Nihilism and Literature Essay - Critical Essays

Nihilism and Literature


Nihilism and Literature

Derived from the Latin word nihil, which means “nothing”; it appears in the verb “annihilate,” meaning to bring to nothing, to destroy completely. Early in the nineteenth century, Friedrich Jacobi used the word to negatively characterize transcendental idealism. The doctrine of nihilism asserts that all values are baseless, there are no moral distinctions, and existence is meaningless. Moreover, nihilists reject religious teachings in favor of scientific rationalism and utilitarianism. Critics of this philosophy maintain that nihilism constitutes a serious social menace, as it intends to negate all moral principles and reject religious values.

Nihilism has its roots in the Middle Ages, when religious heretics were charged with heresy and deemed nihilists. In nineteenth-century Russia during the reign of Alexander II, a political movement known as Nihilism advocated the assassination of Russian leaders, widespread terrorism, and political and social revolution. The philosophy of this movement influenced Russian literature as well. In 1862 Ivan Turgenev published the seminal novel Fathers and Sons, which popularized the term and defining characteristics of the philosophy through the character of Bazarov, the protagonist of the story. With the onset of the Russian Revolution in 1917, nihilism as a philosophy and literary genre lost ground in the newly-Communist Soviet Union.

European philosophers were influenced by the concept of nihilism. The popularity of the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, who asserted that God is dead, impacted European literature in the early twentieth century. As a result of the Industrial Revolution, many intellectuals and authors contended that modern technological society further eroded the need for political institutions and religious values. Important authors such as Franz Kafka, Eugene Ionesco, Albert Camus, and Samuel Beckett explored the modern human condition and searched for new value and meaning in the world. In the United States, John Barth is considered one of the most important figures in modern literary nihilism, as evidenced in novels such as The Floating Opera (1956).

Representative Works

John Barth
The Floating Opera (novel) 1956
The End of the Road (novel) 1969

Samuel Beckett
Murphy (novel) 1938
En attendant Godot [Waiting for Godot] (drama) 1953

Albert Camus
Le mythe de Sisyphe [The Myth of Sisyphus] (essays) 1942
L'Etranger [The Stranger] (novel) 1942
Caligula [Caligula] (drama) 1944
La peste [The Plague] (novel) 1946
L'Homme revolte [The Rebel] (essay) 1951

N. G. Chernyshevsky
Shto Delat? [What is to be Done?] (novel) 1863

Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Zapiski iz podpolya [Notes from the Underground] (novella) 1864
Besy [The Possessed] (novel) 1871
Bratya Karamazovy [Brothers Karamazov] (novel) 1879-80

Martin Heidegger
Sein und Zeit [Being and Time] (essays) 1927
Einführung in die Metaphysik [An Introduction to Metaphysics] (essays) 1953

Franz Kafka
Der Prozess [The Trial] (novel) 1925
Das Schloss [The Castle] (novel) 1926

Friedrich Nietzsche
Also spake Zarathusa [Thus Spoke Zarathusa] (novel) 1883-85
Jenseits von gut und boese [Beyond Good and Evil] (essays) 1886
Zur genealogie der moral [The Genealogy of Morals] (essays) 1884

S. M. Stepniak-Kravchinsky
The Career of a Nihilist (novel) 1889

Ivan Turgenev
Otsy I deti [Fathers and Children] (novel) 1862

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

SOURCE: “The Case Against Nihilism: Lessons and Refutations,” in The Specter of the Absurd: Sources and Criticisms of Modern Nihilism, State University of New York Press, 1988, pp. 352-79.

[In the following essay, Crosby outlines the major lessons of nihilism and refutes aspects of nihilist philosophy.]

Man is that paradoxical being, unique so far as we know, who strives for a perfection which, if attained, would altogether deprive him of his nature.

Stanley Rosen (1969:214)


A man and his wife were returning to their home in separate cars. The husband arrived first and waited for his spouse, who had been some distance behind him. When he had waited much longer than he thought it would have taken for her to arrive, he got back in his car and anxiously retraced his path. He had not gone very far when he saw the scene of an accident before him, with the flashing lights of a police car, the glint of scattered glass in his headlights, and two smashed automobiles skewed across the road. He learned from police that his wife's car had been broadsided by another car running a red light and that the driver of that car was believed to have been drinking. His wife died soon after in the hospital. When reporters later sought the man's reaction to the accident, he could only respond: “What can you say? It's part of life and death. I don't have any great things to expound on. It hurts so bad” (Robinson and Kirksey 1987).

This experience, routinely reported in an urban newspaper, as are so many other events of its kind, can help set the mood for our meditations on suffering and death as they relate to the philosophy of nihilism. Not only does the experience show a close connection between suffering and death: some of our most grievous suffering is produced by the death or pending death of someone we love; it also strikes the right note of humility. For I also am afraid that I have nothing especially profound to say about these two solemn themes. But I do want to make some observations, the intent of which is to show that the facts of suffering and death, pervasive and deeply troubling though they be, need not finally bring us to a nihilistic conclusion.

The first observation is that a sizable amount of the suffering in the world can be traced to the free actions of human beings, and therefore need not be attributed to an indifferent or malignant cosmos, nor be seen as inevitable. With freedom comes responsibility, a responsibility that can either be shouldered or ignored, for good or ill. It is not logically possible for us to have freedom of choice and yet be immune to destructive misuses of our freedom. The carelessness, indifference, or vindictiveness of some can bring about the pain of others, as in the event cited above. An individual could have sought help for his alcoholism but did not; he could have taken prior steps to ensure that he did not drive while intoxicated, but did not. The result was tragedy. Others allow their fellow humans to suffer through indifference or neglect, a callous “passing by on the other side.” Still others, letting themselves be driven by such motives as prejudice, resentment, greed, a passion for excitement, or a lust for power have trampled individuals or groups into the dust, willfully inflicting agony and death in order to gain their ends.

These and other abuses of freedom, although matters of utmost concern, need not reduce us to despair. For with the freedom to do evil there is also the freedom to do good. Although we cannot undo the tragedies of the past, we can work to find ways to motivate and assist one another toward more generous and caring relationships in the future. We can try to fashion and maintain institutions that procure greater protection and justice for the innocent against the guilty and that offer firm but constructive treatment for those who succumb—and not always simply through personal malice—to evil desires.

This is not to say that we can expect to eliminate altogether the perverse and destructive proclivities of the human spirit; these are a feature of our experience for which no one can convincingly claim to have adequate understanding or solutions. But we can strive to ameliorate these evil impulses in ourselves and others and to find ways to put more positive incentives in their place—through education, law, moral and religious influence, the transformative power of the arts, persistent psychological and social research, and institutional reforms. We are also free to work toward a more humane treatment of animals, toward creating a climate of concern in which we become more respectful of their needs and more sensitive to their capacity for pain. It is within our power as free beings, then, to reduce the amount of suffering in the world: this is a vision of hope, not of nihilistic despair. The obstacles are formidable and many, but the opportunities are genuine and far-ranging.

The second observation is that a considerable portion of human suffering is produced by the stable, predictable natural environment without which we could not implement our freedom. These orderly processes of the environment enable us to produce the automobiles that extend our freedom of movement, but that also constitute new sources of pain or death, as in the example above. The same can be said of many of the other technological inventions that enhance our freedom in today's world. But even without elaborate technologies, people can be hurt by the regularities of nature, as when someone tumbles from a cliff or is drowned in the sea. Where would we be without the pull of gravity or the properties of water, both of which usually sustain us but may on some occasions injure us or kill us? Could there be dependable regularities that work on our behalf and provide the necessary means for the expression of our freedom that would not also, in some circumstances, bring us to grief?

A nihilism that decries this ambiguity in an ordered universe appears to be demanding something that, in the very nature of the case, is impossible, at least if human freedom is to remain a reality. If there are alternatives to such ambiguity, they are by no means easy to conceive; furthermore, one would still have to show that they would be better overall. Here we are reminded of the critical discussions in Chapter Six of the seductive dream of a heavenly paradise. Despite the many elements of contingency and hazard in this world to which we all are consigned, the world also provides us with the protection and dependability necessary to life and freedom. Does it make any sense to demand the benefits and yet to expect to have none of the potential liabilities?

Third, our capacity for suffering is the necessary concomitant of our capacity for commitment, caring, and loving. Were we creatures of indifferent or dull sensibilities, our susceptibility to pain would be drastically reduced. But to be committed and to care and thus to feel deeply, is to be involved in relationships or ventures that do not always turn out in ways we hope for or expect. Such involvements can profoundly enrich our lives, but they also contain the seeds of disappointment and loss. To have persons and purposes for which to live and willingly to dedicate ourselves to them with intensity of concern, is also to run the risk of losing them or failing to attain them, or of getting hurt in the process of serving them. But only in this way can we hope to have things worth living for.1

Sometimes, in order to serve those commitments and values that make life worthwhile, we must sacrifice our own personal happiness or even endanger our lives. The “readiness to make such sacrifice,” Mill asserts, “is the highest virtue which can be found in man.” He adds that “in this condition of the world, the conscious ability to do without happiness gives the best prospect of realizing such [general] happiness as is attainable” (1957:21). Some of the most exemplary and meaningful lives on record fit this description. One thinks, for example, of the life of Mohandas K. Gandhi. Millions of people have been profoundly affected for the good, and much evil has been averted by this one man's sufferings, willingly undergone for the sake of others. Gandhi was finally assassinated, and his loved ones, friends, and followers were grief stricken by the senselessness of his death. But can one seriously claim that his life was not worthwhile, or that his sufferings or theirs canceled the incalculable good that he was able to accomplish? This good effect continues to the present day, in the inspiring example of loving involvement and concern Gandhi has set for us all, and in the great nation he helped to found.

Fourth, it would be a mistake to regard suffering as something entirely negative or merely instrumental, something itself devoid of value that must be risked or undergone as the price of commitment and caring, or of continuing to live. Suffering can often contribute positively to the quality of existence by teaching courage, compassion, sensitivity to the deeper issues of life, and the ability to cope with life's contingencies. This may result when the path of suffering is consciously chosen, as was the case for Gandhi, whose ordeals helped to mold him into the person of extraordinary vision, endurance, and spirituality he became. But it can also result when suffering descends on one unexpectedly, through no personal act of will. This was true of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, afflicted with poliomyelitis in his mid-life.

Many who knew Roosevelt were convinced that his struggles with this disease, which left him unable to walk without aid for the rest of his years, gave him humility, patience, a reflective capacity, and profound sympathy for the problems of humankind: traits of character for which he had not been noted before. These struggles helped to equip him for the burden of leadership he bore so long and well while president of the United States, during the trying years of the Great Depression and on into the time of World War II. Hence, not only did Roosevelt gain immeasurably from his own suffering; countless others gained as well (see Morgan 1985:258-262).

The examples of Gandhi and Roosevelt demonstrate that we should not approach the problem of suffering merely from the standpoint of the individual, though even there suffering can have creative power. We need also to see it from the standpoint of humanity as a whole, because the individual's sufferings may prove redemptive for the group and turn out to have positive significance for that reason. To confine our analysis of suffering to the scale of the individual is to continue the fallacy of thinking of particular persons as isolated, self-contained units, a fallacy I have criticized in other contexts.

We should also note that groups can benefit from their own sufferings and struggles, not merely from the sacrifices of their leaders. Ted Morgan cites the example of the American people during the Great Depression, arguing that just as out of Roosevelt's “pain came personal renewal, greater understanding, and surprising reserves of strength,” so “[o]ut of the nation's pain” came “renewal, and the making of a more compassionate society” (1985:261). But we should not fail to note as well that while such corporate suffering can be a catalyst for renewal, this outcome is not automatic. It depends partly on how human beings, in their freedom, respond to their travails and opportunities. Germany in the late 1920s and early 1930s also experienced large-scale economic deprivation, but the historical outcome was tyranny and degradation, not renewal.2

It is possible for us to live meaningful lives, then, but not without the risk of suffering (and sometimes only through facing up to the near certainty of suffering, depending on what we dedicate ourselves to; Gandhi's life is a case in point). No guarantee is given that everyone's life will be equally meaningful, or that a life that is currently meaningful will always continue to be so to the same degree. And it is unfortunately true that the experience of suffering can sometimes be so shattering or all-consuming as to destroy a person's will to live, or to seem to cancel any possibility of a meaningful life for that person. Such sufferings must also be admitted, at least in some cases, to have had mostly negative impacts on a person's family, friends, or larger social group. In addition, whole groups can be exposed to sufferings so acute and senseless as severely to threaten the life-affirmations of many members of that group, as with certain American Indian tribes in the late nineteenth century or the Jews of the Holocaust.

These kinds of suffering, then, seem incurably tragic or without redeeming value. To acknowledge this fact is realistic, but it is not nihilistic, because the latter denies even the possibility of a meaningful life, dismissing any claim to such a life as based on delusion. The presence and prospect of suffering, and the fact that no guarantees of exemption from its most devastating effects are given, does not entail that meaningful lives cannot be achieved. Human life, like all kinds of life, is undoubtedly precarious. But this does not mean that it is hopeless or without point.

This last statement brings me to my fifth observation. Schopenhauer, Cioran, and others, who claim that but two states of human life exist, either deadening boredom or excruciating pain, are plainly wrong. This is a false disjunction. Most lives are lived on a middle ground somewhere between these extremes, showing experientially that life can be so lived. Cioran and Schopenhauer are guilty of gross exaggeration; they have fallen into what Charles Frankel calls “an operatic posture” or a case of “cosmic hypochondria” (1965:10–11). While true of some lives, and perhaps of their own, their analysis falls patently short of accurately describing all human life. Thus, their examination of existence, one that purports to be starkly realistic and to have peeled away the veneer from our usual, less probing perceptions, is actually histrionic and overblown. A similar point can be made about Kafka's view (at least as interpreted by Ross) that because we find ourselves unable to live up entirely to our highest obligations and goals, we must forever be wracked by an anguish of self-loathing and guilt. Satisfaction can be gained from the relative attainment of high ideals, and our need continually to strive toward closer approximations to them can safeguard us against stultifying complacency and give sustained purpose to our lives. The fact that we fall short of these ideals need not, therefore, consign us to unremitting misery and frustration.

Having said all of the above, however, the fact remains that much suffering is a blight on existence that defies conceptual explanation or existential accommodation. While our lives are far from being entirely absurd, there are elements of the absurd in them, and inexplicable suffering is one of the most notable of these elements. We can account for it and give meaningful interpretations of it up to a certain point, as we have just tried to do. But Elie Wiesel is right in the last analysis when he says,

Evil is in the world. The question is why innocent people are punished. There are no answers. I won't accept comfortable answers. If anyone would say there is an answer, I wouldn't believe it

(Quoted Nellhaus 1985).

Rolston speaks similarly when he insists that much suffering is irremediably evil, and that to

explain evil rationally is a contradiction in terms; this would be a religious equivalent to giving a scientific explanation for random events. Some events do not have causes, not at the point of their randomness. Some events do not have meanings, not at the point of their evilness


Suffering is part of the fabric of existence; it runs through the whole of human history and animal experience.3 Its threads are often crooked and grotesque, refusing to blend with other aspects of experience, defying all analysis or moral resolution. To pretend otherwise is to succumb to sentimentality and mere wishful thinking.

Still, suffering is not the unmitigated bane and disaster Schopenhauer, Ciroan, and other nihilists have taken it to be. Its significance is mixed, not resoundingly absurd. Just as it cannot be explained to our final satisfaction, so it cannot be said to be totally beyond explanation or to lead to but one outcome, that of nihilism. We can face up to its reality and acknowledge its threatening mystery without despairing of the meaning of human life or without denouncing the universe in which it occurs. In order to do so, however, powerful symbolizations of the ever-present fact and possibility of suffering must be present, effective reminders that it is an aspect of existence over which we often do not have control, an aspect for which we must be constantly trying to prepare ourselves. The story of the cross in Christianity is one such symbolization, as is the figure of Shiva-Kali in Hinduism.

Although my own consciousness has been deeply molded by the story of the cross, which locates suffering in the heart of the universe, in its ultimate Source and Principle, and not merely in human consciousness, there seems to me to be something lacking in this symbolism that can be compensated for by the complementary Hindu perspective. The Christian symbolism portrays God as unqualifiedly good, as the innocent victim of sufferings for which he himself cannot be held accountable, and yet as finally triumphant over the evil effects of all sufferings. There is a sense in which this portrayal, for all of its evocative depth and power, remains too one-sided or unqualified in its optimism. It fails adequately to symbolize the impenetrable enigma of suffering, and to that extent does not prepare us to confront that enigma, meaning that the extent of our own or of the world's suffering may continue to come to us as more of an existential shock or bolt out of the blue than it should.

The traditional theistic problem of evil is a symptom of what I am trying to get at here: its assumed view of God as all-good and all-powerful, and as having calmly created evil (or the possibility of evil) for his own sovereign uses, does not quite ready us psychologically for the threat and presence of inexplicable suffering. Hindu symbolism, by contrast, portrays the Source and Principle of the universe as radically ambiguous, as containing in itself a serenity and creative energy that holds out the promise of bliss and salvation, but as also embodying a horrible destructive activity and potency. Shiva the serene and yet dynamic creator is at one and the same time black Kali the destroyer, with blood-drenched fangs and a garland of skulls, the wanton devourer of humans and animals.

The image of Shiva-Kali is in part an indication that creation and destruction must often go hand-in-hand, because destruction of the old is the frequent prelude or accompaniment to creation of the new. But more fundamentally, it serves as a stark reminder that the universe has a black side like a dark side of the moon, a side of shadowy menance and pain that can descend upon us at any moment. This is part of the universe's ultimate character: its aspect of unfathomable mystery.

It is significant that Kali is the femine form of kala, a Sanskrit word for time, suggesting the radical uncertainty of the future and the setbacks and deprivations the passage of time may force into our lives, as well as the unexpected opportunities for accomplishment and renewal the future may bring. To live realistically is to be acutely aware of this ambiguity of our temporal existence. This ambiguity must be clearly recognized as such; it cannot be simply resolved either into bouyant optimism or gloomy nihilism. Such a recognition allows for confidence and hope, but only as tempered by compassionate awareness of the reality and extent of the sufferings of animals and human beings, and only as informed by a wary acknowledgment of the contingencies of all existence. These contingencies may bring suffering, but the same suffering will sometimes, although not always, have unforeseen transforming effects. Such an outlook, which can aptly be termed “the tragic sense of life,” can also help prepare us for the sacrifices that we may be called upon to make as the price of our involvement in those commitments and pursuits that make life worthwhile and contribute to the world's betterment.

I turn now from the problem of suffering to that of death. Does the fact of death, or perhaps at least of untimely death, support a nihilistic conclusion? In opposition to the arguments of Chapter Three, Section 4, I contend that it does not—despite the wrenching agony of loss that is the frequent companion of death (especially the death of the young and unfulfilled), and despite the shock of incomprehension that can stagger us when a close relation or friend dies, or when we are brought against the rock-hard inevitability of our own death and the deaths of those we cherish.

It will help us to put the fact of death in perspective if we try to imagine what the earth or human society would be like if nothing ever died. Not only would there be no such thing as ecosystems or food chains in nature: those elaborate webs of interconnection in which ascendingly complex forms of life are sustained by the deaths of descendingly simple ones. There also could be no such thing as a course of evolution allowing the higher forms, including that of human life itself, to have emerged. Just as entropy is the price paid for the exchanges of energy that enable life, mind, and the universe to exist, so the death of individuals, and sometimes of whole species, is the price of the startling diversity of life-forms and the creative ongoingness of evolution. Thus, in the natural order, diversity and creativity fit hand-in-glove with impermanence and death, the one being made possible only through the other. To have contempt for the presence of death in nature, and to regard that presence as an unqualified evil and absurdity, is also to reject the entwined dependencies of an ecological earth and the workings of temporal processes that must destroy in order to sustain and to create: the very conditions of life as we know it.

According to the Hebrew Bible, the primordial temptation of human beings is their wanting to “be like God” (Genesis 3:5). We can apply this teaching to the theme of death by noting the tendency of our species throughout its history to be tormented by the dream of finding some way to nullify its earthbound, finite state and to escape the limiting conditions of life in the world. A desperate yearning to be something we are not constantly hounds us, tempting us to deny all that is satisfying and good in what we are and have the capacity to become.

The “curse” of this response of ingratitude and pride is perhaps not death itself, as in the more customary reading of Genesis 3:19, but rather an overweening anxiety about death, and unwillingness to come to terms with its necessary inclusion in limited, interdependent existence. Nihilism is symptomatic of this hubris in its unqualified rejection of the gift of a bounded life, based on the assumption that life cannot be meaningful unless it is everlasting. But the assumption itself seems absurd, as irrational as a child's stubborn refusal of a father's invitation to go to the circus simply because the child knows that it will last only for an evening and thus that its delights will not be experienced forever. Marcus Aurelius's contrasting outlook on death is appropriately sober but also eminently sane. He writes in his Meditations that he considers it “consistent with the character of a reflecting man” that he “be neither careless nor impatient nor contemptuous with respect to death,” but that he “wait for it as one of the operations of nature” (1965:IX,3; quoted Meilaender 1986:11).

A similar conclusion can be drawn from an attempt to imagine what human society would be like if no human being ever died. First, a population problem would exist of such monumental proportions and madly accelerating pace as to make the present one seem trivial by comparison. In fact, the human race might well already have become extinct on account of its grossly outstripping the carrying capacity of the earth. Second, a massive inhibition of constructive change in society without death would probably be evidenced, a heavy weight of conservatism represented by all those who have already lived for hundreds or even thousands of years. The young, with their impulsively fresh approaches and ideas, would, in all likelihood, not even be given a chance. Their endeavors towards change would be squelched by an overpowering number of elders thoroughly set in their ways, firmly convinced that certain things can be accomplished only in the tried-and-true manner and that other things need not even be attempted because they simply “cannot be done.” The delicate balance and tension between conservation and innovation that the cycles of birth and death now help to maintain in human society would be radically imperiled. The scales would be tipped toward deadening conformity and ever-increasing discouragement and alienation of the young. It is difficult to see how a society strained at every point with such unreconcilable polarization and conflict, and one rendered so intrinsically maladaptive to changes that would nevertheless be demanded by the passage of time, could long survive.

The mere fact that individuals die does not by itself guarantee a flourishing, adaptive society. But I am arguing that it makes its own kind of essential contribution to this end. In contrast to a purely individualistic outlook that deplores the passing of the particular person as something irremediably unjust and meaningless, the death of the individual can be seen as his gift to the future, his making way for others to transform his and his generation's contributions with their own fresh visions and enthusiasms. Seen in this light, the value of life does not depend fundamentally on its quantity but on its quality; not on what we each might hope to experience or receive for ourselves for all time, but on what we each can give to the world and to culture and society in the limited time allotted to us.

It can even be argued that we live fuller and more meaningful lives to the extent that we continue to remember that we are going to die. Our loves and friendships can be deepened and made more intense precisely through our being aware that they must someday be brought to an end. We can live with a zest to absorb and enjoy all that life has to offer, and with a focused effort to make our best contributions while there is still time to do so. Amos Wilder compares living with awareness of the boundary condition of death to the waves of the ocean crashing against a reef in the open sea. “It is against the cruel and adamant ledge” that these ocean currents “disclose their phosphorescence or break into iridescent foam and spray” (Wilder, in Scott 1967:25-26). Similarly, a peculiar iridescence and precious quality is imparted to our days by the knowledge that no life will last forever, that each must come to its limit at last on the “adamant ledge” of death. But this need not be a calamitous “shipwreck,” as Schopenhauer claimed; it can be the fitting climax and fulfilment of a life well-lived.

But, of course, not all lives are well lived. Some are wasted. Tolstoy's title character in the short story, The Death of Ivan Ilych (1960:95-156) realized that his life had been squandered only when he learned that he was soon to die from what had at first appeared to be a minor injury. The central point of the story seems to be that this life did not have to be wasted, that it was wasted through a whole series of wrong choices and a kind of deliberate, prolonged insensitivity toward numerous opportunities to move in the direction of a meaningful life. Would living forever have changed the situation? There is no assurance that it would have, because the habits of insensitivity and neglect toward the deeper significance of life might well have been steadily reinforced as Ivan Ilych's life continued. The sheer length of life had nothing to do with its intrinsic meaning or lack of meaning in this case, as it has not in the case of so many others. It was only when he was forced to face his pending death that Ivan was brought to the realizations that his life could have been, and should have been, different—within the finite span of time that was his to live. He finally saw that life is made meaningful only when one learns to care for others and to give of oneself for others, rather than living solely for oneself. This lesson was embodied for him in the compassion of the servant-boy Gerasim, who tirelessly tended to Ivan's needs and talked frankly with him about his death (as no one of his family or friends had been willing to do) before he passed away.

Other lives, however, are neither wasted nor fulfilled, but interrupted by untimely death. Here there is no opportunity for a life well lived, at least not in the sense of having sufficient time to pursue one's own path and to find ways to make one's own distinctive contributions. Such lives are tragic in their lack of fulfilment and in the opportunities missed through no fault of the persons themselves. It would be callous in the extreme to speak of the deaths of such persons as “fitting.” Here, as with some kinds of suffering, we must simply say that there is little or no redeeming significance, no kind of justification possible. There is even some sense … in which the end of any productive and creative life, no matter what its length, is untimely: the cases of Picasso and Gandhi come again to mind.4 But this is not the same as a life snuffed out in youth, a life whose particular course and contribution have yet to be formed.

The fact that premature deaths do occur is a matter of profound regret, both for the individuals who die and for those who love them. But it is not sufficient reason to deny the meaning of life in general. Life can be meaningful; it contains this possibility. It is not a possibility that is actualized in every particular person's life, and it sometimes fails to be actualized because of deaths that occur before the fulness of time. This is a tragic truth, but it does not entail a sweeping indictment of life itself. Nevertheless, this truth should impart a somber urgency and sense of responsibility to all of us who are given a more normal length of life in which to find our way. This is one highly significant contribution that even those who die untimely deaths can make to those they leave behind.

It is sometimes claimed that because there is no way in which I can conceive of my own death, or that because my life must end in death and thus cease to have purposes and prospects lying before it, the whole of life is made absurd.5 But there is a way in which I can conceive my own death. I find no great difficulty in contemplating or accepting the existence of the world prior to my birth. Is my death that much different? Will the world not continue to go on then as well? As Shakespeare writes, our lives do not merely end in oblivion but are “rounded with a sleep.” We are for a period conscious participants in the world and can generally be grateful for being so, for being given the privilege to experience, even if only for a brief time, the world's inexhaustible fascination and mystery—its ineliminable, but at times still unaccountable, interlacings of joy and pain. The projects and relationships our lives afford need not continue forever for them to be worthwhile. They can be transitory but meaningful, assessed as such in terms of their particular character and donation, rather than being dismissed as absurd by a petulant demand for their infinite duration.

Finally, we need to recognize that there is a sense in which it is pointless to argue for or against the meaning of life in the presence of death. Most of us simply cannot help wanting to live, despite the uncertainties, perplexities, sorrows, and tragedies that confront us in life, including the ever-present fact and threat of unexpected deaths. The will to live is in the final analysis a wondrous gift. It cannot be created or destroyed by even the most sophisticated intellectual arguments. Something akin to this is true for all living creatures in whom, as Boethius remarks, “the desire to live comes not from the wishes of the will but from the principles of nature” (1962:68).

This ability in human beings to affirm life against all odds testifies, as Christians say, to the workings of a grace for which no one can claim credit and which no one is competent to explain.6 Its absence in some is, by this same recognition, occasion not for moralizing blame but empathetic concern, for whatever encouragement and help the more fortunate might be able to provide, so as possibly to become conduits for the life-affirming power they unaccountably find within themselves. William James says of the paradoxes of Zeno that these are problems to be “solved livingly,” ones that “ask no leave of logic.” We resolve them by doing what Zeno claimed to be impossible, namely, by simply proceeding to move about in space (1967:II, 261, 255). In similar manner, the problem of the nay-sayings of nihilism is “solved livingly” in most of us: practically or existentially nullified by instinctive affirmations of our existence. There is something in us that justifies life in the face of suffering and death, something that insistently negates nihilism's negations, regardless of what even the most forceful nihilistic arguments may conclude.


I have devoted a considerable portion of [The Specter of the Absurd] to arguing against particular aspects of the nihilistic philosophy, and some further general observations and summary comments on the case against nihilism. … We should be careful not to dismiss this philosophy altogether, however, because it can teach us a great deal. Six important lessons of nihilism will be stressed in this [essay], thereby putting the arguments against it in more balanced perspective.

Perhaps the most important lesson of nihilism, or at any rate the one that has been given greatest emphasis in this book, is that it serves as a revealing reductio ad absurdum of certain basic assumptions that, despite their destructive and untenable character, have profoundly influenced modern thought. The nihilistic philosophies of this and the past century have pushed these root assumptions relentlessly toward their logical outcomes (although usually not with full awareness of doing so), thus enabling us to become more conscious of them and where they lead, and alerting us to the urgent need for their reappraisal.7

One especially striking fact about the assumptional framework of the modern Western mind is its strong tendency to think in terms of false dichotomies, binary options that commit us to one extreme position or the other with no recognition of alternatives that might lie in between. We have encountered in various places many examples of such dichotomies, but it might be clarifying to list here some important ones we have discussed: faith in God or existential despair, a human-centered world or a meaningless world, externality of value or no value, absolutism or relativism, complete certitude or total skepticism, personal immortality or futility, correspondence truth or no truth, the Christian worldview or the scientific worldview (scientism), objectivism or subjectivism, quantity or quality, reductionism or dualism, causal determinism or radical voluntarism, individualism or collectivism, fact or value, reason or sentiment, reason or will, boredom or suffering, unattainable ideals or no ideals.

This sad parade of bogus alternatives is enough to make one sometimes wish that Aristotle had never formulated the Law of the Excluded Middle or labelled it a fundamental law of reason! Nihilistic arguments can often be seen to rest, at least in significant measure, on the supposition that if one of these extreme alternatives is rejected, the only recourse is to opt for the other one. This fact instructs us about certain persistent thought-patterns of modern Western civilization and warns of the necessity to break the spell of these uncritical and highly restrictive habits of thinking. For that we owe the philosophy of nihilism a debt of gratitude, even while having to admit the backhanded character of the compliment.

Frankel claims that “nihilism as it is experienced—the actual ‘existential’ sense of the meaninglessness and futility of life—is not the product of an intellectual theory, and it does not take a new theology or metaphysics to overcome it.” Instead, it is the result of such things as “broken hopes, lost friends, impermanent commitments, and declining standards; and it may even be the symptom of a loss of intestinal fortitude” (1965:9). There is considerable truth in this assertion. It is the other side of what was said in the previous...

(The entire section is 15477 words.)

Criticism: European And Russian Nihilism

Richard Freeborn (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: “Egoistic Nihilism and Revolutionary Nihilism,” in The Russian Revolutionary Novel: Turgenev to Pasternak, Cambridge University Press, 1982, pp. 4-38.

[In the following essay, Freeborn traces the development of nihilism as evinced in Russian literature and assesses the impact of nihilist philosophy and literature on Russian history.]

In August 1860 [Ivan] Turgenev spent three weeks in Ventnor in the Isle of Wight. During that short period, and in characteristically wet and stormy English summer weather, he conceived the figure of his most significant literary hero, Bazarov, of his most famous novel, Fathers and Children, published two years later....

(The entire section is 17578 words.)

Constantin V. Ponomareff (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: “Dostoevsky: The Nihilist Imagination,” in On the Dark Side of Russian Literature, 1709-1910, Peter Lang, 1987, pp. 145-81.

[In the following essay, Ponomareff explores Dostoevsky's spiritual conflict and views the nihilist perspective as the defining characteristic of his fiction.]

In his famous essay on Dostoevsky Freud made the culturally perceptive observation that the “compromise with morality” was “a characteristic Russian trait.”1 Dostoevsky's life fully corroborates this view and allows us to add to the study of the causal connection between a traditional moral ambivalence in the Russian writer and the nihilist consequences of...

(The entire section is 10061 words.)

Criticism: Nihilism In The Works Of Albert Camus, Franz Kafka, And John Barth

Joseph J. Waldmeir (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: “John Barth and the Novel of Comic Nihilism,” in Critical Essays on John Barth, G. K. Hall & Co., 1980, pp. 14-29.

[In the following essay, which was originally published in 1966, Waldmeir investigates John Barth's affinity with the nihilistic tradition and his preoccupation with suicide.]


When Nietzsche announced the death of God toward the end of the nineteenth century, he also added further stimulus to one of the obsessive themes of contemporary literature—the problem of the loss of value and meaning in human life and the search for new value and meaning to replace the old. And since Nietzsche's conception of the...

(The entire section is 8103 words.)

Charles I. Glicksberg (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: “Albert Camus: From Nihilism to Revolt,” in The Literature of Nihilism, Bucknell University Press, 1975, pp. 198-209.

[In the following essay, Glicksberg examines Camus' attitude toward nihilist philosophy as evinced in his work, contending that his fiction is actually “protests against the fate of meaninglessness.”]

Camus simply lived through and documented what Nietzsche saw looming up in the twentieth century: namely, the nihilism which would result while the technological world adapted to its horrifying discovery that God was very, very dead, and that there was no ultimate and absolute meaning to either human life or the universe:...

(The entire section is 4266 words.)

Wilhelm Emrich (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: “Franz Kafka and Literary Nihilism,” in Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 6, No. 3, September, 1977, pp. 366-79.

[In the following essay, Emrich analyzes Kafka's complex relationship to nihilism.]

That the political movement known as Nihilism originated in Russia is a well-known fact of modern history. Literary nihilism, a much less consciously organized movement, also has its origins in Russia. The word “nihilism” first emerges in Turgenev's novel Fathers and Sons (1862), where the young Bazarov, a representative of Western materialism and radical sceptical thinking, is described as a nihilist. In the following violent debate over this figure,...

(The entire section is 6489 words.)

Further Reading


Barbiero, Daniel. “There Is No ‘No’ There: Contemporary Italian Nihilism and Metaphorical Reason.” Stanford Italian Review X, No. 2 (1991): 225-40.

Examines the particular kind of nihilism that affects contemporary Italian writing.

Burg, David F. “Another View of Huckleberry Finn.Nineteenth-Century Fiction 29, No. 3 (December 1974): 299-319.

Considers the final ten chapters of Huckleberry Finn, contending that “seen within the context of Mark Twain's emergent nihilism, his antimoral precepts, that ending constitutes both a valid formal completion of the novel and an emphatic...

(The entire section is 600 words.)