About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Let Cold Monsters Lie: thoughts on nihilism, part II

by Steve Neumann

[part I of this essay can be found here]

I have a strong affinity for Nietzsche because I have experienced firsthand the nihilism and subsequent problem of values he so presciently described in his 1872 book The Gay Science. Whatever else his failings as a philosopher and a human being (e.g., his attitudes toward women), he gave voice to precisely the existential predicament I was in.

Having been raised in a born-again Christian household and church, I took for granted that God was the source and sustainer of all values and meaning. Since my family was not what you would call scholarly or intellectually-inclined, there was never even any thought to question or doubt this most basic fact of existence. And, it wasn’t until college that I was forced to confront the startling naivete with which I had lived my faith.

But a basic introductory course to philosophical thought and history, combined with a comparative religion course that included exposure to the Eastern religions of Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism, as well as actually getting to know people who fervently practiced some of these doctrines, all led me to my first real crisis of faith. Unfortunately, at the prompting of a fellow congregant, I subsequently fell for the specious reasoning of C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity, and doubled-down on my faith until after graduation.

Beginning a demanding career as a CPA after college and starting a life on my own didn’t give me much time to reflect on how sound the underpinnings of my newly-revived faith were. However, at age twenty-nine, a confluence of life events, which included the terrorist attacks of 9/11, forced me yet again to confront the conditions of my preservation, as Nietzsche might put it. Long story short: the bottom fell out, and I was every bit a mastless barque adrift on an open sea with no sight of land anywhere, surrounded on all sides by ominously threatening squalls. A poem of mine tries to express this:

Treading Water

When treading water, fatigue
and foaming spatter can
make you falter. And this
undulating plane is all
that separates you from
two worlds: one where some
hope is clung to like
barnacles to a hull; the other
we could call surrender,
the willful slackening of all
long-taut muscles, beginning
with a cascade of chemicals
from deep inside your brain.
And no one may ever know
about the throes of anguish
in your little pixel of ocean,
once you've slipped seamlessly
beneath the plane with
barely a blip or detectable ripple.

Though it would take another five years or so after that to turn to Nietzsche’s writings, to which I had had only the most superficial exposure in college, I eventually came to see my own life mirrored, albeit in a much less histrionically hyperbolic fashion, in the sentiments of Nietzsche’s “madman” which he described in section 125 of The Gay Science:

“Where is God gone?”  he called out. ... “We have killed him you and I! What did we do when we loosened this earth from its sun? Whither does it now move? Whither do we move? Away from all suns? Do we not dash on unceasingly? Backwards, sideways, forwards, in all directions? Is there still an above and below? Do we not stray, as through infinite nothingness? Does not empty space breathe upon us? Has it not become colder? Does not night come on continually, darker and darker?”

That feeling of frigid desolation and terminal abandonment in the image of a planet without its sun, and the sense of chaos evoked by his cadences here, give a good example of the gravity of the experience of nihilism. To be clear, though, let’s get Nietzsche’s ideas about what he means by nihilism, from his posthumously-published notes (i.e., The Will to Power):

Nihilism as a psychological state will have to be reached, first, when we have sought a “meaning” in all events that is not there: so the seeker eventually becomes discouraged. ... One interpretation has collapsed; but because it was considered the interpretation, it now seems as if there were no meaning at all in existence, as if everything were in vain. ... Underneath all becoming there is no grand unity in which the individual could immerse himself completely as in an element of supreme value.

Whatever the vagaries and vicissitudes of life, the individual religious believer retains a certain sense of comfort and security in the “knowledge” that there is a moral world order, and that this order was created and is indefatigably sustained by a Master of the Universe who is looking out for them. But what is left for the apostate to cling to? He could become a hedonist of a certain sort; or he could, as the poet Rilke observed, throw himself into any one of an array of endless societal diversions and conventions: a demanding career, lifelong military service, raising a family, political gerrymandering — all the trappings of Nature, not Culture. As Nietzsche puts it elsewhere in his notes:

It was morality that protected life against despair and the leap into nothing. ... Morality guarded against nihilism by assigning to each an infinite value, a metaphysical value.

If one possesses enough of a tendency toward near-morbid introspection and self-reflection, one may ultimately see that even these pursuits don’t necessarily satisfy or replace that gaping, sucking hole left by the untethering of absolute and ultimate value and meaning from a belief in God. Our apostate is thus tempted to plunge into the opposite valuation of life; namely, the fatalistic notion that nothing matters, so why bother? This attitude is echoed in a Led Zeppelin lyric (That’s the Way, Led Zeppelin III) from 1970:

Yesterday I saw you kissing tiny flowers;
but all that lives is born to die.
And so I say to you that nothing really matters,
and all you do is stand and cry.

In my private journal, I’ve reduced my own experience of nihilism and its subsequent overcoming to a little formula: liberation => disorientation => despair => nihilism => affirmation. In other words, having been liberated from a fundamentalist Christian worldview, I didn’t know how to make sense of life anymore; so I fell into despair after being frustrated trying to put the pieces back together, which ultimately led to a feeling of the complete meaninglessness of life. Achieving an affirmation of life is still possible, though, and Nietzsche has his own ideas and suggestions about that. I have my own as well; and in Nietzschean fashion I imagine that each one of us must blaze his own trail.

It seems to me that the Humanimal is and has been in a phase of arrested development. Despite all of our frenetic political activity, we seem to have been lulled to sleep by the cold monster; or perhaps we should say that it has convinced us that this somnambulistic state through which we daily move is the ultimate existential pinnacle attainable by us. Nietzsche seemed to feel that the State alternately bullies and seduces the individual into conformity and relative passivity; and it’s true that the State takes a mile when we allow it an inch; but for millennia, the State has made Culture possible. Yet we still need to move beyond the moral and institutional confines of the State in order to move Culture forward. And when I say that we need to move beyond the moral confines of the State, I don’t mean that we should abrogate the equal rights of others and do whatever we please; I simply mean that we would do well to set up a Base Camp in what Sam Harris called the moral landscape, and then allow and encourage each individual to scale the peaks and summits in her own way.

Ultimately, achieving the transfiguration from Humanimal to transhuman involves the alchemy of transmuting the lead of events and the detritus of accidents into a coherent whole, in order to create a piece of gold, the spark, that flicker of the central fire that the ancients claimed to be perceiving inside each mortal frame. The poet, or one whose attitude and approach to existence is that of a poet, redeems life and existence not only for himself but also for everyone else, for anyone “tuned in” to what he is doing:

And this is all my creating and striving, that I create and carry together into One what is fragment and riddle and dreadful accident. And how could I bear to be a man if man were not also a creator and guesser of riddles and redeemer of accidents?
Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

So the title of my post has a double meaning. Let Cold Monsters Lie is the imperative to not destroy the State (i.e., anarchy), since it is the condition of our individual and collective preservation. And, it is the realization that the State lies, but also that the Humanimal possesses the capacity, the Talent, to overcome the State’s lies and move from the all-too-human to the transhuman. All it needs is the Opportunity to Practice its artistic approach to life best exemplified, in my opinion, by the work and life of the poet, properly understood.


  1. Massimo, indeed!
    I reblog some of your essays into my blogs and urge others to follow yours.
    I also am a stoic and an epucurean, and I am moral realist.
    Any here can vet my covenant morality for humanity- the presumption of humanism.
    Skeptic Griggsy

    1. Morgan,

      thanks! Of course, this particular post is by Steve, not me!

  2. Nietzsche's attitude towards women isn't so bad when you consider his attitude towards the vast majority of the human race - which includes virtually all of us and you too, Steve, you politically correct, liberal, Nietzsche fan.

    1. Ha, ha!

      But what makes you think I'm not already one of Nietzsche's "free spirits"? I've overcome the decadent morality and valuations that were inculcated into me since birth; I harbor no ressentiment; I'm trying to work out my own theory of values; I'm outside academia and willing to stand alone.

      And Nietzsche's primary criterion for "greatness" was "amor fati". My life experience has been such that I would welcome the eternal return of the same.

      Maybe you're one, too.

    2. No, I'm a member of the herd. I don't think it is possible to overcome this condition but I can be a very strong, exceptional herd animal. A fine specimen! Nietzsche seems to believe only a very select few can truly attain "free spirit" status and thus claim for themselves that they have made their lives a work of art and would do it all over again just the same, eternally. He is extremely elitist

    3. Related to that, I won't join Steve in a Sam Harris-inspired moral "base camp." Steve forgot that Muslims won't be allowed, being blown to bits at the camp's edges by Sam.

      Steve needs to read Camus! One can appreciate the absurdity of the "human condition" without being nihilistic.

    4. Yes, Nietzsche was an elitist. But I do like his "metaphor" of making one's life a work of art.

      @Gadfly -

      I do like Harris' metaphor of a moral "landscape", even as it serves to essentially refute his central thesis; so I don't subscribe to the Sam Harris Moral Landscape™.

      And to be clear: I do not agree with Sam's positions on preemptive nuclear strikes or "ticking bomb scenario" justifications for torture.


  3. Poetry

    When words have no rules or regulations
    And a sentence has no bounds
    That is where the poet hides
    Where truth can still be found

    The word is mightier than the sword they say
    When words are truly free
    Poetry is the words of a poet
    Then the poet has the power of Thee

    There is a lesson to learn in poetry
    A remedy and a cure
    For poetry are words of freedom
    And in freedom the truth shall set us free

    What is the truth One wonders
    In the phrase and phrases of a rhyme
    The true poetry of a free poet
    Will bring equality to All in Just time

    For freedom is equality
    Unity of not only mankind
    The true words of a poets’ poetry
    Is the beautiful true Oneness of All kind.


  4. Oh boy, have I ever been there.

    I think the key to defeating nihilism in myself was the realization that I am not, as I seem to be, a 'little pixel' (Here I assume that by 'little pixel,' you're referring to the sensation of being an infinitely small point located exactly at coordinates (0,0,0) of your visible universe) -- but instead that I am everything in the universe, by virtue of being connected to everything in the universe.

    I'm still not sure why it is that I subjectively feel like this little pixel, or why I'm not aware of everything all at once - but realizing that 'consciousness' and 'life' are just words, real like 'running' is real, is what is saving me from the turmoil.

    1. It also helps to realize that we are, in a literal, physical way, part of the life-cycle of stars. When you stop thinking about 'life' as a real thing, all sorts of amazing ideas crop up.

      After all, there's nothing necessarily special about biochemistry that makes it uniquely alive.

    2. Biochemical substances have found ways to acquire life which could man that something in the stars was, is, and has been, always looking for it.

    3. @Erik

      Yes, accepting what seemed to me to be the obvious "truth" of a naturalistic worldview was a necessary step in over-coming nihilism, especially given my upbringing.

      @Baron P

      Can you elaborate on your statement? You sound a little like Thomas Nagel...

    4. Juno, I'm not as familiar with Nagel as I should be but I'll take that as a compliment. Life to me is a strategic process that is fashioned to evolve itself consistent with nature's predictable changes, and, to it, the accidental ones as well, that the chemical substances that it strategically operates must encounter. It is through the use of these strategies that the users become more (and sometimes less) intelligent, and more able to amplify awareness as a conscious quality.
      Nature, as mathematicians will tell you, is obviously operated logically, and that logic implies a form of intelligence at work as well. It didn't come from Gods and it didn't come miraculously from nothing. It must have always been around and evolving itself accordingly. It's a hugely mysterious subject, largely ignored I suppose for that very reason. But if life is at this point a culmination of nature's strategic purposes, then in that sense nature has always been looking for that result.
      That's my short version anyway.

    5. Nagel was famous for his "What Is It Like to Be a Bat" paper, which I found interesting. Lately he seems to be pushing for the inadequacy of naturalism, primarily due to the inscrutability of human consciousness. He seems to be beginning to claim some form of teleology for nature/the universe.

      Hmm - mathematics is a topic unto itself! But I've always felt that human categories like logic are just that: human attempts and constructions to comprehend the world and make it livable for us. Given what we now know about the quantum world, it would seem that all human constructions are attempts to simplify a world of "becoming" for us - otherwise our evolved brains wouldn't be able to manage. I agree with Nietzsche here: "The world seems logical to us because we have made it logical."

    6. I'd argue that it's logical because its systems act with consistency and predictability. We just don't know the purpose of its actions and because it's also seemingly (to some like me) an uncertain and thus indeterminate system, we (but not like me) assume somewhat paradoxically that its systems have no purposes in the end - and if not in the end, then none in the short term that can be considered purposive in a logical sense. And the deterministic among us see ultimately the same thing, a system where everything has a cause and effect that could not have had, with any logic, an alternate result.

      But on the other hand, if we have made it logical, wasn't it the world that made us logical first? And then can't we logically determine that if we evolved to make essentially our own logical choices, was that due to a determinate accident or to fulfill a purpose out there that was in effect the need to survive. And if we were already determined to survive, why were choices needed to determine or redetermine the predetermined. But again I've digressed.

      As to Nagel, I tend to agree with the claim of some form of teleology accounting for our nature and the evolving of our lives on earth. In my conception of the process, itʼs either teleonomic with at least a short term purpose, or we will now need either a newer definition or a newer word. Because while there is no guiding agent outside of our biological selves to model our futures, it has become clear to me that we do and have done our own trial and error self engineering process modeling quite satisfactorily.

  5. There was an interesting discussion some years ago about the good, bad, and ugly of Nietzsche, recorded here:

    This seems to sum up the good:

    Richard Rorty: "I think Nietzsche was right that human life would be better if we could get rid of God – of the idea of a superhuman power that deserves our respect and obedience. It would make for greater human happiness if we all believed that we owe respect to nothing except our fellow humans. I see the rejection of metaphysics (a rejection common to Heidegger) as owing a great deal to Nietzsche, and as a praiseworthy intellectual movement."

    1. I like the part you quoted above; but to me Rorty seems to be misreading Nietzsche a bit. Nietzsche had a complicated view of Christianity - he separated (rightly or not) the Christianity of Christ and that of Paul. He said that there was only *one* Christian, and he died on the cross. It's true, of course, that he had nothing but contempt for what he believed was Paul's usurpation and subsequent twisting of Christ's "real" teaching: i.e, that the Kingdom of God was a state of mind & heart, a way of being and living, as opposed to a new "faith."

  6. Every time I think about Nietzche I remember what Alain de Botton said: "It shouldn't be disrespectful to the complexity of the human condition to say that despair is also, often, just low blood sugar."

    I really can't relate to any of the things Nietzche is talking about. God is dead, so what?

    Nietzche on the other hand was a great writer, but also was very ill all throughout his life.

    1. Haha that is true. Nietzsche had a lot to say, at least in his notes, about the relationship between physiology and affects, too. I think he would agree that sometimes wretched states of mind are due to wretched states of the body.


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