Existential Nihilism: Does Life Have Meaning?

wbExistentialism Art

“Seeking what is true is not seeking what is desirable.” ― Albert Camus,The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays

“I have come to believe that the whole world is an enigma, a harmless enigma that is made terrible by our own mad attempt to interpret it as though it had an underlying truth.” ― Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum

“The world is, of course, nothing but our conception of it.” ― Anton Chekhov

By Dave Hood

Many philosophers, sociologists, intellectuals, deep thinkers argue life has no meaning and purpose, and that we live in a world that resembles existential nihilism.For instance, far too many people live lives of “quiet desperation.” They might live alone in their five-bedroom homes, drive alone in their commute to work, toil in meaningless, dehumanized jobs, return home and watch mindless reality television after work. On the weekends, they drink too much or get high on illegal drugs, or they find pleasure in faddish popular culture that will be forgotten.

As well, the decline of religion has created secular society, in which people feel dehumanized, alienated, and socially isolated. And so, much of humanity lives without meaning and purpose.

I recently read “All Things Shining”, a New York Times bestseller, written by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean D Kelly. It’s a provocative read. In one chapter, the concept of “blind luck” is discussed. “Blind luck” often determines the course of our lives, which quickly leads to the nihilistic idea that life has no meaning. While reading the book, I asked myself: does life have meaning? Or does humanity live an existential, nihilistic existence?

Now, many of you might laugh about such simple question, believing that it is redundant. But in reality, many people live in a state of automatism, never thinking consciously of their choices and potential consequences of their actions, always seeking pleasurable pursuits, hedonistic activities that result in fleeting happiness, never asking themselves: What is the meaning and purpose of life? In fact, I would argue that most people live their lives with the “the cruise control turned on as they drive through the highway of life.”  They live in a state of automatism.

Definition of Nihilism and Existentialism
To fully understand and answer these questions, you need to understand the concept of existential nihilism–which suggests that life has no objective meaning. In other words, life’s meaning is subjective.

Nihilism derives its name from the Latin root “nihil,” meaning nothing. Nihilism labels all values worthless. It is associated with radical scepticism and extreme pessimism.

There are many types of nihilism, such as political nihilism (we must dismantle the existing political system and create a new system because the existing system is meaningless), moral nihilism (there is no objective morality or absolute right and wrong), and existential nihilism, which argues that there is no objective meaning and purpose in life.

Existential nihilism is often associated with the 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche who used the term with different meanings and connotations in his philosophical writings. He argued that decline of Christianity and the rise of physiological decadence lead to nihilism in the modern world. He characterized the state of nihilism as world in which there was no meaning, no purpose, no comprehensible truth, no essential value to human life.

Many philosophers have written about existentialism, which focuses on the condition of human existence—a person’s thoughts, emotions, responsibilities in relation to the meaning and purpose of life.

Soren Kierkegaard is posthumously regarded as the father of existentialism. He suggested that it is each person’s sole responsibility to construct his/her own meaning and purpose in life. It was also each person’s responsibility to live a passionate and satisfying and fulfilling life—despite the obstacles of boredom, absurdity, despair, and social alienation that life can impose on the life of a person.

Other existential philosophers who came after Kierkegaard still focus on the human condition, but they don’t agree on how to achieve a meaningful, satisfying, and fulfilling life. They also don’t agree on what obstacles must be overcome, and whether faith and the belief in God are necessary for providing meaning and purpose to life.

After World War II, existentialism became a well-known and significant philosophical and cultural movement. The horrors and destruction of war resulted in resurgence of existentialism.  Two French writers, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus provided a public voice for existentialism. They wrote best-selling novels, plays, widely read journalism, and philosophical essays.

Sartre wrote the novel “Nausea” (1938) and a collection of short stories in “The Wall” (1939) which dealt with existentialist themes. He also published his treatise on existentialism called “Being and Nothingness” (1943).

In response to the absurdity of life, Camus posed the question “Shall I Commit Suicide!” in an essay he wrote called “The Myth of Sisyphus.”If a person answers “no”, he suggested that it means that there is something to live for, something to do, something to be. Moreover, there’s value and meaning to life. Camus also suggested that these reasons to live aren’t provided to man at birth, so it becomes the responsibility of each person to define his/her own meaning and purpose, and to create his/her own happiness in life—a life that is satisfying and fulfilling.

Both Sartre and Camus also explained each person can transform his absurd life into a life filled with meaning and purpose. Each person requires love, human dignity, freedom of will, and creativity.

Other philosophers have written extensively on the philosophical concept of existentialism. Essentially, those who believe in existentialism argue that man is born into a world without external meaning and purpose. There is also no external value to the human condition. Human existence is “absurd”, until each person finds their own meaning and purpose and happiness.

Traditional Meaning and Purpose
Historically, society has found meaning through morality–a sense of what is right and wrong. Some believe that morality is inherent–a gift from God. This sense of morality also suggest that God intervenes and guides or day-today-actions.

Historically, people have also found meaning in faith and religion, which socialize people to believe in God or Gods. Religion has also provided the faithful with a moral code to live by. For many, the belief in God and a particular religion create meaning. Those who have faith in God and religion also that there is eternal life—an afterlife, when they die, providing a person has lived a moral life, lived by the Golden Rule. This also creates meaning.

Yet many people who have faith and belief in God never question the origin of their faith, never ask whether God exists. They accept the doctrine and morality of their faith without asking the important questions: Who created my religion? What is the history of religion? Why are there so many different religions each claiming to know the truth about the unanswerable questions, such as Does God exist?

It’s now 2011. We live in a secular society, a separation of church and state, a non-religious society. Organized religion no longer provides the meaning and purpose most people seek in life. Furthermore, many people claim to be religious but don’t go to church, don’t pray to their God, don’t follow the morality of their faith. They live their lives as sinners out of control.

Many people are atheist—deny the existence of God. They believing that religion is a social construct, imagined, manufactured by man, created to sooth man’s obsessive fears of death—and answer the question of whether there’s an afterlife or nothing at all. They believe, and rightfully so, that religion is the root cause of much evil in the world. The event of 9/11 is quintessential example of how religion can poison the mind of man. They also point to other history books for many other examples. And so, for the atheist, faith and religion have no meaning and purpose to their lives.

And for the agnostic, such as myself, we cannot deny or prove the existence of God. We don’t support the traditional doctrines of the church. Yet we are spiritual-seekers who refuse to take the blind leap of faith. We seek the answers to the questions: Does God exist? We seek spirituality in our lives. We search for meaning and purpose and bring it into our lives. We believe that man can be moral and ethical without organized religion. Many believe in secular humanism.

Because we live in a secular world, here in the West, many people have no meaning in their lives. Many don’t believe in God. So faith does doesn’t teach them what is “right and wrong.”

Many see the religious person has a hypocrite and perpetual sinner. For instance, in the Catholic Church, priests are sinners. They are homosexual or pedophiles. And many people  who go to church aren’t very nice people, and they sin on a regular basis, and don’t even question their sin. This implies that religion is not sacred.

The secular society has resulted in the end of sacredness. Nothing is sacred. In fact, for many people, the only thing sacred is “personal choice”, the ability to live one’s life any way they want, the need to think and feel and conduct themselves any way they want, without regard to the morality of their actions, thoughts, or lifestyle.

The spiritual seeker does not live life with the automatic pilot switch turned on. He/she asks the philosophical questions that need to be answered:

  1. Has religion always existence since the birth of man? Or is it a result of organized society?
  2. Do you know at birth the difference between right and wrong? Or was morality taught to you. Some people belief in “natural law”, that man knows in his heart at birth what is right and wrong. Thus man’s human nature is inherently good, thanks to a loving God.
  3. Does God exist? How do we know?
  4. Is the scripture a myth or does in speak the truth?
  5. What is the moral life?
  6. How do we find meaning and purpose in life?
  7. What happens after we die?
  8. How can we believe in Adam and Eve if the Darwin’s Origin of the Species tells us that we evolved from apes?

Many people find meaning and purpose through Buddhism, which denies the belief in God and supports the idea of reincarnation, and the belief in Nirvana, ineffable or indescribable ultimate in which one has attained disinterested wisdom and compassion.

The belief in God and the denial of God’s existence are contradictions. Which religious faith is correct? Perhaps all religions are a delusion of man, and are therefore mythical—without true meaning.

I also believe that many people, who claim to be religious, live in a state of automatism. And so they never question the roots of their faith, the nature and existence of God, whether they are living a moral life. And so, in reality, religion does not provide purpose and meaning for them. If it did provide meaning and purpose, these so-called religious people would read the scripture, attend church, and abide by the moral code of their faith.

Our Nihilistic Existence in Western Society
For many people, life is the occasionally filled with an ecstatic blissful moment, followed by long stretches of boredom. We take a trip to an exotic destination, then return to the routine of our daily life. We purchase a new home or fancy car, feel great joy for a short time, then return to the routines of daily existence. We search for new sources of bliss, which are just fleeting states of happiness in reality. We meet the love of our lives, we believe, then when the lust and passion we feel turns to routine, just another relationship, we grow bored, begin to seek something new, something else that will provide more pleasure—new bliss. We believe there is some woman or guy who will provide us the happiness missing from our meaningless lives.

The important philosopher Frederick Nietzsche introduced the concept of “the will to power”,  He suggested that main driving force in man is achievement, ambition,  the striving desire to reach the highest possible position in life. Therefore, for the driven man, the man who has ambition—desire to climb the ladder of success—the meaning of life is “ambition itself.”

Many people chasing the career, in fact, focus their time and energy on building a career at the expense of work-life balance, and their health. They are focused on nothing more than “the will to power.” It is blind ambition, like Charles Foster Kane in the film “Citizen Kane”, The film is seen by movie critics as a fictionalized parody of media tycoon William Randolph Hearst. Essentially, the meaning of life for many career people like Kane is “ambition itself.” I would call this “blind ambition.” But does ambition, at the expense of a balanced life provide true happiness?

Many people focus on building their careers, even becoming workaholics, sacrificing their health, time with their children, even their marriages—all for the food to feed their “super ego” that the corporation provides, the power and prestige and wealth that employment can provide. The career becomes the meaning of life. Without it, they have no meaning or purpose in living.

And then there is the career person who works all his life, sacrificing his free time for the tasks that his/her career demand, expecting to relax and enjoy retirement at some point in the future, and then dies shortly after the last day of work. What is the meaning of his or her life?

People who lose their jobs and become an unemployed statistic often feel socially isolated and disconnected from society, until they are working again. The typical white collar worker who is unemployed will search for a “good job”, one that in which the person can use their knowledge, skill, and expertise. On many occasions, especially during a recession or a period of slow economic growth, the person will have to take “survival jobs”, which allows them to earn an income and pay their bills, but doesn’t allow them to work knowledge or skills. These people become part of the “underemployed.’ Underemployment is demeaning and dehumanizing to many.

Sometimes the underemployed person will need to take any job to pay the bills and prevent poverty—or living on the street as a homeless person. Most people don’t want to work at Tim Horton’s earning $10 an hour serving coffee, but sometimes they have to. This suggests that much of the work people are paid to do is dehumanizing and lacks meaning, unless it matches the person’s knowledge, skill set, and expertise.

As well, far too many people in our society find meaning only by acquiring material wealth, fancy possessions, which satisfy their craving, an insatiable need for immediate pleasure and gratification. Yet Positive Psychology, which focuses on the science of happiness—has proven that money and power don’t make people happy. They are not the ingredients of a happy life. Moreover, many people who are viewed as successful are in fact “nihilistic”–Bernie Madoff, Conrad Black, Garth Drabinsky. Even the terrorist Osama Bin Laden, who was successful until he was killed, was a nihilist.

The Nihilistic Social Condition of Many
Many people live lives of “quiet desperation” in social isolation. The aged often live alone, forgotten, in their homes. The sick live in their beds or strapped in a wheelchair. The addicted live for the meaning of the next puff on a cigarette, the next drink of wine, the next joint, the next roll of the dice, the next fleeting few moments of orgasmic sex. The homeless live in the garbage on the street or under a bridge by the polluted river. The mentally ill, such as the depressed, live in their minds, a private hell, without meaning.

Far too many people feel powerless to make change in their own lives. They are fatalistic. They don’t believe that they can take action to change their current state of existence. For instance, young adults go to university, graduate with degrees—but cannot find work in their fields of study, and many cannot find work at all, unless they want to work in menial jobs, survival jobs that pay poverty wages.

Many people also believe that they are powerless to change the social and political structures of our society. They see the rich getting richer, and the poor getting poorer. They work to survive—and find no joy in work. They feel trapped in their jobs, because the free market economic system discriminates against them, or cannot provide the employment opportunities, because of a recession, low corporate profits, or freeze on hiring.

Many people feel powerless to change the political system or social problems that exist. More than 40% of the population never votes in an election because they don’t care. And they don’t care because they feel that their vote has no power, no meaning, no influence. Their vote will not change the political system or the current state of the human condition.

Many people live meaningless lives—without faith or religion. Many live without a job, just the prospect of poverty or living on the street. Many live without hope, just the prospect of struggling to survive. Many live without their physical and mental health—just the prospect of death staring them in the face, breathing on them, reminding them that tomorrow might be the end of life—and nonexistence.

Our Nihilistic Pop Culture
Nihilism pervades our popular culture. You can find many examples of nihilism in film, music, television, fiction novels, and art.

Nihilism has been depicted in great films, such as “American Beauty”, which won the Best Picture Award at the Oscars. Nihilism pervades horror films. People find pleasure in the horrific and grotesque. Nihilism is the dominant theme of the popular film, “The Big Lebowski” and “Natural Born Killers”, and “The Crying Game.” And nihilism resulted in the self-destruction of the character Charles Foster Kane in the film “Citizen Kane,” a movie that is considered my many critics to be the all-time best film.

The popular sitcom “Seinfeld”, was a show about nothing. So is the animated sitcom “The Simpsons.” And themes of nihilism dominated the television series “The Sopranos.”

Many would argue that alternative rock is nihilistic in its mood and tone and content. Punk music, such as the sound of The Sex Pistols was noise—about nothing. Much of reality television is about blind ambition or fleeting pleasure or immediate gratification.

Nihilism has been a powerful theme in fiction, such as the novel “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.”

Nihilism pervades art. Marcel Duchamp, who created the Data movement, suggested that anything can be art. Many average people, who aren’t schooled in art history, will tell you that abstract art is about nothing. Much of the current art is about “nothing.” Installation art and conceptual art is about nothing at all. And many in today’s art community still believe that anything can be art.

Where Do We Find Meaning and Purpose in Life?
So what are the required elements of a happy life? According to positive psychologists, the pursuit of immediate gratification, fleeting pleasures, such as taking a trip, buying a new Lamborghini, up scaling the three-bedroom house to a palatial estate, are just fleeting pleasures. The “high” or “good feeling” or “blissful” state disappears, and so then the person must seek something else to feed his/her craving, pursuits or pleasures that he believes will provide happiness. But this type of happiness doesn’t last—it disappears. And so people, especially those who are materialistic, are always on a treadmill, chasing the feeling of “bliss” that diminishes and disappears with the passage of time.

A meaningful life implies a state of happiness–which suggests we have meaning and purpose in our lives. According to positive psychologists, we find meaning a purpose through meaningful work, loving relationships, strong family ties, close, supportive friendships, spirituality (not necessarily religion), and the pursuit of leisure pursuits that engage us, move us into a state of “flow”, a mental state that allows us to forget the passage of time, enables us to focus on what we are doing in the present moment, such as writing, reading, photography, playing a musical instrument.

I truly believe that each of us can find worthy meaning–but it is a “conscious choice” each of us must make. Living one’s life in a state of automatism is not living a meaningful life. Essentially, you’re just going through life not questioning, not seeking answers to your curiosity. You are accepting what is given as truth.

There are several paths you can take to find the meaning and purpose in life, and live a happy life, one that is satisfying and enriching. Certainly the suggestions by positive psychologists are excellent goals to pursue. Another path is the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom through self-study or a formal education. Another is the by immersing one’s self in the arts—such as reading literature, attending an art gallery, learning to play the piano, becoming a creative writer, making films, writing books, creating music, taking photos that capture a glorious or painful moment in time forever.

Final Thoughts
Some people live long lives filled with prosperity and happiness, while others live short lives of misery, pain and suffering—“quiet desperation.” Blind luck plays a big role in determining who achieves happiness, peace of mind, contentment and satisfaction.

A conscious, personal choice also plays a role in our well-being. We must decide to be happy, within a hostile world that is indifferent to who we are and what we do with our lives, providing we don’t break the law or hurt others. It is each person’s own responsibility to determine what makes them happy–but this happiness ought to be based on truth. Otherwise, the person is living in delusion.

Socrates said “ an unexamined life is not worth living.” In other words, we must make the decision to be skeptical of beliefs that are not supported by evidence. Skepticism is the first step toward truth. Truth contributes to our perceptions, opinions, thoughts, goals, and how we experience life. Truth also assists us in determining what is our purpose and meaning in life. Those who have meaning and purpose are happier than those who don’t.

I agree with the words of Jean-Paul Sartre: “Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself.” Each of us must ask ourselves: What will provide me with meaning and purpose? What will provide me with real happiness? Often through trial and error, we can discover our bliss and elixir of happiness.  Each of us must find our bliss and pursue it passionately within an existential world. This is the meaning and purpose of life–to seek and achieve happiness, amidst the fog of delusion.

Additional Reading
Books on existentialism that might be of interest:

  • Being and Nothingness by Jean– Paul Sartre
  • The Stranger by Albert Camus
  • The Fall by Albert Camus
  • Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett
  • Catcher in the Rye by D.S. Salinger
  • Basic Writings of Existentialism, edited by Gordon Marino

About Dave Hood

Lover of poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction. Professional photographer and writer. Without the arts, life would be rather mundane, like a walk down the same old path on a dull day.
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