“This is my way, where is yours?” – Thus I answered those who asked me “the way”. For the way – that does not exist.– Nietzsche
I was just reading Adam Bertocci’s brilliant Shakespearean retelling of The Big Lebowski this morning, and saw a notation where he defined nihilism as a doctrine that denies human existence has any intrinsic purpose, meaning or value. Not so, good sir! For I’m afraid it’s just a simple fact that meaning is what we make it, not an inherent property of life itself. Nihilism is the shadow of the Greek (and subsequent Christian) legacy that values universalism. The True, the Good and the Beautiful are timeless and unchanging; if deprived of the ability to believe in them, people will settle for clinging to a universal despair — there’s no meaning anywhere, anytime, in anything. The desire to make the objects of our belief and worship timeless and unchanging is still the same. (This is the sort of thing that makes Buddhists snicker — even when we seem to be utterly miserable, we’re still taking a cold comfort in refusing to give up concepts we’re attached to.) But the things you love, the things that make your life worth living, are no less meaningful just because they don’t last forever. Recognizing this is a sign of mental health, not nihilism.
So it was quite fortuitous to come across this interesting essay this afternoon:
Herman Melville seems to have articulated and hoped for this kind of possibility. Writing 30 years before Nietzsche, in his great novel “Moby Dick,” the canonical American author encourages us to “lower the conceit of attainable felicity”; to find happiness and meaning, in other words, not in some universal religious account of the order of the universe that holds for everyone at all times, but rather in the local and small-scale commitments that animate a life well-lived. The meaning that one finds in a life dedicated to “the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side, the country,” these are genuine meanings. They are, in other words, completely sufficient to hold off the threat of nihilism, the threat that life will dissolve into a sequence of meaningless events. But they are nothing like the kind of universal meanings for which the monotheistic tradition of Christianity had hoped. Indeed, when taken up in the appropriate way, the commitments that animate the meanings in one person’s life ─ to family, say, or work, or country, or even local religious community ─ become completely consistent with the possibility that someone else with radically different commitments might nevertheless be living in a way that deserves one’s admiration.The new possibility that Melville hoped for, therefore, is a life that steers happily between two dangers: the monotheistic aspiration to universal validity, which leads to a culture of fanaticism and self-deceit, and the atheistic descent into nihilism, which leads to a culture of purposelessness and angst.
I would add that this ties in neatly with what Isaiah Berlin noted about the importance of the Romantic movement.