How many times this week have you questioned the meaning of your work and your life? My count’s gotten to the mid-twenties since Sunday.
How many times in the past year have you gotten to a point of deeply understanding, even if not totally agreeing with, the position of the nihilist who says, “nothing matters, everything is meaningless, and nothing has value”? You see an instance of blatant hypocrisy from someone you respected, feel the sting of betrayal of a close friend, or realize that the arc of your life is not inevitably bending toward a hopeful, optimal end. You see all the threads of normative values and meanings disintegrate until there really is no fabric of meaning left and the emperor before you stands naked.
The philosophical room you’re walking into when you enter that headspace is nihilism, which rejects the notion that anything you do (your career goals, finishing your assignments, going to that party, calling your parents, your dating life, personal passions, grand social visions) is ultimately devoid of any transcendent meaning. Nothing can be known. Nothing can be communicated. No cosmic purposes exist. No one really spends all their time in this room, but we seemingly walk by it much more frequently today than ever before.
Critical analysis tends to tie this frequency to secularization and writers who lamented in a nihilist way like Nietzsche, but it’s hardly so new. The author of Koheleth in the Hebrew Bible was loudly lamenting meaninglessness a thousand years before the common era. If the lives of the wicked and the righteous both end in death and both suffer in their life on earth, why be one over the other? The book starts out with the phrase, “meaninglessness of meaninglessnesses—all is meaninglessness”, which is a more than sufficient set of criteria for nihilism.
But like I wrote just before, no one spends all their time in this space. Koheleth doesn’t make strong conclusions, but he does say to eat and drink and enjoy your work because those are gifts from G-d. You might question the meaningfulness of laboring for hours over an assignment only to do poorly on it or earn a degree for a career you might not end up in, but you usually finish both anyway.
My point in this column is not just to demonstrate the nihilistic pretext we find ourselves working within in the year 2020, but to ask why and how we keep building past it. Every day we’re schlepping heavy stones of meaning into a foundational pit that we build our everyday lives off of. You’re going to cure cancer, and the value of that is good, no matter that everyone dies anyway. You’re going to make a lot of money on a financial market and have cars and houses that make you happy, no matter how illusory and bankrupt that happiness might end up being. You’re going to solve the energy and environmental crises, and this is good because the planet is preserved for another generation, no matter that humans will either leave it or destroy it in a few more.
These are meanings you construct on top of the black soil of nihilism, moving past the room you could easily sit and mope in and entering a larger one where the walls may be mostly glass, but at least they let in a lot of light.
The successes of religious reenchantment in postmodern life are due to the ability of religions to reliably construct meaning on top of an abysmal, chaotic reality. How many founding myths begin with a dark chaos that the worshiped deity organizes into birds and trees and light? How are you retelling these stories to yourself after they have been disenchanted by modernity?
No really, comment on this article to let me know. Like I said, I’m up to the mid-twenties already this week.
Nicholas Chrapliwy is a Trinity junior. His column runs on alternate Fridays.
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