Nihilism vs. Existentialism vs. Absurdism
The birth of Modernity’s Meaning Crisis and two responses to it
In the 19th and 20th centuries, modernity came into its fullness and with this maturation, the vestiges of the religious worldview began to fall away revealing a crisis of meaning that we’ve come to call Nihilism.
This emergence of Nihilism prompted philosophers to ask in earnest once again the long-since clichéd philosophical question — what is the meaning of life?
Out of this renewed engagement with meaning, three trends emerged. There was the root problem — Nihilism i.e. the realisation that there is no objective meaning to our lives. And wrestling with this problem we have two responses: Existentialism and Absurdism. In this episode we are going to explore what Nihilism is and how these two schools of thought have attempted to manage the crisis it represents.
A Divine Purpose
For the religious individual, life has an objective meaning.
In the Judaeo-Christian traditions, the history of this world is bookended by God’s creation on one end and the Judgement Day of Heaven and Hell on the other. For the Buddhists and Hindus there is the story of karma and the endless cycle of birth and rebirths that it results in. The end point in this system is not a Heaven/Hell dichotomy but liberation known as Moksha in Hinduism and Nirvana in Buddhism.
In these Eastern and Western systems of belief, humanity has a privileged place in reality.
But as the modernist worldview comes to its full fruition, it casts off the residual holdovers from the religious mindset and this objective meaning dissolves. As we develop a better and better model of reality and no longer need to rely on divinities to provide an explanation of the world, we begin to jettison these divinities and the beliefs attached to them.
As Nietzsche has pointed out, Christianity prized truthfulness and sharpened this virtue in its adherents only to fall on the very sword it had honed. In the 19th century modernity lurched into the secular mode with a number of explosive works.
The Birth of the Meaning Crisis
In the 1830s, David Strauss published his Life of Jesus and it went off like a stick of dynamite in a fireworks factory. It quickly became a controversial literary phenomenon that eroded the belief in the Bible as a historical book. 1841 saw the publishing of Ludwig Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity that explored the idea that God was a psychological projection of humanity. Feuerbach whose name means fire brook was a major influence on Karl Marx who said that:
“There is no other road for you to truth and freedom except that leading through the brook of fire”
Following Strauss and Feuerbach the real stake in the heart of the religious narrative was the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859.
This cultural trend culminated at last in the catastrophic event that Nietzsche’s Madman talks about in The Gay Science. Nietzsche’s madman — like the anecdotal Diogenes — lights a lantern in the bright morning and goes into the marketplace searching for God only to be mocked by the townsfolk with all the sarcasm of triumphant modernism. And then the madman gives a speech to the people that echoes God’s speech at the climax of the Book of Job:
“Whither is God” he cried. “I shall tell you. We have killed him — you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how have we done this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving now? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? […] Do we not hear anything yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we not smell anything yet of God’s decomposition? Gods too decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, the murderers of all murderers, comfort ourselves? What was holiest and most powerful of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives. Who will wipe this blood off us?
— The Gay Science §125
This passage from Nietzsche is like the clarion call of Nihilism. It proclaims the undermining of the objective values. Backward sideward forward up down all these are the ways we orient ourselves in the external world. The death of God throws our entire relationship to reality — our life’s compass — into disarray.
The Meaning of God’s Death
To put it more philosophically, God was the foundation of external values and of objective meaning. Without God, without divinity, the external world lacks a telos it lacks a purpose and a meaning by which we can orient ourselves. The objective ground of morality and of human purpose has fallen away and this vacuum is disastrous.
And so, this is the crisis that Nihilism speaks to. By fully leaning into the implications of Biblical criticism, and the insights of Copernicus and Newton and later Darwin, reality is no longer geocentric and anthropocentric. And with the lawful universe that Newton began to expose and the evolutionary story that Darwin uncovered, there is no need for a god except maybe in the narrow, denuded role of Aristotle’s Uncaused Cause or as the animating spark that set life in motion.
The material explanations for the external world proved far more effective than the religious ones and so these religious stories were consigned to the trash heap.
The trouble was that these dodgy religious explanations were attached to the grounding of human morality and meaning. The death of God heralded a meaning crisis.
What is Existentialism?
This is the root problem out of which existentialism and absurdism grew. Before we look at the response of each school it’s worth addressing why there is so much confusion around the difference between Existentialism and Absurdism.
The trouble lies with the usage of the term Existentialism itself which is used more or less broadly depending on the writer. In some definitions Camus and his Absurdism are sub-schools of existentialism whereas for others they are completely distinct.
Existentialism often includes thinkers in the 19th century such as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche who far predate the origination of the term in the mid-20th century.
To complicate matters further, you have people who are often categorised as Existentialists such as Heidegger and Camus who publicly declared that they were not Existentialists. And so, the exact definition of Existentialism is a bit nebulous.
For the purposes of this episode, Existentialism is going to centre on the philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre is the philosopher most synonymous with Existentialism for a number of reasons. He not only defined the term Existentialist and coined many of its key terms and phrases but he was one of the few philosophers who self-identified as an Existentialist.
The Existentialist Response
In tackling the problem of Nihilism and the absence of objective meaning, Sartre’s Existentialist response was to first define what it is to be human. And this is where his famous phrase of existence precedes essence comes into play.
Essence is a term that goes back to Ancient Greek philosophy. For Aristotle, the essence of a thing is its defining characteristics. This notion of essence is tied up with the related idea of telos which is the purpose of a thing. Hence: the essence of a knife is to cut, the essence of a cup is to hold liquid, and the essence of a boat is to sail on water.
In the classical view of philosophy, the essence of a thing precedes its existence. If a cup can’t hold liquid it’s not a cup since it is lacking the aspect that is essential to it.
Before the figurative death of God, it would have been said that our essence precedes our existence. Humans had a specific purpose — for Aristotle we were essentially rational, for Christians we were a fallen people that must aspire to salvation. But with Nihilism the bottom fell out of these illusions and what was revealed is that there is no objective meaning. There is no purpose that exists that is greater than humanity.
And so we are faced with a void of meaning. We live in a meaningless universe and so how do we define what we are? What is the essence of being human? For Sartre, the essence is defined by our existence, what we essentially are is what we do, how we act in the world. As he puts it in Existentialism is a Humanism: “man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself ”
He says that:
“there is no human nature since there is no God to conceive of it. Man is not only that which he conceives himself to be, but also that which he wills himself to be, and since he conceives of himself only after he exists, just as he wills himself to be after being thrown into existence, man is nothing other than what he makes of himself. This is the first principle of Existentialism”
And so, faced with the void of meaninglessness that Nihilism presents, the Existentialist answer is that we must create our own meaning through our actions. There is no objective meaning and so we create our own by the way we live our lives.
That is the Existentialist answer to the problem of Nihilism.
The Absurdist Response
The Absurd is an idea that we find in Kierkegaard but is fully developed into a philosophy by Albert Camus in his book length essay The Myth of Sisyphus.
Absurdism is his response to the problem of nihilism. He opens The Myth of Sisyphus with one of the most iconic lines in the history of philosophy:
“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.”
In facing into the problem of Nihilism, we are asking whether the lack of objective purpose means that life is not worth living.
The Absurd is key to Camus’s framing of the question. The Absurd is the meeting between two things: the cold apathetic and meaningless objective reality on the one hand and humanity’s inherent drive for meaning on the other. The Absurd arises from the meeting of our hunger for meaning with a universe that is meaningless. It is the tension between this drive for meaning and the impossibility of satisfying it.
We are all immersed in this absurd tension and according to Camus we have three alternatives for dealing with this problem:
Suicide: The first option is to commit suicide. If life has no meaning then why keep living? Camus finds this option unsatisfactory. He points out that there is no more meaning in death than there is in life and that it simply evades the problem.
The Leap of Faith: The second option is to take a leap of faith — to believe in some doctrine or ideology that tells us there is a meaning we must have faith in. This can be a religion like Christianity or an ideology like Marxism. We swallow a pill of bullshit and in return we get reprieve from the Absurd. Camus terms this option philosophical suicide.
Absurdism: Camus finds these two options insincere and so he proposes a third option — to embrace the insatiable tension, to embrace the Absurd, to lean into it. This third option is Absurdism.
Absurdism is a rebellion against meaninglessness. We do not escape from the Absurd through death or philosophical suicide. We meet the Absurd as it is, without escape, and with integrity, and we maintain the tension of the Absurd in us without turning away.
Absurdism vs. Existentialism
Camus incites us to a life without consolation — a life characterised by acute consciousness of and rebellion against its own mortality and its limits. He looks at the Existentialists and rejects what he ultimately sees as their escapism and irrationality, saying that:
“they deify what crushes them and find reason to hope in what impoverishes them. That forced hope is religious in all of them”
Absurdism means holding aloof of the temptation to create meaning or to buy into some meaning. The Absurdist rebels against this false satisfaction of our hunger for meaning. Instead Camus says that we must hold the tension, hold the space of Absurd meaninglessness. As he puts it:
“the only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.”
Sisyphus: the Absurd Hero
Camus’s philosophy of Absurdism is best captured in an image — that of the Greek mythological figure Sisyphus. Sisyphus was the founder of the Greek city of Corinth. He was known to be the craftiest of all humans and craftier than Zeus himself.
When he was sent to the underworld, he managed to trick his way out. In some stories he tricks Thanatos, in other stories Hades and in others Persephone. He escapes and returns to the Earth and revels in the pleasure of the world before eventually being returned to the Underworld where he is punished to roll a boulder up a hill and watch it roll back down again at which point he returns to the bottom of the hill and repeats the process quite literally ad infinitum.
There’s three reasons why Sisyphus is Camus’s icon of Absurdism. There’s his love of life seen by his cheating his way out of the underworld and returning to enjoy the pleasures of the world once again which is strongly antithetical to the life-denying brand of Nihilism.
A second reason is Sisyphus’s punishment — the absurdity of rolling a rock up a hill only to see it roll back down again and being forced every time to roll it back up again knowing the inevitable outcome. Sisyphus is stuck in an eternal cycle of absurdity.
The third reason Sisyphus is Camus’s embodiment of Absurdism is that he is a rebel. He outwits death and the gods to return to life. He rebels against the fundamental order of things he rebels against the gods.
All of these points come together in Camus’s great line that closes out his book:
I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
And so Absurdism is not about finding a meaning to life but about rebelling against the absurdity of life, it’s about standing aloof of the demand to find a meaning, rebelling against the absurd game itself and affirming life for what it is. It is to struggle with integrity because this struggle towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. Faced with the crisis of meaninglessness that Nihilism presents, the Absurdist doesn’t throw a tantrum and kill themselves, the Absurdist doesn’t grab on to the nearest life raft and commit philosophical suicide. The Absurdist affirms the struggle and enjoys life for what it is. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
So to summarise: Nihilism is the realisation that there is no objective meaning. Existentialism answers this by saying that it is possible to create our own meaning through the choices we make in our lives. Absurdism on the other hand says that we shouldn’t seek to create our own meaning but we should stare into the face of the Absurd and rebel against this meaninglessness.