Was Nietzsche a Nihilist or Not?
In my last post, I said that Nietzsche is often seen as a nihilist when, in fact, he saw nihilism as a great danger. In response, someone sent me two quotes by Nietzsche about nihilism, taken from his posthumous notes:
"I praise, I do not approach, its arrival. I believe it is one of the greatest crises, a moment of the deepest self-reflection of humanity. Whether a man recovers from it, whether he becomes master of this crisis, is a question of his strength. It is possible…."
"A philosopher heals himself differently [than others]; he heals himself, for example, through nihilism. The belief that there is no truth, the nihilist belief, is a great stretching of the limbs for one who, as a warrior of knowledge, incessantly lies in battle with hateful truths. For truth is hateful."
Here it sounds as if Nietzsche was actually in favor of nihilism. Was he then nihilist or not?
Well, first of all I’d be a bit cautious to give too much weight to Nietzsche’s posthumous notes. Having published a few things myself, I would be horrified if someone later published my many—in the words of John Locke—“hasty and undigested Thoughts” that I hammered into some Word document without any intend of publication, and presented them to the public as my definite opinion. Not that I presently see any danger of that ever happening, but one reason why authors in a free society don’t publish some of their writings is that they do not consider them to express very well what they really think. (By the way, I also wouldn’t particularly like people giving too much weight to what I write in this blog. It is, after all, a blog, which I understand to be an outlet for various thoughts that happen to cross my mind, not a personal statement of faith.)
But back to Nietzsche. I would explain his complex relationship to the idea of nihilism like this. Nietzsche thought nihilism was already upon us, the only remaining question being how we respond to its arrival. The first and worst reaction would be denial—to cling to a system of ethical and epistemological authority that no longer existed. The second reaction would be to acknowledge its arrival and thus, like Schopenhauer, become a pessimist—to have a mostly negative outlook on life. And the third reaction is of course what Nietzsche himself attempted to do, namely to affirm human life and look forward to new possibilities.
The stage of passing through nihilism is thus rather short. One simply has to acknowledge that nihilism is already there and then say, “All right, the old building of ethics and belief has come to ruin. Good riddance! Let’s cart away the last remaining pieces of rubble and start constructing a new one. What a wonderful day of opportunity!” As soon as one looks with positive expectation toward the future and takes constructive, life-affirming steps, one is no longer a nihilist.
But it is a valid question whether the old system of ethics and belief is quite so dead as Nietzsche thought. I am inclined to think rather not.