If you had to pick a single philosophical doctrine or movement that would be most difficult to defend today, nihilism would be a solid choice. Nihilism is associated with the worst parts of Nietzsche‘s teachings, the rise of Nazi and fascist ideology, the alt-right, and the tendency toward anarchy, chaos, immorality, despair, and destruction. Even the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines nihilism as “the belief that a society’s political and social institutions are so bad that they should be destroyed.”
So writing a book defending nihilism—no matter how many optimistic-sounding adjectives you place in front of it—is a tall order. In fact, it would probably be easier to ditch the term entirely and either invent a new one (like how some authors now use “progressive capitalism” in place of socialism) or, in this case, use a readily available close alternative: existentialism.
But Melbourne-based writer Wendy Syfret isn’t messing around with terminology; she’s sticking with nihilism all the way. In The Sunny Nihilist: A Declaration of the Pleasure of Pointlessness, Syfret takes on the unenviable task of making nihilism seem like something pleasant and worth adopting as an orientation towards life. It’s a formidable task—some might even say a meaningless one—but let’s give her the benefit of the doubt and see where it takes us.
First of all, we should recognize that complex philosophies cannot be captured in a single word. Nihilism is not one thing; rather, it is better thought of as a loose set of beliefs and doctrines that can be applied to various aspects of life in numerous ways. There are, as with any philosophical position, mild and extreme forms. So whereas a certain kind of nihilist might think that all life is worthless, that nothing can be known whatsoever, and that all systems should be destroyed, a more moderate nihilist may believe there is no objective morality beyond what humans invent but that this fact can be used as a tool for transcending the limitations and constraints of tradition to create a better world.
Syfret belongs to the latter category. Which tells you something about nihilism (her version, anyway) right off the bat: it has both a destructive or eliminative component but also a constructive component. The eliminative component can be taken to the extreme: i.e., believing that nothing has value, everything is pointless, and everything should be destroyed, bar none. This is the nihilism of our popular imagination and the reason why we collectively despise it.
But it’s not necessary to take things this far. Syfret’s nihilism is milder, and includes a constructive component. While Syfret would agree that meaning is an illusion, it’s not a valueless illusion. There may be no objective morality, but the moral codes we’ve created are valuable because, as social animals, we care deeply about others for their own sake and because we care about how others perceive us (at least among non-psychopaths). Nihilism (Syfret’s version) simply states that morality doesn’t need to be made more complicated than this by, for example, inventing gods or pretending we’re all on some critically important historical or cosmic mission. Morality may be cosmically meaningless, but it isn’t valueless among empathetic human beings that are part of a community.
But this begs the question: Does this general recognition of cosmic meaninglessness make us worse people? The opposite, actually. Once we realize that we are not the center of the universe—that “one day we’ll be dead and no one will remember us anyway”—we can drop our hyper-individualistic, selfish attitudes and simply enjoy the simple pleasures life has to offer in the company of others. Without so much emphasis on our own self-importance, we can direct that energy towards helping others, our communities, and perhaps even the world at large.
As Syfret reminds us, we perpetually toil away to pursue “meaningful” work thinking we will achieve some form of immortality in the process. But even if we were to become rich and famous, and remembered for a few generations after we die, we won’t be around to see it or enjoy it, so what could it really matter? We’ll all be forgotten eventually.
This revelation makes one realize that their life truly is, in the cosmic sense, meaningless. But rather than causing despair, this deeper truth should create a feeling of liberation that allows one to stop pursuing unpleasant activities and work in the name of “meaning,” and to instead pursue the activities that one really enjoys (which often involves helping others). This is the “sunny” side of nihilism. As Syfret wrote:
“It’s this reading of nihilism that I think about when considering an alternative impression of a life without meaning. Sunny nihilism breaks away from the previous fixation on destruction by viewing pointlessness as a chance to breathe and think. Ultimately serving as a blank page, a chance to enjoy the moment, the present, the chaos, and the luck of being alive at all.”
This attitude even applies to love. As Syfret explains:
“The instinct to love is embedded in our bodies and brains. It informs and influences what it means to be human. Like jobs, it has value, even if it doesn’t have meaning.”
A few pages later, she writes:
“I know that the feelings of happiness my body produces when my partner is near are physiologically real; other preoccupations—my desire for love tokens, total understanding, and endless bliss—are inventions. Some created by me (notions of what I want my life to be), some created by others (visions of what a “correct” life is). By separating the two concepts I can feel the former more fully and dismiss the latter.”
We can see from all of this that nihilism, in its rejection of cosmic significance, can paradoxically make our actual moment-to-moment experience more significant. When we stop our incessant pursuit of meaning, we can begin to embrace the present moment and revel in the miraculous proposition of being alive in the first place.
Think about it: Do we really need to believe that humans are on a special cosmic mission to enjoy the feelings of love, friendship, and pleasurable activities? The answer seems to be no, and further, that getting caught up in philosophical or religious nonsense can actually impede our everyday enjoyment. This was actually one of Nietzsche’s arguments. As Syfret wrote:
“Ironically, Nietzsche felt our will to believe was deeply nihilistic. He argues that religion didn’t enrich life, but soothed by offering an escape from it. Viewed like this, one could argue that the suggestion we toil on Earth in exchange for an afterlife or other future redemption dismisses the value of life as it exists right now.”
So it is the religious that are, in a sense, deeply nihilistic, in that they view everyday existence as an ultimately inconsequential task one has to simply endure on their way to an afterlife that has an exclusive claim to meaningfulness. The problem is, of course, that if an afterlife doesn’t exist, the religious have devalued and wasted their one life in pursuit of an illusion.
Despite the cogency of Syfret’s arguments—and the fact that I found myself agreeing with many of her points—I nonetheless have no plans to go around calling myself a nihilist. Part of the reason is the historical baggage associated with the term. But it’s more than that.
Syfret is correct to point out our ultimate cosmic insignificance, and trying to fill our lives with meaning at this level is, in a sense, delusional. But whereas there is no cosmic meaning, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that we can’t find meaning in our everyday interactions and experiences. Syfret says as much in the book, so it makes you wonder if she’s stretching the definition of nihilism into something unrecognizable.
Part of the problem seems to be that Syfret is conflating these two aspects of meaning. Cosmic meaning doesn’t exist. But I think that many of our pursuits can be said to have meaning in a more mundane sense. For example, if, through our work, we can bring pleasure to others, or we can reduce suffering in some way, I would call that activity meaningful, not in a cosmic sense, but in a humanistic sense. Nihilism—with its overemphasis on meaninglessness—just doesn’t feel like the right term to describe this orientation towards life. A nihilistic humanist (which it appears Syfret is) just seems like a contradiction of terms.
Besides, better alternatives are available. A host of life philosophies—Stoicism, humanism, existentialism, epicureanism, and Zen Buddhism—all, in their own way, emphasize the present moment, human flourishing, and the freedom to create one’s own meaning without inventing false narratives of cosmic meaning (Ok, some aspects of Stoicism may do this). But the point is, if you want to build an ethical disposition based on mindfulness and appreciation of the present moment, other life philosophies seem infinitely more appealing.
Some might object that the Stoics did believe in cosmic significance. In some sense, they’d be right. But the Stoics also placed the highest value on the development of virtue, the promotion of the common good, and the focus on the present moment. Since Syfret is altering the traditional definition of nihilism anyway, it seems like an easier task to just adopt Stoicism while dropping the parts about cosmic significance.
In fact, if you read the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, the book is filled with examples of him contemplating his own cosmic insignificance as a means to better endure his own hardships. As Aurelius wrote in Book VI of Meditations:
“Asia and Europe are corners in the Universe; every sea, a drop in the Universe; Mount Athos, a clod of earth in the Universe; every instant of time, a pin-prick of eternity. All things are petty, easily changed, vanishing away.”
Additionally, when she’s not writing like a Stoic, if you didn’t know any better you’d think Syfret was writing a book about existentialism. Consider this quote from the book:
“To resist that urge to grab onto something [superficially meaningful in the cosmic sense], but rather to face the infinite pointlessness of our lives, joys, anguish, and existence, is horrifying to many. It casts us totally adrift, alone. But it also marks us as completely free.”
This might as well have been written by Sartre. With Syfret’s emphasis on creating your own meaning by pursuing the pleasures of everyday life, being mindful, and helping others and your community, she seems like she’s advocating for a mix of existentialism, epicureanism, humanism, and Zen Buddhism. So why focus so much on the eliminative aspect of nihilism when there is a more direct route to the positive aspects of her philosophy? And do we really care about labels? Why not just select among the best aspects of each philosophy?
Despite these issues—and the fact that I don’t personally consider the book to be a successful defense of nihilism—the ideas presented will likely act as a wake-up call to others who find themselves placing too much emphasis and meaning on superficial things.
Ultimately, despite what term you wish to use, the message is the same: too many of us fail to appreciate our own existence precisely for what it is. As Syfret wrote, in this Richard Dawkins-esque entry:
“The thing was, from what I could glean, it seemed pretty wild that I existed at all. The fact that my parents decided to have sex on some random day in 1987, at the instant the sperm and egg that made me were feeling particularly energized, allowing me to win the lottery of conception, already seemed significant. Add to that the luck of surviving birth and the near decade that followed. I wasn’t sure why anyone needed to complicate things further; my very presence seemed complicated and miraculous enough.”
As Dawkins himself wrote: “The chances of each of us coming into existence are infinitesimally small, and even though we shall all die some day, we should count ourselves fantastically lucky to get our decades in the sun.”
This doesn’t sound very nihilistic to me.
Earlier I suggested that better alternatives to nihilism, even sunny nihilism, are available; here are my favorite titles covering these alternative life philosophies:
- A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy
- The Practicing Stoic: A Philosophical User’s Manual
- At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails with Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Others
- The God Argument: The Case against Religion and for Humanism
- What It Means to Be Moral: Why Religion Is Not Necessary for Living an Ethical Life