Bunny Lebowski: Uli doesn’t care about anything. He’s a nihilist.
The Dude: Ah, that must be exhausting.
Sometimes I think John Gray is the great Schopenhauerian European Buddhist of our age. What he offers is a gloriously pessimistic cultural analysis, which rightly reduces to rubble the false idols of the cave of liberal humanism. Counter to the upbeat progressivist evangelical atheism of the last decade, Gray provides a powerful argument in favor of human wickedness that’s still consistent with Darwinian naturalism. It leads to passive nihilism: an extremely tempting worldview, even if I think the temptation must ultimately be refused.
The passive nihilist looks at the world with a highly cultivated detachment and finds it meaningless. Rather than trying to act in the world, which is pointless, the passive nihilist withdraws to a safe contemplative distance and cultivates his acute aesthetic sensibility by pursuing the pleasures of poetry, peregrine-watching, or perhaps botany, as was the case with the aged Rousseau (“Botany is the ideal study for the idle, unoccupied solitary,” Jean-Jacques said). Lest it be forgotten, John Stuart Mill also ended up a botanist.
In a world that is rushing to destroy itself through capitalist exploitation or military crusades — two arms of the same Homo rapiens — the passive nihilist resigns himself to a small island where the mystery of existence can be seen for what it is without distilling it into a meaning. The passive nihilist learns to see, to strip away the deadening horror of habitual, human life and inhale the void that lies behind our words.
No, no, no. Acting in the world is not “pointless”. You can’t help but act. Just because an action doesn’t have inherent meaning, or ultimate meaning, doesn’t mean it has absolutely no meaning. As I keep saying, nihilism is the flip side of universalism, an inverted attempt to keep believing in one rule that is true at all times for all people everywhere.
Put it this way: the question is not “Should I act?” or “Should I not act?” The question is, what do you mean by “should”?