Nihilism Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything


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You're on your own. The Christian church originated the concept of nihilism as a means of labelling and disgracing people considered to be heretics. Strictly speaking, a nihilist 'bows to no authority and accepts no doctrine'. In a society where church and state were joined, to openly disagree with the state (and therefore the church) was the same thing as criticising the church openly, and was making it clear that you disagreed with society and should thus expect to be removed from it1. It was a popular theme in Russian life and writing2 of the mid-19th century, applied to the social situation as a tool to investigate how revolution might create a realist society. Again, it was the nihilists' stance against that church and the state that led to the application of the term.

The popular usage of the word 'nihilism' today conveys 'a belief in nothing'. The word is used to imply a kind of ultra-pessimist, one who has ceased to care that only bad things will happen. In modern times, a nihilist could be described as one who does not abide by or believe in the dominant creed of the world. One who regards the 'rat race' of constant work to achieve material wealth as pointless could well be considered a nihilist. Non-belief in any religious doctrine is merely atheism, literally 'absence of theological belief'. Humanism is the belief in the need to place humanity above all false constructs of 'good living' and is thus itself a form of doctrine. True nihilism not only disregards theology or religion but also the tenets of society as a whole.

Surprisingly, nihilism can sometimes be funny. By drawing attention to the seeming absurdity of what humankind holds dear, this negativity can be used to positive effect by making people laugh. Absurdism is the light-hearted form of comic nihilism - it will draw attention to the comic and foolish aspects of a belief, doctrine or phenomenon without harping on about how pointless it all is.

1Sometimes permanently.2As in Turgenev's Fathers and Sons, 1862.

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