If philosophy claims to be an analysis of the here and now, it should also reflect on the
preconditions of a description and diagnosis of the present. One of the challenges presented
by such an analysis is the risk of repeating the prejudices of the present in the description
thereof. In this article, I attempt to address this challenge by presenting Nietzsche’s description
and interpretation of nihilism in such a way that the topicality of that description comes to
Nietzsche distinguishes at least three different stages or forms of nihilism. The first one
is also called pessimism, or more precisely: the pessimism of the tragic Greeks. It is an
awareness of the absurdity of life and reality without becoming completely befuddled by it.
The history of European culture from Socrates up to Nietzsche’s 19th century is the period in
which a second form of nihilism emerges. Unable to affirm the absurdity of reality, people
started to devalue it and to interpret it in the light of a truer reality. This ultimate reality was
conceived as meaningful and intelligible, and it showed the reality of our sensual experience to be unreal, only apparent and contingent. This schema is nihilistic because it denies the
reality of our sensual world. It was introduced first and foremost by Plato’s philosophy and
then “democratized” in Christianity. But it dominated all of European culture (science,
morality, religion and art) for 2500 years. The third stage or form of nihilism is associated
with “the death of God”, i.e. the erosion and eventual demise of the core concept upholding
the protective structure that was built by the second phase of nihilism. The death of God is
what Nietzsche foresees as coming to pass in the two centuries to come. His theory of nihilism
is a description of this future. It proves not to be too difficult to present Nietzsche’s description
of this future in such a way that we recognize our present.
There are at least three reasons why Nietzsche calls nihilism a European phenomenon.
Firstly, Europe represents a great plurality of cultures and peoples. This situation could lead
to greatness if it manages to maintain the tension and conflict among all the different tendencies.
It is more probable, however, that the conflict and tension will be wiped out and that the
collected plurality will lapse into a weak and ugly mixture or into indifference. Secondly,
nihilism is already present in the two main roots of European culture: Greece and Christianity.
In Greek mythology we learn that the world only emerged out of chaos by violent acts, and
Christian theology interpreted the Jewish creation myth as a creation out of nothing. Chaos
and nothingness are more fundamental than order and meaning. The third reason for calling
nihilism a European phenomenon has to do with the strength and success of the second phase
of nihilism: it has become so established that its very foundations may be questioned, without
risking discrediting it as such. That is also the reason why the death of God is hardly understood,
and the least of all by those “who don’t believe anymore”. All three reasons seem not to be
limited to European culture, or the scope of European culture seems to be much broader than
the borders of the European continent.
If Nietzsche’s predictions are indeed applicable to our present conditions, and if therefore
we can gain some insight into ourselves by looking in the mirror of this 19th century European
philosopher, it suggests that temporal and spatial distance is needed for self-critique. Here
we are reminded of Nietzsche’s saying that “whoever wants to know how high the towers in
a town are, [should] leave[.] the town.”