Monday, June 8, 2009

Where Does Nihilism Come From?

In a very interesting book entitled Nihilism Before Nietzsche, (U. of Chicago Press, 1995) Michael Allen Gillespie argues that Nietzsche misunderstook the origin of nihilism. Nietzsche believed that nihilism arises from the death of God, which means the loss of the possibility of truth and meaning. Certainly Nietzsche's view has a widespread influence on the contemporary world. For Nietzsche, the weakness of man, which began with Socrates and Christianity, comes to a sad and pitiful end in the modern world. With the death of God comes the death of morality and a world in which everything is permitted.

But, Gillespie argues, Nietzsche was mistaken about the nature of nihilism, which Gillespie argues originated in the late Medieval nominalism that produced an heretical view of God as sheer will, which calls into question all reason and nature and thus overturns all eternal standards of truth and goodness. This new view of God was the foundation of the via moderna, which is the foundation of modernity as the realm of human self-assertion.

If Gillespie is right, the implication are immense. For one thing, Nietzsche's answer to what he regarded as the slave morality and limp passivity of Christianity in the figure of the "Overman," who scorns limits and asserts his own will in order to create something noble in the world despite knowing the tragic limits of existence, is simply more of the same basic impulse of modernity. Nietzsche thus becomes the reductio ad absurdum of modernity - its claimax and pinnacle - rather than an alternative to it. The line, which Gillespie helpfully does much to elucidate, extends from late medieval nominalism and voluntarism to Nietzsche rather straight-forwardly.

Although Gillespie, a political philosopher who teaches at Duke, does not mention either Joseph Ratzinger or John Milbank in the book, his reading of Western intellectual history is similar to their's in key respects, especially with regard to the origin and nature of modernity. The centrality of the absolute will is traced from Descartes' cogito to German idealism (in particular Kant and Ficte) to Romanticism, Russian Nihilism and eventually Nietzsche.

What I find fascinating in this reading of Western intellectual history is that the roots of modernity are located in an heretical view of God that emerges at the end of the Medieval period and begins to shape an heretical theological anthropology progressively throughout the modern period until we come to the Nietzschean overman and last men. Nietzsche thus represents the culmination of modern (but not Western) thought.

One of the defects of much of postmodernism is that it deconstructs the Enlightenment and thinks that it has thereby deconstructed Christian theology and Western philosophy as a whole. But, as Benedict XVI reminds us in his Regensburg Lecture, the classical Augustinian-Thomist orthodoxy that emerges from the encounter between Hellenistic philosophy and Biblical Faith in the Fathers is a continuing tradition, from which secular modernity is an heretical offshoot. Postmodernism' claims are much too grandiose, but they could be accepted if framed more modestly as proof that the modern, heretical God of sheer will is a dead end. As for the God of the Bible and Christian orthodoxy, that is a different matter.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Alternatively, for those like Baudrillard, nihilism is rooted not in the death of God (or nominalism for that matter) but in the death of representation.