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Nihilism:  What is it?

Posted on 17 September 2012, 14:45

Atheism….Humanism….Materialism…Realism….Idealism..…Scientism…Positivism… Determinism…Naturalism …Vitalism….Nihilism – all words one comes across in philosophical and metaphysical literature in the broad area of “non-belief”’ in a Creator and an Afterlife.  It is not always entirely clear whether the words are synonymous, whether they are overlapping, or whether they have different meanings. The most interesting treatment of this subject matter I have come across is a 1994 book by philosopher Eugene Rose (below) entitled Nihilism:  The Root of the Revolution of the Modern Age.  As Rose sees it, they all involve the “abandonment of Truth.” 


Rose, also known as Father Seraphim Rose, was an American hieromonk of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia.  He co-founded the St. Herman of Alaska monastery in a seculded area of the northern California mountains, about 40 miles west of Red Bluff and Redding.  He died in 1982 at the age of 52. The 1994 book was apparently compiled from his writings by his followers.  A back-cover statement claims that Rose, after his death, became the most popular spiritual-philosophical writer in Russia.  I came across another book of his – one dealing with the afterlife – about a dozen years ago and had a difficult time accepting some of his beliefs, which were set forth as dogma, although, as I recall, I found them easier to accept than those of orthodox Christianity.  I am not qualified to agree or disagree with Rose in this whole area of belief and disbelief, but much, though not all, of what he writes rings true to me. 

Rose questions whether there is such a thing as a true “atheist,” since most who call themselves atheists are devoting themselves to service of a false god.  Atheism is a spiritual state, Rose argues, in that the true “existential” atheist is rebelling against what he or she sees as an unjust or unmerciful God.  This “existential atheist” is really seeking God.  Borrowing from the anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, he feels that “antitheist” is a better term for this person.  In the strict sense of the word, the atheist is not a nihilist, as the atheist does not deny the absolute, while the nihilist does. Nihilism, Rose explains, is the belief that there is no Absolute Truth, that all Truth is relative.

“That there is no truth; that there is no absolute state of affairs – no thing in itself.  This alone is Nihilism, and of the most extreme kind,” he quotes Friedrich Nietszche, the late Nineteenth Century philosopher who proclaimed the “death of God.”  In effect, there is no answer to the question “why?”  So we might as well eat, drink, and be merry before we fall into the abyss of nothingness.

According to Rose, there are four stages in the Nihilist Dialectic – Liberalism, Realism, Vitalism, and the Nihilism of Destruction.

Liberalism:  Because everything is so abstract or vague to him, the Liberal, Rose declares, is more concerned with worldly affairs and for the most part indifferent to the reality of an afterlife. If he believes in God, it is as a mere idea of a vague impersonal power.  “The Liberal may be interested in culture, in learning, in business, or merely in comfort,” Rose writes, “but in every one of his pursuits the dimension of the absolute is simply absent.  He is unable, or unwilling, to think in terms of ends, of ultimate things.  The thirst for absolute truth has vanished; it has been swallowed up in worldliness.”

The academic world, Rose goes on, is in large part responsible for the corruption that brings about this first stage by diverting youth, so easily influenced,  into “comparative” studies, “and the all-pervading relativism and skepticism inculcated in these studies.”

The loss of faith is the beginning of the end of the order erected upon that faith, Rose states.

Realism: Because his own faith is empty, the Liberal calls into being a more nihilistic reaction – one that, ironically, proclaims its “love of truth,” while going one step farther on the path of error, Realism.  This, if I am interpreting Rose correctly, encompasses “naturalism,” “reductionism,” “scientism,” “materialism,” and “positivism.”  The Realist is someone who has moved from Liberal vagueness to a belief that all is clarity.

“It is the naïve, undisciplined thought of the unreflective, practical man who, in our age of oversimplification, thinks to impose his simple-minded standards and ideas upon the entire world; or, on a slightly different level, the equally naïve thought of the scientist, bound to the obvious by the requirements of his specialty, when he illegitimately attempts to extend scientific criteria beyond their proper bounds.”  Rose is quick to point out that his remarks are not directed against science itself, but against this “scientism,” also called scientific fundamentalism. 

The difference between the Liberal and the Realist, Rose states, is not so much one of doctrine, as it is of emphasis and motivation. The Liberal is simply indifferent to absolute truth, while the Realist allows this indifference to become a fanatical devotion to worldly things and hostility toward Truth, even though he might claim that his cause is the love of truth. “Where the Christian sees God in everything, the Realist sees only ‘race’ or ‘sex’ or the ‘mode of production,’” Rose explains, adding that “humanism” had a more “idealistic” and Liberal coloration in an earlier age but has had to adopt a more Realistic tone in the modern age.

Vitalism: Since Liberalism and Realism can easily lead to moral decay as well as despair in the face of extinction, there is a need to revitalize humanity with what Rose calls “pseudo-spiritual pretension” to overcome this restlessness,  Vitalism attempts to do this by finding a substitute for God. .  “Vitalism is a more advanced kind of Realism,” he further explains, “sharing the latter’s narrow view of reality and its concern to reduce everything higher to the lowest possible terms.”  But, he continues, while Realism reduces the supernatural to the natural, the revealed to the rational, truth to objectivity, Vitalism goes further and reduces everything to subjective experience and sensation.

In Vitalism, there is even more emphasis on the humanistic “religion,” which strives to find its god in science and progress and a “live and love in the moment” philosophy.  “It is the last attempt of the unbeliever to hide his abandonment of truth behind a cloud of noble rhetoric, and, more positively, it is at the same time the exaltation of petty curiosity to the place once occupied by the genuine love of truth,” Rose states. 

Being a dogmatic Christian, Rose refers to satanism, paganism, occultism, “new age” thinking, futurism, and even spiritism and Zen Buddhism as forms of Religious Vitalism. I have to part ways with Rose on some of that, but I admire his tenacity and eloquence.

The Nihilism of Destruction:  Finally, in the last step, we approach “pure” Nihilism, what Rose calls “a rage against creation and against civilization that will not be appeased until it has reduced them to absolute nothingness.”  Nihilism involves, Rose says, “the total transformation of the earth and society by machines, modern architecture and design, and the inhuman philosophy of ‘human engineering” that accompanies them.  It is worldliness unchecked and is bound to end in tyranny.

In the Nihilist world, all human energy is devoted to worldly concerns, Rose concludes.  The result is a “new man” – a rootless man of the moment without consciousness or values, a man “pretending to the humility of only asking his ‘rights,’ yet full of the pride that expects everything to be given to him in a world where nothing is authoritatively forbidden.”  This new man is a barbarian, thoroughly “reduced” and “simplified” and “capable of only the most elementary ideas, yet scornful of anyone who presumes to point out the higher things or the real complexity of life.”

Whatever name they choose to call themselves by, the non-believers – the “nones,” as they have been labeled by pollsters – are making up a bigger segment of our population, as much as 20 percent according to one recent survey. In their book, American Grace, political scientists Robert Putnam and David Campbell claim that the religious Right’s politicization of faith during the 1990s drove younger, socially liberal Christians away from churches. More and more of them have said that they don’t really care.  Unfortunately, it seems safe to say that most of the “nones” have not taken the time to make the distinction between the dogma of orthodox religion and the findings of secular research in the area of the survival of consciousness after death.  Thus, many of them appear to be fledging Nihilists, if not militant ones. 

I believe pioneering psychologist William James hit the nail on the head when he said that the luster of the present hour is always borrowed from the background of possibilities it goes with. To put it another way, we cannot effectively live in the moment without some regard, whether it be consciously or subconsciously, for what is to come. Many people succeed to some degree by escaping from reality into a world of unreality or by totaling occupying themselves with the mundane, but for the thinking person – the one who looks for some meaning in it all – the conviction that we do not die into a world of nothingness can lead to a real peace of mind, especially in his or her later years.  It is a pity that the “nones” and Nihilists don’t grasp this. 

Michael Tymn is the author of The Afterlife Revealed: What Happens After we Die, Transcending the Titanic, and The Afterlife Explorers Volume 1., published by White Crow Books and available from Amazon and all good online bookstores.

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Science doesn’t deal in absolutes; bigots (like the cretinous Eugene Rose) do. Jerks like him, with their contempt for “rights,” would be burning homosexuals at the stake if they could. If you believe in scientific evidence for the afterlife, then be aware that any real scientific discourse lies outside the sphere of the Absolute; science is always relativistic and tentative in its approach. If you’re looking for absolutes, then drop any pretense of being scientific. By the way, through what medium’s mouth is Rose now spewing his moronicism? Oh, yours, maybe, Tymn.

Ross, Fri 9 Nov, 07:13

First, I concur with what Dave said!

And Howard is right about Rose’s definition of vitalism being incorrect, or at least not the usual one.  Typically (as you probably all know) it refers to a belief in a life force, what I would call Qi, rather than in living beings functioning as no more than chemical and mechanical systems.

It’s all too true, though, that many people who move away from traditional religion take up rigid and dogmatic faith in materialism and in science as a religion in itself (“scientism”), so that they are worshipping their own sort of God. 

When I saw the beginning of the article, I immediately thought of Zen Buddhism, which Rose apparently did not understand at all.  One of the tenets of Buddhism (as best I can explain it) is that whenever we apply our concepts to anything, we are limiting it and missing its true nature.  That is, we can have a concept of God, but with our thinking brains, we can only experience the concept, not God.  A true experience of reality requires going beyond all our concepts, letting go of our limited thought.  Perhaps that seems rather like nihilism on the surface, since it shows that all beliefs are essentially false and misleading, but it’s quite a different matter.  It certainly is nothing like “pseudo-spiritual pretension.”

In all our religions and our other systems of thought, we’d probably be better off if we start with the assumption that the average human mind is poorly equipped to apprehend absolute truth, and that the stuff we make up on the way toward finding it is just that, stuff we make up.  Maybe useful stuff, but not fundamental reality—as in the Zen teaching, fingers pointing at the moon, but not the moon itself.

Elene Gusch, Wed 19 Sep, 03:03

Well Mike, this is certainly not a book I shall put on my reading list! The ‘explanation’ of vitalism is totally wrong. I wonder what he made of ‘scientism’. I’m not surprised he had a following in California - they seem to go for cults in a big way there!
Aloha, Howar

Dr Howard A. Jones, Tue 18 Sep, 19:26

WOW, Mike, this is a thought provoker! I find your concluding statements easy to accept but my first reading of your summary of the good monk’s treatise leaves me a bit cold. Could it be that he over simplifies a bit? His first category, if I can call it such, he labels “liberalism” which in today’s world is a word with multifarious meanings. Rose tends to sing the same song as many in Christendom when he lays blame for loss of faith on education. I, like many others, went through that in college and I emerged with my degree as a non-Christian (from a church-related college no less). But that didn’t take me down the trail toward nihilism. The issue here I feel is what people are thinking when they reject traditional organized religion. When they do that they often tend to discard organized religion’s pictures of “God” and then call themselves atheist or rationalist or humanist or freethinker or whatever. Many of those “nones” are still in awe when they think deeply (if they ever do) about the immensity of the universe, the mystery of life itself, and our role and purpose in it all. To a certain extent they accept the materialist view of the universe because that’s what they’ve been taught and, frankly, they haven’t heard -  as you hint – of the spiritual alternative explanations. I don’t see loss of “faith” in the traditional dogmas as the problem. Indeed, dogged adherence to them is a more serious problem! Aside from this, the difficulty in getting a fair hearing of our alternative view keeps it hidden and therefore not so widely accepted. I tend to think, however, that this is changing over time as more scientists feel less intimidated when they discuss different approaches to reality. I love your inclusion of Robert Putnam’s view that the railing of the religious right has actually worked against their cause by pushing those they are trying to reach even further afield. Putnam of Bowling Alone fame is, I think, the best sociologist among those who have spent time analyzing what’s really happening in our culture.

Dave Howard, Tue 18 Sep, 09:28

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Facing the Final Choice by Michael Grosso – The editor of my first book suggested I call it The Final Choice (1985). I thought the title was overdramatic and a bit grandiose. I did in part write the book in response to what seemed like the growing threat of nuclear war. Read here
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