Nihilism

David Cowles

Oct 8, 2021

Nihilism comes in two flavors: Ontological Nihilism (“Nihilism of Being”) and Ethical Nihilism (“Nihilism of Value”). Shakespeare (anticipating post-Enlightenment science: bootstrapping, heat death, entropy, etc.) would be an example of an ontological nihilist:

“We are such stuff as dreams are made on.” (The Tempest)

Nihilism comes in two flavors: Ontological Nihilism (“Nihilism of Being”) and Ethical Nihilism (“Nihilism of Value”). Shakespeare (anticipating post-Enlightenment science: bootstrapping, heat death, entropy, etc.) would be an example of an ontological nihilist:


“We are such stuff as dreams are made on.” (The Tempest)


Nietzsche (anticipating much of 20th century philosophy: Camus, Ayer, et al.), would be an example of an ethical nihilist:


“There exists nothing which could judge, measure, compare, condemn our being, for that would be to judge, measure, compare, condemn the whole…But nothing exists apart from the whole!” (Twilight of the Gods)


For the Scholastic Philosophers of the Middle Ages (Aquinas, Maimonides, et al.), this dichotomy posed no problem because they regarded Being and Value (Good) as synonymous. Since ‘to be’ is self-evidently ‘good’ (as opposed to ‘not to be’ – sorry Hamlet), Being and Value were understood simply as different ways of looking at the same phenomenon.


Today, however, this view has few adherents. Modern philosophers do not regard ‘being’ (or existing) as a ‘quality’ of that which is. Heidegger spoke for all of modernism when he separated his world into two elements: Dasein (that it is) and Wassein (what it is). Out of an entirely different philosophical tradition, Alfred North Whitehead anticipated Heidegger when he divided his cosmos into ‘eternal objects’ (what it is) and ‘actual entities’ (that what-it-is is).


Yet Ontological and Ethical Nihilists end up in the very same place…which is ‘no place’ and ‘no thing’. Connecting Ontological Nihilism to ‘nothing’ is easy; connecting Ethical Nihilism requires an intermediate step.


The Ethical Nihilist does not preclude the existence of ‘something’ per se. However, that something has no origin and no destiny. It has no purpose or meaning; and it reveals no necessary connections, no pre-ordained order. Whatever appears as ‘order’ is entirely subjective and merely accidental. It is chaos, pure and simple, and parallels the state of things prior to “Fiat Lux” (Genesis): “…without form or shape with darkness over the abyss and a mighty wind.”

So perhaps we should reevaluate the views of the Scholastic philosophers. We may at least say that Value is a pre-requisite for Being. Being per se discloses Value and Value per se necessitates Being.

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