The Challenges of Nihilism: Is It Meaningful to Live Meaninglessly?


Nihilist thought seems to be the ideal way to live. It looks so careless and stress-free to be truly convinced of the fact that nothing matters and that this world is rather pointless.

PHOTO: Catherine Chojnowski / Baruch 19'

PHOTO: Catherine Chojnowski / Baruch 19'

The energy that it requires to make something matter (in this case your whole life) would no longer be needed and the crushing anxiety that can go along with that existential project would become obsolete. Life is hard, but somehow nihilists have boiled it down to the simplest of terms, practically making life look like a breeze. Yet, is there something that they may care about? “Nothing matters” is a popular ideal that has come to the forefront of the nihilist account or overall image and the first thing most people think of when you use the word. But what does that phrase actually mean? Since it’s such a bold statement, many find this to be inherently false ("Of course something has to matter! What about me?").

Man is a valuing creature and generally speaking we care about some things and some things we couldn’t care any less about, but this is the act of bestowing mattering upon something. We don’t find this mattering out of nowhere out in the world, but rather we give something the ability to matter even if only to us. Under this argument, nihilists are completely rational. If humans bestow meaning on things and I choose not to bestow meaning on anything because I see none then my case rests. End of story, case closed. But I do see how even with that set of  there is still something further to be said about nihilists.

However, the nature and concept of "opinion" itself must be taken into consideration. Although opinions are obviously not facts, they are a worthwhile venture. To have an opinion is to have made up your mind on how you feel about something. When you form an opinion on what matters and doesn’t matter to you, you think about the value that said thing can possibly have and you have to decide. Considering something's value in this way is a form of bestowing some type of effort to care even if it’s just internally. As humans we are always doing something and choosing one thing rather than another, these choices (whether conscious or not) reveals what it is that matters to him or her. It is also considerable to note that humans are never out of a context -- a human is by nature always in a situation. Since a human is a changing being within this context as well, one set of values tends to be replaced by another set. Things that mattered to you before can eventually not matter to you and vice versa.

As Richard Hare points out in his piece "Nothing Matters," these sets of values can change over a period of time or they can change rather drastically but mindset changes about values you’ve decided on are questioned and subject to rigorous testing in times of complexity and confusion. Sometimes when you have too much going on and can’t wrap your head around it, it’s much simpler to just get rid of it altogether. But even then, I do find something perplexing and that is this contradiction being violently concerned with renouncing meaning and showing a deep unconcern for life. To make the decision of deeming life meaningless and pointless, you have to sit, think, and form an idea regarding the meaning of life. You have to think through all the things that you’ve been told matter your whole life, and although you deem them pointless, you can care about the fact that they’re pointless enough to identify yourself as a nihilist. By "care" I don’t mean in the sense that you’re going to stress or worry about the fact that life is pointless, but I mean care in the sense that you would be concerned with an ideal: this is what you stand for and this is how you view the world.

You have to care about your worldview and your ideas if you choose them for your life, especially if you label or name them. Nihilists may not care about anything, but the fact that they don’t care about anything makes them care about something. Does that really make them nihilists? I almost feel as though nihilists don’t even realize that they’re caring about something when they choose to care about the nihilist view enough to apply it to their own lives. However, I could then play devil’s advocate and say if you take away their nihilist identity -- given they care about it -- then the one thing they cared about ceases to exist. This then, by definition, makes them nihilists once again. But this is rather circular so I didn’t spend too much time on it. 

Examining foundational ideas of existentialism such as nihilism can help us understand the nature of nihilist thinkers among us and how they conduct themselves in a society they find to be pointless. Seemingly a less stressful way of conducting yourself actually can turn out to be too good to be true, as I find that nihilists do care about at least one thing. They care about that they don’t care about anything.

Lead Image Credit: Catherine Chojnowski

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