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What is Truth? – The Roots (and the Flowering) of Modern Nihilism

Read the second chapter of our thought-provoking book What is Truth?. Intended as an apologetic foundation for anyone attempting to evangelise a postmodern neighbour, What is Truth? explains that to share the joy of the Gospel today, men and women must rediscover that it is possible to know objective truth about ourselves and the world around us.

Below is the second chapter of our book What is Truth?

The modern turn away from objectively known truth is a turn down a road which ultimately dead ends in nihilism. If truth cannot be known with any certainty, and if the human experience does not obtain to reality, then what can remain to modern man’s approach to life but a radical scepticism? And if the fundamental attitude of our time is one of scepticism, even in regard to the everyday, the ordinary and the natural, how could it not be one of even greater scepticism of the supernatural? As stated by St John Paul II and already quoted above, “[n]ihilism is at the root of the widespread mentality which claims that a definitive commitment should no longer be made.” It is claimed that God, existence and reality cannot be known by us, that we simply have our own concepts of things, and that one is as good as any other. The ordinary person on the street is happy to “live their own truth”. In what is certainly a statement most indicative of modern thought – and what may prove to be the most culturally enduring statement of his career – American supreme court justice Anthony Kennedy infamously declared the following:

“At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

In a wonderfully insightful essay Ernest Fortin has summarised the phenomenon of nihilism quite well:

The reality to which [nihilism] refers is not a specific world-view, comparable to other contemporary or older world-views, but a pervasive phenomenon engulfing the whole of modern life and thought – the spiritual style, so to speak, of the Western world. In its most advanced pre-Nietzschean form, it is coextensive with historicism or historical relativism and manifests itself most clearly in the final repudiation of all absolute or eternally valid norms of conduct. As such, it constitutes the root cause rather than the consequence of the corruption and moral decay of modern society. Its motto is “Nothing is true; everything is permitted”, which represents the only consistent and legitimate response to the emptiness of life without a compelling horizon of values.

Presented with an existence in which what is objective is thrown out in favour of what is subjective, where ultimate meaning is grounded in the individual and there is no objectively valid norm for anything, man puts himself in the place of God. Elevating man to the position in which all reality is based inevitably (and directly) dethrones God, putting man in his place. This is, of course, nothing but the latest instantiation of the serpent’s ancient deceit: man must throw off the yoke of God in order to be established as master of himself and become as a god. Henri de Lubac saw this with remarkable clarity:

Man is getting rid of God in order to regain possession of the human greatness that, it seems to him, is being unwarrantably withheld by another. In God he is overthrowing an obstacle in order to gain his freedom. Modern humanism, then, is built upon resentment and begins with a choice. It is… an “anti-theism”.

One of the prime protagonists in this revolution, as de Lubac sees it, is Nietzsche, whose basic stance is this: God is the being on whom man projects all that is best in himself and who, because of man’s weakness and fear, is credited with what is highest in man; because of this, man retains all that is worst and weakest, accrediting it to himself, while placing his noblest attributes in what he calls God, thereby cheating himself of his true nobility.20 If this is the case, that God cheats man of what is best and highest in him, then what can be done but to do away with God? This, then, is the genesis of “the death of God”, which is perhaps most often associated with Nietzsche. “Whatever its antecedents may have been,” states de Lubac, “the meaning Nietzsche attaches to this phrase, ‘the death of God,’ is new. On his lips it is not a mere statement of fact. Nor is it a lament or a piece of sarcasm. It expresses a choice… It is an act.”21 Friedrich Nietzsche’s infamous work of philosophic fiction, Thus Spake Zarathustra, begins with the protagonist going up into the mountains and, after a period of a decade, coming back down in order to impart the wisdom that he has gained unto men. On his way down through the forest he meets an old man, the saint, with whom he has a short exchange that concludes like this:

“And what doeth the saint in the forest?” asked Zarathustra.

The saint answered: “I make hymns and sing them; and in making hymns I laugh and weep and mumble: thus, do I praise God. With singing, weeping, laughing, and mumbling do I praise the God who is my God. But what dost thou bring as a gift?”

When Zarathustra had heard these words, he bowed to the saint and said: “What should I have to give thee! Let me rather hurry hence lest I take aught away from thee!” – And thus they parted from one another, the old man and Zarathustra, laughing like schoolboys.

When Zarathustra was alone, however, he said to his heart: “Could it be possible! This old saint in the forest hath not yet heard of it, that God is dead!”

An even more striking passage is found in the pages of The Joyful Wisdom, in the parable of the madman:

Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the marketplace, and cried incessantly: “I seek God! I seek God!” – As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter… The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him – you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun?

… Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.

How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? … Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?

Though much more could be said of Nietzsche’s contribution to the widespread nihilistic mentality, these short passages do much to shed light on the influence his thought has wielded on the modern world. There are some who would defend Nietzsche, arguing that Nietzsche did not endorse nihilism but rather fought directly against it, attempting to overcome nihilism with his philosophy. Michael Peters, for instance, takes issue with this reading, stating that “in the case of Friedrich Nietzsche, it is nihilism that must be overcome… It is the imperative of Nietzsche’s figure of the philosopher- artist, in face of nihilism – of suicide, pessimism, cultural dissolution and fragmentation – to create new values.” Though Peters’ claim may be true – that Nietzsche sought to overcome nihilism – it remains the case that Nietzsche’s project not only declares that God is dead but enforces the idea and promulgates it in a new and terrifying manner. Peters claims that John Paul II:

…falsely attributes nihilism to ‘postmodern’ philosophy when, at least in the case of Friedrich Nietzsche, it is nihilism that must be overcome. For Nietzsche, nihilism is a consequence of the fact that, as his madman announces, ‘God is dead.’ In other words, God and all transcendental truths are no longer believable. God has died because humans have become too weak to sustain their belief in him.

But is this not the very definition of nihilism? If man is incapable of the knowledge of God, or any transcendental truth at all, what is left to him in the higher order of knowing, being and loving? What is more, attributing the death of God to human frailty seems to be the very pinnacle of a worldview that not only places mankind at the centre of all things, but no longer has any faith even in humanity itself.

At a later stage in his argument, Peters makes the claim that “commentators falsely attribute a nihilism to Nietzsche (and to postmodern philosophy), as though Nietzsche was advocating nihilism as a philosophy. Nothing could be further from the truth.”26 Even if we grant the dubious claim that Nietzsche was not an advocate for nihilism, he is indisputably one of its greatest articulators. The world he describes is, in all its horror, the necessary terminus of the voluntarism of Scotus and Kant. However, he struggled against the nihilism he saw, he was too tied to its intellectual antecedents to ever win that fight. Henri de Lubac said it best, when commenting on Nietzsche’s system and what he (i.e., Nietzsche) himself saw as the outcome of his own work:

[T]he Nietzschean is a revolutionary. That being so, it was not surprising that the drama that had taken shape in human minds quickly reached the point at which it burst forth in fire and slaughter. Nietzsche, indeed, had predicted it. More than a too reasonable farsightedness could have done, the lightning flashes of a mind stalked by madness made him a prophet. “I herald the coming of a tragic era,” he said, at a time when his days of sanity were numbered. “We must be prepared for a long succession of demolitions, devastations and upheavals”; “there will be wars such as the world has never yet seen”; “Europe will soon be enveloped in darkness”; we shall watch “the rising of a black tide.” “Thanks to me,” he wrote, “a catastrophe is at hand. A catastrophe whose name I know, whose name I shall not tell… Then all the earth will writhe in convulsions.” In a word, he adds, “it will be the coming of nihilism.”

It seems clear, then, that even if Nietzsche himself did not formally advocate ascribing to this dark ideology, it was his thought in particular that led to the current state of affairs in which an overwhelming majority of thought and culture holds fast to a nihilistic outlook. At the present there seems to be no hope in anything higher than ourselves, or in any guiding principle or end to human life. It is rather shocking that the Church of the twenty-first century finds herself in the unusual position not only of defending the faith, but of defending reason itself.

Did you enjoy reading this extract of What is Truth?

Modern philosophy has limited the understanding of reason, resulting in a radical scepticism concerning our capacity to comprehend reality as it truly is and fostering an atmosphere of nihilism and uncertainty.

In What is Truth?, Joshua Madden presents a compelling case to address these concerns and provide a solid basis for those who wish to spread the Gospel to their postmodern neighbour.

To effectively communicate the Gospel’s joy in today’s context, Madden suggests that individuals must rediscover the potential to know objective truths about themselves and the world. Madden concludes that this groundwork, known as the preambula fidei, makes it possible to truly know the living God, who has revealed Himself in Christ.

Click here to order your copy of What is Truth? today.