A second question may be asked: is nihilism a kind of skepticism? Again, I think that these two doctrines are radically distinct.
Skepticism has doubts about the possibility of truth. But nihilism does not call into question the notion of truth, but that of value. Moreover, the skeptic doubts of everything. He does not even know whether truth is attainable, or not. By “epoché”, he suspends judgments on all matters, ceases to affirm anything, whatever. On the contrary, nihilism maintains that it is certain that nothing has value. It claims to be a sort of knowledge.
So we see that nihilism is irreducible to pessimism or skepticism, a confusion which is commonly made. In fact, it is a specific mode of thought, which we must examine.
Now that nihilism is better understood in its theoretical aspect, we can see that a particular philosopher was explicitly nihilist, or at least expressed a nihilistic position. In other words: we find in the history of philosophy, a manifesto of nihilism, as we can see now that we have a better idea of what nihilism is.
It is strange, maybe even extraordinary, that we find it in the very beginning of philosophy, understood as a mode of thought and a mode of being: I mean Thales, the first philosopher.
Indeed, we found in a Fragment the following idea:
Death is not different from life he said –
So why are you not killing yourself? he was answered.
Because it does make no difference 1 he replied.
If we admit that Thales means that life and death are equivalent in value as well as in nature, so what can we infer from this? Not that Thales was a nihilist. We do not know this, such an accusation might be unfair or even an anachronism. But that Thales clearly expresses what a real nihilist could tell us: he would answer us nothing else.
This idea is also reflected in the works of Cioran. This author expresses some classical pessimistic reflections, for example:
Wouldn't it be better if I buried my tears in the sand on a seashore in utter solitude? But I never cried, because my tears have always turned into thoughts. And my thoughts are as bitter as tears 2.
But also, some authentic nihilist ones, like:
Although life for me is torture, I cannot renounce it, because I do not believe in the absolute values in whose name I would sacrifice myself. If I were to be totally sincere, I would say that I do not know why I live and why I do not stop living. […] Why should I bother? Let death appear in a ridiculous light; suffering, limited and unrevealing; enthusiasm, impure; life, rational; life's dialectics, logical rather than demonic; despair, minor and partial; eternity, just a word; the experience of nothingness, an illusion; fatality, a joke! 3
So Cioran is conscious that the traditional attributes of pessimism –despair and tears- are of no help, because this would be like giving them a value, and the axiological doctrine that he maintains does not allow him to do so. He feels that his position is distinct from the traditional pessimism, and words fail to express its radical nature:
I do not know whether I am desperate or not, since lack of hope does not automatically imply despair. I could be called anything because I stand to lose nothing. I've lost everything! flowers are blooming and birds are singing all around me! How distant I am from everything! 4
In one sentence, he beautifully describes the strange situation in which the nihilist finds himself:
Why don't i commit suicide? Because I am as sick of death as I am of life. I should be cast into a flaming caldron! Why am I on this earth? I feel the need to cry out, to utter a savage scream that will set the world atremble with dread. I am like a lightning bolt ready to set the world ablaze and swallow it all in the flames of my nothingness. I am the most monstrous being in history, the beast of the apocalypse full of fire and darkness, of aspirations and despair. [...] My symbol is the death of light and the flame of death. Sparks die in me only to be reborn as thunder and lightning. Darkness itself glows in me 5.
1. Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, Book 1
2. On the heights of despair, Nothing is important
4. Ibid., I do not know
5. Ibid., The monopoly of suffering