Tuesday 23 March 2021

Stages of Nihilism - 2. THE WORSHIP OF NOTHINGNESS


Nothingness," in the sense in which modern Nihilism understands it, is a concept unique to the Christian tradition. The "nonbeing" of various Eastern traditions is an entirely different, a positive, conception; the nearest they approach to the idea of nihil is their obscure notion of primal "chaos." God has spoken only obscurely and indirectly to other peoples; to His chosen people alone has He revealed the fullness of truth concerning the beginning and the end of things.

To other peoples, indeed, and to the unaided reason, one of the most difficult of Christian doctrines to understand is that, of creatio ex nihilo: God's creation of the world not out of Himself, not out of some pre-existent matter or primal chaos, but out of nothing; in no other doctrine is the omnipotence of God so plainly stated. The never-dimmed marvelousness of God's creation has its foundation precisely in this fact, that it was called into existence from absolute non-existence.

But what relation, it may be asked, has Nihilism to such a doctrine? It has the relation of denial. "What," says Nietzsche in a statement whose last sentence we have already cited in a different context "does Nihilism mean?--That the highest values are losing their value, There is no goal. There is no answer to the question: 'why?'"  [34] Nihilism, in a word, owes its whole existence to a negation of Christian Truth; it finds the world "absurd," not as a result of dispassionate "research" into the question, but through inability or unwillingness to believe its Christian meaning. Only men who once thought they knew the answer to the question "why?" could be so disillusioned to "discover" that there was no answer after all.

Yet, if Christianity were merely one religion or philosophy among many, its denial would not be a matter of such great import. Joseph de Maistre--who was astute in his criticism of the French Revolution, even if his more positive ideas are not to be trusted--saw the point precisely, and at a time when the effects of Nihilism were far less obvious than they are today.

There have always been some forms of religion in the world and wicked men who opposed them. Impiety was always a crime, too.... But only in the bosom of the true religion can there be real impiety.... Impiety has never produced in times past the evils which it has brought forth in our day, for its guilt is always directly proportional to the enlightenment which surrounds it.... Although impious men have always existed, there never was before the eighteenth century, and in the heart of Christendom, an insurrection against God. [35]

No other religion has affirmed so much and so strongly as Christianity, because its voice is the Voice of God, and its Truth is absolute; and no other religion has had so radical and uncompromising an enemy as Nihilism, for no one can oppose Christianity without doing battle with God Himself.

To fight the very God Who has created him out of nothingness requires, of course, a certain blindness as well as the illusion of strength; but no Nihilist is so blind that he fails to sense, however dimly, the ultimate consequences of his action. The nameless "anxiety" of so many men today testifies to their passive participation in the program of antitheism; the more articulate speak of an "abyss" that seems to have opened up within the heart of man. This "anxiety" and this "abyss" are precisely the nothingness out of which God has called each man into being, and back to which man seems to fall when he denies God, and in consequence, denies his own creation and his own being.

This fear of "falling out of being," as it were, is the most pervasive kind of Nihilism today. It is the constant theme of the arts, and the prevailing note of "absurdist" philosophy. But it is a more conscious Nihilism, the Nihilism of the explicit antitheist, that has been more directly responsible for the calamities of our century. To the man afflicted with such Nihilism, the sense of falling into the abyss, far from ending in passive anxiety and despair, is transformed into a frenzy of Satanic energy that impels him to strike out at the whole of creation and bring it, if he can, plummeting into the abyss with him. Yet in the end a Proudhon, a Bakunin, a Lenin, a Hitler, however great their temporary influence and success, must fail; they must even testify, against their will, to the Truth they would destroy. For their endeavor to Nihilize creation, and so annul God's act of creation by returning the world to the very nothingness from which it came, is but an inverted parody of God's creation; [36] and they, like their father the Devil, are but feeble apes of God who, in their attempt, "prove" the existence of the God they deny, and in their failure testify to His power and glory.

No man, we have said often enough, lives without a god; who then--or what--is the god of the Nihilist? It is nihil, nothingness itself-not the nothingness of absence or non-existence, but of apostasy and denial; it is the "corpse" of the "dead God" which so weighs upon the Nihilist. The God hitherto so real and so present to Christian men cannot be disposed of overnight; so absolute a monarch can have no immediate successor. So it is that, at the present moment of man's spiritual history--a moment, admittedly, of crisis and transition--a dead God, a great void, stands at the center of man's faith. The Nihilist wills the world, which once revolved about God, to revolve now about--nothing.

Can this be?--an order founded upon nothing? Of course it cannot; it is self-contradiction, it is suicide. But let us not expect coherence from modern thinkers; this is in fact the point modern thought and its Revolution have reached in our time. If it is a point that can be held only for a moment, if it has been reached only to be very quickly superseded, its reality cannot for all that be denied. There are many signs, which we shall examine in their place, that the world has begun to move out of the "age of Nihilism" since the end of the last great war, and towards some kind of "new age"; but in any case this "new age," if it come, will not see the overcoming of Nihilism, but its perfection. The Revolution reveals its truest face in Nihilism; without repentance--and there has been none--what comes after can only be a mask hiding that same face. Whether overtly in the explicit antitheism of Bolshevism, Fascism, Naziism, or passively in the cult of indifference and despair, "absurdism" and "existentialism," modern man has clearly revealed his resolve to live henceforth without God--that is to say, in a void, in nothingness. Before our century, the well-meaning could still delude themselves that "Liberalism" and "humanism," "science" and "progress," the Revolution itself and the whole path of modern thought were something "positive" and even, in some vague sense, had "God" on their side. It is quite clear now that the Revolution and God can have nothing to do with each other; there is no room in a consistent modern philosophy for God at all. All further modern thought, whatever disguises it may assume, must presuppose this, must be built upon the void left by the "death of God." The Revolution, in fact, cannot be completed until the last vestige of faith in the true God is uprooted from the hearts of men and everyone has learned to live in this void.

From faith comes coherence. The world of faith, which was once the normal world, is a supremely coherent world because in it everything is oriented to God as to its beginning and end, and obtains its meaning in that orientation. Nihilist rebellion, in destroying that world, has inspired a new world: the world of the "absurd." This word, very much in fashion at the present time to describe the plight of contemporary man, has actually, if property understood, a profound meaning. For if nothingness be the center of the world, then the world, both in its essence and in every detail, is incoherent, it fails to hold together, it is absurd. No one has more clearly and succinctly described this world than Nietzsche, its "prophet," and in the very passage where he first proclaimed its first principle, the "death of God."

We have killed him (God), you and I! We are all his murderers! But how have we done it? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the whole horizon? What did we do when we loosened this earth from its sun? Whither does it move now? Wither do we move? Away from all suns? Do we not dash on unceasingly? Backwards, sideways, forwards, in all directions? Is there still an above and below? Do we not stray, as through infinite nothingness? Does not empty space breathe upon us? Has it not become colder? Does not night come on continually, darker and darker? [37]

Such is the Nihilist universe, in which there is neither up nor down, right nor wrong, true nor false, because there is no longer any point of orientation. Where there was once God, there is now nothing; where there were once authority, order, certainty, faith, there are now anarchy, confusion, arbitrary and unprincipled action, doubt and despair. This is the universe so vividly described by the Swiss Catholic Max Picard, as the world of "the flight from God" and, alternatively, as the world of "discontinuity" and "disjointedness." [38]

Nothingness, incoherence, antitheism, hatred of truth: what we have been discussing in these pages is more than mere philosophy, more even than a rebellion of man against a God he will no longer serve. A subtle intelligence lies behind these phenomena, and on an intricate plan which philosopher and revolutionary alike merely serve and do not command; we have to do with the work of Satan.

Many Nihilists, indeed, far from disputing this fact, glory in it. Bakunin found himself on the side of "Satan, the eternal rebel, the first freethinker and emancipator of worlds." [39] Nietzsche proclaimed himself "Antichrist." Poets, decadents, and the avant-garde in general since the Romantic era have been greatly fascinated by Satanism, and some have tried to make it into a religion. Proudhon in so many words actually invoked Satan:

Come to me, Lucifer, Satan, whoever you may be! Devil whom the faith of my fathers contrasted with God and the Church. I will act as spokesman for you and will demand nothing of you. [40]

What is the Orthodox Christian to think of such words? Apologists and scholars of Nihilist thought, when they regard such passages as worthy of comment at all, usually dismiss them as imaginative exaggerations, as bold metaphors to express a perhaps childish "rebellion." To be sure, it must be admitted that there is a juvenile quality in the expression of most of modern "Satanism"; those who so easily invoke Satan and proclaim Antichrist can have very little awareness of the full import of their words, and few intend them to be taken with entire seriousness. This naive bravado reveals, nonetheless, a deeper truth. The Nihilist Revolution stands against authority and order, against Truth, against God; and to do this is, clearly, to stand with Satan. The Nihilist, since he usually believes in neither God nor Satan, may think it mere cleverness to defend, in his fight against God, the age-old enemy of God; but while he may think he is doing no more than playing with words, he is actually speaking the truth.

De Maistre, and later Donoso Cortes, writing in a day when the Church of Rome was more aware of the meaning of the Revolution than it is now, and was still capable of taking a strong stand against it, called the Revolution a Satanic manifestation; and historians smile at them. Fewer, perhaps, smile today when the same phrase is applied--though rarely with full seriousness even now--to National Socialism or Bolshevism; and some may even begin to suspect that there exist forces and causes that have somehow escaped the attention of their enlightened gaze.

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