Laughing at Nothing

It seems so important as you do what you do,
But in times to come no one remembers you.
Your actions are forgotten and your feelings destroyed.
You’ve become one with the nihilist void.

John Marmysz

Absurdity is often humorous. If life is absurd, then perhaps it may be quite humorous as well.

Disputing the common misconception that nihilism is wholly negative and necessarily damaging to the human spirit, John Marmysz offers a clear and complete definition to argue that it is compatible, and indeed preferably responded to, with an attitude of good humor. He carefully scrutinizes the phenomenon of nihilism as it appears in the works, lives, and actions of key figures in the history of philosophy, literature, politics, and theology, including Nietzsche, Heidegger, Camus, and Mishima. While suggesting that there ultimately is no solution to the problem of nihilism, Marmysz proposes a way of utilizing the anxiety and despair that is associated with the problem as a spur toward liveliness, activity, and the celebration of life.

If, as the nihilist claims, nothing that we do is ultimately very important, then it makes little sense to take things too seriously, even our own frustrations and failures. The humorous response to nihilism brings this insight forth and challenges nihilists to take their own world view to heart.

John Marmysz holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from State University of New York at Buffalo. His primary research interests focus on issues of nihilism and its cultural manifestations. Marmysz is the author of The Nihilist’s Notebook (Moralinefree Publishing, 1996), Laughing at Nothing: Humor as a Response to Nihilism (SUNY Press, 2003), The Path of Philosophy: Truth, Wonder and Distress (Wadsworth, 2011), and The Nihilist: A Philosophical Novel (No Frills Buffalo, 2015). He is coeditor (with Scott Lukas) of Fear, Cultural Anxiety and Transformation: Horror, Science Fiction and Fantasy Films Remade (Lexington Books, 2009). Marmysz has also written articles and reviews for various journals including Film and Philosophy, Consciousness, Literature and the Arts, Film-Philosophy, The Journal of Popular Culture and The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism.

“Writing about and researching the topic of nihilism helps me to remember how meaningless life really is. Running, motorcycling and listening to punk rock music helps me to forget,” says Marmysz.

Marmysz is the recipient of the SUNY Chancellor’s Award For Excellence in Scholarship and Creativity and has served as an NEH fellow. He currently teaches philosophy at the College of Marin in Kentfield, CA.

Though nihilism has been relentlessly criticized for overemphasizing the dark side of human experience, it might be equally true that this overemphasis represents a needed counterbalance to shallow optimism and arrogant confidence in human power. Nihilism reminds us that we are not gods, and that despite all of the accomplishments and wonders of civilization, humans cannot alter the fact that they possess only a finite amount of mastery and control over their own destinies.

Laughing at Nothing: Humor as a Response to Nihilism

Further Reading: In Defense of Humorous Nihilism

Zen & The Art of Postmodern Philosophy

zen and postmodern philosophy

Selected Passages

Nietzsche views Buddhism as a passive kind of nihilism, a sign of weakness. Contrary to Nietzsche’s opinion of Buddhism, the historical Buddha wanted to “steer clear of notions of permanent existence and nihilistic nonexistence.” Within the context of the historically later Mahayana Buddhist philosophy, classical Madhyamika thinkers, for instance, emphatically rejected a nihilistic interpretation of the doctrine of emptiness. In his Mulamadhyamakakarika, Nagarjuna writes, for instance, the following:

In truth, the cessation of a real existing entity is not possible. For, indeed, it is not possible to have the nature of both existence and non-existence at the same time.

This type of statement motivated some critical interpreters to label such assertions nihilistic…

In response to western critics like Nietzsche and others, Nishitani rejects such erroneous claims, and asserts that nihilism is “the single greatest issue facing philosophy and religion in our times.” Within our historical time and place, philosophy has failed to provide an adequate response to nihilism, a historical actuality. The failure of philosophy is connected with the death of the traditional notion of a transcendent deity that gave history its meaningful basis in eternity. Devoid of any transcendent foundation, history becomes an errant striving for a viable future and an unbearable burden upon the individual.

Nietzsche’s response to the loss of a transcendent God and ground of historical meaning was to attempt to transcend history in and through time rather than striving to go beyond time…

Nishitani does not think that Nietzsche’s vision is a useful solution because the “will to power” was conceived as a “thing” referred to as “will.” To remain an entity suggests for Nishitani that it did not lose its connotation as other for us and something of which could help us become aware of ourselves at a primary level.

Science is also part of the problem because “Modern science has completely transformed the old view of nature, resulting in the birth of various forms of atheism and the fomenting of an indifference to religion in general.” Moreover, science rejects the possibility of a personal God or a teleological view of the world, and conceives of nature as something indifferent and impersonal.

According to Nishitani, reality is not something that can be reduced: “It is both life and death, and at the same time is neither life nor death. It is what we have to call the nonduality of life and death.”

From Nishitani’s perspective, contemporary atheism goes further by adding a sense of the meaninglessness associated with a purely materialistic and mechanistic world and “an accompanying awareness of the nihility that lies concealed just beneath the surface of the world.” Within contemporary atheism, there is an awareness of nihility in which the existence of God is denied and replaced by nihility. How is it possible to break out of this fundamental crisis of human existence? It is possible to deepen our subjectivity and freedom by practicing zazen (seated meditation) which will help us to become aware of the reality of sunyata (emptiness)? … From Nishitani’s perspective, Zen Buddhism does not represent an eastern form of nihilism.

Nishitani refers to the elemental mode of being as possessing an illusory appearance: “That being is only being in unison with emptiness means that eing possesses at its ground the character of an ‘illusion,’ that everything that is, is in essence fleeting, illusory appearance.”

In his work entitled Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits, Nietzsche refers to the overcoming of metaphysics and links it with liberation. In his four-volume study of Nietzsche, Heidegger interprets Nietzsche’s call for an end of metaphysics in the following manner: “The end of metaphysics discloses itself as the collapse of the reign of the transcendent and the ‘ideal’ that sprang from it. But the end of metaphysics does not mean the cessation of history.” Heidegger’s study of Nietzsche depicts him as the last metaphysician. Rosen disputes this claim because Nietzsche view metaphysics as illusion, and “Metaphysics is rendered impossible by the irrational necessity of the Chaos that lies in the heart of all things.” Nonetheless, Nietzsche’s call for an end of the western metaphysical tradition creates room for the eventual development and retrieval of an analysis of Being from the perspective of Heidegger. In a lecture from his later period, Heidegger claims that “To think Being without beings means: to think Being without regard to metaphysics.” Within the space provided by Nietzsche’s termination of metaphysics, Heidegger anoints and appoints himself to be the initial philosopher after the end of metaphysics, which for some postmodern thinkers also means the end of philosophy or the conclusion of philosophy as it has been practiced in the West.

As part of his argument, Derrida states that not all languages are logocentric because Chinese or Japanese nonphonetic scripts are evidence of cultures developing alternatively to logocentrism.

D.T. Suzuki captures the spirit of play in Zen Buddhism when he writes, “For playfulness comes out of empty nothingness, and where there is something, this cannot take place. Zen comes out of absolute nothingness and knows how to be playful.” To be able to play is to be free, whereas to work is to be limited and confined. The free and voluntary nature of play is a source of joy and amusement. The spirit of play for Dogen represents his transcendence of earthly dichotomies and absolute freedom. In a spirit applicable to the Zen of Dogen, Huizinga writes, “Play lies outside te antithesis of wisdom and folly, equally outside those of truth and falsehood, good and evil.”

It is a time for thinkers to wander aimlessly, err, emphasize altarity, stress the importance of difference, communicate indirectly, and embrace irony.

Zen, from one perspective, represents the end of philosophy as the love of wisdom and the use of rational means to find the truth, and many postmodern thinkers share the Zen suspicion of metaphysics and representational thinking, even though some postmodernists might view Zen as an example of eastern logocentrism.

“[Writing] plays within the simulacrum.” In fact, other postmodernists agree with Derrida that we are located in the simulacrum, a copy of a copy according to Plato… The functioning of the simulacrum, a Dionysian machine, is simulation, a phantasm itself, that subverts the same or representative model and renders it false… “It harbors a positive power that deniesthe original and the copy, the model and the reproduction.” Such a philosophical position manifests an anti-Kantian perspective that is aconceptual and nonrepresentational.

Writing on behalf of all human beings, Deleuze concludes that “We have become simulacra.”

Although there are certainly many similarities between Buddhist philosophy and forms of postmodern philosophy as evident by our previous discussions, the differences are ultimately more significant. Many postmodern thinkers manifest evidence of moving in the direction of Zen, but there is always a point at which they become captives of their own radical skepticism and/or language games.

Proceeding in a direction where the postmodernists would never tread, Dogen claims that the body is both subject and object, and that the body and mind represent the entire world, which implies that we are never separated from the world.

Due the the absence of an end, a definite conclusion is impossible. The most that we can affirm is that a conclusion is inconclusive, and yet we must come to some sort of end. I tend to agree with Taylor who thinks that one must end where one finds oneself. It has not been the intention of this dialogue between representatives of the Zen philosophical tradition and postmodern thought to arrive at a final solution to any philosophical problems. The inconclusive end of this intercultural dialogue terminates with an interlude that anticipates a continuation of the dialogue at a future date. Unable to come to final conclusions or a definitive end, it seems advisable to simply sign out.

– Carl Olson


“The Buddhist Dharma cannot be understood through rational and intellectual study.”

– Dogen

“The relationship of being and nothingness is thus one of mutual implication and intertwining; it is not predicated on antithesis or reciprocal exclusion.”

– Dallmayr

What is the Life of Meaning?

Depending upon whom one asks, the question, “What is the meaning of life?” may be one of the most profound questions of human existence or nothing more than a nonsensical request built on conceptual confusion, much like, “What does the color red taste like?” Ask a non-philosopher, “What do philosophers discuss?” and a likely answer will be, “The meaning of life.” Ask the same question of a philosopher within the analytic tradition, and you will rarely get this answer. Within the analytic philosophical community, the disinterest in the question of life’s meaning, and in some cases outright logical suspicion, is likely partly a result of the question’s inherent lack of clarity and partly a result of the suspicion that it is a request for which no answer exists because it is built on suspect assumptions about what would have to be the case in order for life to have a meaning. Indeed, it is not immediately clear what is being requested in asking the question of life’s meaning, nor is it clear that life could have such a meaning, given latent assumptions often accompanying the asking of the question.

Despite the relative disinterest in the question of life’s meaning among analytic philosophers for a large part of the twentieth century, there has been a growing body of work on the topic by contemporary analytic philosophers since the 1980’s. The parameters in which the philosophical discussion of the meaning of life is unfolding within analytic philosophy largely center on two dimensions: the first, with bringing clarity and sense to the question, and the second, on fitting the concept of meaning within the realm of normativity in general, and then with discovering the necessary and sufficient conditions for a meaningful life.

This article surveys the important trajectories in discussions of life’s meaning within contemporary analytic philosophy. It begins with a consideration of an important generating condition of the question of life’s meaning, one that Thomas Nagel has particularly noted (Nagel 1971, 1989)—the human ability to view life sub specie aeternitatis. Next, it surveys current analytic philosophical discussions over the following prominent themes: (i) strategies for understanding what the question is asking, (ii) extant views of how a meaningful life can be secured, and (iii) the connection between death, futility, and a meaningful life. This article concludes by noting some considerations that may bring further depth to discussions over life’s meaning as they progress.

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. The Human Context
  3. The Meaning of Life in Contemporary Analytic Philosophy
    1. Addressing the Question’s Lack of Clarity: Securing a Non-linguistic Usage of “Meaning”
    2. Addressing the Question’s Lack of Clarity: The Amalgam Thesis
    3. A Meaningful Life: Current Views
      1. Supernaturalism
      2. Objective Naturalism
      3. Subjective Naturalism
      4. Pessimistic Naturalism: Nihilism
    4. Death, Futility, and a Meaningful Life
  4. The Future of the Discussion
  5. References and Further Reading
  1. Introduction

Vis-à-vis the meaning of life, there are two juxtaposed and incongruent realities. On the one hand, for a large part of the twentieth century, analytic philosophers generally ignored the question of life’s meaning because they were doubtful that it had no answer. This doubt was because of latent assumptions on the part of many who ask the question about what would have to be the case for life to have a meaning or because they were suspicious that it is incoherent and meaningless. On the other hand, most non-philosophers consider it one of the most important questions, if not the most important question, of human existence. This, of course, creates a prima facie impasse, given that the question of life’s meaning is one that many of those supposedly functioning as guardians of the canons of reason think is rationally sub-par or at least less deserving of philosophical energy than is a consideration of, for example, how consciousness and accompanying qualia arise from matter or whether discussions of epistemic luck and control hold the key to discovering the necessary and sufficient conditions of propositional knowledge.

While this trend of neglect is unfortunate, it is partly understandable given that the question, “What is the meaning of life?” is at least moderately characterized by a lack of clarity (and some would say a lack of coherence). Philosophically, the question therefore has seemed unmanageable to many. It is surely not a question about the semantic meaning of the word “life,” but what then is it a question about? Is it a question about human life? Is it a question about all biological life? Is it a question about all of existence? Is it asking for a comprehensive explanation of why the universe exists and of our place within it? And if so, is it asked with strong teleological assumptions at the fore, such that a purely efficient, mechanistic causal story would leave the inquirer unsatisfied? These latter questions with aglobal focus seem to track a request like, “What is it all about?” Indeed, there is a profound human impulse to seek a sweeping, deep explanation, context, or narrative through which to interpret existence, and then to move beyond localized foci by living into this universal, totalizing narrative. This first cluster of questions highlights the explanatory dimension of the question of life’s meaning whereby some sort of explanation (perhaps even narrativeexplanation) is sought that will render the universe and our lives within it intelligible. Conceding the question’s lack of clarity, these requests partially illuminate what is being asked.

However, raising these questions alone neglects other important questions in the neighborhood of life’s meaning. Though connected, they are conceptually distinct from the first set; although, depending on how robust the above explanation of what it is all about is, one might have good reason to think that it would also encompass this second dimension. In any case, while related to the explanatory dimension, these next questions highlight thenormative dimension of the meaning of life question. When asking these, we are more concerned with the aim of securing a meaningful life. We wonder what we must, or should, or ought to order our lives around so as to render them meaningful. Meaningfulness, then, perhaps supervenes on a life properly ordered around the right stuff. Questions within this dimension include, “What is (are) the purpose(s) of life (my life)?” “What makes life valuable?” or “What makes life worthwhile and not irredeemably futile?”

Most philosophers currently writing on the topic think the question of life’s meaning is somehow a question about all of these and other related topics, but only insofar as it is viewed as a long disjunctive question or an amalgam of related yet distinct requests about purpose, value, worth, significance, death, and futility, among others. Furthermore, though it is viewed as a request that moves us into normative territory, this question is thought to be distinct from purely ethical requests about rightness and wrongness, purely aesthetic requests about the good and beautiful, and purely eudaimonistic requests about human happiness and flourishing, while bearing some relationship to all three. There is little consensus beyond this minimal agreement.

  1. The Human Context

The human preoccupation with the question of life’s meaning is at least partly generated by our capacity to get-outside-of ourselves and view our pursuits and very lives first-person oriented and distantly from a detached, more-or-less dispassionate standpoint (see Nagel 1971; 1989; Fischer 1993). We, unlike butterflies or cats for example, can take a  critical viewpoint on our lives. We possess the ability to shift from engagement to reflection. We question what we do. We question how what we do coheres with the rest of reality, and whether reality, at the deepest level, in any way cares about us and our pursuits. We can view our lives sub specie aeternitatis, after which we can either experience profound angst, indifference, or hope, among other reactions, depending upon what we think that viewpoint entails. Whether, in normative appraisals of life, it is reasonable to privilege this detached perspective over our immediate, human perspective is beside the point. The fact is we often do, and this human propensity is correlated with inquiring into the meaning of life.

  1. The Meaning of Life in Contemporary Analytic Philosophy

Contemporary analytic philosophy has inherited important trajectories from the ancient and modern worlds, whether from Qohelet, Schopenhauer, Tolstoy, Camus, or Sartre among others, vis-à-vis the meaning of life. But, understandably, the analytic philosophical impulse toward conceptual clarification has given discussions of the meaning of life within this tradition a unique shape. Indeed, a significant portion of the discussion within this contemporary context has been primarily concerned with trying to understand the question itself. Is it coherent? Is it meaningful? What is it asking? What assumptions motivate the question? Asking such questions is necessary because the question of life’s meaning lacks clarity and has an elusive quality to it. Analytic philosophers have rightly noticed this. There exist a couple of options for addressing this lack of clarity short of the outright charge of incoherence that was common for a substantial portion of the twentieth century in the wake of logical positivism’s once strong grip.

  1. Addressing the Question’s Lack of Clarity: Securing a Non-linguistic Usage of “Meaning”

One option for addressing the clarity problem is to retain the use of the word “meaning” and to secure a usage that applies to non-linguistic phenomena, given that in asking the question of life’s meaning, one is not asking for the semantic meaning of the word “life.” This strategy is especially concerned with finding a natural interpretation of the question through a plausible employment of the term “meaning.” “Meaning” has multiple meanings, and at least some of the more prominent ones mitigate its usefulness in the context of trying to formulate the intuitions driving the question of life’s meaning. Indeed, if one is asking for the semantic meaning of life rather than “life,” then the accusation of incoherence is plausible. We ask for the meanings of semantic constructions, but not of things like physical entities, events, or life in general. The problem then is that “meaning” is a term which appears to most naturally find its home within a linguistic context. However, life itself is not such a context. That is to say, in asking the question, one is not asking for any sort of definition of “life” or a description of this term’s usage. But then, what is being asked? This is where the problem lies.

The problem is solvable, though, given that asking what something means need not be a request for a definition or description. There are additional non-linguistic contexts in which the locution, “What is the meaning of x?” makes perfect sense (for example, intentional signification, non-intentional signification (that is, natural signs), and so forth.) (see Nozick 1981). Some of them even share family resemblances to the question of life’s meaning. One in particular is especially relevant.

The question, “What is the meaning of x?” functions naturally in the largely non-linguistic context in which we seek to know how something fits within a larger context or narrative. We naturally and legitimately invoke the formula, “What is the meaning of x?” in situations wherex is some fact, event, or phenomenon we encounter and of which we want to know the fact’s or event’s or phenomenon’s “. . . implication in the wider world within which this notion [or fact, event, or phenomenon] makes the sense it makes” (Wright 2003: 719). This “wider world” Wright considers to be a worldview, metanarrative, or something similar.

To make his point, Wright uses the example of how one comes to understand the Easter Event (that is, the putative bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazerath). For example, a well-educated Roman soldier who comes to learn of the event may contextualize it, and therefore “fix” its meaning, through the myth of Nero redivivus, the idea that Nero had come back to life in order to return to Rome in all his glory. The event means something different for him than for, say, Saul of Tarsus. The wider worldview framework or narrative (or even simply a more localized narrative which is, itself, part of a larger worldview narrative) will play a heavy hermeneutical role, then, in “discovering” (some may prefer determining) what any given fact, event, or phenomenon means. Discovering this meaning will be a product of asking and answering questions like: In what larger narrative(s) does the sentence (intended to refer to a fact, event, or phenomenon) belong? What worldviews do such narratives embody and reinforce? What are the universes of discourse within which this sentence, and the event it refers to, settle down and make themselves at home – and which, at the same time, they challenge and reshape from within? (Wright 2003: 719).

In terms of the meaning of life, one could argue that we are trying to find the “wider world” (i.e., worldview, metanarrative) in which the existentially salient elements and accompanying questions of life fit. These existentially salient elements and accompanying questions of life, for which the word “life” is a marker, are perennial meaning of life themes. They are what often prompt in us the grand question: “What is the meaning of life?” and include:

(1) Fact—something exists, we [humans] exist, and I exist / Question—Why does anything or we or I exist at all?

(2) Question—Does life have any purpose(s), and if so, what is its nature and source?

(3) Fact—we are often passionately engaged in life pursuits and projects that we deem valuable and worthwhile / Question—Does the worth and value of these pursuits and projects need grounding in something else, and if so, what?

(4) Fact—pain and suffering are part of the universe / Question—Why?

(5) Question—How does it all end? Is death final? Is there an eschatological remedy to the ills of this world?

(1) – (5) constitute the cluster of considerations that track discussions of life’s meaning, even though reasonable debate will exist about the details. In asking, “What is the meaning of life?” it is plausible to view this as the request for a “wider world” (that is, worldview, metanarrative) through which to secure answers to these questions. Viewed as such, this renders the question, “What is the meaning of life?” coherent and intelligible by securing a usage of “meaning” that fits naturally within a non-linguistic context.

  1. Addressing the Question’s Lack of Clarity: The Amalgam Thesis

The most common interpretive strategy for understanding what the question, “What is the meaning of life?” involves discarding the word “meaning” and reformulating the question entirely. With this approach, the question is morphed into a cluster of other supposedly less vague questions, even if no less difficult to answer:  “What is (are) the purpose(s) of life?”, or “What makes life valuable?”, or “What makes life worthwhile and not irredeemably futile?” among others.

Following precedent in the literature, especially R. W. Hepburn, this approach for addressing the vagueness in the question of life’s meaning may be called the amalgam thesis (Hepburn 1966). Roughly, the amalgam thesis entails that the original question, framed in terms of meaning, is a largely ill-conceived place-holder for a cluster of related requests, and thus, not really a single question at all. One way of understanding the amalgam thesis is to view it as making the question of life’s meaning little more than a disjunctive question:

What is the purpose of life, or what makes life valuable, or what makes life worthwhile?

On amalgam thesis premises the question, “What is the meaning of life?” ought  to be a question about purpose, or value, or worth or something else. However one worry is that these questions are primarily about purpose, value, and worth and  then secondly about the meaning of life.

Due to the dominance of the amalgam thesis as an interpretive strategy and its arguable philosophical merit, most contemporary philosophical treatments of the question of life’s meaning consider it in one of its reformulated versions such as, “What makes life valuable?”, “What makes life significant?”, “What is (are) the purpose(s) of life?”, “Does a particular life achieve some good purpose?”, or “What makes life worth living?” among others. So, there exist at least two interpretive levels of the question using the amalgam thesis, one tracking something like the question’s formal properties, and the other tracking the subsequent questions’ material content. In other words, the amalgam thesis implies that the question, “What is the meaning of life?” is really just a disjunctive question whereby requests about purpose, value, worth, and significance are made.

  1. A Meaningful Life: Current Views

Beyond discussions over the nature of the question itself, one will find competing views on what gives life meaning, whereby meaningfulness is meant. That is to say, by virtue of what can life be said to be meaningful, if it all? The four primary competitors are: (1) Supernaturalism, (2) Objective Naturalism, (3) Subjective Naturalism, and (4) Nihilism (inter-subjectivism and non-naturalism are additional options, but are much less prevalent). Importantly, both objective and subjective naturalism can be categorized as optimisticnaturalisms, in that these views allow for a meaningful existence in a world devoid of finite and infinite spiritual realities. Pessimistic naturalism is what is commonly called “nihilism.” Nihilism is generally a view adopted alongside an entirely naturalistic ontology (though vigorous debate exits about whether naturalism entails nihilism), although there is nothing logically impossible about someone adopting nihilism while being a religious believer. One will be hard-pressed, however, to find genuine examples of this belief, save some sort of rhetorical, provisional nihilism, as found in Ecclesiastes in the Bible.

  1. Supernaturalism

Roughly, supernaturalism maintains that God’s existence, along with “appropriately relating” to God, is both necessary and sufficient for securing a meaningful life, although different accounts can be given as to the nature of this relationship. Among countless others, historic representatives of supernaturalism in the Near-Eastern ancient world and in subsequent Western history are Qoheleth, Jesus, Paul, Augustine, Aquinas, Edwards, Pascal, and Tolstoy. The supernaturalist position can be plausibly viewed as possessing three distinct yet related dimensions: metaphysical, epistemological, and relational-axiological. Metaphysically, it is argued that God’s existence is necessary in order to ground a meaningful life because, for example, conditions necessary for securing a meaningful existence like objective value are most plausibly anchored in an entity like God (Cottingham 2005; Craig 2008). In addition to the metaphysical dimension, supernaturalism often requires, at some level, orthodoxy (right belief) and orthopraxy (right practice), although much debate exists on the details. God’s existence may be a necessary condition for securing a meaningful life, but it is generally thought that one must additionally relate to God in some relevant way in the epistemological and axiological dimensions (In addition to God-based supernaturalist theories, there are soul-based theories, where meaning in life is thought to be a function, not so much of God, but rather of having an indestructible soul whereby immortality is possible).

  1. Objective Naturalism

Objective naturalism, like supernaturalism, posits that a meaningful life is possible, but denies that a supernatural realm is necessary for such a life. Life in a purely physical world, devoid of finite and infinite spiritual realities, is sufficient for meaning according to objective naturalism. Objective naturalists claim that a meaningful life is a function of appropriately connecting with mind-independent realities that are, contra supernaturalism, entirely natural. Objective naturalism is further distinguished (from subjective naturalism) by its emphasis onmind-independence. One way of putting the point is to say that wanting or choosing is insufficient for a meaningful life. For example, choosing to spend one’s waking hours counting and re-counting blades of grass is likely insufficient for meaning on objective naturalism. Rather, meaning is a function of linking one’s life to inherently valuable, mind-independent conditions that are not themselves the sole products of what one wants strongly and chooses (contra subjective naturalism). Put simply, with objective naturalism it is possible to be wrong about what confers meaning on life—something is meaningful, at least partly, in virtue of its intrinsic nature, irrespective of what is believed about it. This is why spending one’s entire existence counting blades of grass or reading and re-reading phone books is probably not meaningful on objective naturalism, even if the person strongly desires to do so.

iii. Subjective Naturalism

Like objective naturalism, subjective naturalism posits that a meaningful life is possible apart from something like supernaturalism being true, but unlike objective naturalism, it differs on what confers meaning to life. According to subjective naturalism, what constitutes a meaningful life varies from person to person, and is a function of one getting what one strongly wants, or by achieving self-established goals, or through accomplishing what one believes to be really important. Caring about or loving something deeply has been thought by some to confer meaningfulness to life (Frankfurt 1988). Subjectivism seems most plausible to some in light of perceived failures to ground objective value, either naturally, non-naturally, or supernaturally. A worry for subjective naturalism, however, is analogous to ethical worries over moral relativism. Many protest that surely deep care and love simpliciterare not sufficient to confer meaningfulness on life. What if someone claims to find meaning in life counting blades of grass, or reading and re-reading the phone book, or worse, torturing people for fun? Can a life centering on such pursuits be a meaningful life? The strong, nearly universal intuition here towards objective value in some form inclines in the direction of requiring an objective standard that comes to bear on the meaningfulness of an activity or life in general. Subjectivism still has its defenders, with some proposals moving towards grounding value inter-subjectively—in community—as opposed to in the individual exclusively.

Nuanced forms of naturalism, vis-à-vis meaningfulness in life, make room for both objective and subjective elements, as is captured nicely by Susan Wolf, “Meaning arises when subjective attraction meets objective attractiveness” (Wolf 1997: 211). On this view, the objective and the subjective must unite in order to give birth to robust meaningfulness. Meaningfulness is not present in a life spent believing in, being satisfied by, or caring about worthless projects.However neither is it present in a life spent engaging in worthwhile, inherently valuable projects without believing in, or caring about, or being satisfied by them.

Though they are in disagreement on the conditions for meaningfulness, both objective and subjective naturalism are united in their rejection of supernaturalism and supernaturalism’s insistence that God is necessary in order to secure a meaningful life. In this way, both forms of naturalism, vis-à-vis meaningfulness in life, can be thought of as optimistic naturalisms—that is, meaningful life is possible in a godless universe. An optimistic naturalist sees no problem in thinking that a meaningful life can be secured within an entirely naturalistic ontology. Nothing additional, nothing of the transcendent sort, is needed to ground those things in life that we, pre-philosophically, find to be meaningful. The raw materials for meaningfulness are available apart from God.

  1. Pessimistic Naturalism: Nihilism

Against all views which think a meaningful existence is possible, is the view of pessimistic naturalism, more commonly called nihilism. Roughly, nihilism is the view that denies that a meaningful life is possible because, literally, nothing has any value. One way to understand nihilism is by seeing it as the fusion of theses and assumptions drawn from both supernaturalism and naturalism. That is to say, nihilism may be seen as requiring (i) that God or some supernatural realm is likely necessary for value and a meaningful existence, but (ii) that no such realm exists, and therefore nothing is of ultimate value. Other forms of nihilism focus on states like boredom or dissatisfaction, arguing that boredom sufficiently infuses life so as to make it meaningless, or that human lives lack the requisite amount of satisfaction to confer meaning upon them. Another form of nihilism that is logically compatible with the existence of God is one based upon a disparity between standpoints. It has been argued that from the most distant, detached viewpoint, nothing we do seems to matter at all. If one thinks that it is possible to view even God and the economy of his workings from some more distant standpoint, then even supernaturalism may face a nihilistic threat of this form.

  1. Death, Futility, and a Meaningful Life

The meaning of life is closely linked with a cluster of related issues surrounding death, futility, and the way life is going to end, in regards to both the individual life and to the universe as a whole. These are common threads in the meaning of life literature, from Ecclesiastes to Camus to contemporary analytic philosophy. Death (and the end of the universe itself) often is thought to bear a close relationship with futility. The common pessimistic claim is that cosmic futility supervenes upon the entirety of human existence, given a naturalistic view of the ultimate fate of life, both human life as well as the universe itself, where death and entropy will very likely be the final, irreversible state of reality.

Why is death in an exclusively naturalistic world thought by many to be a challenge to a meaningful life? One reason may be the widespread view that, ceteris paribus, meaningful things last, as in ’diamonds are forever’’. Vis-à-vis the meaning of life, most people judge various aspects of life, pre-philosophically, to be meaningful. When subsequently engaged in conscious reflection on the necessary conditions for meaningfulness, immortality is often thought to be transcendentally necessary (though not sufficient) for meaningfulness. Many people desire consciousness, memory, personhood, love, creativity, and achievement to be part of the deep structure of reality, in that the universe, in the long run, makes space for these things. An exclusively naturalistic universe likely does not. From the perspective of a universe that will very likely become unfavorable to the existence of intelligent life, nothing we do seems of any real consequence or value. Death, both our own and the universe’s (speaking metaphorically of course), is a profound barrier to the meaningful properties and activities that populate human existence continuing on in any robust sense. And so the threat of futility lingers for many who worry that we live in an exclusively naturalistic universe.

The kind of futility surfacing in this context can be thought of as strong futility or weak futility. In the strong sense, it is claimed that if the final state of affairs of the universe (e.g. heat death) is one in which nothing matters, then nothing ever really mattered and everything is irredeemably futile. In the weaker sense, it is claimed that if the final state of affairs of the universe is one in which nothing matters, then the mattering or significance of current states of affairs is in some way mitigated, either minimally or considerably, though not completely destroyed. This futility partly arises, then, through an asymmetry between the vantage points of the lifeless, distant future that lacks consciousness of any sort, and the present filled with conscious life and its various dimensions. A “bad” ending is thought to threaten the meaningfulness of the entire story.

Critics of these strong and weak futility claims counter by calling into question what can be called the-arbitrary-privileging-of-the-future. They ask, “Why should the end state of affairs be given such veto power over the worth and meaning of the here and now?” It has been noted that appealing to such asymmetry by which to charge naturalism with irredeemable futility is contingent upon a suspect assumption; namely, arbitrarily placing an undue amount of importance (perhaps all the importance) on the final state of affairs to which life leads. But why give the future priority over the present and the past? If life is meaningful now, how can the fact that it will cease to exist make it less meaningful now? And, if life is not meaningful now, how could its un-ending continuation confer meaningfulness to it? Critics of such futility claims argue that the most plausible way to appraise the meaningfulness and worth of life here and now, is by adopting the here and now perspective, not the distant, detached perspective of some indifferent future of a universe in ruins. Of course, one might make the converse claim, “Why privilege the present over the future?” Principled reasons must be offered that will help settle the question of which viewpoint—the distant-future or theimmediate-present—gets normative priority for appraisals of life as either worthwhile or futile.

  1. The Future of the Discussion

Within normative theory, one underexplored question is where the concept ofmeaningfulness fits within the normative realm shared by the ethical, aesthetic, and eudaimonistic. Meaning seems closely connected to these other normative categories, but reducible to none (though it is perhaps closest to the third). One can perhaps imagine ethical lives that are, for example, profoundly unsatisfying to the one who lives them. And even if the ethical is one component of the meaningful, it seems implausible to think that an apathetic, yet morally exemplary life, qualifies as fully meaningful, especially if one thinks that meaningfulness is at least partly a function of being subjectively attracted to objective attractiveness. Meaningfulness extends beyond the ethical, while somehow including it. These same sorts of questions can be raised regarding the relationship between meaningfulness and other normative categories.

In addition, the debate between reductive naturalists and non-reductive naturalists has direct implications for whether it can be thought that normative properties are part of the deep structure of reality on naturalism. If they are, then optimistic naturalism of the objective variety will gain the upper hand over subjective optimistic naturalism. So, progress in the debate between objective and subjective naturalism will track progress in discussions within metaphysics more generally.

Or, consider the problem of evil in the philosophy of religion. The experience of evil links to the meaning of life, especially when one considers death and futility. Quite apart from philosophical reflections on the problem, the experience of evil is often one of those generating conditions of the question of life’s meaning born out of existential angst. Is there an intelligible, existentially satisfying narrative in which to locate the experience of pain and suffering and to give the sufferer some solace and hope? Evil in a meaningful universe may not cease from being evil, but it may be more bearable. In this way, the problem of meaning may be more foundational than the problem of evil. And one especially thinks of what we might call the eschatological dimension of the problem of evil—is there any hope in the face of pain, suffering, and death, and if so, what is its nature? Bringing future-oriented considerations of pain and suffering into the philosophical discussion will also naturally link to perennial meaning of life topics like death and futility. Additionally, it will motivate more vigorous research and debate over whether the inherent human desire for a felicitous ending to life’s narrative, including, for example, post-mortem survival and enjoyment of the beatific vision or some other blessed state is mere wishful thinking or a cousin to our desire for water, and thus, a truly natural desire that points to a referent capable of fulfilling it. In any case, discussions over the problem of evil are correlated with discussions over the meaning of life, and progress in one might be significant for progress in the other.

Finally, an underexplored area in contemporary analytic philosophy is how the concept ofnarrative might shed light on the meaning of life. One reason this is important can be seen in the following. Historically, most of the satisfying narratives that in some way narrated the meaning of life were also religious or quasi-religious. Additionally, many of these narratives count as narratives in the paradigmatic sense as opposed to non-narrative modes of discourse. However, with the rise of modern science, both the narratives and the religious or quasi-religious worldviews embodied in them were diminished in certain spheres. This led to the anxious questioning of life’s meaning and the fear that a thoroughly scientific-naturalistic narrative of the universe is far from existentially satisfying. This elicits the following important question: Are such paradigmatic instances of narratives which, in some way, narrate the meaning of life, thought to be more existentially satisfying in virtue of their explicitly religious perspective on the world or in virtue of the fact that they are paradigmatic instances of narrative or both? In terms of an interdisciplinary approach, the work of cognitive scientists who are informing us that personal identity has a substantial narrative component may be of benefit here. Perhaps our deep human need to construct meaningful narratives in order to contextualize parts of our lives and our very lives themselves is genetically hardwired. More specifically, perhaps our existential need to locate our lives and the profound elements that populate human life within grand narratives that are paradigmatic instances of narrative is genetically hardwired. If something like this is correct, then it may become clearer why questioning the meaning of life with such intensity and angst is correlated with the rise of a grand narrative (that is, naturalism) that is not a narrative in the paradigmatic sense.

Within a philosophical tradition that has had relatively little to say about the meaning of life, there are signs of change. Since the 1980’s, some within the ranks of analytic philosophy have turned their attention to life’s great question. The question is approached with an analytic rigor that will hopefully illumine some of the assumptions motivating it and point in the direction of possible approaches for answering it. Much work remains to be done. The philosophical waters remain murky, but they are clearing.


Further Reading:

There is Nothing New Under the Sun


All is Vanity

The words of the Teacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun? A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains for ever. The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hurries to the place where it rises. The wind blows to the south, and goes round to the north; round and round goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns. All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they continue to flow. All things are wearisome; more than one can express; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, or the ear filled with hearing. What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, ‘See, this is new’? It has already been, in the ages before us. The people of long ago are not remembered, nor will there be any remembrance of people yet to come by those who come after them.

I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem, applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with. I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind. What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be counted.

I said to myself, ‘I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me; and my mind has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.’ And I applied my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a chasing after wind. For in much wisdom is much vexation, and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow.

I said to myself, ‘Come now, I will make a test of pleasure; enjoy yourself.’ But again, this also was vanity. I said of laughter, ‘It is mad’, and of pleasure, ‘What use is it?’ I searched with my mind how to cheer my body with wine—my mind still guiding me with wisdom—and how to lay hold on folly, until I might see what was good for mortals to do under heaven during the few days of their life. I made great works; I built houses and planted vineyards for myself; I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees. I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house; I also had great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem. I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and of the provinces; I got singers, both men and women, and delights of the flesh, and many concubines.

So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem; also my wisdom remained with me. Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them; I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.

So I turned to consider wisdom and madness and folly; for what can the one do who comes after the king? Only what has already been done. Then I saw that wisdom excels folly as light excels darkness. The wise have eyes in their head, but fools walk in darkness.

Yet I perceived that the same fate befalls all of them. Then I said to myself, ‘What happens to the fool will happen to me also; why then have I been so very wise?’ And I said to myself that this also is vanity. For there is no enduring remembrance of the wise or of fools, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How can the wise die just like fools? So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me; for all is vanity and a chasing after wind.

I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me —and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish? Yet they will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. So I turned and gave my heart up to despair concerning all the toil of my labours under the sun, because sometimes one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.

There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God; for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? For to the one who pleases him God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy; but to the sinner he gives the work of gathering and heaping, only to give to one who pleases God. This also is vanity and a chasing after wind.

– Ecclesiastes 1-2 (King Solomon)

Religion & Nothingness

Keiji Nishitani – “Religion and Nothingness”

religion and nothingness

Originally Published on Strong Reading


Keiji Nishitani attempts in this book to reformulate the question “What is religion?” away from attempts to amass historical evidence from a variety of traditions in order to create a universal definition of religion based on certain shared characteristics, from using an objective viewpoint to encounter religion as some type of object whose characteristics can be catalogued and compared. Instead, Nishitani seeks the home-ground of religion, its existence as it is lived by people. The question of religion is to be approached by a person questioning what religion is specifically to them, how they live what they call religion, treating that practice as religion’s sole existence, “where religion emerges from man himself, as a subject, as a self living in the present.” (xlviii) So Nishitani is uninterested in what religion “has been,” but in what it “ought to be,” how it can be understood and practiced in such a way as to carry personal conviction.

In so reformulating the question of religion, Nishitani attempts to engage not only with the Zen Buddhist tradition in which he has been raised and practiced, but also with Western philosophies of religion (comparisons of Eastern vs. Western thinking/society are all over this book – I’m too lazy to put scare quotes over all of them…). Nishitani regards the contemporary situation of Western culture (this book was written in 1982) as one whose primary disease is nihilism, the loss of lived belief in personal deities and an ordered cosmos, replaced by what he sees as empty worship of human capacities. In order to overcome this situation, Western thought must come to recognize the Buddhist standpoint of sunyata, and the perspective it opens on human affairs and the natural world.

Nishitani insists that his account is meant to be non-doctrinal, equally applicable to all religions, but he ultimately criticizes Christianity and Judaism for embodying a pre-nihilistic viewpoint, that of a personal deity and of individual chosenness and election by God, a fundamentally self-centered viewpoint, which he argues can only be overcome, along with the nihilism to which it has succumbed, by adoption of certain Buddhist concepts and perspectives, heavily inflected with concepts taken from Heidegger, Hegel, and Kierkegaard.

Chapter 1: “What is Religion?”

The question “What is religion?” or, more importantly, the question “Why do we need religion?” is ambiguous: asking the question is a demonstration that religion has not yet become a necessity for the questioner, but religion should be necessary even for one who does not yet see its value. This ambiguity arises from the fact that religion cannot be defended in terms of its utility: “a religion concerned primarily with its own utility bears witness to its degeneration.” (2) Utility is a form of evaluation that is fundamentally self-centered; when I ask what purpose religion serves I really ask what purpose it serves for me.

The question of religion opens up, for Nishitani, at the point where we no longer understand utility as a viable form of evaluation, in what are called limit experiences such as death, illness, poverty, etc., undermines “the roothold of our existence and bring[s] the meaning of life into question – become[s] pressing personal problems for us.” (3) The value of all our previous projects undertaken for our own sakes is dissolved in these limit experiences, and we recognize that “not one of all the things that had made up the stuff of life until then is of any use.” (3) Nishitani argues that, following Kierkegaard and Heidegger, “that abyss is always just underfoot,” and that the nihility, “that which renders meaningless the meaning of life,” always underlies the projects we create for ourselves (3-4). Religion arises at these moments of crisis where nihility has overcome our self-centered existence and called the meaning of our lives into question, such that we are force to asked for what purpose we exist. Religion, then, for Nishitani, is the practice, the lived experience, of an individual’s answering this question for herself, the overcoming of self-centered living through the replacement of self-love by life lived for a purpose which becomes the new object of live, which he will later compare to love of one’s neighbor.

Nishitani, noting that there are many different perspective by which one can view religion, chooses to focus on religion as the “real self-awareness of reality,” which refers both to our awareness of reality and reality’s realizing (actualizing itself and coming to its self-awareness) itself within our awareness and actions (5). Reality realizes itself in us by appropriating us to reality, thus altering not only our thoughts, but also our actions and practices to take up their “essential determination,” thus bringing us to live in the fullest sense of the term according to our real being (6).

Reality for Nishitani is unrelated to bare physical existence, as the nihility representing the meaninglessness of physical things and the death representing the negation of life are equally real phenomena. When Nishitani speaks of reality, he refers to “a great harmony among all things in the universe that brings them into being and sustains them in mutual dependence and cooperation, a mystical order that rules over all things so that God can be seen in the most trivial of things.” (8-9) In other words, reality constitutes that perspective whereby we can see within each individual thing, in its course of changes and ultimately its inevitable death, its essential relationship and harmony with all other things in the universe. Reality realizes itself in us when we not only see the universe according to this perspective, but actively take it up in our practices of living, behaving and becoming a harmonious being in relationship with all other things, described in more detail in later chapters.

Two types of self-centeredness, however, prevent us from living within what Nishitani calls the field of reality: the first, already described above, is the self-centeredness of our intentions and interests, understanding all of our activities in terms of their utility for us. The second is a conceptual self-centeredness, or the “subjective autonomy of the ego” that arises from Cartesian philosophy (10). Modern philosophy regards the ego as a separate individual, cut off from the world which it represents to itself and thus comprehends as a set of objects. This egocentric perspective prevents us from comprehending the pre-Cartesian view of the universe, as an organic whole whose parts are in sympathy with each other, connected by the souls of each thing.

The modern egocentric perspective sees only its own intentions and representations, its forms of knowledge and emotions, reflected back to it when looking into the universe. The egocentric subject is closed within its own self-understanding, such that “ego means self in a state of self-attachment.” (14) Nishitani opposes what he refers to as the elemental self to this form of encountering the world, where one recognizes and therefore lives within one’s roots or grounds within universal harmony. The passing-over from the self-attached to the elemental selves begins in the limit experiences outlined above, which create in the individual “the Great Doubt,” a Zen phrase Nishitani uses to express the “fundamental uncertainty about the very existence of oneself and others.” (16) The Great Doubt involves recognizing that nihility not only is present as a threat amongst our everyday existence, but is fundamentally at its root, that nihility, meaningless and formlessness, lies “concealed at the ground of all that exists, at the ground of the world itself,” a recognition that does not negate the reality of the world, but “nullifies” it, bringing us face-to-face with the impermanence and evanescence of our own existences, along with that of all things (16).

Nishitani compares the experience of the Great Doubt to the Christian recognition of sin and evil. An individual’s recognition of his or her own sinful state is connected with recognizing the sinfulness of all humanity, that in the very ground of humanity’s existence as humanity, it is in essence sinful. True recognition of sin is deeper than secular definitions of evil as the latter only isolate instances of evil actions, whereas the former recognizes the transtemporality and essentiality of sin to humanity as such, in other words that humanity is in itself corrupt. In Christianity, faith must exist within this experience of sin, beginning in the recognition that sin, the shunning of divine love, is only possible inasmuch as humanity is essentially a receptacle for divine love, such that the “point of contact” between humans and God is found within “the very awareness of the fact of complete corruption itself.” (25)

Nishitani labels this realization the “Great Reality,” which follows from the Great Doubt in Zen Buddhism. In both religions, faith comes upon the recognition that humanity, in its state of nihility/sinfulness, is in reality essentially connected by its point of contact with some form of divine love. It follows that humanity is transtemporally and essentially connected not only in its sinfulness, but also in its relationship with the divine, the “‘Power of the Original Vow’ (that is, the saving will) of the Tagatha (Buddha) in the direction of all sentient beings,” or God’s agape. (26) Our recognition of our relationship with all other sentient beings and thus also with the divine is the only way to fully overcome our egocentric selfhood, fully break apart our solitude, and actualize our true elemental selfhood through faith.

Modern atheism in fact provides the key to start each individual’s personal journey towards faith. Nishitani chooses Sartre as his representative for modern atheistic humanism, basing his understanding of the ego on “subjective nothingness,” where no transcendent meaning grounds human existence, such that humans are capable of choosing “an image of what he believes man ought to be” and living that image out (31). In place of the imago Dei as the transcendent ground of human ethics, Sartre has humans create an “image of man” by which they model themselves. In this way, Nishitani argues, humans become fully closed within their ego’s projections of who they ought to be, blinded to the nihility that underlies their projections.

Modern atheism does not, however, liberate humanity from nihility, but rather brings it closer to it. Limit experiences will still call into question an individual’s existence, but this time with no grounding meaning to their lives outside of that which they have created and has just been called into question. In response, religion must reassert itself by coming to terms with two issues that have traditionally hampered it. First is a paradox regarding the ontological status of humanity vis a vis God. God has in traditional Christianity been understood as creator ex nihilo, meaning that God is ultimately more real than creation, being its archetype and architect. At the same time, however, creation is seen as imbued and sustained by divine love, and so the exact ontological status of creation is unsettled. Second, religion must come to terms with the problem of evil, of theodicy. Religion must finally be able to answer the problem of how a good and omnipotent God can allow evil and, for Nishitani, nihility, in the world.

Chapter 2: “The Personal and the Impersonal in Religion”

The two great intellectual crises of our time, Nishitani argues, are the resolution of the debate between religion and science, and the overcoming of philosophical nihilism, seen most prevalently in the form of modern atheism described above. The twin forces of science and philosophical nihilism began to challenge religion as the classical view of a teleologically ordered universe collapsed. The 1755 Lisbon Earthquake (destroyed lots of the city, churches destroyed, brothels not, etc., the idea that natural disasters were divine punishment was shattered) demonstrated that God and humanity do not have a personal relationship with each other, such that God responds to and ultimately supports human interests. In its wake a materialistic and mechanistic view of the universe, “a world cold and dead, governed by laws of mechanical necessity, completely indifferent to the fact of men.” (48) Without the idea of soul or spirit, the world now began to be seen as a collection of matter that followed impersonal rules.

This materialistic and mechanistic view of the physical universe was accompanied by a social vision of human progress. Under this vision, humans were viewed as the subjugators of nature, making the world conform to its own will and conceptions of justice and rationality. These three ideas, materialism, mechanism, and progress, are for Nishitani the three poles of modern atheism. The problem of nihility, however, was not resolved in the modern atheistic view of the world, but in fact was made into a presupposition of it. Humans became the masters of their own destiny with no structure of transcendent meaning (ie. metaphysics or religion) to ground their self-understanding, thus making them free to self-define.

The nihility underlying the modern atheistic subject, however, is not overcome by this kind of freedom, as limit experiences will always call into question whatever self-definition the subject gives itself. The only appropriate response to nihilism, for Nishitani, is to affirm the indifference of nature, but “not a cold and insensitive indifference, but an indifference of love. It is a non-differentiating love that transcends the distinctions men make between good and evil, justice and injustice.” (58) This type of love for Nishitani is the common denominator between Christian agape and Buddhist non-ego, both ways of indifferently appreciating all things, regardless of individual differences.

Nishitani explains the link between non-ego and agape in his reading of Meister Eckhart. For Eckhart, the essence of God is “absolute nothingness,” equated with the “Godhead” as opposed to the personal God, and a transcendence of any mode of divine being (61). When humans are made in the image of God, then, this includes the Godhead as well, such that each human has an element of absolute nothingness in his or herself. Union with God, then, requires that individual subjectivity be transcended in order to attain the divine element of absolute nothingness in the depths of the individual soul, such that “the element of self is broken through again and again” in mystic ascent (62). The individual in mystic ascent dies to his or her individual subjectivity, but begins to live a divine life having found and taken up his or her absolute nothingness, entering a condition Nishitani calls “death-sive-life,” the unity of death and life in mystic union (63). Having reached this union, Eckhart warns against rapture and self-intoxication in divine perfection, but advocates living everyday life with a higher sense of the value of all activities, each inspired with divine perfection. In fact, for Eckhart there is no divine soul beyond this everyday activity, such that Nishitani concludes that the mystic soul “bears witness to God as present in the Dasein of the soul itself.” (64) God does not stand in some transcendent ground beyond human experience, but in fact only exists as the Existenz, existence without essence, only through activity, of humans, the point of intersection between human and divine nature in the godhead which reveals itself as perfect practices of living.

In order to achieve this state, however, the subject must overcome the self-centered view of personhood implied in modern atheism. Modern atheistic subjects create and define themselves against a backdrop of nihility. Mystic ascent begins by affirming this nihility, recognizing that nothing underlies human subjectivity. There is no thing that models human existence, and the recognition of this opens the possibility of awareness of absolute nothingness: “true nothingness means that there is no thing that is nothingness, and this is absolute nothingness.” (70) Absolute nothingness can only be experienced as this lack of grounding of human subjectivity, experienced in succumbing to the experience of nihility in limit situations. Grounding subjectivity, in other words, is absolute nothingness, which opens up therefore as an individual’s true self:

The ‘nothing at all’ behind the person comes out into the open on the side of the self, the original self. If person [ie. modern atheistic subjectivity] be regarded as the sheer mode of self-being itself, ‘behind’ which there is nothing, this is so because the matter is being looked at from the side of the person. […] When the ‘nothing at all’ opens up on the near side of the personal self, however, and is seen as the sheer self itself, then nothingness really becomes actualized in the self as the true self. (70-71).

Instead of living as a “person,” an independent subject, we find ourselves, when recognizing that absolute nothingness is our ground, to be a “persona,” a role we play and nothing more. We are actors playing out roles that absolute nothingness delimits: our true nature is absolute nothingness, and so we merely embody the nature of absolute nothingness. Nishitani compares this situation to a wave and water. The wave is water and behaves as water does, but it an individual unit of it. There is no water that is not a wave, just as there is no ideal “humanity” that exists without individual humans, such that humans are the form and its instantiation at the same time. So it is not that humans are formless, but have no-form, have nothingness as their form, such that we are not “personal” beings, but are impersonal in our existence: “Seen from that aspect, every man, such as he is in the real Form of his suchness, is not man. He is impersonal. In other words, he is ‘man’ as an appearance with nothing at all behind it to make it an appearance,” and is “impersonal-sive-personal,” or beyond the duality of personality and impersonality. (74)

Chapter 3: “Nihility and Sunyata”

The similarity between religion and science/modern atheism is that each religion, and modern science as well, is grounded on a particular ontology or worldview. Each worldview acts as a basis for the truths expounded by the religion or science, and science, no less than religion, “seems to regard its own scientific standpoint as a position of unquestionable truth from which it can assert itself in all directions.” (78) Nishitani has already argued that modern science possesses a worldview of mechanism and materialism, or that the matter comprising the universe follows predictable laws. Each event in the universe, then, is an instance of those laws of nature.

Human freedom, then, follows a peculiar course for the scientific subject. Humans begin already appropriated to particular laws of their nature, those of human instincts. However, the ideal of progress requires transcendence of mere instinct to gain knowledge. At the same time, though, “knowledge advances and develops through the technological labors of man; and the advance of knowledge in turn advances technology.” (81) As humans free themselves from their bondage to instinct, they ultimately submit to the mechanistic rules of nature through technology. The condition of modern life is one of increasing impersonalization and mechanization of everyday human activity, so that just as humans liberate themselves from instincts often described as “animal,” they re-enslave themselves to their technology, causing the “mechanization of man, toward the loss of the human.” (85)

At the same time as human everyday life has become increasingly mechanized and routinized, however, humans themselves have become increasingly hedonistic. Humans see themselves as unbound by any laws whatsoever, free only to follow their personal desires, engaged in what Nishitani calls “crypto-nihilism,” the denial of any transcendent grounding of human subjectivity but without the Sartrean “image of man” or the Nietzschean drive toward self-transcendence that provided some guide to and impetus for subjective aspirations.

The standpoint that allows for movement beyond the mechanistic and hedonistic lives of modern subjects living by scientific atheism is the standpoint of sunyata, which in Buddhism refers to emptiness. Sunyata is the standpoint where each individual person becomes manifest as they are “as concrete human beings, as individuals with both body and personality. And at the same time, it is the point at which everything around us becomes manifest in its own suchness.” (90) The standpoint of sunyata is accessed through nihility. As one experiences the Great Doubt described above, all things in the world begin to appear meaningless and inessential, and beings become eclipsed by the absolute nothingness that not only serves as our ground, but the ground of the entire world. Sunyata, then, is the way of interpreting experience from the standpoint of absolute nothingness, how the world appears when being has been transcended.

Here the wave metaphor comes in handy again. Whereas classical Christianity would see God as inaccessibly transcendent to humanity, sunyata recognizes that each thing is like a wave in the ocean, where no ocean exists outside of the waves, but the waves themselves have no essential independent existence. “Rather, at the point that water and waves are self-identical (as water-waves), this flowing wetness emerges into reality for what it is, water there being water and waves there being waves.” (103) All things are absolute nothingness, but absolute nothingness has no existence (is nothing) apart from the things in the world which are groundless and inessential.

Attaining the standpoint of sunyata requires giving up conceptions of subject and object. Understanding the world as an object, or as a collection of objects, presumes an observing subject separated from those objects, particularly one who can represent the world to his or herself. In sunyata, contrastingly, each thing appears in its elemental existence as an appearance of absolute nothingness, “the point at which the self is truly on its own home-ground. Here plants and trees have penetrated to the bottom to be themselves; here tiles and stones are through and through tiles and stones; and here, too, in self-identity with everything, the self is radically itself.” (110) Sunyata understands each thing in its own selfhood as an appearance of absolute nothingness, thus revealing it not only its original nature but also its essential harmony with other things.

Chapter 4: “The Standpoint of Sunyata”

In classical Western philosophy, however, objectivity has traditionally taken the form of understanding individual things in terms of concepts like “substance” or “essence.” An individual existence is said to be an outgrowth of some form of true essence that explains the individual thing in its particular way of being. In classical philosophy, things are not seen on their home-ground, here defined as their existence as revealed by their particular activities, but rather as mediated through some more general concept that obscures the existenz of those things. In order to reach the standpoint of sunyata, individuals must transcend logical reason which categorizes objects and understands them in terms of universal concepts such as substance, etc.

The standpoint of sunyata regards things not as species within higher levels of logical genera, culminating with universalities such as “substance” or “matter,” but as they appear “with nihility at [their] ground, as lacking roots from the very beginning.” (122) In other words, rather than deriving the activity of things from a ground in universal concepts and laws, the standpoint of sunyata attends to the be-ing of things, their activity or in Nishitani’s terms, their virtus: “that individual capacity that each things possesses as a display of its own possibility of existence. The pine tree is returned to the virtus of the pine, the bamboo to the virtus of the bamboo, man to the virtus of his humanity.” (123-124) So rather than thinking of being as some kind of material base that differentiates itself to produce the myriad of existent things, things are grounded on nihility, and so only exist insofar as they are made visible in their virtus.

The conclusion Nishitani reaches is that being is only a coherent concept when united with emptiness. To explain this paradoxical conclusion, Nishitani gives the example of fire. Fire burns, but it burns something other than itself (ie. oxygen, wood, etc.). In fact, fire’s activity is in burning things other than itself, and not burning itself up in the process. So if we called the virtus of fire combustion, then the being of fire as combustion is dependent on its negation, its not combusting itself, so that fire is grounded on nothingness, non-combustion. The same goes with attributes as with substance. When we say that fire is hot, we do not say that the heat of fire itself is hot, because that statement would presuppose some deeper conception of heat that allows us to say that heat is hot, and so on ad infinitum. Heat is only an intelligible concept because of the existence of non-heat, the negation of heat as a concept, that heat is not itself hot. In both cases, being is grounded upon nothingness, such that being is only intelligible from the perspective of nothingness or sunyata.

For Nishitani, that being is grounded upon nothingness justifies its being labeled an illusion, an appearance that can only exist by virtue of its dependence on nothingness. Thus, the standpoint of sunyata allows us to see things in their truly elemental existence, in the sense described above. Since, furthermore, this standpoint allows things to reveal themselves in their activity, their virtus, rather than as a species within a category, taking up sunyata allows us to affirm the existence of all things as they are in their elemental natures. Things are as they reveal themselves when viewed from the standpoint of sunyata, and so are nothing but their own activity, and are thus radically affirmed, giving Nishitani cause to apply the Nietzschean title “Great Affirmation” to sunyata (131).

The standpoint of sunyata also breaks through the limitations of Enlightenment and German Idealist conceptions of human subjectivity, both sharing the notion of an isolated individual human subject standing apart from the world, representing it to itself as a set of objects. For Nishitani, this conception of subjectivity naturally bleeds into modern atheism, with an independent subject who is able to represent and order the world and himself according to his own faculties of reason and imagination. The Enlightenment/German Idealist subject, then, fails to confront its nihility as with the modern atheist subject. The standpoint of sunyata, however, allows subjects to see themselves as grounded in the same absolute nothingness as all other beings, finally overcoming their isolation and allowing them to affirm themselves and their own virtus in elemental existence. To this state of affairs of interconnectedness of all things by virtue of being grounded in absolute nothingness Nishitani applies the term circumincession, originally a Christian term used to describe the mutual indwelling of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit of the Trinity. Nishitani also likens it to Leibniz’s monads, each “reflecting one another like living mirrors of the universe.” (150)

Realizing the circumincession of ourselves with the rest of the world allows us to finally overcome the self-centeredness and self-attachment of our everyday lives. All of our activity is grounded on nothingness, such that the absolute nothingness we share with the rest of the world is closer to our true selves than our egos. Sight is only sight because it is also non-sight, the eye does not see itself or it would be eternally lost in itself viewing itself viewing itself, etc., and the same goes for consciousness. By recognizing one’s own grounding in nothingness, we can cease to cling to our ego-based self-recognition that inevitably succumbs to nihility, and rather take up the absolute nothingness that connects us with the rest of the world, thus answering the question of how to overcome the essential nihility at the heart of the human experience posed at the end of chapter 1. Religion also answers the problem of the ontological status of humanity by arguing that humanity is indeed essentially nothingness, but a nothingness that connects it will all things, including the godhead as per Eckhart.

Chapter 5: “Sunyata and Time”

The question of theodicy, however, still remains open, and Nishitani spends the rest of the book dealing with it by reconceptualizing time and history from the perspective of sunyata. Nishitani begins by stating the basic principle of samsara, describing the way sentient beings exist, condemned to a constant cycle of births and deaths of their selves and their projects, or in other words, “the awareness of an unfathomable nihility and “nullification.” (169) Samsara is the state of our being as always threatened by nihility underlying our activity. Nishitani connects samsara with karma, where humans are bound to experience the consequences of their past actions that condition their present possibilities, such that “everyone without exception reaps only the fruits of his own acts.” (169)

Nishitani argues that the recognition of samsaric suffering in the face of constant nihility and our imprisonment to the causal conditions of karma that continually renew our commitment to actions underlain by nihility constitutes Buddhism’s mythos, its fundamental awareness of humanity’s subjective experience. From the mythic perspective of Buddhism, our struggle against suffering and to overcome nihility is fundamentally a search for liberation from samsara and eventually for Nirvana, a state of absolute freedom unbound by karmic conditioning. Buddhism’s mythos provides the interpretive ground to understand human suffering as fundamentally a struggle to overcome the despair brought on by nihility.

Even if, however, we succeed in finding our original selves on the elemental ground of our existence described in the previous chapters, that attainment does not constitute the end of our struggle against despair. Nirvana cannot be considered some paradisiacal state outside of human experience, or only existing after death, but must be lived within ordinary life, as liberation from samsaric suffering while still enduring the “anxious, petty troubles of daily life,” or in Nishitani’s terms, “samsara-sive-Nirvana.” (182) Keeping in mind that samsaric suffering is truly suffering at the nihility grounding all existence, affirming nihility allows us to see the wheel of birth and death in each thing or event in the world as a microcosm of the absolute nothingness that pervades the entire universe, of the godhead that is imbued into all things.

Zen Buddhism refers to the ability to recognize absolute nothingness in any event or object as meditation, zazen, or in other words, religious practice. Through meditation, which in Zen takes the form of “just sitting,” one releases one’s interests and desires that keep one chained to karmic conditions, allowing oneself to experience the godhead hidden within each moment. Nishitani compares the experience of religious practice to opening oneself to the “atom of eternity” Kierkegaard sees in temporality, where every moment may open up transcendence from the despair of everyday life (189). In each moment one can find absolute nothingness, allowing one to view the universal harmony of elemental existence within its microcosm contained in the present moment. Viewing eternity and the fullness of universal harmony within the present moment is, for Nishitani, the standpoint opened and represented by all “religions that have their base in myth,” in recognition and interpretation of our subjective existence. (206)

Chapter 6: Sunyata and History

The standpoint of religion allows us to see eternal and universal harmony among the meaninglessness and suffering of samsara by coming to terms with and ultimately affirming nihility. The problem of theodicy is thus resolved inasmuch as it is only through a recognition of the suffering that is inherent to the samsaric condition of all sentient beings that the ability to see eternity and universal harmony in each moment is opened. Nishitani also seeks, however, to demonstrate that sunyata provides a standpoint to justify ethical behavior and action against suffering and in favor of love, so that religion does not achieve liberation by merely ignoring concrete suffering by seeking eternity within people’s pain.

The Buddhist conception of time is as an infinite system of simultaneous kalpas, closed and complete temporal systems that coexist. These kalpas exist overlain upon “an infinite openness at the bottom of time, like a great expanse of vast, skylike emptiness that cannot be confined to any systematic enclosure.” (219) Thus time is truly irreversible and unique in the Buddhist scheme, as each “now” in one kalpa only exists in the context of an infinite set of other “nows” in other kalpas. Each moment is thus truly impermanent, as no moment could ever be conceivably repeated, unlike a circular system of time, or even Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence. This system of infinite time, always opening onto newness, is both profoundly liberating and profoundly burdensome. For, at the same time as each moment is necessarily and truly new and unrepeatable, the constant becoming of time continually pushes us into having to confront ever-renewed realities, such that the “obligation to unceasing newness makes our existence an infinite burden to us.” (220) The infinite nature of time signifies that we are always caught within karma, that our actions will necessarily feed back upon us in the future and keep us chained to causality.

The Buddhist conception of time also escapes the illusion that time has a beginning and an end, a key grounding of both classical religious and modern atheist histories. The idea of divine election seeks the ground of time in a transcendent being that can create time and give it a sense and purpose. Modern atheist historicism grew in revolt against this notion, affirming instead that there is no ground transcendent to time, that all things exist only within time, not recognizing that “the time that provides it with its field, a time unrestrictedly open to both past and future, can only come about by virtue of an infinite openness lying at the ground of the present.” (227) Progress narratives merely posit a point where history will culminate and fulfill itself, rather than grasping the infinite openness the Buddhist conception of time understands as grounding any temporal system.

While both classical religious and modern atheist understandings of time are future-oriented, however (with the exception of scientific time seeking the causes of things, thus being past-oriented), Nietzsche’s Eternal Return provides a way to come to the Buddhist understanding of time as present-oriented. As time for Nietzsche bends and meets at the extremes of past and future it returns at the beginning of the cycle to now, the present, where in the Great Affirmation one sees the significance of all past and future things in the present moment. The Great Affirmation brings us back to the present moment, where nihility inevitably comes to overthrow whatever sense of meaning we build, thus opening the ground for absolute emptiness to appear in the present moment.

The Buddhist affirmation of nihility allows for the burden of existence to be interpreted in another way than as the field for the pursuit of self-centered endeavors based on our self-definition. Modern atheistic time also contains a form of infinite time, inasmuch as “each of the various facets of human existence becomes autotelic, each as it were becomes autonomous. Each begins to contain a kind of infinity, an infinite finitude.” (235) Each moment can become the fulfillment of human desires inasmuch as one acts exactly according to one’s self-definition at every moment. At this point, however, human activity ceases to serve anything other than its own desires and interests, bringing us back to the beginning of the book where nihility calls into the question the meaning of our projects.

The burden of existence from the perspective of sunyata appears instead as a mission or a debt towards all others with whom we are essentially connected in elemental existence. As discussed last chapter, entering the infinity of the present moment allows to see our connection with all other things in the universe, effecting a liberation from karmic conditioning. The moment of time and the present moment, then, appears from this perspective as instead one unit of time, the present moment, “spreading out endlessly before and after with the present at its point of origin.” (267) This conception of time as one moment spreading out infinitely into the past and future correlates with the understanding of the elemental existence of the universe as one harmony, a single whole. Understanding the universe as essentially connected makes self-love ignoring others impossible, as loving ourselves necessarily entails loving all other sentient beings, such that loving thy neighbor “as thyself” “comes about where each and every ‘other’ has its being as other, namely, at its own home-ground; or again, where all things are gathered into one circumcessional interpenetration as a ‘world’ and ‘All are One.’” (279) Self-centeredness gives way in religion to understanding the entire world as its own center, such that love must be directed towards all others. Thus, only from the perspective of religion can we grasp our ethical purpose in loving all others, seen most clearly for Nishitani in Boddhisattvahood in Buddhism and love of one’s neighbor in Christianity.

Source: Strong Reading

Primary Sources

The Self-Overcoming of Nihilism

Religion and Nothingness

Further Reading

Nishitani’s Buddhist Response to Nihilism

Nothing is True, Everything is Permitted


The Challenge of Every Great Philosophy

A traveler who had seen many countries and peoples and several continents was asked what human traits he had found everywhere; and he answered: men are inclined to laziness. Some will feel that he might have said with greater justice: they are all timorous. They hide behind customs and opinions. At bottom, every human being knows very well that he is in this world just once, as something unique, and that no accident, however strange, will throw together a second time into a unity such a curious and diffuse plurality: he knows it, but hides it like a bad conscience – why? From fear of his neighbor who insists on convention and veils himself with it. But what is it that compels the individual human being to fear his neighbor, to think and act herd-fashion, and not to be glad of himself? A sense of shame, perhaps, in a few rare cases. In the vast majority it is the desire for comfort, inertia – in short, that inclination to laziness of which the traveler spoke. He is right: men are even lazier than they are timorous, and what they fear most is the troubles with which any unconditional honesty and nudity would burden them. Only artists hate this slovenly life in borrowed manners and loosely fitting opinions and unveil the secret, everybody’s bad conscience, the principle that every human being is a unique wonder; they dare to show us the human being as he is, down to the last muscle, himself and himself alone – even more, that in this rigorous consistency of his uniqueness he is beautiful and worth contemplating, as novel and incredible as every work of nature, and by no means dull. When a great thinker despises men, it is their laziness that he despises: for it is on account of this that they have the appearance of factory products and seem indifferent and unworthy of companionship or instruction. The human being who does not wish to belong to the mass must merely cease being comfortable with himself; let him follow his conscience which shouts at him: “Be yourself! What you are at present doing, opining, and desiring, that is not really you.”

I care for a philosopher only to the extent that he is able to be an example. Kant clung to the university, subjected himself to governments, remained within the appearance of religious faith, and endured colleagues and students: it is small wonder that his example produced in the main university professors and professors’ philosophy. Schopenhauer has no consideration for the scholars’ caste, stands apart, strives for independence of state and society – that is his example, his model, to begin with the most external features. He was an out and out solitary; there was not one really congenial friend to comfort him – and between one and none there gapes, as always between something and nothing, an infinity. No one who has true friends can know what true solitude means, even if the whole world surrounding him should consist of adversaries. Alas, I can see that you do not know what it means to be alone. Wherever there have been powerful societies, governments, religions, or public opinions – in short, wherever there was any kind of tyranny, it has hated the lonely philosopher; for philosophy opens up a refuge for man where no tyranny can reach: the cave of inwardness, the labyrinth of the breast; and that annoys all tyrants. That is where the lonely hide; but there too they encounter their greatest danger.

This was the first danger that overshadowed Schopenhauer’s development: isolation. The second danger is to despair of truth. This danger confronts every thinker who begins from Kant’s philosophy, assuming that he is a vigorous and whole human being in his suffering and aspiration and not merely a clacking thinking- or calculating-machine. As soon as Kant would  begin to exert a popular influence, we should find it reflected in the form of a gnawing and crumbling skepticism and relativism; and only among the most active and noble spirits, who have never been able to endure doubt, you would find in its place that upheaval and despair of all truth which Heinrich von Kleist, for example, experienced as an effect of Kant’s philosophy.

“Not long ago,” he once writes in his moving manner, “I became acquainted with Kant’s philosophy; and now I must tell you of a thought in it, inasmuch as I cannot fear that it will upset you as profoundly and painfully as me. We cannot decide whether that which we call truth is really truth or whether it merely appears that way to us. If the latter is right, then the truth we gather here comes to nothing after our death; and every aspiration to acquire a possession which will follow us even into the grave is futile. If the point of this idea does not penetrate your heart, do not smile at another human being who feels wounded by it in his holiest depths. My only, my highest aim has sunk, and I have none left.”

When will human beings again have the natural feelings of a Kleist? When will they learn again to measure the meaning of a philosophy by their “holiest depths”?

This, however, is necessary to estimate what, after Kant, Schopenhauer might mean to us. He can be the guide to lead us out of the cave of skeptical irritation or critical resignation up to the height of a tragic view, with the starry nocturnal sky stretching endlessly over us; and he was the first to lead himself this way. His greatness was that he confronted the image of life as a whole in order to interpret it as a whole, while the subtlest minds cannot be freed from the error that one can come closer to such an interpretation if one examines painstakingly the colors with which this image has been painted and the material underneath.

The whole future of all the sciences is staked on an attempt to understand this canvas and these colors, but not the image. It could be said that only a man who has a firm grasp of the over-all picture of life and existence can use the individual sciences without harming himself; for without such a regulative total image they are strings that reach no end anywhere and merely make our lives still more confused and labyrinthine. In this, as I have said, lies Schopenhauer’s greatness: that he pursues this image as Hamlet pursues the ghost, without permitting himself to be distracted, as the scholars do, and without letting himself be caught in the webs of a conceptual scholasticism, as happens to the unrestrained dialectician. The study of all quarter-philosophers is attractive only insofar as we see how they immediately make for those spots in the edifice of a great philosophy where the scholarly pro and con, and reflection, doubt, and contradiction are permitted; and thus they avoid the challenge of every great philosophy which, when taken as a whole, always says only: this is the image of all life, and from this learn the meaning of your life! And conversely: Read only your own life, and from this understand the hieroglyphs of universal life!

This is how Schopenhauer’s philosophy, too, should always be interpreted first of all: individually, by the single human being alone for himself, to gain some insight into his own misery and need, into his own limitation. He teaches us to distinguish between real and apparent promotions of human happiness: how neither riches, nor honors, nor scholarship can raise the individual out of his discouragement over the worthlessness of his existence, and how the striving for these goals can receive meaning only from a high and transfiguring over-all aim: to gain power to help nature and to correct a little its follies and blunders. To begin with, for oneself; but eventually through oneself for all. That is, to be sure, an aspiration which leads us profoundly and heartily to resignation: for what, and how much, can after all be improved in the individual or in general?

Preparatory Men

I welcome all signs that a more manly, a warlike age is about to begin, an age which, above all, will give honor to valor once again. For this age shall prepare the way for one yet higher, and it shall gather the strength which this higher age will need one day – this age which is to carry heroism into the pursuit of knowledge and wage wars for the sake of thoughts and their consequences. To this end we now need many preparatory valorous men who cannot leap into being out of nothing – any more than out of the sand and slime of our present civilization and metropolitanism: men who are bent on seeking for that aspect in all things which must be overcome; men characterized by cheerfulness, patience, unpretentiousness, and contempt for all great vanities, as well as by magnanimity in victory and forbearance regarding the small vanities of the vanquished; men possessed of keen and free judgment concerning all victors and the share of chance in every victory and every fame; men who have their own festivals, their own weekdays, their own periods of mourning, who are accustomed to command with assurance and are no less ready to obey when necessary, in both cases equally proud and serving their own cause; men who are in greater danger, more fruitful, and happier! For, believe me, the secret of the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment of existence is: to live dangerously! Build your cities under Vesuvius! Send your ships into uncharted seas! Live at war with your peers and yourselves! Be robbers and conquerors, as long as you cannot be rulers and owners, you lovers of knowledge! Soon the age will be past when you could be satisfied to live like shy deer, hidden in the woods! At long last the pursuit of knowledge will reach out for its due: it will want to rule and own, and you with it!

The Will to Power

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. Our whole European culture is moving for some time now, with a tortured tension that is growing from decade to decade, as toward a catastrophe: restlessly, violently, headlong, like a river that wants to reach the end, that no longer reflects, that is afraid to reflect.

He that speaks here has, conversely, done nothing so far but to reflect: as a philosopher and solitary by instinct who has found his advantage in standing aside, outside.

Why has the advent of nihilism become necessary? Because the values we have had hitherto thus draw their final consequence; because nihilism represents the ultimate logical conclusion of our great values and ideals – because we must experience nihilism before we can find out what value these “values” really had. – We require, at some time, new values.

European Nihilism

Nihilism stands at the door: whence comes this uncanniest of all guests? Point of departure: it is an error to consider “social distress” or “physiological degeneration,” or corruption of all things, as the cause of nihilism. Ours is the most honest and compassionate age. Distress, whether psychic, physical, or intellectual, need not at all produce nihilism (that is, the radical rejection of value, meaning, and desirability). Such distress always permits a variety of interpretations. Rather: it is in one particular interpretation, the Christian moral one, that nihilism is rooted.

The end of Christianity – at the hands of its own morality (which cannot be replaced), which turns against the Christian God: the sense of truthfulness, highly developed by Christianity, is nauseated by the falseness and mendaciousness of all Christian interpretations of the world and of history; rebound from “God is the truth” to the fanatical faith “All is false”; an active Buddhism.

Skepticism regarding morality is what is decisive. The end of the moral interpretation of the world, which no longer has any sanction after it has tried to escape into some beyond, leads to nihilism. “All lacks meaning.” (The untenability of one interpretation of the world, upon which a tremendous amount of energy has been lavished, awakens the suspicion that all interpretations of the world are false.)

Against this “meaninglessness” on the one hand, against our moral prejudices on the other: to what extent was all science and philosophy so far influenced by moral judgments? and will this not around the hostility of science? or an anti-scientific mentality? A critique of Christian morality is still lacking.

Since Copernicus man is rolling from the center toward x.

– Friedrich Nietzsche

Source: Existentialism: From Dostoevsky to Sartre / edited, with an introduction, prefaces, and new translations by Walter Kaufmann



“My life as a young man can be described in a single phrase: it was a period absolutely without hope… My life at the time lay entirely in the grips of nihility and despair… My decision, then, to study philosophy was in fact – melodramatic as it might sound – a matter of life and death… In the little history of my soul, this decision meant a kind of conversion.”

– Keiji Nishitani, “Religion and Nothingness”

Nishitani’s Buddhist Response to Nihilism

“Man is spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the self. But what is the self? The self is a relation which relates itself to its own self, or it is that in the relation [which accounts for it] that the relation relates itself to its own self; the self is not the relation but [consists in the fact] that the relation relates itself to its own self.”

– Kierkegaard

My Heart is Broken

Evanescence – My Heart is Broken

I will wander ’til the end of time, torn away from You.

I pulled away to face the pain.
I close my eyes and drift away.
Over the fear that I will never find
A way to heal my soul.
And I will wander ’til the end of time
Torn away from You.

My heart is broken
Sweet sleep, my dark angel
Deliver us from sorrow’s hold
(Over my heart).

I can’t go on living this way
But I can’t go back the way I came
Chained to this fear that I will never find
A way to heal my soul
And I will wander ’til the end of time
Half alive without You

My heart is broken
Sweet sleep, my dark angel
Deliver us

Change – open your eyes to the light
I denied it all so long, oh so long
Say goodbye, goodbye

My heart is broken
Release me, I can’t hold on
Deliver us
My heart is broken
Sweet sleep, my dark angel
Deliver us
My heart is broken
Sweet sleep, my dark angel
Deliver us from sorrow’s hold

Songwriters: Amy Lee / Tim McCord / Terry Balsamo / Zach Williams

My Heart is Broken lyrics © BMG Rights Management

On Liberty

One day, I came upon a man urinating in a bus station. When I confronted him about his action, he turned to me, without stopping, and said:

“Keep in mind that since the universe is in constant flux, nothing that occurs one moment has any relevance to anything else. Everything you believe, feel or think is based on the false assumption that truth exists. Thus, you are free to do any action which brings you pleasure. That humanity feels constrained by morals is one of the funniest jokes I’ve ever heard.”

So I beat the shit out of him and took his wallet.

Fade to Black

Metallica – Fade to Black

Life, it seems, will fade away
Drifting further every day
Getting lost within myself
Nothing matters, no one else

I have lost the will to live
Simply nothing more to give
There is nothing more for me
Need the end to set me free

Things not what they used to be
Missing one inside of me
Deathly lost, this can’t be real
Cannot stand this hell I feel

Emptiness is filling me
To the point of agony
Growing darkness taking dawn
I was me, but now he’s gone

No one but me can save myself, but it’s too late
Now I can’t think, think why I should even try

Yesterday seems as though it never existed
Death greets me warm, now I will just say goodbye

Songwriters: James Alan Hetfield / Lars Ulrich / Kirk L. Hammett / Clifford Lee Burton

Fade to Black lyrics © Kobalt Music Publishing Ltd., BMG Rights Management, Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC