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Nihilism & Philosophy by Gideon Barker

Roger Caldwell scrutinises philosophical revolutions.

The philosopher as nihilist is a destroyer of worlds, a revolutionary who comes to make us see with new eyes and radically change how we live. The nihilist philosopher uses words, not bombs; but not simply to offer us new doctrines or facts. This is philosophy not as a matter for contemplation, but as something to be lived – and if we are to live in a new order, the old one must first be dismantled or destroyed. The question is, once the cobwebs and lies are swept away, what are we left with? Once all our old values and ways of life are gone, do we still have a world at all, and not chaos?

Typically, however, this going forward into a new world also involves a sort of going back. Gideon Barker’s book Nihilism and Philosophy deals with four such instances. In ancient Greece, the Cynics rejected what they saw as the artificial world of the city-state in the interest of a return to nature. Then, with the rise of Christianity, the hierarchical order of the Roman Empire was rejected in favour of a world in which, in St Paul’s words, there would be “neither Greek nor Jew, slave or free, male or female” but all standing equal before God. In modern times, after the ‘death of God’, Nietzsche declared the end of what he calls Christian ‘slave-morality’, trusting to the Übermensch or ‘Over-Man’ to bring back an heroic age that valued courage and caste. Then Heidegger, seeing the present technocratic age as a result of more than two thousand years of forgetfulness of Being, tried to return us to a long-forgotten way of understanding and living in the world, to recover a more ‘primordial’ thinking.

Baker’s account of the Cynics is heavily indebted to Michel Foucault, whose lectures on the subject (translated into English as The Courage of Truth) were the last he was to deliver before his death in 1984. The Cynics had not previously been accorded much space in the history of philosophy: their doctrines were sparse, their writings have not survived, and what we know of them comes down often in jokes and anecdotes. They were shocking to the society of their day, in that their way of life involved a rejection of all conventional values. They would do in public what most people thought it proper to do only in private; they acknowledged no family, home, or state, but willingly embraced a life of begging and destitution. If this was a sort of asceticism, it was a cheerful one: the Cynics showed that you could be happy without material possessions, and that care of the body is less important than care of the soul. There is nothing ‘other-worldly’ in this.

In Plato’s dialogue The Sophist, Socrates says the real philosopher is one who ‘lives the philosophical life in truth’. For Baker, Cynicism is the first philosophy to have actively tried to put this vision into action. The Cynics radicalized the Socratic simplicity of life. After all, Socrates went home each night to bed; the Cynics by contrast often didn’t have homes. Socrates didn’t take part in politics: the Cynics didn’t even acknowledge the city-state (polis) to begin with. It was necessary for them to keep a distance from the exercise of political power if they were to say what they thought needed saying. They aimed to speak truth fearlessly whether to fellow citizens or to a mighty tyrant, to expose lies or wrongdoing. Most Greek philosophy was for an elite, but Cynic philosophy was available to all.

The parallels with Christianity are striking. In both there is a rejection or inversion of conventional values. In both the call is a radical one. The Jesus of St Paul’s writings is a destroyer of the Jewish law; he and his disciples lead a wandering life, taking ‘no heed for the morrow’, leaving family and possessions behind in order to embrace a life of poverty and to live in what is seen as the truth. The lowest are raised up, the highest brought down. Both the Cynic and the Christian are concerned with the care of souls; although, for the Christian this is in preparation for another world, whereas for the Cynic it is in this world alone that we must struggle to achieve the true life.

Zoroaster Clavis Artis
Image from the Zoroaster Clavis Artis 1738

For Nietzsche, Christianity is Platonism for the masses, promising us an eternal world where all is truth and light in place of this world, which Plato called “the twilight world of change and decay”, where mankind could only live to die. For Nietzsche, however, it is not our everyday world of appearances that is the illusion, but the Platonic-Christian heaven. His declaration of the death of God is directed not only at Christianity, but at any claim to the existence of another world. This world in which we live – the only world there is – is not only subject to change but is also without goal or purpose. It is also subject to eternal recurrence. The challenge for us is to embrace what seems the ultimate pointlessness: the prospect of repeating our lives in every detail forever.

For Heidegger, that philosophy is not the overcoming of nihilism Nietzsche had intended. On the contrary, it is “the ultimate entanglement in nihilism”, and fails to escape from the metaphysical prison. In effect, Nietzsche remains caught up in Platonism. If the true world is one of eternal Becoming for Nietzsche, as compared to one of eternal Being for Plato, it is still, for all that, a true world: all that’s happened is that Being and Becoming have changed places. But in Nietzsche’s doctrine of the will to power, Heidegger sees the end of metaphysics, the completion of a history of forgetfulness of Being lasting more than two thousand years: with the essence of knowledge as will to power comes “the unrestrained exploitation of the earth” even “the thrust into outer space”, confirming mankind’s sense of homelessness.

The ‘essence of metaphysics’, Heidegger tells us, is nihilism. If so, how do we escape it? If Nietzsche remains the last metaphysician despite his repudiation of all philosophy since Plato, what of Heidegger himself? Arguably he is in no better position. Nietzsche awaits the Übermensch for the transvaluation of all values. Heidegger, seeking to recover a sort of poetics of Being in a time when instrumental (practical-goal-directed) reason has strangled thought, vainly evokes what is, in effect, a return of the gods.

These are some – but only some – of the themes explored in Baker’s interesting, informative, but somewhat unwieldy new book. In particular I have said nothing about Nothing, with which Baker, following Heidegger and other thinkers, is much concerned. But if Baker is advancing a thesis, it is hard to see what that thesis is. In this his brief Conclusion fails to enlighten. Indeed, I am not sure that it fully makes sense: he tells us that “finitude is an aborted nihilism”, but I fail to see quite how this statement cashes out.

By the end of the book I’m little clearer about what nihilism is than I was at the beginning. The journey has been an exciting one; but has it in the end led round in circles? Philosophy has again and again claimed to start from the beginning, in effect discarding its own tradition. Is this in itself a nihilistic gesture? Is a new beginning even possible? The Cynics, St Paul, Nietzsche, and Heidegger, were all adept at tearing down old beliefs, and all also have a positive end in view: that of getting us to live true, authentic lives. But the true nihilist is surely one who believes in nothing.

Is it possible to live without values? If possible, could it be desirable? The painter Francis Bacon once proclaimed in an interview: “I believe in nothing. I’m an optimist.”

© Roger Caldwell 2020

Roger Caldwell is a writer living in Essex. His latest collection of poetry, Setting Out for the Mad Islands, is published by Shoestring Press.

Nihilism in Philosophy: Nothingness, Truth and World, Gideon Baker, 2018, £85, 239 pages, ISBN: 9781350035188

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