“Nihilism represents the ultimate logical conclusion of our great values and ideals – because we must experience nihilism before we can find out what these ‘values’ really had. – We require, sometime, new values.” – Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, Preface, §4.
How do we – human, all too human beings – reform our thinking anew so as to conceive of new values? How do we get beyond the threat of existential meaninglessness – or nihilism – in the wake of the demise of our old values and worldviews? These were some of the more pressing questions that beset the mind of one of the most polemical thinkers of western philosophy: Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900). Indeed, Nietzsche was a perspicacious thinker, but first and foremost he was a troubled (and for some, a troublesome) thinker. What troubles Nietzsche’s thought is the possibility of thinking otherwise, in what might be termed a wisdom of otherness. Nietzsche (in)famously wrote that “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him” (The Gay Science, §125). It would be folly to interpret these words literally (such as can be seen in that fool’s errand of a film entitled “God’s Not Dead”). What Nietzsche has in mind in proclaiming the death of god is not any kind of monstrous deicide, but rather a particular form of intellectual-existential homicide, or what I prefer to call “sapiocide” – the deliberate dismantling and induced demise of former forms of human wisdom. This is by no means a physical death, but a death of the metaphysical and the spiritual as we have thought (about) it until now. Nietzsche’s thought speaks to the fact that something has changed in and of our world, such that it is now incumbent upon human beings to start thinking otherwise.
We, as a human collective, now find ourselves situated in a world that is decidedly otherwise than it has been historically, and whose vast complexity and plurality of meaning(s) stretches further than our former fictions and philosophies could have fathomed. Yet, as human beings, it is too often the case that we attempt to confront our contemporary concerns by means of a return or reversion to meaning(s) offered to our thinking from the repository of our past. On the face of it, this form of thought might initially appear to be our only recourse in navigating an uncertain world. Such conservative thinking is aptly expressed in the Confucian proverb: “study the past if you would define the future”. While there is a measure of merit and even wisdom resonating in these words, the emphasis should be placed on our directedness towards the future rather than the past. This is because there can be no “return” to meaning(s) made in and of our human past for the simple fact that meaning(s) are necessarily contextually contingent. Every human meaning or value has a socio-historical context that circumscribes its formation(s). History invariably demonstrates to us that every such “return” to past meaning(s) or values is tantamount to an anachronistic atavism of thought.
It is precisely on this point that right-wing conservatism falters in the face of the here and now. Conservatism finds its way forward by first finding its way back. But the conservative narrative of a “return” conceives of meaning as if meaning has somehow been lost to the past through its sacrifice on the altar of the present. But such a sacrifice cannot be made, for meaning is only manifest(ed) on the temporal horizon of contemporary concerns. This is why the past cannot be reclaimed, but can only be remembered in the name of a present already directed towards its possible future(s). Without recourse to (obsolete) conservative values, the Nietzschean question becomes: how do we revaluate our moral values to coincide with contemporary existential concerns and thus speak (in)directly to the future?
This is obviously not an easy question to answer. However, we can and must start to (re)think the meaning(s) and values of our time by asking ourselves: what are the moral imperatives that are being demanded of human beings by our increasingly interconnected world? This is firstly to acknowledge that our moral imperatives should not be derived from a transcendent source beyond this world. Our moral meaning(s) must be rooted in this world that calls them forth into existence. The very nature of, and need for, morality can be found in its etymological meaning: mores (Latin), socio-cultural customs. We have morals because we need values in order to advance society and make it work in a peaceable fashion. Yet, this does not suggest in any necessary way that morality need be derived from a higher ontological principle, such as a Judeo-Christian “God”, or a Platonic “Form”. Surely the world itself, in all its blazing finitude, must be our first and highest ontological principle in and of itself. Why? Because we are responsible for the world in which we exist. We are responsible for each other owing to our collective species-being (to use a term from Marx). Morality is merely responsibility writ large.
More and more, our contemporary world, with all its interconnected complexities and environmental degradation, is demanding of us to respond more responsibly to its finitude, its limits and its possibilities. To be sure, this does not preclude the possibilities of metaphysical meaning(s) beyond this world. God(s) or Platonic Form(s) may or may not exist – but this is not what is at issue or at stake in our immediate worldly reality and its sense of morality. Our first responsibility can no longer be to the gods, to the metaphysical, to the past, and certainly not to tradition for its own sake. Our responsibilities reside in confronting the difficult existential complexities of the finite (rather than infinite) realities that beset us on all sides, today and tomorrow. This thinking allows us to begin (and we’re very much only at the beginning, here and now) to conceive of what new moral principles for our world and our time might look like.
Above all, our contemporary moral imperative should be to acknowledge the complex plurality and interconnectedness of our shared world. Each one of us must self-reflexively pause and take stock of our thinking, values, and beliefs in such a way that we acknowledge that the world is a complex matrix of interconnected and inter-determined variables. What this means is that it would be patently irresponsible, and dare I even say immoral, of any human being to conduct their lives in such a way as to defer or denounce their cognisance of difference, of otherness, of change and variability, of nuance and subtlety, and of the interconnected nature of things, ideas, peoples, places, and times. We must not negate complexity in the name of some idealised simplicity. Our ideals must not be posited at the expense of our reality – ideals must serve reality, and never allow us to eschew our primary responsibility to the world and its inhabitants. If our morals are not rooted in a finite existence in a finite world, then our sense of morality would be rooted in sheer nihilistic nothingness, floating listlessly in some arbitrary abstract realm posited somewhere beyond this world.
This is to say that anyone who flees in the face of our finite world and its finite inhabitants does a disservice to existence itself. We need, therefore, to cultivate a faith in this world, concomitant with a faith in its future, which is, ipso facto, our future. We need to believe in the infinite possibilities of a finite existence, thus recovering infinitude from its otherworldly abode in the heavens and returning it to the finite world itself, where it rightly belongs. We need to believe in a meaningful human freedom without the need for metaphysical transcendence to be its guarantor. We need information and knowledge to be open, respected, uplifted, and shared; not restricted, ignored, squandered, nor hoarded in the name of “intellectual property”. Moreover, we need more than the vacuous rhetorical repetition of liberal democratic values like freedom, equality, and dignity. We need existential values and principles that speak not only to a particular group but to our collective species-being: human exuberance, sorrow and suffering, fear-of-death, community, and our desperate need for meaning.
And yet, the temptation of non-finite thinking always remains: placing our finitude, and that of our planet, at the mercy of an unattainable infinitude. Even contemporary global neo-liberal capitalism suffers from its own surplus of non-finite thinking in that its operations contribute to the effacement of the finitude of our planet. Surely we cannot afford to abide such non-finite thinking going forward, for we are necessarily finite beings living in a finite world. This is our human, all too human condition, together, and that is why nobody can legitimately lay claim to infinitude at the expense of finitude. This is why we need to understand our world and ourselves otherwise, and this alternative wisdom necessarily begins with a positive affirmation of our finitude in abiding conjunction with the finitude of our world.
Nietzsche was therefore astute in asserting that we need new values and ways of valuing the world. To be sure, these are perhaps not the kind of values that Nietzsche envisioned when he summoned our thought to revaluation. However, Nietzsche shuffled off his mortal coil over a century ago, and this is our time, here and now. We need to be responding to a future that is always already dawning on us. This is why our time, in our world, demands thinking otherwise – an alternative wisdom for an-other world. But feel free to label me a leftist liberal liar. At least one thing I say must taste of truth: as time advances its march forwards we should not be found to be marching in the opposite direction.
Contributor: Darryl Wardle
Darryl Wardle is a postgraduate student in Philosophy, currently completing his PhD through the University of Stellenbosch. His academic research is predominantly concerned with the question of existential meaning; conceptualising new ways of thinking about a meaningful human life in our contemporary world. His fields of interest and specialisation include Existentialism and Ontology, Post-structuralism, and Phenomenology. Other academic interests of his include English, History, Science, and most, if not all, forms of human knowledge.
He is currently working as an online teacher of Cambridge IGCSE History. Foremost among his passions in life is a profound love for meaningful conversations between fellow human beings. He spends his free time searching for intellectual and emotional stimulation, which he often finds in friends and loved ones, intense music, and emphatic films.