they want: political power.

Nietzsche viewed a culture of nihilism as being a necessary stage in the renewal of Western civilization.  But he knew there had to be a solution to nihilism before this could happen.  His first attempt was in the form of a theory of aesthetics.  Art and artists would provide the means by which a culture of “noble souls” would be fostered by helping us learn about what lies beneath the surface of ourselves, good and bad, so as to inspire us to do something constructive with both.

A noble soul is a person who has courage but seeks no recognition, who strives for excellence, who has a self-sufficiency of being, a sense of dignity, and a serene self-assurance that impresses itself on others. 

But Nietzsche also observed that artists were easily seduced by the attractions of catering to the superficial conceits of the idle and the rich.  For the idle, such artists create popular art with all its temptations to perpetual mediocrity;  for the rich, they create pretentious pseudo-intellectual nonsense that panders to vanity.  Both are exercises in self-deceit.

While never giving up on the idea that great artists and the art they create contributes to a culture of excellence of being, Nietzsche recognized that something more was needed.  Hence his concept of the Übermensch.  The German word is ambiguous between “Overman,” “Superman,” and “Beyond-man”; all fail to capture the subtlety of Nietzsche’s ideas.  A better characterization would be “super-ethical-self,” or “perfect moral being.”  The terminology is clumsy but is far closer to the explanation he gives.

The Übermensch is often presented as an ideal of supreme elitism based on oppressive political power, and its “beyond good and evil” aspect as an exercise in amorality.  But careful reading of the relevant texts supports an alternative interpretation. 

The Übermensch can be understood as a conceptual exercise in methodological individualism -- the idea that values and ideas originate with the individual and then impact on others in society to form a culture.  And the evaluative context -- of personal choice, and even creation, of values -- does not do away with the concept of value, as some have claimed, it just abolishes the idea that value is something that can be imposed by others. 

The ideal of a perfect moral being is something we can each strive to achieve knowing we’ll never attain perfection (Nietzsche thus betrays his Christian roots), whilst the idea of value as something that one must choose for one’s self places moral responsibility solely with the individual.  Nietzsche is a moralist after all, but one who does not impose any values.

Nietzsche unknowingly anticipated the (rejected) defense used by a defendant at the Nuremberg war trials. “I was only following orders” is not an excuse in Nietzsche’s moral universe.  But there is a startling corollary to this, because if we are each, individually, personally responsible for selecting and even creating our own ethical values, then moral virtue does not even attach to following instructions that lead to good conduct.  To possess moral virtue is to act solely from one’s own freely chosen values, not the imposed values of others.  The mere appearance of virtue (conformity) is not enough.  Nietzsche has thus offered a new formulation of moral character

This is highly relevant to our situation today, because instruction about, and the development of, moral character has been slowly removed from the public education system and even from the realm of public discourse.  The demands of moral character -- taking personal responsibility for the conduct of one’s life, living according to one’s own values,  striving for excellence, setting a good example to others, and independence of thought and opinion in defense of one’s own value-system -- all these have almost disappeared from public view as the collectivist ideology of radical progressivism has come to dominate in the West.

An individual lacking in moral character has no defense against either passive or active nihilism.  Such an individual will easily succumb to hopelessness and despair.  And the availability of an outlet for the more destructive motivations is provided by radical progressivism, which demands only ideological conformity and suppresses independence of thought and opinion. 

Nietzsche never considered that a solution to nihilism might lie in the renewal of teaching on moral character, in Christian values and the moral training that goes with them, and in the sense of a moral culture and community that arises from this.  Nietzsche’s views on Christianity acknowledged its role as a bulwark against nihilism, but he believed it had failed due to the rationalistic impact of the Enlightenment, and in any case enslaved its followers with its “slave morality.” 

He also argued that the Christian moral conscience had become an intellectual conscience under the secularizing influence of the Enlightenment, thus bringing about the “death of God.”  Nietzsche was looking for a way forward without Christianity.

But now the Enlightenment too has failed (which Nietzsche also predicted) and been replaced by the pathological irrationality of radical progressivism and its anti-Western post-modernist philosophy.  With no sign of a Nietzschean “perfect moral being,” or anything close to it, the time is ripe for a renewal of Christian moral teachings.

Western culture and civilization are rooted in Christianity.  Remove Christianity and the foundations crumble to dust.  Which is exactly what we are seeing today as nihilism pervades our culture and society.

Teaching moral character as part of a Christian education and moral training benefits all who receive it, even those who, like myself, later lose their faith.  It can also benefit those of other faiths, and those who never had one to begin with, which is perhaps why so many non-Christian families seek to send their children to Christian schools.

The positive lessons remain with one for life.

Image credit: public domain

Wen Wryte is the pseudonym of a retired teacher of philosophy who likes a quiet life.

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