Saturday, January 31, 2009


nihilism [ˈnī-(h)ə-ˌli-zəm, ˈnē-]
n. 1. a viewpoint that traditional values and beliefs are unfounded and that existence is senseless and useless; a doctrine that denies any objective ground of truth and especially of moral truths; total rejection of established laws and institutions; belief in nothing; 2. the denial of all real existence or the possibility of an objective basis for truth.

[Etymology: German Nihilismus, from Latin nihil nothing]

In the sense that a nihilist "believes in nothing," I doubt any thinking human being has ever been or ever will be one. A person might disavow ("refuse to accept; reject as unjust") established laws and institutions, but only because he believes that there is something better. The Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, rejected modern institutions and used assasination and terrorism to affect them. He didn't mail pipe bombs to scientists because he believed in nothing. He wanted to annihilate ("reduce to nothing; destroy utterly") technology, because he believed scientific progress was destroying the planet.

A person who believes all forms of government are oppressive and that human beings would get along better living in a state of nature could be a nihilist, in the sense he rejects established laws and institutions. But if that's his endgame, he's more of an anarchist. From my point of view, anarchists, though they do have a cool symbol, are idiots. Take a look at countries like Somalia, where government completely collapsed. Life became much worse under anarchy. Thomas Hobbes famously wrote in Leviathan, life in a state of nature is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." In Federalist 51, James Madison made clear his belief that human beings, left to their own devices, are not selfless enough to permit anarchy: "If men were angels, no government would be necessary."

Christian fundamentalist often characterize the irreligious as nihilists or believers in nothing. They evangelize ("preach the gospel") that if there were no God and no afterlife, that life on Earth would mean nothing and that there would be no reason to behave morally. Because they believe God is watching over them (and everyone else), and that He will reward those who behave in the manner He has prescribed (according to their scripture), they believe they must accept God and behave morally and that the meaning of life on Earth is wrapped up in the hope for an eternal life in Heaven. From that perspective, all truth and morality flows from acceptance of their God; and thus rejection of their God is belief in nothing and amoral ("having no moral restraints or principles"). Of course, atheists (and followers of non-Christian religions) don't believe in nothing. Atheists (generally) believe in the scientific explanation of life on Earth and see themselves and all creatures as a part of an evolving planet. Like Christians, they may or may not behave morally. While their moral compass won't be based on religious dogma ("a system of tenets and principles, as of a church"), their moral actions follow a similar pattern of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. An atheist doesn't behave morally in order to receive a reward in the afterlife. Rather, he is kind to others because it feels good to him and because he knows over time that other people will tend to be kind to him in return. The meaning of life on Earth to an atheist is sui generis ("unique") to the individual. Because he does not believe in Heaven, he might believe it more important to make the most out of every day he has. His "afterlife" might be seen in the good works he accomplishes and in the people he affects who live on after him and go on to affect even more people.

Outside of philosophical discussions, the word nihilism isn't commonly used. However, its relative, annihilate, is an everyday word, in reference to actual wars or to sports metaphors for wars. For example, this headline about a recent NBA basketball game read, "Magic annihilate Kings with league-record 23 treys." During the recent war between Palestinians and Israelis in the Gaza Strip, the Arab and far left media portrayed Israel's aim as an annihilation of the Palestinians. Counterpunch: "... the Israeli government's heavily trained and armed military continues its march of death and destruction. ... then there will be a siege to weaken the enemy garrison; then the assault that conquers the position and annihilates the enemy ... And the enemy garrison that they want to weaken with the siege that is spread out all over Gaza is the Palestinian population that lives there. And the assault will seek to annihilate that population." By contrast, Melanie Phillips, writing in the British newspaper, The Spectator, claims enemies of Israel casually call for the annihilation of the Jewish State: "I am standing in a queue waiting to buy a train ticket from London to Canterbury. A well-dressed lady standing behind me informs her friend that she ‘can’t wait till Israel disappears off the face of the earth.’ What struck me was not her intense hostility to Israel but the mild-mannered, matter-of-fact tone with which she announced her wish for the annihilation of a nation."

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