What is Nihilism?

Nihilism is the empty void of nothingness. It comes from the Latin 'nihilo' meaning nothing. Nihilism is undoubtedly one of the central themes to Nietzsche's work. However, the most common misconception about Nietzsche is that he was a nihilist.

Nietzsche was concerned with the effects of Nihilism and looked for ways around its monstrous conclusions. However, Nietzsche does not succumb to the temptations of the void, but attempts to re-construct human endeavor in the face of it.

In this article, I am going to demonstrate how Nietzsche could easily be thought of as a nihilist. I shall use several of his concepts - the eternal recurrence, the will to power, the Ubermensch and the death of Christ to prove that he was not. We can see that Nietzsche was not really a nihilism though several of his works - Ecce Homo, The Gay Science, Thus Spoke Zarathustra and The Genealogy of morals. 

Nietzsche's Attitude Towards Nihilism

We can see Nietzsche's attitude towards nihilism in the gay Science, when he announces that 'God is dead', through the character of the madman. The madman proclaims that God is dead, and we have killed him. Nietzsche's reference to God here is in a spiritual sense - the idea of God is dead, not God himself. Westerners have destroyed their faith in God through secularization. The death of God poses the nihilist question for modern man. If God is dead, then everything is permitted, and nothing is forbidden. The death of God indicates Nietzsche's recognition that nihilism is upon us, for without God, humans are deprived from absolute values and eternal truths. 

This is the nihilist void - Nietzsche reaches out to drag us to the edge and make us take a long look into blackness. What does the void endeavor? Everything - especially those dearly held doctrines devised by the naive enlightenment thinkers who first struck a blow at God. 

Nietzsche's main concern, however, was clearly with ethics. The morality of the Western world was still firmly grounded on Christian belief. Nietzsche realized that if civilization were to survive, humanity needs standards and values by which to live. So what would happen next would be nihilism - all ultimate values lose their values. The Saint in Thus Spoke Zarathustra would lead a lonely and decadent life. Does anything mean anything anymore? 

How does Nietzsche Overcome Nihilism?

Much of Nietzsche's philosophy, however, overcomes the void of niihilism because he attempts to provide a new foundation - a revaluation of all values. 

What we need in its place is a morality of strength or power. He distinguishes between the slave and master morality. In place of the slave morality of Christianity, he proposed a master morality of dominance, strength and the will to power.

When we strive to overcome the eternal recurrence through the will to power, we become the Ubermensch. Nietzsche's concept of the Ubermensch is the ultimate human being.  There is sense of the Ubermench or 'overman' throughout Ecce Homo. Nietzsche said, "I teach you, the overman, man is something that shall overcome." The Ubermensch has overcome everything decadent. He is a powerful man whose will refuses to submit to the standards and values of others, especially God. 

In the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche points out the slave and master morality.  He recognises that the slave morality makes sense and is beneficial to certain types. the slaves morality is one that Nietzsche considers weak. Our assumption of weak as negative implies that Nietzsche is claiming correctness to one moral category - master morality, and incorrectness to the slave morality. But, Nietzsche knows that because God is dead, one cannot make these absolute claims.

Ecce Homo: How One Becomes What One Is (Oxford World's Classics)
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Is there any Truth?

Nietzsche's analysis of these moral systems is his first step in avoiding the nihilist conclusions that there is no truth. He asserts that there is no truth, but there is an appropriate truth for each different type, and that every view has its proper adherents.

In the Genealogy of Morals, he explains this. The lamb perspective is no less valid to the lamb as the eagle perspective is to the eagle. The problem is whether the lamb or the eagle proclaims that this perspective is the only true one.  Such a claim is absurd without God. yet, God has been 'killed' by precisely those who wish to maintain the universalist doctrines of the eagle or the lamb.

The Genealogy of Morals (Dover Thrift Editions)
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It is clear then, that Nietzsche is not a nihilist, as the nihilist would deny even the lamb and the lambs perspective. Nietzsche recognizes that the perspective of the lamb is appropriate to the lamb, but not to everyone.

Despite Nietzsche's elements of nihilism in many of his works, and the fact that his best friend Overbeck was a Christian nihilist, it becomes clear that he is not. Nietzsche's perspectivism is a reaction to the death of God that avoids the nihilist conclusion that there is nothing but a void of valueless values.