On Nihilistic Certainty

A convenient naïveté.– What if the great modern certainty, namely that the cosmos has no purpose (which is another way of saying that there is no cosmos), is, like most certainties, merely a matter of faith, answering to a deeply felt need? In that case, the great modern certainty would be an ingeniously subtle expression of underlying purpose — and not just a random irrational “purpose,” i.e., an ungrounded private assertion of “will,” but perhaps the real thing. What if our certainty, the absence of purpose — the premise of so many of our advanced modern arguments — is itself the product of cosmic purpose?

A student passed along a sentence she found interesting: “You have to forget the past in order to keep your composure,” to which I replied that this sounds like a typical expression of modern nihilism.

To forget about the past means to consign it to irrelevance. But the past is now. The present is nothing but the leading tip of the past as it soars through history. To imagine we can just cut off what we were, or what happened to us (the unpleasant parts), is to imagine we can become a person to whom those events never happened, or upon whom their effect is now “finished.” To believe that is to imagine that events, memories, and past feelings are just atoms of experience flying around, bouncing off each other and then disappearing — as if a life has no inherent continuity, as if it were not a process of development. That is nihilistic.

And to talk as if we need to radically remove parts of ourselves just to “keep our composure” is to imagine that our lives today are somehow uniquely difficult, and that anxiety (lack of composure) is an inevitable condition of life today, unless we can make the anxiety-producing past disappear from our minds.

The proper goal, of course, is not to cut off the past, but to learn from it. Not to forget pain, but to redeem it as meaning. The modern way is to imagine we can just stop being what we do not want to be, or that we can simply deny the reality of our life when we find it unpleasant or inconvenient. 

A life without inconvenient memories or a complicated past is the life of an infant or a dementia sufferer. Hence, it is a life that may be described precisely as expressing modern nihilism, the perspective most akin to permanent infancy or dementia.

Nihilism is an excellent solution to the problem of life’s great mystery — for those who have tired of the great mystery. And who gets tired? Those whose matter is overtaking their souls. To say the same thing another way: those whose feelings are overtaking their reason. For such men, a relaxation of the tension, an easing of the intractable strain of searching and longing, becomes life’s direst need. Almost, we might say, an end in itself. Nihilism can be a great comfort to those no longer able to sustain an uncomfortable existence — and the most mature human life is rarely comfortable, and never so for a prolonged period.

Nihilism — the belief that there is no answer to be found — is, it seems, exactly the answer that our weakened spirits have found.

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