Following photojournalist James Foley’s gruesome death last week at the hands of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, nihilism has become, quite suddenly, the “ism” du jour. President Obama condemned ISIS’s “nihilistic ideology”; Secretary of State John Kerry vowed to crush this “ugly, savage, inexplicable, nihilistic, and valueless” movement. Left speechless by the video of the execution, we are relieved to find a word that somehow speaks to the unspeakable horror of it all.
But here’s the rub: “Nihilist” is almost precisely the wrong way to describe groups like ISIS. Not only does it fail to define the group’s worldview, but from their perspective, no word better defines the world of Western, enlightened, and liberal values—in a word, our world—than does “nihilist.”
It is the West, not the East, that gave birth to the term nihilism and the existential condition it describes. And the ethos of ISIS—in which no act is too sadistic if it helps bring an extremist religious state closer to reality—is not nihilistic at all. It is, to the contrary, a reaction to nihilism, a way of fending off its moral challenge by embracing a dangerous and outdated theocratic mentality. To understand the real meaning of nihilism, and the role it has played in Western thought, gives us not only a more accurate view of the moral conflict at work, but a path forward. Western thinkers have, for the past century and a half, proposed that a direct reckoning with nihilism can be a path not to violence, but to just and considered action.
Drawn from the Latin word for “nothing,” nihilism appeared in European thought in the second half of the 19th century. It was most often defined as the conviction that no conviction—religious, metaphysical, or moral—was possible. Its original associations were not with any perceived barbarism in non-Western societies, but to the spiritual decadence and rudderlessness of the West. By withdrawing the promise of heaven and the threat of hell, nihilism threw life on earth into relief, making us responsible for our own deeds.
It was the Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev who heaved nihilism into Western consciousness. In his novel “Fathers and Sons,” Turgenev created the immortal character of Evgeny Bazarov, a medical student as devoted to scientific method as he is disgusted by the dead weight of political reaction and religious superstition. Destruction, plain and simple, was the goal of the Russian youths who saw themselves in Bazarov: the destruction of society’s institutions and the illusions they spawned. “We repudiate everything,” Bazarov announces. As for what follows, the young man shrugs: “That is not our affair: the ground must be cleared first.”
That ground-clearing, however, Bazarov leaves to others; he remains a man of thought rather than deeds. He wants to get rid of the old, false ways of thinking, but he has no practical plan to bring this about and no idea what he might do should his dream ever be realized. Uncertainty is his most appealing trait; he is a gentle soul, a far cry from the desperate, bloodthirsty types we usually call nihilists. It is Bazarov, the armchair nihilist, and not the bomb-thrower, who keeps faith with the spirit of nihilism: He is ready to think things through, unwilling to jump into violent action.
German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche took Bazarov’s stance a step further, insisting that a world emptied of lasting meaning is infinitely more terrifying than a world filled with czarist prisons. Like the madman in “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” who declares God is dead, Nietzsche warned his contemporaries that the religious, moral, and even scientific stories they lived by were, simply, a pack of lies. At the same time, he acknowledged the void this left for the deeply frightening thing it was. Despite the power of Nietzsche’s critique, we nevertheless tend to cling to traditional beliefs for the comfort they offer. But existential religious thinkers like Soren Kierkegaard and Karl Barth have argued that any faith worthy of the name must co-exist with doubt and disillusion.
ISIS, however, recoils from such an encounter with doubt. Far from being nihilistic, the followers of ISIS are instead terrified by the empty vistas nihilism reveals. They parade a twisted version of Islam as truth, insisting that death and blood on earth are a necessary sacrifice for the paradise that awaits the religious warrior. Many of Al Qaeda’s and ISIS’s recruits are disaffected young men glad to turn to a thrilling new belief system that walls them off from the danger of nihilism. As George Orwell, among others, pointed out, a similar role has been played by other belief systems, like communism: No matter how violent the deed, it was done in the service of History, the brutal deity of the communist movement. The worldwide caliphate ISIS aims for is a vision just as galvanizing, and just as illusory, as the communist utopia.
Some of us in the West have grown comfortable with a kind of epistemological nihilism: namely, that knowledge is elusive and truth nonexistent. What we must do is relearn, like Nietzsche or Bazarov, to feel discomfited by and not indifferent to this abyss. This is a path that was traced with clarity and urgency by the French-Algerian novelist and moralist Albert Camus. For Camus, far from nihilism representing an intellectual or spiritual dead end—one that leads some of us to embrace extremist ideological movements—it is a necessary passage in our search for values. Those values, as Camus made clear in works like “The Plague” and “The Rebel,” must include a recognition that human nature and human knowledge are imperfect: We cannot win the war against injustice, but only achieve provisional victories. In that spirit, he called on us to strive to “serve justice so as not to add to the injustice of the human condition, to insist on plain language so as not to increase universal falsehoods, and to wager, in spite of human misery, for happiness.”
We know that ISIS scorns the principle of human justice, but by labeling them “nihilist,” comforting as that may be, we ourselves flout plain language. In “The Plague,” one of those resisting the epidemic, Tarrou, declares: “We must call things by their name.” Nihilism is not the enemy—this is not a war of meaning versus meaninglessness—but, instead, it is a description of the human condition. Our real enemies are those who, afraid of this prospect, seize on brutality as a means to religious or ideological ends; our real friends are those who, recognizing this possibility, are willing to work together toward human solidarity and dignity on our shared earth.
Robert Zaretsky is the author of “A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning.” David Mikics is the author of “Slow Reading in a Hurried Age.” They both teach in the Honors College, University of Houston, and are working on a book about nihilism.