Two Brands of Nihilism

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Two Brands of Nihilism

As philosopher and poet Nietzsche's work is not easily conformable to the

traditional schools of thought within philosophy. However, an unmistakable

concern with the role of religion and values penetrates much of his work.

Contrary to the tradition before him, Nietzsche launches vicious diatribes

against Christianity and the dualistic philosophies he finds essentially life

denying. Despite his early tutelage under the influence of Schopenhauer's

philosophy, Nietzsche later philosophy indicates a refusal to cast existence as

embroiled in pessimism but, instead, as that which should be affirmed, even in

the face of bad fortune. This essay will study in further detail Nietzsche view

of Schopenhauer and Christianity as essentially nihilistic.


Throughout his work Nietzsche makes extensive use of the term “nihilism”. In

texts from the tradition prior to Nietzsche, the term connotes a necessary

connection between atheism and the subsequent disbelief in values. It was held

the atheist regarded the moral norms of society as merely conventional, without

any justification by rational argument. Furthermore, without a divine authority

prohibiting any immoral conduct, all appeals to morality by authority become

hollow. By the atheists reckoning then, all acts are permissible.

With Nietzsche's appearance on the scene, however, arrives the most potent

arguments denying the necessary link between atheism and nihilism. It will be

demonstrated that Nietzsche, in fact, will argue it is in the appeal to divine

proscriptions that the most virulent nihilism will attain.

There is a second sense of nihilism that appears as an outgrowth of the first

that Nietzsche appeals to in his critique of values. It contends that not only

does an active, pious, acknowledgment of a divinity foster nihilism, but also,

the disingenuous worship of a deity that has been replaced in the life man by

science, too, breeds a passive nihilism.


Nietzsche conceives the first variety of nihilism, that fostered through active

worship, as pernicious due to its reinforcement of a fundamental attitude that

denies life. Throughout his life Nietzsche argued the contemporary metaphysical

basis for belief in a deity were merely negations of, or tried to deny, the

uncertainties of what is necessarily a situated human existen...

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...if a man is sincere

and in full possession of his faculties, he will never wish to have it over

again, but rather than this, he will much prefer absolute annihilation” (WWI

589). Schopenhauer's pessimism has some roots in our inability to adequately

satisfy our wants. A casual reading might have one to believe both philosophers

took the will to be the same oject or process, but that where one celebrates it

the other denigrates it. A more careful reading will reveal, however, that,

Nietzsche though initially impressed with the Schopenhauer conception of the

will, he will later reject it. Schopenhauer concieves the will to be a primal

metaphysical reality.

The mileage the two philosophers get from investigating “will”, the term is no

coordinate in their use, nor are we surorised at the disparity of their mature

philosophies. For Nietzsche, the resignation of the will is a forlorn denial of

life. Similarly, the appeal to a transcendent deity also indicts the indivuals

as resentful in the face of those who can affirm life. Nietzsche proposes one

should affirm life even in the midst of tragedy, thus the passive nihilism that

embraces the ascetic ideals are overcome.
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