Nihilism: The Fool’s Guide – by Joe Barraclough
Or ‘How I learned to stop worrying and love the ultimate meaninglessness of humanity’s collective existence’
Nihilism, I think it’s fair to say, has somewhat of a bad name. It seems to be linked in popular culture to existential angst and negativity: when I looked up the google definition of nihilism to write this I found, interestingly, that among the listed synonyms are, indeed, negativity and pessimism. That Nietzsche, the original proponent of nihilism, ended his own life after battling with severe depression likely does little to help.
But what is nihilism? Essentially, nihilism is the belief that nothing really matters, or, more philosophically, that nothing is really real, in that nothing has meaningful existence. Donald Trump is now a president of the United States. Luckily for the world, that doesn’t matter. At least not in the grand scheme of things. Neither do you, or me, or this article, nor are your results in whatever exams society tells you accurate measures of your worth as a human being and an academic. This isn’t to say those things are entirely without value, however: no matter how much logical sense it makes that if I were to die tomorrow, it wouldn’t be even a footnote in the history of the universe, that doesn’t mean I would be particularly happy with it.
So it must be accepted that some things have value, or seem to, at least, in the short term. It does make sense, doesn’t it, that it matters whether the UK leaves the EU? It matters to someone, somewhere, at least. But, ultimately, it doesn’t. No matter how much we protest, or throw our lot in with any of the over 2700 recorded gods of human history, when we die, we die. In a few billion years, there won’t be an earth anymore, after the sun goes from a main sequence star to a red giant, and the earth dies a fiery, hellish death. Even if we escape to the stars, it is inevitable that some tragedy or other will destroy what survives of humanity. There will be nothing left of us, no-one to remember us, no evidence to be found (and no-one to find it), no sign at all that once, in roughly the two-thousand and sixteenth year after the birth of a carpenter’s son in Judea, this article would be written, and someone (at least someone) would read it.
Rather depressing, isn’t it?
Nietzsche evidently thought so. But before you buy shares in rope, allow me to convince you otherwise. To me, and many others, the phrase ‘nothing matters’ is not an admittance of the vanity of human effort and the futility of life, but a promise of liberty. When all that matters are the immediate actions and inactions of life, we are truly free to consider the value of things. It no longer matters that we live to social expectations, because it never did matter, and as long as our own existence doesn’t negatively affect other people’s existences, we are free to exercise our individuality without fear of judgement. Well, meaningful judgement, anyway.