Nihilism: Dead at 150?


In 1862, Russian novelist, Ivan Turgenev produced what is regarded as his greatest work: “Fathers and Sons”. This novel popularised the philosophy of nihilism, the rejection of those aspects of life generally considered meaningful, through the character Yevgeny Bazarov, a philosophy which may not have stood the test of time.

The novel was written by Turgenev as a portrait of the growing cultural divide between two generations of Russians: the liberals of the 1830s and 40s, and the more modern nihilist movement. The ‘sons’ in the novel, the intellectual nihilists, felt their liberal ‘fathers’ were irrelevant and impotent.

Bazarov penchant to reject everything ended up proving too much for his creator, Turgenev. Turgenev was horrified by the character and so he writes Bazarov as contracting typhus and dying, mourned only by his parents.

Nihilism takes hold

While Bazarov simply ended up a dead character which disgusted his own creator, his ideals took hold in the imaginations of others during a tumultuous time in Europe’s history. One such mind was Friedrich Nietzsche.

Nietzsche was impressed by Bazarov. Nietzsche looked at Bazarov’s rebellion and called one of his own, a rebellion against the oppressive and conservative ideas about the world prevalent at the time. According to him, we would be free to recreate ourselves once we recognise how terrifying meaninglessness can be. In “The Gay Science” in 1862, Nietzsche wrote: “The world is not worth what we believed, it could be worth much more than we believed.”

Left in the past

For some, nihilism itself has become meaningless.

In his 2007 book “The Meaning of Life”, literary theorist Terry Eagleton wrote that while all people are inclined to ponder the meaning of life, we lack the urgency for such philosophical pondering in this day and age.

Even those who believe there is something real in the concept of nothingness, there is no reason to romanticise the heroes of nihilism. Contemporary philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote the essay “The Absurd” in 1971, in which he states that while nihilism is fundamentally correct; we should rather adopt a “What? Me, worry?” response to our insignificance in the greater cosmic situation.

One hundred and fifty years after its populist birth in Bazarov, there is no simple answer as to whether or not nihilism truly is dead or if it has rather become something so familiar to us that it is unrecognisable as the specific philosophical doctrine that it once was.

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