A book on ethics and philosophy of values

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c) Is nihilism a kind of skepticism?

This equivalence is not due to Nietzsche, who thinks that skepticism is not a sign of illness, but of the strength of will and mind.

The skepticism is symbol of strength, as it reveals the honesty of thought: I put aside a few sceptics, the types of decency in the history of philosophy: the rest haven’t the slightest conception of intellectual integrity 1.

But mainly, skepticism is synonym of a certain strength of mind, because the doubter has no belief; and the need to believe, as a need, is synonym of weakness: Do not let yourself be deceived: great intellects are sceptical. Zarathustra is a sceptic. The strength, the freedom which proceed from intellectual power, from a superabundance of intellectual power, manifest themselves as scepticism. Men of fixed convictions do not count when it comes to determining what is fundamental in values and lack of values. Men of convictions are prisoners. […] On the contrary, the need of faith, of something unconditioned by yea or nay, of Carlylism, if I may be allowed the word, is a need of weakness. The man of faith, the “believer” of any sort, is necessarily a dependent man—such a man cannot posit himself as a goal, nor can he find goals within himself 2.

The kind of skepticism to which Nietzsche refers is perhaps that of Montaigne, with whom he seems to have the greatest affinity3. We know that, on Christmas Day 1870, Nietzsche received the Essays of Montaigne from the hand of Cosima Wagner. He declared: Basically it is a small number of the older Frenchmen to whom I return again and again and explicitly refers to the author of the Essays: I have something of Montaigne’s mischievousness in my spirit, who knows? Perhaps also in my body 4. In the same way that Montaigne wants to be always learning and making trial 5, Nietzsche claims for himself the perilous prerogative of spending a life in experiment and of running adventurous risks 6.

In fact, what brings nihilism and skepticism closer, and gives the impression that they may be reduced to one another, is the radical rejection of the world that they both seem to share. It is this point that they supposedly have in common which would justify their equivalence.

d) Criticism of the confusion of nihilism with pessimism and skepticism

Maybe these difficulties appear only because we have considered that the authentic meaning of nihilism was its historical meaning. But we see that this one has fluctuated, and is attributed to some doctrines which probably are not a real kind of nihilism. In other words, we try to find what nihilism is, by considering some doctrines which may or may not be real nihilistic ones. It is obvious that there is a logical vicious circle, in this approach.

I prefer another method: I do not take into account the so-called examples of nihilism, since they are not obviously real ones. Thus I will not try to decide on the meaning of nihilism from the study of pessimism, Christianity, etc. The question is raised: how can we find what nihilism is, now that it seems we are deprived of the means to do so?

In fact, I will question the nihilism from the only thing we have: its name “nihilism”. What does the “Nihil” mean? Namely, the “nothingness” that the nihilism conveys in its very name? What is the “nothing” of the man of “nothing”? I think it refers to the following proposition: “in fact, if we understand the reality of things, nothing has a real and objective value”.

From this initial definition, conveyed in nihilism’s name, we must remember that a concept has a real meaning only if it is distinct from the other related concepts. So instead of reducing nihilism to skepticism, pessimism, or Christianity, which would make it lose its meaning, rather than enhancing it, I will try to determine whether it can be distinguished from all these doctrines.

We may define pessimism as the axiological doctrine which holds that life, world or things have no value at all, and leads to sadness, resentment, or suicide. So we perceive the radical difference between nihilism and pessimism: if nihilism maintains that life, world or things have no real value, likewise it holds that death, sadness or nothingness also have no value. Indeed, as contents of meaning, death or sadness are treated in a similar way than all other contents of meanings: their value is denied. This distinction may seem purely formal, if not sophistic: it is splitting hairs, in appearance. But I think this has an important consequence: nihilism is not a kind of pessimism.

Indeed, pessimism is this doctrine which considers that sadness or death have a great value, as they are, for example, the only possible attitudes of the wise man (even if this doctrine does not specifically say so, and does not use the very concept of value). As such, pessimism is a kind of these theories which “still attribute a value to something”.
By contrast, the nihilist is the only one who attributes no value to anything at all, and that is proper to him. He agrees that things or concepts have a reality or a meaning, but denies that they have any value. Therefore he stands on a radically distinct ground, which we have to examine.

We understand now that the nihilism, as presented by Nietzsche, is not an authentic nihilism, but a classical pessimism, since he tells us that the “nihilist” is deeply disappointed when he remarks that his three ideals –aim, unity and truth- are not incarnate in this world. It is with regard to an ideal that he criticizes the world; so Nietzsche presents us here a nihilist who has ideals -which is nothing but a contradiction in terms – viz. attributes a value (or rather, the greatest one!) to some things.

This meaningless conception of an idealistic nihilism is expressed in another passage: The philosophical nihilist is convinced that all that happens is meaningless and in vain; and that there ought not to be anything meaningless and in vain. But whence this: there ought not to be 7.

Consequently, we see that pessimism and nihilism must not be confounded, and form two consistent axiological positions: whereas nihilism is the negation of the value of every content of meaning = X, pessimism attributes a value to some actions, thoughts, and the origin of its painful feelings and negative thoughts may be… an ideal.

1. The Antichrist, 12
2. The Antichrist, 54
3. N. Panichi, in the Revue Noésis, n°10, 2006, p.93-112
4. Ecce Homo, Why I am so clever, §3
5. Essays, II, 2, 805 B
6. Human, too human, Préface, §4
7. The Will to power, Book 1 : the European Nihilism, 36, p. 49