Nietzsche’s Analysis of Nihilism

by Vered Arnon

In the notebook(1) excerpts published as The Will to Power Nietzsche describes nihilism as ‘ambiguous’ in that it can be symptomatic of either strength or weakness. Nietzsche claims that nihilism is a necessary step in the transition to a revaluation of all values. Passive nihilism is characterised by a weak will, and active nihilism by a strong will. Nietzsche emphasises that nihilism is merely a means to an end, and not an end in itself.

Nihilism, according to Nietzsche, is the most extreme form of pessimism. Put simply, it is the belief that everything is meaningless, but this oversimplifies the concept. Nihilism is a transitional stage that accompanies human development. It arises from weariness. When people feel alienated from values, and have lost the foundation of their value system but have not replaced it with anything, then they become nihilists. They become disappointed with the egoistic nature of ‘truth’ and ‘morality’ and so on, but at the same time recognise that what is egoistic is necessary. The notion of free will seems contradictory. Values, though originating from the ego, have been placed in a sphere so far outside and ‘above’ that they are untouchable. Any attempt to really figure out the ‘truth’ or posit a ‘true reality’ has become impossible, thus the world appears meaningless and valueless. The nihilist realises that all criteria by which the ‘real world’ have been measured are categories that refer to a fictitious, constructed world. This sense of alienation results in exhaustion.

“Nihilism would be a good sign,” Nietzsche writes in his notebooks. It is a necessary transitional phase, cleansing and clearing away outdated value systems so that something new can rise in their place. He writes about two different forms of nihilism, active nihilism and passive nihilism. Passive nihilism is more the traditional ‘belief that all is meaningless’, while active nihilism goes beyond judgement to deed, and destroys values where they seem apparent. Passive nihilism signifies the end of an era, while active nihilism ushers in something new. Nietzsche considers nihilism not as an end, but as a means ultimately to the revaluation of values. He stresses repeatedly that nihilism is a ‘transitional stage’.

Passive nihilism is symptomatic of decreased, declined, receded power of the spirit(2). One recognises that all external values are empty and have no true authority. This renders the internal values, the conscience, meaningless as well, resulting in the loss of personal authority. All authority gone, the spirit in hopelessness and with a sense of fatalism strives to rid itself of all responsibility. All trust in society is gone, and the will is weakened. Aims, motives, and goals are gone. The spirit wants something to depend on, but has absolutely nothing that isn’t arbitrary. Disintegration of the structured system of values leads one to seek escape in anything that still maintains an outward semblance of authority. These things are hollow escapes though, what Nietzsche calls “self-narcotization”. The spirit attempts to escape, or at least forget about the emptiness. The weakened will strives to intoxicate itself in resignation, generalisations, petty things, debauchery and fanaticism. The will is weak and seeks escape rather than action. But any attempt to escape nihilism without revaluating values only makes the problem more acute.

Active nihilism is symptomatic of an increased power of the spirit. The will is strengthened and rebellious. This is the form of nihilism that does not stop at judgement, but goes on in action to be destructive towards the remaining vestiges of empty value systems. The strength of the will is tested by whether or not it can recognise all value systems as empty and meaningless, yet admit that these lies arise out of us and serve a purpose. This denial of a truthful world, Nietzsche says, may be a “divine way of thinking”. The active nihilist recognises that simplification and lies are necessary for life. The value of values becomes their emptiness. Where rationality and reason have clearly failed, the nihilist embraces irrationality and freedom from logic. The will now has an opportunity to assert its strength and power to deny all authority and deny goals and faith– to deny the constraints of existence. Nietzsche describes this state as both destructive and ironic.

Active nihilism obviously is not an end, however. It merely opens the stage for the beginning of a revaluation of values. It opens the stage for the will to take power and assert itself. Nihilism is the precursor to revaluation, it does not replace values, it only tears them away. It functions as an essential transition, and must be understood as a means and not an end.

1 This paper is an analysis of notebook passages in an attempt to piece together and summarise Nietzsche’s ideas on a very small specific topic (His notebook entries often deal with nihilism, morality, pessimism, etc all at once. I am attempting to put together coherently what his views are on nihilism, sorting it out from the rest and leaving the rest alone). For the ease of reading, I will not employ internal citation. All of these ideas and propositions belong to Nietzsche alone, and come from “Book One: European Nihilism” from The Will To Power, translated and edited by Walter Kaufmann in 1967.
2 Spirit refers to a person’s will. Nietzsche does not posit the existence of ‘souls’. This word is not used in a religious sense.

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