Why Meaning Always Trumps Nihilism
We can trace the etymological origins of “nihilism” to the Latin nihil which quite literally means “nothing at all.” Nihilism, at least as seen more contemporarily, is the existential lack of meaning in a meaningless universe. But where did this philosophy come from and how can it be dangerous to life?
Origin of nihilism in philosophical thought
Nihilism actually gained recognition when first used in a political sense by Ivan Turgenev, a Russian novelist and poet. He claimed that a true nihilist “does not bow down before any authority” and “does not take any principle on faith.” And thus the anarchic interpretation of the term was popularized.
Soon after, however, scholars began studying nihilism on an existential basis. This was natural given the transition into scientific thought as the new universalized dogma. As Nobel-winning physicist Steven Weinberg states, “the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless.”
So the contemporary meaning of nihilism encompasses a universe devoid of meaning.
While this sounds entirely pessimistic, some traditions actually use this idea to lessen suffering. For example, of the Buddhist tradition, Chogyam Trungpa, a renowned Buddhist scholar and meditation master, points out: “we seek to prove our own existence by finding a reference point outside ourselves, something solid to feel separate from. But the whole enterprise is questionable if we really look back and back and back. Perhaps we have perpetrated a gigantic hoax?”
Trungpa mentions a very understandable argument. He’s presenting the idea that it is the very search for meaning that is causing our suffering. Trungpa even explains how “people complain that Buddhism is an extremely gloomy religion because it emphasizes suffering and misery.” After all, the First Noble Truth of Buddhism is dukkha, that is, suffering. The First Noble Truth encompasses recognizing and working with a universe that is comprised of suffering.
So Buddhism uses nihilism to lessen suffering. But by turning to a meaningless philosophy, it ironically collides directly with meaning. What does this tell us about the nature of nihilism?
The paradox of nihilism
Nihilism cannot exist in our psyche. Even when subscribing to the idea of meaninglessness, we’re actually reaching our arms out for, in fact, meaning.
With that being said, existential nihilism is a dangerous ideology to even attempt to subscribe to. By doing so, we accept the happenings on Earth as irrelevant and unimportant. Imagine a nihilistic world that attempts to combat poverty, climate change, and other humanitarian crises. Nothing would get done. Nothing would get done simply because no one would care to begin.
In many mythologies and sacred teachings, Earth is actually the center. Earth and human existence, like in the Judeo-Christian tradition, for example, is the most meaningful aspect of existence. Many consider this point of view short-sighted for very fair reasons. Yet, it’s an effective point of view when adding value to human life and all of our affairs therein.
Michael Meade, a renowned mythologer and philosopher, enjoys touching on the dangers of nihilism. He accurately attributes nihilism to pessimism while pointing out how it “leads to the negation of life.”
Meaning as the passage to the promised land
Indeed, now is not a time to negate life on Planet Earth. Perhaps we had time to contemplate and fantasize over a meaningless life before the industrial revolution, a life in which we could make bad decisions without considering the consequences. But in these destructive modern times, we’re in dire need of faith and meaning to carry us through the chaos. Michael Meade continues:
“What’s secretly in the water of modern culture is that people enter the world empty. That’s a very dangerous idea because if everybody’s empty than other people can get us to do whatever they want because there’s nothing in us to stand against it. But if we came to do something that’s meaningful, that involves giving and making the world a more beautiful, healthy, lively place, then you become a difficult person to move around and manipulate.”
Meade argues that we are born with meaning. It permeates our being and it is through this meaning that we can rise to the occasion of our lives. We are all born with a medicine. Yes, we all have a meaningful, healing gift and contribution to the world. Unfortunately, many people on the planet aren’t finding their medicines. Perhaps it’s due to a lack of guidance. Perhaps it's due to the fallacy of falling for nihilism during a time when meaning and soul-work is most needed.
Liquid modernity: the anxiety of choosing who and what to be
Also, we live in a world of “liquid modernity,” a world in which we are faced with far too many decisions to make. The term was coined by Polish-born sociologist Zygmunt Bauman. In his work, Bauman emphasizes the idea that we no longer have to settle for a path that we were born into. Contemporarily, (in many cases) we may choose and change our paths whenever we’d like. This would sound amazing to anyone alive in pre-modern times. Yet, studies reveal that so much choice actually causes mental illness .
Perhaps we should follow the path of silence in which we quiet out external stimuli and really turn within. Maybe then we can ground ourselves in our personal meaning “that involves giving and making the world a more beautiful, healthy, lively place,” as Meade suggests. Perhaps we should follow the advice of Trungpa in his teachings on Buddhism: “If we wish to pick flowers from a tree, we must first cultivate the roots and trunk...”