nihilism americaOld-World nihilism belongs to a handful of intellectuals persuaded by philosophical arguments that human knowledge, on the whole, is worthless as a reliable guide for living. Consider Heinrich von Kleist, the nineteenth century dramatist and short-story writer, who became intellectually unglued when he read Immanuel Kant’s The Critique of Pure Reason. In a letter to his fiancée, Wilhelmine von Zenge, Kleist describes how he was crushed by Kant’s philosophical argument that the senses do not report the world as it truly is: “If everyone wore green glasses instead of eyes, they would have to judge that the things they saw through them were green—and they could never decide whether their eyes showed them things as they are or whether something had been added that belonged not to the thing but to the eyes.” Kleist goes on to draw the obvious parallel with knowing. “We cannot decide whether what we call truth is truly the truth, or whether it only seems so to us. Ah, Wilhelmine, if the point of this thought does not strike your heart, do not smile at another, who feels himself wounded in the depths of his inmost soul. My only, my highest goal has fallen, and now I have none.”[1]

Kleist concludes from Kant’s philosophy that a life dedicated to the pursuit of truth is meaningless. Neither he nor anyone else can penetrate the veil of phenomena; all attempts to grasp the meaning of the world and of human existence are futile. The impossibility of attaining truth renders human life pointless.

Despairing, restless, and without a fixed goal, Kleist wandered aimlessly about Europe for ten years. In bursts of creative energy, he wrote several masterpieces of German literature, before committing suicide at thirty-four. Kleist fired a bullet into his brain 124 years after Newton published the Principia and thirty years after Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason appeared. Kleist viewed Plato and Aristotle as ancient history; he, like most intellectuals of his day, assumed Kant had placed Newtonian mechanics on a secure foundation.

Kant claimed to effect a Copernican Revolution in the foundation for all the sciences.[2] Copernicus shifted the viewpoint of astronomers from the Earth to the Sun. Similarly, Kant changed the viewpoint of philosophers from the objective, external laws of nature to the internal, fixed laws of how the human species perceives and understands the universe. Kleist despaired that after Kant science was no longer about the truth of things, for things-in-themselves were unknowable, but about the operations of the human mind.[*]

Kant’s Copernican Revolution reached its logical conclusion with Friedrich Nietzsche. In an 1873, unpublished essay, “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense,” Nietzsche begins with a sarcastic description of human arrogance: “In some remote corner of the universe, poured out and glittering in innumerable solar systems, there once was a star on which clever animals invented knowledge.”[3] Then, the second greatest modern philosopher, or the first depending upon how you rank Kant and Nietzsche, goes on to compare the self-centeredness of the owner of the human intellect, who believes the world pivots around himself, to a mosquito: “But if we could communicate with the mosquito, then we would learn that he floats through the air with the same self-importance, feeling within itself the flying center of the world.”[4] The human being like the mosquito can only see the world from limited perspectives. The only true perspective—that of God’s—is gone forever. If there are only multiple, diverse, and fluid perspectives, then Nietzsche asks, “What is truth?” and answers, “A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms.”[5]

By the mid-twentieth century, all but a handful of philosophers had ceded truth to the sciences and agreed that philosophy paraded a “mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms” for truth. Albert Camus asserted, “All thought is anthropomorphic” and therefore “today people despair of true knowledge.”[6] If all truth is manmade, then human nature must not exist. Hence, Jean-Paul Sartre declared, “Man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world—and defines himself afterwards.”[7] Philosopher Richard Rorty took the next obvious step when he argued that truth is an artifact: “Since truth requires sentences, since sentences are products of vocabularies, and since vocabularies are made by human beings, so are truths.”[8]

With this view, philosophy has no answers to the fundamental questions about human life; indeed, it is mute about any question. Yet, philosophers today do not despair over their ignorance. It is difficult to imagine any person now committing suicide because of The Critique of Pure Reason or after reading “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense.” Philosophical speculations come and go, causing heated discussions in university classrooms and in academic journals, but with no effect on real life.

In the Sixties, the American academy embraced Old-World nihilism; as a result, the life of the mind for many academicians did not focus on the universality of human experience; and consequently, intellectual discourse eventually degenerated into an endless labyrinth of opinion. In an essay published by the American Council of Learned Societies, six eminent professors of literature proclaimed, “All thought inevitably derives from particular standpoints, perspectives, and interests.”[9] Music, poetry, philosophy, religion, and ethics were believed to be mere expressions of personal opinions, individual perceptions, or particular cultural viewpoints.

Under the sway of the academy, high school and college students today learn that different cultures believe and teach different moral precepts and thus morality is merely cultural consensus at a particular point in time. To teach that certain moral principles are objective, natural, or universal and apply to every person is considered indoctrination, a violation of a student’s right to choose how he or she should live. In a national survey, forty-seven percent of eighteen- to twenty-three-year-old Americans agreed that “morals are relative, there are no definite rights and wrongs for everybody.”[10] For these young adults, morality is the obligation to accede to parental teaching, the prevailing culture, or the political state, and thus is a disguised form of coercion.

The narrative of Old-World nihilism cascading down from Kant to Nietzsche to the existentialists to the American academy to an eleventh grader in Hardwick, Vermont while arguably true is misleading, for the source of nihilism in the New World is not philosophical reflection but democratic equality and personal freedom.

Formal philosophy learned from books has never held much interest for Americans. Alexis de Tocqueville toured American for eighteen months, beginning in May, 1831, and noted, “Less attention, I suppose, is paid to philosophy in the United States than in any other country in the civilized world.”[11] Even today, many, if not most Americans, find philosophy a bore and totally irrelevant to their lives, which does not mean that Americans have no philosophical system.

Tocqueville, in “Concerning the Philosophical Approach of the Americans,” an absolutely brilliant chapter of Democracy in America, argues that since an American always begins with the self, each citizen forms the intellectual habit of looking to the part, not to the whole, and as a result is a Cartesian reductionist: “Of all the countries in the world, America is the one in which the precepts of Descartes are least studied and best followed.”[12] Tocqueville explains this paradox. In a modern democratic society the links between generations are broken, and hence in such a society men and women cannot base their beliefs on tradition or class. Democratic equality produces a “general distaste for accepting any man’s word as proof of anything.”[13] Therefore, “in most mental operations each American relies on individual effort and judgment.”[14] Just like Descartes, each American employs the philosophical method to seek the reason of things for oneself and in oneself alone, and to submit traditional beliefs to individual examination.[15]

American culture tells us that all individuals are equal and that each one of us can recognize the truth just as well as the next person. We think that we have no need to seek guidance from others, even once acknowledged masters. Indeed, we believe that if we followed another person’s judgment, we would give ourselves over to that individual and thereby enslave ourselves and violate what is most precious to us, our personal freedom. Consequently, in American life no masters are recognized, and, in effect, the three great teachers of humankind—the Buddha, Socrates, and Jesus—are seen as just three voices among many. In fact, if anyone holds up someone as a master to follow, most Americans will intentionally ignore or dismiss that person, since it smacks of inequality.

Just like Shane in the iconic Western movie that bears his name, we Americans believe that only an isolated, autonomous individual is truly free; the Western hero has no family, has no last name, and belongs nowhere. No one tells Shane what to do, and furthermore he owes nothing to another person except what he of his own free will incurs. He embodies the American idea of freedom: He does what he wants provided his actions do not injure others.[16] Shane has his own personal code of honor, self-chosen, independent of others and human nature. If push comes to shove, most of us would admit that human nature is non-existent, for it would limit our freedom. All ethical systems, then, are arbitrary social conventions or personal idiosyncrasies.

If the above discussion seems abstract and philosophical, consider this. Last week at lunch, a physicist friend of mine told me there are “two levels of truth, one scientific, the other personal.” When I asked him what personal truth means, he answered the “sum of our opinions and beliefs that are necessary and legitimate to live a life.” He, then, added, “Most of us just want to believe what makes us comfortable and not have our beliefs challenged, and I am okay with this; I do it myself.” I did not say what immediately sprang to mind—Oh, you advocate the examined life is not worth living, the reverse of the Socratic dictum.

All my physicist friends hold that material things can be known through and through, while beauty, human values, and the purpose of human life are unverifiable opinions, true for the individual who holds them, but not necessarily for the rest of humanity. My former colleagues readily accept scientific truths, say the results of electrodynamics, general relativity, and quantum mechanics, because these disciplines do not challenge how they live. Every time I asked my friends to articulate their personal truths, I heard some combination of the usual American goals, such as be a success, amass wealth, and acquire a house with a white picket fence, a dutiful brunette wife, and a golden retriever named “Rex.” When I pressed them to examine their personal truths, they refused either from a willingness to rest contentedly in ignorance, as Socrates would hold, or from the fear of falling into the abyss of nihilism, as Nietzsche would maintain.

Another friend of mine, Judge Gary Carlson, presided for years over a juvenile court in a small town in Illinois. He repeatedly laments that he and the young offenders who appeared before his court shared no common “moral core.” When Gary from the bench advised a young person how to change his life for the better, he invariably heard, “Judge that is your opinion, not mine. Heh, man, don’t you know, it’s different strokes for different folks.”

Shockingly, the opinion of a semiliterate juvenile in rural Illinois is fully articulated in a United States Supreme Court Ruling written by Justice Anthony Kennedy: “At the heart of freedom is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of life,”[17] a ruling in keeping with the widespread opinion that everyone has his or her own personal belief system—even the right to one’s own concept of the universe!

The danger inherent in American nihilism is that democracy will become a demagoguery. With tradition a mere curiosity touched upon in grade school, with no common core of beliefs other than equality and individualism, public discourse cannot be moderated and directed by reason. In the marketplace of ideas, rational argumentation disappears, replaced by passions and prejudices, a phenomenon most evident on the Internet. Anyone, anywhere, anytime, now, can instantly post an opinion on anything. Not constrained by historical facts or scientific truths, the postings on the Internet constitute an ocean of opinion, one comment washing over another, quickly submerging whatever truth tries to surface. Political discourse becomes personal, emotional, and opposing viewpoints irresolvable. My passions are my truths; my sole interest is me; I scoff at the truth that I am a leaf that is part of a tree. To me the best political leader mirrors my feelings and prejudices, say rage at job loss, disappointment that the church, the union hall, and the VFW are not the places of camaraderie they used to be, and hatred of immigrants destroying the American way of life, or perhaps contentment with economic success, pleasure of breaking free of family and social restraints, and joy over the Supreme Court legitimizing same-sex marriage.

Alexis de Tocqueville never foresaw the danger freedom posed to American democracy. When he visited America in the early days of the Republic, he observed that unlike Europe the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom formed a “marvelous combination,”[18] a harmonious balance. For him, the “founders of New England were both ardent sectarians and fanatical innovators.” He admired how religion and freedom were companions in the struggle to establish democracy in the New World: “In the moral world, everything is classified, coordinated, foreseen, and decided in advance. In the world of politics, everything is in turmoil, contested, and uncertain. In the one case obedience is passive, though voluntary; in the other, there is independence, contempt of experience, and jealousy of all authority.” Tocqueville failed to see that the spirit of freedom was unstoppable and could not be contained to politics; eventually religion would be eroded by the “jealousy of all authority.”

Unlike Kleist, who lived on the edge of despair and eventually fired a bullet into his brain because truth could not be known, we moderns secretly rejoice over the “advent of nihilism.”[19] In the absence of truth, we are totally free, for we do not have to submit to anything beyond ourselves. Each one of us is the sole judge of what is true, good, and beautiful; as “King of the Castle,” we are demigods, inventing ourselves, devising our own ends, and accepting or rejecting whatever we wish. Writer David Foster Wallace, in his Kenyon College Commencement Address, in 2005, warned the graduates, “Our own present culture has harnessed these forces [‘fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self’] in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation.”[20]

From the standpoint of the Western tradition anchored in Athens and Jerusalem, moderns have embraced a mistaken notion of freedom. For Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, truth is primary, not freedom, and one inherent danger in human life is to forsake reason and become a slave of the passions. The good life consists in the “active exercise of the soul’s faculties in conformity to rational principle,”[21] which is Aristotle’s way of saying that for a person to be happy the passions must be directed by reason. Courage frees us from slavery to fear, generosity from the slavery to hunger for money, temperance from slavery to drugs, alcohol, and sexual lust. Without freedom, we could not acquire good habits or replace bad habits with good ones, and thus would be condemned to a life of slavery. Self-mastery is the mark of a free person, not the “license to do whatever one wants.”[22]

When Jesus says, “The truth will make you free,”[23] he means as St. Paul instructs us that we are neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female[24], for we are all one in the Truth, and thus are called to “become partakers of the divine nature,”[25] to love the way God does, to love our neighbors and even ourselves without desiring a reward, without wanting something in return.

According to ancient wisdom, the only way out of modern nihilism is to make truth primary and to adopt the mantra that freedom is obedience to truth.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.


[*] Apparently, Kleist never read The Metaphysics of Morals, in which Kant purports to demonstrate the categorical imperative, the supreme principle of morality that applies to every rational being.

[1] Heinrich von Kleist, “Letter to Wilhelmine von Zenge”, 22 March 1801, quoted by David Damrosch, “Heinrich von Kleist,” in European Writers: The Romantic Century, ed. Jacques Barzun (New York: Scribners, 1985) vol.5, p. 295. Italics in the original.

[2] See Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, Preface.

[3] Friedrich Nietzsche, “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense,” in The Portable Nietzsche, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage, 1979), p. 42.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Nietzsche, “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense,” p. 46.

[6] Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, trans. Justin O’Brien (New York: Vintage, 1955), pp. 13, 14.

[7] Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism and Humanism, trans. Philip Mairet (London: Methuen, 1948), p. 28.

[8] Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 21.

[9] George Levine et al., “Speaking for the Humanities,” American Council of Learned Societies Occasional Paper, no. 7 (1989): 9.

[10] Christian Smith with Kari Christoffersen, Hilary Davidson, and Patricia Snell Herzog, Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 27.

[11] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. George Lawrence (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), p. 429.

[12] Ibid., p. 429.

[13] Ibid., p. 430.

[14] Ibid., p. 429.

[15] See Ibid., p. 429.

[16] Isaiah Berlin espouses this view of freedom in his influential lecture “Two Concepts of Freedom” in Isaiah Berlin, Four Essays on Liberty (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990 [1969]).

[17] Anthony M. Kennedy, Sandra Day O’Connor, and David Hackett Souter, “Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania versus Casey” in Constitutional Law: 1995 Supplement, ed. Geoffrey R. Stone, et al. (Boston: Little, Brown, 1995), p. 955.

[18] All quotations in this paragraph are from Tocqueville, p. 47.

[19] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, trans. Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale (New York: Vintage, 1968), p. 3.

[20] David Foster Wallace, Kenyon College Commencement Address, 2005.

[21] Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, 1105a-b.

[22] Plato, Republic, 557b.

[23] John 8:32. RSV

[24] See Galatians 3:28.

[25] 2 Peter 1:4. RSV

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