Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


The Crisis of Modern Nihilism and its Source

Jon Stewart

A History of Nihilism in the Nineteenth Century by Jon Stewart

It is often said that our age suffers from a crisis of nihilism. Despite all the wealth, benefits, and comforts produced by modern industrial countries, there is still a sense of malaise that something is lacking. It can be surprising to see people with unfathomable riches who yet struggle with depression, anxiety, alcoholism, substance abuse, and similar problems. Considering the ills of earlier times such as high rates of infant mortality and death in childbirth, plagues, short life expectancy, ignorance of the causes of infectious diseases, etc., we live lives of relative luxury. Why is it then that in our modern world we still struggle with the problem of meaning in our lives? Don’t we have access to what we need to meet our needs? It can also be surprising to see young people with comfortable lives lacking nothing yet who reject everything and have an attitude of indifference towards both their present and their future. These are modern problems that we are all familiar with and that most people will readily recognize.

How did we get here? My book, A History of Nihilism in the Nineteenth Century: Confrontations with Nothingness, tries to answer this question. There have been many attempts to find the origin of the modern crisis of nihilism, the signs of which we see around us. Some scholars have pointed the finger at the relativism of postmodernist theory, which undermines any fixed truth. Others go back to the existentialists who claim that there is no predetermined meaning in the world, and we must somehow create it for ourselves ex nihilo. Still others see its origins in the Dada movement, which was reacting to the horrors of World War I. Still others go back to Nietzsche’s death of God, claiming that the lapse of religion in our secular world has untethered us from our anchor of truth and meaning. On these theories nihilism is primarily a phenomenon of the late nineteenth century up until out own day.

To be sure these different intellectual trends have played a role in the development of nihilism in society over the course of the last century; however, no single one of them can be regarded as the actual source of modern nihilism as such. In my book I argue that they all have a common source that goes back to the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century. This period saw a series of dramatic advances in scientific knowledge that cumulatively caused a crisis for the then dominant Christian world-view of Europe.

Edmund Halley determined that the stars were not fixed, as had long been thought, but rather moved. This meant that they were much farther away at different distances in space than was ever imagined. It was a short step from here to postulate that the stars were just other suns seen at a great distance. While the Copernican picture of the universe had been around for some time, these new discoveries reduced the significance of the earth considerably; now it just but a small speck floating in the vastness of space. During the scientific revolution of the Enlightenment, the universe not only grew in space but also in time. While the traditional Christian picture placed the Creation at 4004 BC, new discoveries in geology demonstrated that the earth must be considerably older to account for the time that the earth would need to cool from its initial period. This meant that a human lifetime and indeed all human civilization represented merely a split-second in the age of the universe. The life sciences demonstrated that human beings were morphologically similar to the primates. The Swedish botanist and zoologist, Carl Linnaeus included humans as a part of nature and not as something separate from it, as had traditionally been done. This paved the way for the later theory of evolution.

These scientific discoveries and many more like them made human existence appear much smaller, shorter, and less important than ever before. The scientific advances were not easy for people to digest, and over time this led to the secular world-view replacing the traditional one based on the teachings of the Church. This is the crisis that Nietzsche hails in his own time in the second half of the nineteenth century. The dilemma that people faced was that the scientific findings were difficult to deny or ignore, yet they seemed to render human existence meaningless. If there is no God, no immortality, nothing at all special about human life, then what possible meaning can be found? Under these conditions, my life appears completely meaningless and insignificant. How then can I live my life in peace and happiness, knowing that I will die and be forgotten forever, and all my accomplishments will ultimately turn to dust?

In A History of Nihilism in the Nineteenth Century I try to show that this tension is the basic cause for the subsequent movements associated with nihilism. The book traces the reactions to this dilemma in the works of important writers, philosophers, poets, dramatists, and religious thinkers of the nineteenth century, who were firsthand witnesses to the great transformation of thought that was taking place. It explores how each of them addresses the problem of nihilism and tries to come up with a solution to it that will allow people to lead meaningful, happy, and flourishing lives, while at the same time respecting the new scientific picture of the world.

Today we live in a world dominated by science and technology. It is therefore no wonder that the problem of nihilism continues to exist in our modern times. As we plod through our normal routine day in and day out, when we awake alone in the dark of night, or when we mourn the death of a loved one, we are still occasionally haunted by the same thoughts as those people in the nineteenth century. We ask ourselves: What is the point of all this? What is the meaning of what I am doing or my life in general? What is the meaning of anything? This is the problem of modern nihilism that we know at one level or another since it is a part of the modern condition.

This work was produced at the Institute of Philosophy of the Slovak Academy of Sciences, v.v.i. It was supported by the Agency APVV under the project “Philosophical Anthropology in the Context of Current Crises of Symbolic Structures,” APVV-20-0137.

About The Author

Jon Stewart

Jon Stewart is a researcher at the Institute of Philosophy at the Slovak Academy of Sciences. He has worked at universities and research institutes in Germany, Belgium, Hungary, De...

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