Friedrich Nietzsche has a long rap sheet. Elitist. Anti-democratic. Unchristian. But in one respect at least – cue the sound of the smallest violin in the world – he has been misrepresented.
Despite being regarded as the father of nihilism, he wasn't really a nihilist. That's according to philosopher Nolen Gertz who says the German writer's real concern was the spread of nihilism in an unchecked and unrestrained fashion.
Gertz admits Nietzsche “calls himself a nihilist so that doesn’t help” when it comes to distancing him from belief in nothingness. However, Nietzsche distinguishes between on the one hand passive nihilism – what he characterises as surrendering to default morality, be it Christian or consumerist – and on the other hand active nihilism.
“The idea with active nihilism is you do not passively accept values or normative standards but are constantly questioning them, if not undermining them,” says Gertz. “It’s being destructive not for the sake of being destructive but for the sake of being creative – to create the space for values that I can believe in.”
In his book On the Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo, Nietzsche condemns religion for obstructing necessary creativity, citing five methods used by clerics to keep us passively nihilistic. These, explains Gertz, are self-hypnosis, mechanical activity, petty pleasures, herd formation and orgies of feeling. “It is the use of these methods that Nietzsche identifies as having prevented the destruction of society, but at the cost of having worsened our nihilism. Nietzsche thus likens the priests to bad doctors.”
Gertz, author of a lively new book Nihilism, part of the MIT Press essential knowledge series, argues that technology has displaced religion as the main driver of passive nihilism. Were Nietzsche around today he would be railing against Google and Facebook. So maintains Gertz, this week's Unthinkable guest.
How is nihilism best defined?
"It has different meanings to different people at different times. One way of thinking about it that I find useful is as a sort of evasiveness – trying to avoid certain aspects of reality. That's the definition I take from Nietzsche.
“But you can think of it in epistemological terms – that there is no real knowledge; ethical terms – that there are no real right and wrong standards; cosmological terms – that there really is no meaning to the universe; existential terms – that there is no meaning to life.
“Then at the end of the book I try to address the definition put forward by Hannah Arendt… For her it’s more political: Nihilism [is] not something about how you see the world but more how you’re supposed to see the world. It’s not an accident that people see the world as meaningless, or life as meaningless.”
Is that where technology plays a role today – in spreading passive nihilism?
"Yes, I think the two go hand in hand."
"Nietzsche describes five ways priests help us [counterproductively] to deal with nihilism. You can do it through self-hypnosis – drinking or medicating. You can do it through mechanical activity – just do what your boss tells you to do. You can do it through petty pleasures, like charity work. You can do it through herd mentality – just try to be with as many people as possible and do what they're doing. And you can do it through orgies of feeling, whether positive or negative, like [watch] a football match.
"Technology offers us new versions of these five techniques. You can think of tech companies as modern day priests. So you have your Netflix for techno-hypnosis. You have 'do whatever your Fitbit says' for mechanical activity. You have Kickstarter, GoFundMe and Indiegogo for your petty pleasures.
"Obviously herd mentality language is what Facebook and Twitter use – you have your followers. And then you have orgies of feeling – I call it orgies of clicking, more recently called cancel culture – where you log into Twitter and find out who you get to attack that day."
How does one break this cycle?
"Nietzsche says the possible cure for passive nihilism is active nihilism. He makes an important distinction between passive nihilism, when you stop caring – just a sort of defeatism, and active nihilism when you are actively destructive."
You end the book on an optimistic note, saying the nihilism generated by technological progress may "force us to finally become creative". Why do you think social media will ultimately be tamed?
"I think it's exposing a certain emptiness. Holes in the armour keep appearing, so to speak. So if Google sells itself as the company that believes in 'Don't be evil', and then you discover what they're doing in China, you start raising questions – like maybe I've taken for granted what they think evil means – in the same way people start to question the Catholic Church.
“But the problem is – I think this is what Nietzsche meant with the ‘God is Dead’ claim – that you tear down a church and then just build a new one. So when people started the ‘Delete Facebook’ hashtag, articles started appearing, ‘What should be the new Facebook?’
“So we’re not aware enough. We are starting to question these megalithic companies but we’re not realising the problem is not Zuckerberg, the problem is much deeper.”
Is Donald Trump a nihilist?
"He is clearly happy to accept the beliefs of whoever he happens to be around at the time... And if you read, for example, what the guy who wrote The Art of the Deal said, you'd know Trump does not have any beliefs; he is just an emptiness.
“I think he is sort of the ideal of passive nihilism.”
Finally, can you settle the debate, should it be pronounced "nigh-ilism" or "ni-ilism"?
"I think that may be one of those British-English versus American-English kind of things. I have definitely heard both. I'm still not entirely sure if I'm consistent in how I pronounce it."
Ask a sage
Is there an alternative to being either an active or a passive nihilist?
Zen master Lin-chi replies: "Just act ordinary, without trying to do anything in particular. Move your bowels, piss, get dressed, eat your rice, and if you get tired, then lie down."