Nihilism Strikes with a Vengeance – Bert Olivier 6/7/24


We live in what is probably the most nihilistic era in the history of humankind. Most English-speaking people have probably heard the term, ‘nihilism,’ but I’m willing to bet that not many know its precise meaning. The term comes from the Latin for ‘nothing,’ to wit, ‘nihil,’ so that nihilism would literally mean ‘a belief in nothing.’

Some people may recall the film, The Neverending Story, which narrates the attempt, by several characters, to stem the expansion of ‘the nothing,’ which devours everything in its way. It can be read as an allegory of the cyclical efflorescence of nihilism, which has to be combated all over every time. The film also offers a way to resist this growth of ‘the nothing,’ which has to do with imagination and courage, and is worthwhile reflecting on. Consider this: if we were not able to imagine an alternative to a certain state of affairs – such as the fraught present – and the courage to change it, things would stay as they are, or get worse.

An internet search will yield several ‘definitions’ of nihilism, such as this one: ‘a viewpoint that traditional values and beliefs are unfounded and that existence is senseless and useless.’ For present purposes the following one is more apposite:

…a doctrine or belief that conditions in the social organization are so bad as to make destruction desirable for its own sake independent of any constructive program or possibility.

Narrowing the circle of the meaning of nihilism, this discussion of the concept includes the highly relevant statement: 

While few philosophers would claim to be nihilists, nihilism is most often associated with Friedrich Nietzsche who argued that its corrosive effects would eventually destroy all moral, religious, and metaphysical convictions and precipitate the greatest crisis in human history. 

To anyone who is aware of what has been unfolding over the last four-and-a-half years, the two ‘definitions’ of nihilism, immediately above, would probably seem eerily pertinent to this process as well as to one’s own response to it. Talking about ‘destruction (evidently being) desirable for its own sake’ on the part of some, or about the ‘corrosive effects’ of nihilism that would, with time, annihilate religious and moral beliefs, is so close to one’s current experience of the world as to cause distinct discomfort, if not anxiety. So, where did the current axiological (value-related) fog of nihilism come from? Did it predate the Covid era?

It has come a long way indeed, as I shall presently show. Some readers will recall my essay on the waning of authority (as analysed by Ad Verbrugge in his book on the subject), which gives an historical perspective on the events and cultural changes that entrenched a nihilistic sensibility. Or you may be reminded of the article on wokism, where I discussed a cultural phenomenon of fairly recent provenance – one which was probably launched by those who would benefit hugely from weakening the sense of identity that women and men worldwide shared for millennia, and which has been the object of a relentless attack by various globalist agencies, from education to medicine and the pharmaceutical industry to the business world.

Anyone who would question the above statement regarding men and women should consider that it is not designed to deny the fact that historical evidence suggests homosexuality to have been around since the earliest human societies, albeit with a difference. Take ancient Greece and Rome, for example. In the former, the love between men was valorised, and the ancient lesbian Greek poet, Sappho, was responsible for the name of the island on which she lived, Lesvos (or Lesbos) being applied to homosexual women.

The point is that, although such men and women were homosexual, they never denied their masculinity or femininity. But the woke movement has gone out of its way to insert the virus of identity-doubt into the field of gender, in this way causing a plethora of pain and confusion in families worldwide, and exacerbating an already entrenched collective state of nihilism.

So, how far into the past do the roots of nihilism – the belief that nothing has intrinsic value – stretch? As far back as the ancient world, in fact. In his first notable philosophical work, The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music (1872), Friedrich Nietzsche (as a young professor of philology) constructed an account of the distinctiveness of ancient Greek culture that was wholly novel, compared to the accepted views of his time. (See also here.)

In a nutshell, Nietzsche argued that what differentiated between the ancient Greeks and other contemporary societies was their genius for combining an appreciation for (what was to become scientific) knowledge with one for the indispensable role of myth (whether in the guise of a panoply of myths, such as those the Greeks evoked to understand the world, or in the form of religion, which always has a mythical basis). Put differently, they found a way to endure the unsettling thought that everyone has to die sometime, by combining a creative affirmation of reason with an acceptance of the inescapable role of unreason, or the irrational.

More specifically, Nietzsche understood Greek culture as revolving around the tension field established by what their gods, Apollo, on the one hand, and Dionysus, on the other, represented, and he demonstrated how the tension between them was what gave ancient Greek culture its uniqueness, which no other culture displayed. Apollo was the ‘shining one,’ the sun god of visual art, poetry, reason, individuation, equilibrium, and knowledge, while Dionysus was the god of wine and ecstatic loss of individuality, and also of music and dance, excess, irrationality, drunken revelry, and the abandonment of reason. It is noteworthy that music and dance differ fundamentally from the other arts – as Plato knew when he stated that, in his ideal republic, only military-type music would be allowed, instead of the wild, corybantic music played at Dionysian and Cybelian festivals.

In passing, it should be noted that corybantic music – from ‘Corybantes,’ the attendants of the goddess Cybele, whose creative mythic function was related to that of Dionysus – among the ancient Greeks, which does not appear to have an equivalent in modern music (except perhaps for certain varieties of heavy metal) was recognisable by its frenzied, intense, wildly unrestrained character, and concomitant dance movements during rituals at religious festivals.

Moreover, according to Nietzsche, Greek culture showed that, for a culture to be vibrant, neither of these two primordial forces could be abandoned, because each catered for a distinctive human faculty – on the one hand Apollonian reason (as enshrined in ancient Greek philosophy and the beginnings of science, particularly in the work of Aristotle), and on the other Dionysian unreason, embodied in Dionysian festivals, where revellers behaved in a rowdy and anything but civilised manner – somewhat akin to what high school or college students sometimes do during ‘raves’ or freshman initiation rituals.

I do not have the space here to provide an exhaustive discussion of this complex text; suffice to say that Nietzsche’s incisive interpretation of Greek tragedy reveals its emblematic character as far as the countervailing values attached to these two Greek deities, respectively, are concerned. The dramatic action, represented by clearly individualised actors (most importantly the tragic heroine or hero), whose unfurling fate is presented as being subject to cosmic forces that they cannot control, is Apollonian, while the intermittent, sung commentary by the chorus, consisting of actors dressed as satyrs (half-human and half-goat), is Dionysian. Interestingly, the term ‘tragedy’ derives from the Greek for ‘goatsong.’

As Nietzsche points out, the ambivalent biological status of the chorus is significant – half-goat, half-human – insofar as it highlights the inescapable animal side of our nature, which Freud (Nietzsche’s psychoanalytic counterpart) also stresses by exposing the unconscious, irrational sources of motivation of human actions. The satyr as mythical being represents virility, and ipso facto sexuality, which is admittedly always refracted through the lens of culture (no ‘pure’ sexuality is to be found in any human being). Greek tragedy therefore foregrounds the co-presence of the Dionysian (irrational) and the Apollonian (rational) forces in human culture, which is unsurprising: each one of us is a combination – an uneasy one, to boot – of Dionysian and Apollonian forces, and unless a culture finds ways to do justice to both, such a culture will wither and die, according to Nietzsche. …

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