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Nietzsche and Nihilism

"Nihilism" was the term used by Friederich Nietzsche to describe what he considered the devaluation of the highest values posited by the ascetic ideal. The age in which he lived was viewed by the German philosopher as one of passive nihilism, which he defined as the unawareness of the fact that the religious and philosophical absolutes had dissolved in the emergence of the 19th century Positivism. Since traditional morality collapsed, along with its metaphysical and theological foundations, the only thing that remained was a sense of meaningless and purposelessness.

The triumph of meaninglessness coincides with the triumph of nihilism, under the slogan "God is dead." Nietzsche believed that people would start seeking absoluteness in nationalism, just as they previously did it in philosophy and religion, a conception which later lead to catastrophically consequences.

Nihilism is most often associated with Nietzsche. The philosopher felt that there is no objective order or structure in the world except the subjective ones each person gives it. Consequently, the nihilist ends up discovering that all values are baseless and that reason is powerless. "Every belief, every considering something-true is necessarily false because there is simply no true world," Nietzsche writes in his "Will to Power." He also argues "Nihilism is . . . not only the belief that everything deserves to perish; but one actually puts one's shoulder to the plough; one destroys," which is equivalent to saying that all imposed values and meaning have to be repudiated.

Under the scrutiny of nihilism, "the highest values devalue themselves. The aim is lacking, and 'Why' finds no answer" writes the philosopher in his "Will to Power." Nihilism will eventually expose all beliefs and commonly recognized truths as mere symptoms of a declining Western illusion. Meaning, relevance, and purpose shall collapse in an all destructive event, which will result in the greatest known crisis of humanity. In the "Will to Power," he writes "What I relate is the history of the next two centuries. I describe what is coming, what can no longer come differently: the advent of nihilism. . . . For some time now our whole European culture has been moving as toward a catastrophe, with a tortured tension that is growing from decade to decade: restlessly, violently, headlong, like a river that wants to reach the end."

Believing that Nietzsche's evaluation was accurate, artists and philosophers further developed his thoughts. Oswald Spengler observed in his book "The Decline of the West (1926)" that religious, artistic, and political traditions were severely weakened and destroyed by the workings of certain distinct nihilistic postures. For instance, he stated that the Faustian nihilist "shatters the ideals," the Apollinian nihilist "watches them crumble before his eyes" while the Indian nihilist "withdraws from their presence into himself." Western civilization is crumbling because its epistemological authority and ontological foundation are gradually destroyed by nihilism. He also found that modern Western Epicureanism and Stoicism might be associated with the negation of reality and resignation, popularized by Eastern religions.

The events that caused nihilism to appear were the decay of traditional morality and the development of science. Nietzsche expressed his opinion regarding traditional morality by concentrating on the typology of the "slave" and "master" morality. He examined the etymology of the German words gut and bose (good and bad) and arrived to the conclusion that the original distinction between good and bad was a descriptive one, a simple non-moral reference to the ones who were masters as opposed to the ones who were slaves.

The moral aspect of the issue surfaced when slaves began to "avenge" themselves by converting attributes of mastery into vices. For instance, they believed that the meek shall inherit the earth, as opposed to the common truth that the favored were powerful and "good." Pride became a sin, so competition, pride and autonomy were gradually replaced with charity, humility and obedience.

Another important factor for the victory of this "slave morality" was the fact that it was claimed to be the only true morality. Absoluteness is essential to philosophical as well as religious ethics. Undermining the absolute character of this type of morality was the insidious and most notable work of nihilism. Judeo-Christianity was dying because it could no longer mange to make people believe in the absoluteness of traditional morality. "God is dead" because people manifest an ever-growing optimism towards science and technology and the benefits they bring to everyday life.

However, it must be said that the optimism without limits in science and technology creates the possibility of self-destruction on a global scale; it could be considered the cause of the current paranoid state condition that pushes nations to have a strong-arm approach. Individuals are gradually substituted by intelligent-machines, while the robotic ideal is ever closer. Material existence is prevailing, without any care for the soul. The adverse effect is that religion constitutes a refuge, an answer to the new ideals of the world. Ironically, it would seem that the very thing that weakened the foundation of religious morality in the first place now contributes to the revival of religion.

If science and technology were to be for the benefit of all society, instead of simply being used for the benefit of a very slim minority, the necessity to look for refuge within an irrational religious faith would not have any pathological manifestations, as it currently has.

To conclude, it could be said that nihilism was prompted by the development of science and the inability of religion to maintain the faith of the people in its "absolute" truths. However, if science and technology continue expanding like they do, we might be surprised to discover that religion will become a refuge for many individuals, unable to face the realities of the contemporary world.

Nihilism in the United States is almost an official "religion." Most Americans feel they are "on their own" and that there is no moral authority impeding them to do whatever they want in order to achieve their objectives. Fewer people go to church than ever before. Relative values and changing "moral" patterns define the life of young Americans. Life in the big city, especially, is lead without any belief in a higher purpose. It has no meaning except the one it attributes itself. The only "absoluteness" most Americans cherish is the very relativity of their lives, which they live as they see fit, the aim being to enjoy themselves.

Superman and Last Man

Nietzsche's influence dominates mainstream secular thinking in our time, but he is often misinterpreted or analyzed in conjunction with events he did not take into consideration. For instance, his idea of the "Superman" or Ubermensch is usually associated with the Nazis and the way they integrated it into their idea about an Aryan master race.

Although there are many ways in which Nietzsche's philosophy was adapted to justify excessively pathological behaviors, the truth is that Nietzsche can be considered a serious thinker willing to confront with the problems of his time. One of his greatest merits is that he tried to introduce a new ideal of man, a human possibility to which modern individuals could aspire and which contrasted with the homogenized lumpen mass into which people were being transformed by religion and traditional beliefs. Nietzsche despised the persons who were willingly caught in this attempt to homogenize masses, composed of a type of individuals he referred to as "the Last Man" (people going to church every Sunday, for instance, might be included into this category).

The conflict between Superman and Last Man has had an enormous influence on modern popular culture. The way heroism is perceived today or the ideal of a well-lived life are based on Nietzsche's ideas. The Superman is typically a larger-than-life character who decides what to do next as he goes forward and who is also fighting the repressive, conformist law of the Last Man, depicted as the ultimate villain. The theme is repeated over and over, having at its core a risk-taking, alienated, bold individual who is always fighting against the system. He may be a passionate and charismatic man, who is in touch with his instincts, aware of his desires and who doesn't care for rules and laws, which are, in his opinion, designed for lesser beings, represented by the Last Man, a vegetative being with no boldness and initiative. Practically, the purpose of the last man's existence is being a foe for the Superman.

Aspiring to achieving the heroism of a Christian saint is considered bizarre nowadays. The new image of human nobility is now measured in relation to Nietzschean ideals. However, the Superman is a tragic figure whose essential nobility lies in his defiance, in his assertion of Self against the pointlessness and against the forces seeking to crush him. The Ubermensch ethic to live boldly and defiantly has devolved: the new ethic requires living extravagantly. The vulgarized superman is typified by the individual who strives to realize some dissolute dream, rather than living authentically, and stoically in a world…[continue]

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