Sunday, December 4, 2016

Through Nihilism: A Meditation

… the world
lives in the death of speech
and sings there.
— Wendell Berry

Why are you so afraid of silence? Silence is the root of everything. If you spiral into its void, a hundred voices will thunder messages you long to hear.
— Rumi

Silence is God’s first language.
— St. John of the Cross

Leisure is a form of silence, of that silence which is the prerequisite of the apprehension of reality: only the silent hear and those who do not remain silent do not hear.
— Josef Pieper


Try telling a self-styled philosopher that you are a complete relativist or nihilist. He’ll probably look at you like you’re a bit crazy. But on the other hand, if you ask him if he is a moral realist or believes in absolute truth he will deny it.

As if we all inhabit a twilight world where there isn’t exactly truth but there sort of is.

Better by far to choose one or other.

One of the most important turning points in my life was when I admitted to myself that I had become a nihilist. It was in the utter silence of this unfathomable doubt that I first realized that there is truth.

You must give yourself silence. You must give yourself space, and time. Long stretches of time, where thought is welcome and non-thought even more welcome.


Before nihilism took me I was something of an evolutionist. More accurately, before flirting with nihilism I flirted with a kind of universal Darwinism. Neither is an ideology complete in itself. You can do little more than flirt with an ideology. It takes a fully-fledged religion to command devotion.

You might say we live in an age of ideology, of flirtation, of promiscuity of mind. Much is promised and little is consummated. Many are married but little does it mean because divorce is as common. We’re not supposed to believe in marriage, not really, just as we’re not supposed to believe in religion or even really believe in belief.

You might call modernity Paganism 2.0. A profusion of small gods.

Evolution is a funny set of ideas. It’s sort of philosophy, sort of religion, sort of science. There’s some mathematics, but not much. But what it has is mountains of is evidence. Make no mistake. The earth is billions of years old, and traditional Biblical chronology is literally false. Many take this to mean, as I did for a long time, that the Bible is literally false, as if St. Augustine had never suggested over a millennium and a half ago that the six days of creation in Genesis might have been figurative, and as if no Pope John Paul II had ever admitted that Darwin’s theory is, at least in broad outline, true. There’s a lot of prejudice and doubt tangled up with the idea of evolution, for scientists and theologians alike. Evolution reminds people of eugenics and the Nazis. It reminds people of the absurdity of old myths, and everything that is unbelievable about religion. The whole Struggle for Existence reminds us, in short, that we take peace and comfort for granted.

It reminds us of those Hard Truths that we like to forget. That competition is a part of life. That human knowledge has always been limited. That not everything can be tolerated, not even in principle. That inequality is a natural state. That populations wax and wane and civilization is mortal. That some cruel criterion of selection is necessary for creativity. That weak books and weak minds do not procreate. That there is a hard reality that will break our illusions. That life is essentially the horror of mutation and creativity. That life must have some higher purpose beyond mere reproduction, beyond mere faith in faith, beyond mere being. That somewhere beyond this material rat-race there is a supreme good, a Good worth the Struggle.

A God worth this Devil.


Evolution cannot be used to derive a complete set of values for life. If you could predict the future with certainty, all you would have to do—as a devout Evolutionist—is calculate what sequence of actions would leave the most ideological and genetic progeny over the next, oh I don’t know, few millennia, say. Then perform that sequences of actions. But of course we can’t do this. The world is too complex. We don’t know who will win the game of evolution. Fascism believed in evolution and it believed it would win it. It did not. Darwinism is not a perfect formula, nor even a very good one.

And in any case, we don’t have time to sit around and derive a new set of Commandments from Darwin’s theory. There are philosophers trying to do this, of course. But we’ve got to live our lives today. We all know this, or else we’d be hanging on the Darwinists’ every word. (Okay, we don’t all know this.)

Then how do we answer the question of value? Fine, toss religion. It’s superstition. Where to begin? Basic kindness maybe. But maybe not. Why not selfishness? Wasn’t religion a form of control for the masses? So let’s rebel against this tyrannical rule of kindness. (Nietzsche, anyone?) Or maybe not, I don’t know. Seems like we’d be back to Darwinism again.

Fact is, the question of ultimate value is groundless. “What is the meaning of life?” cannot be answered. Not unless you’ve already got some ultimate value you are assuming. For example, you might say, “I choose ... Christianity, because Islam is too militant.” Too militant for what? What standard of militancy are you presupposing here? Maybe it’s just militant enough. Maybe Christianity is too peaceful. You don’t know unless you have a previous set of values. At some point values bottom out. If they don’t, if you are questioning the root of the tree, you are done. This is the abyss. Nihilism. Silence.

It’s tempting to use evolution here. “Which religion is fittest? Which grows fastest? Which will win the Struggle for Existence?” But you’re counting your chickens before they’ve hatched. I mean, maybe you should become a nano-engineer and invent and new kind of tiny self-replicating robot that outbreeds every other living thing on earth, and cover the world in a gray-goo of nano-bots, destroying everything but your invention. Then you win. I mean it, congrats, you win everything: you are the fittest.

No, evolution is not the ultimate meaning of life. You cannot determine the ultimate meaning of life, not on the basis of any fact. Life has meaning, but the question of that meaning, in all its nihilistic presuppositions, is unanswerable.

Nihilism. Silence.


Without history, the term we means nothing. All philosophizing, all serious thinking and discussion, presupposes a community, and a community is something alive, it is something that acts. To act is to be, dynamically. To act is to be in time. Time is the translation of future into past. It is the contextualization of the future by the past. All stories presuppose a beginning and an end. All purpose presupposes a present state of lack and a future goal. All learning presupposes a past, a history.

We cannot speak without history. This discussion, the discussion of the meaning of life (is that what we’re doing? really? but isn’t that the opposite of nihilism? oh got it) the question of whether life has a meaning, is impossible—as any discussion is—without memory. Don’t forget Socrates, that’s what I’m saying. He started this discussion (or maybe it was Thales or Thoth or Abraham) and really, he’s the arbiter.

Now I’m pretty sure if Socrates were here now he’d point out that the reason the whole discussion has gotten so confused is that we’ve forgotten how it started. When Socrates catches you in a contradiction this is always how it works: (1) he asks you what you think and you tell him you think X, then (2) he leads you through a dialogue showing you how actually your other beliefs imply that X is false, and (3) he reminds you how you started by saying X was true. This forces you to make a choice. Something has to be given up.

Logical confusion, in other words, is the product of inconsistent belief.

When did our confusion start? In other words, when did nihilism become a thing? When did suddenly everything get thrown in doubt?

There’s the theory of evolution, that’s one thing. But really the whole modern tendency to question started with the Enlightenment in the 1700’s, when Voltaire and Hume and others began, very seriously, to doubt traditional religion. European civilization expanded, encountering other belief systems. It delved deeper into ancient history, encountering very old versions of Christianity and philosophy. And scientists began to make big discoveries, leading to not only evolution but modern chemistry and physics, which don’t seem to leave much room for the spirits we used to believe in.

Socrates would probably chuckle at this point. This is exactly how Greek philosophy started. Athens became an empire, bringing in new ideas from everywhere. It’s science and mathematics made many new discoveries. People started questioning the old gods. In fact, that’s the main reason Socrates was condemned to death, for “searching high into the heavens and deep into the earth” and “introducing new gods” and more generally “corrupting the youth.”

As a result of all this doubt, philosophers in ancient Greece began to debate questions of truth, meaning, value, and purpose. Fundamental, unanswerable questions. Parmenides offered the answer that whatever is thought, is true. (Sounds to me, at base, the same intuition as Descartes’ that whatever thinks, exists.) Others simply concluded that truth is whatever people agree on. Modern Pragmatists, incidentally, still hold to this. Back then they were known as “Sophists” and they made their living as lawyers. Lawyers need no higher test of truth than agreement. Their sole purpose is to convince.

But Socrates argued that this was insufficient. A doctor does not seek merely to convince his patient that he is better, but to repair his body. Likewise, a wiseman should not seek merely to convince people that they are right, but to convince them of what is true. In today’s parlance, Socrates argued that truth is objective, not subjective.

Okay Socrates, that’s great. But you know, this conversation you began took an unexpected turn. Your student, Plato, wrote a series of beautiful books that spread throughout the known world, convincing the most educated of your ideas on truth and virtue. It did them a great deal of good. But it must have been lacking something, because within 1000 years after your death, most became convinced that the Bible contained a more compelling notion of both truth and virtue.

True, many of us now blame the rise of Christianity on the spread of ignorance, superstition, and violent intolerance. But I’m not sure this view is justified.

Violence and intolerance? The rise of Christianity saw the decline of slavery and was in fact accompanied by less religious violence and less human sacrifice than before. Ignorance? It occurred during the most literate period of Roman history. Superstition? This also declined along with Paganism. It is not inaccurate to say that as Christianity rose, Rome became measurably less superstitious, ignorant, and violent. The Dark Ages came later, as the wealth of the empire waned, bureaucracy grew bloated, taxes became burdensome, and the barbarians immigrated.

Until we come to terms with history in its uncomfortable, unfashionable reality, we will never come to terms with our own place in it or with the ability, duty, responsibility, and inevitably of making history as we live. And to be mindful of this is the precise opposite of nihilism. This is the meaning of meaning, the meaning of value, if in broad outline only. The question of our place in history is not to be dismissed as mere subjectivity, something undecidable and avoidable—not if we are going to really live, to live with sincere mindfulness.


Our meditation may have historical context, then, but this alone doesn’t answer our question of how to ground our values, nor exactly why we’re in this situation. For the thousand years between the collapse of Rome and the Enlightenment, we were just fine with our traditional beliefs. Here and there, you had a philosopher or heretic with some new idea, but for the most part we were content. Now, a significant percentage of the population counts itself as among the doubtful, uncertain, or simply unbelieving.

Presently I am not stating any of this as a value judgment. We’re taking the nihilistic perspective. We’re talking about interesting facts. And it is a very interesting fact that traditional values have a way of sticking around for many centuries, especially with how fickle, ignorant, and careless humans tend to be. There must be an evolutionary explanation here.

Under normal circumstances, in any traditional society (which constitute the vast majority of societies throughout history), those who doubt what everyone else accepts are shunned. They are avoided and forgotten, shamed and ignored. They do not leave a legacy. They do not start a movement. In evolutionary terms, their ideas are unfit. They are selected against and disappear.

So, from an evolutionary standpoint, the fitter option is to conform, not to question.

This is from the point of view of the individual. From the society’s perspective, there are still more compelling reasons to stick to tradition. To pass on everything your culture has learned over the centuries means making sure people don’t forget. They must be encouraged to remember tradition, to revere tradition, to pass on tradition. Not to neglect it, to care for it. If you do not do this, your society will change in unpredictable ways, and more likely than not succumb to time’s entropy. Your society will mutate, decay, perish. It should be no surprise that the longest-lived traditions held certain core beliefs to be sacred.

All I’m saying at this point is that all this is understandable. Hate tradition or love tradition, this is its nature and justification.

But we’re being nihilists now, right? We don’t really care. Future generations can do what they like, the laws of evolution be hanged. Maybe all that matters is that I live my life in a fulfilling way. Maybe I just want to be happy. Maybe I will leave no descendents, and maybe I will be forgotten by future generations. Maybe I have nothing to contribute to the stream of evolution—so what? Evolution’s purposes are not my purposes, and why should they be?

Heck, you don’t have to be a nihilist to think this way. You want a decent job, a spouse, maybe a kid or two. You want good TV and better movies. You want a good novel, a good philosophical debate. Can’t you then say you’ve led a fulfilling life? What is all this about history and the big picture and future generations?


Dear future generations, you give me pause. I can’t help but care about you. It must be buried deep in my instincts, this paternal feeling I cannot shake. No surprise. It carries the favor and blessing of the evolutionary command to survive.

My instincts remain. However much I blaspheme the history of humankind, and call it brutal and unforgiving and cruel and ignorant and blind, I carry this legacy of its millions of years in my blood. I’ve always wanted to marry. I’ve always wanted to learn, and to teach.

I’ve always wanted to care. To do something for humanity. Who doesn’t, when their own needs are met, want to reach out and help others? Make a difference? Do something worthy of remembrance, or at least admiration? These are evolutionary instincts, like it or not, to spread one’s ideas. They are as powerful as the sexual instinct to pass down one’s genes, for ideas evolve too. The worship of fame can only spread itself.

From nihilism, what is there to do, but surrender to instinct?

Tradition is a special kind of instinct, passed down by book and preacher rather than gene. Tradition is the result of evolution, too.

But from nihilism, which tradition? There are hundreds of religions and philosophies and ideologies to choose from, new and old, foreign and domestic.

We are in a unique historical position. Like the ancient Romans, we have access to many distinct belief systems and can study as many as we like. This can be an advantage. But it can also be a disadvantage, because who knows how these hitherto unmixed chemicals might react? Well, it’s too late anyway. What hasn’t been mixed over the last few centuries? What horrible explosiveness haven’t we discovered?

And look, we’ve got a problem. What scientifically-educated person can so easily go back to believing that Moses literally parted the Red Sea, that Noah literally fit two of every animal on the ark, that Elijah was literally carried into heaven in a fiery chariot? It’s not so easy to say, “Okay, tradition was healthier, let’s go back to that.” Tradition asks for faith in absurdities.

So let’s come back to science and practical objectivity. Let’s think about this question from a practical point of view. What we desire is to give rise to healthy future generations. (In other words we want evolutionary fitness, even if we don’t like putting it this way.) But what good is this desire if our children do not share it? If they fall into the hedonistic pleasures of the moment, and themselves forget to care about the future? Hasn’t this already happened generation after generation—flappers, beatniks, hippies, etc.? Urban civilization has always been filled with spiritual dangers. Prostitution, crime, greed, hedonism, drugs. This is where our civilization is. These are our dangers, though it seems we keep forgetting it.


I’m struggling for eloquence right now.

Maybe you and I still aren’t on the same page at all. I’m sure you’re wondering what I’m getting at. People are free, aren’t they? It’s not like we need to start oppressing them and forcing our beliefs on them, do we? Shouldn’t we live and let live, leave others free to pursue what happiness they may, as long as nobody is hurt?

What I’m having trouble explaining is that I really don’t care what the law is. And I really don’t care what you do with what I’m telling you. Go pursue pleasure for it’s own sake. Pollute the environment, exploit the poor, use plastic inorganic goods. Raise your children on horror movies and pornography. Burn your Bible.

But first, before you light that match, maybe let’s take a peek and see what all the fuss is about. Why not? Let’s open it at random, see what we get.

My son, keep your father’s commands
and do not forsake your mother’s teaching.

Bind them upon your heart forever;
fasten them around your neck.
When you walk, they will guide you;
when you awake, they will speak to you.

For these commands are a lamp,
this teaching is a light,

and the corrections of discipline
are the way to life,

keeping you from the immoral woman,
from the smooth tongue of the wayward wife.

Do not lust in your heart after her beauty
or let her captivate you with her eyes,

for the prostitute reduces you to a loaf of bread,
and the adulteress preys upon your very life.

Can a man scoop fire into his lap
without his clothes being burned?

Can a man walk on hot coals
without his feet being scorched?

So is he who sleeps with another man’s wife;
no one who touches her will go unpunished.

Men do not despise a thief if he steals
to satisfy his hunger when he is starving.

Yet if he is caught, he must pay sevenfold,
though it costs him all the wealth of his house.

But a man who commits adultery lacks judgment;
whoever does so destroys himself.

Blows and disgrace are his lot,
and his shame will never be wiped away;

for jealousy arouses a husband’s fury,
and he will show no mercy when he takes revenge.

He will not accept any compensation;
he will refuse the bribe, however great it is. 
(Proverbs 4:20-25, NIV translation)

What are you waiting for? Go ahead, light your match.

Look, why don’t we choose another random one, so you can see just how inferior this silly book is to the much wiser hippie policy of sex with whoever and all old wisdom be damned. Honest, I’ll roll some dice and make sure this one is completely random. I’m sure this time it’ll be something ridiculous about fire and brimstone and angels and devils. (Crossing my fingers ...)

Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.

See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commands, decrees, and laws; then you will live and increase, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess.

But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.

This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

(Deuteronomy 30:11-19)

All right, so there’s no fire or brimstone, but there is this pernicious myth of the “Holy Land” and this idea that they all must go forth and multiply and force their tradition on their children and their children’s children, isn’t there? How can this be okay?

I understand your doubts. There is, indeed, something very militant and dogmatic about this passage.

But I’m inclined to get Nietzschean here. I’m inclined to say, good. Our society has become decadent and weak and luxurious. Let’s make a stronger culture, one worthy of the land it inhabits, one that can grow and become evolutionarily strong and fit. Why the hell not? We’re nihilists, remember?

I’m also inclined to get historical. Every promise made in the passage above was fulfilled. To the extent that the Jews followed the commandments laid down, they and their children were prosperous and happy. To the extent that they forgot their tradition (see the later books of the Old Testament for the story) and grew decadent and forgetful, they did perish and were scattered across the earth.

The passages I quoted above, in short, helped shape how the world would become. Those societies that remained true to them grew and left legacies spanning centuries. These were not the ravings of madmen or simple bigots (e.g. Mein Kampf) but very sane analyses of what it takes for an individual and a society to be prosperous and successful. And before you object that America is already prosperous and successful remember that over 80% of its population still believes that the Old Testament is the word of God.


We’re not going to turn the clock back to 1700. We’ve got new technologies, a different world, a different social context. But we’ve still got some serious problems, problems analogous to those of ancient Rome. We lack challenges. We are growing weaker and more forgetful. When all of this finally falls apart, we will likely be too weak to survive for long in the coming dark ages. But there was hope for the Romans, and there is hope for us.

What hope? A hope for my personal legacy. A hope for your personal legacy. We’ve seen that the world has unity. Start with Darwin’s theory, and reason brings you to the Old Testament. Start with nihilism, and in the silence purpose and God appear. You may call this revelation if you wish, or not.

Evolutionary success is the problem solved by every traditional society so far. Nietzsche said it was Will to Power that created new religions. I say it is that hand of God we call natural selection. There is no reasoning values. This is nihilism. But out of the nothingness of nihilism springs vibrant life full of passion, will, and power; this happens according to instinct, according to struggle, and trial and test.

Modern utilitarianism—that we must strive for the most comfort for the many, that life is about suppressing suffering and violence forever—this is a weak doctrine and a fragile idol. Rather, life must embrace risk. To love is to risk the loss of what you love. To grow is to struggle, to give is to defend, to honor is to fight for. The worship of pleasure and comfort is the precise danger warned of in the Bible, and it is the reason that the Bible is the holy book of most civilized cultures: precisely because it warns against the dangers of civilization.

I believe that the message of the Bible, and the message of science, converge. Disbelieve if you wish, but as a believer I must simply say: this is true. The meaning of life is to live thus virtuously, mindful of your legacy. To do so brings prosperity for future generations and personal fulfillment.

It’s all right to balk. This is my meditation, not yours. Be warned, however, that you must eventually come to a decision on what is true, or perish. “But absolute truth is impossible.” Is that an absolute truth? The prohibition of truth destroys itself. The prohibition of value as “subjectivity,” the flight to pure objectivity, equally destroys itself. For any prohibition of value is itself a value. And any life not according to value is a life arbitrary and listless. Relativism is self-deceiving nihilism. But honest nihilism is self-annihilating, leaving nothing but virtuous honesty and honest virtue.

(This was in part inspired by this post and subsequent comments.)

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