Contrarian's Notebook

Disquieting Thoughts on Matters Cultural and Personal

Nihilism is the Foundation of Our Culture

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Lately, I can’t stop thinking about nothing. More and more, I am convinced the key to understanding the cultural and personal degeneration that besets us is to understand the nihilism behind it all.

Beneath the myriad travesties we witness daily lies a passionate conviction, spreading from the elite classes in the West, that nothing matters, that nothing has meaning, that nothing is sacred.

By now, this nihilism has touched us all. Most of us have imbibed its poison, and it has transformed us. Our society is now mostly made up of two kinds of nihilists : the rebel and the conformist.

Rebels push against the traditional structures of society and the transcendent moral framework they reflect.  Absent the power of a real, but invisible, moral order governing human life, these people can only understand moral injunctions as exercises in sheer power meant to restrict the individual’s freedom in the pursuit of pleasure.

Here is a perfect example.  Anita Cassidy has written another entry in what is becoming a familiar genre: the paean to polyamory.

Cassidy opens her essay thus:

It was the hardest thing I’d ever had to say to my husband, Marc. Three years ago, I sat down and told him: “The idea of having sex just with you for the next 40 years – I can’t do it any more.” But I had come to realise that my life was built around something I didn’t believe in: monogamy.

She goes on to detail how oppressive she finds the idea of life without multiple sex partners. Moreover, she says, traditional monogamous marriage was a hindrance to her desire to explore the “kink scene.”

She writes:

The first time I went to a fetish club, I felt like I was at home – that I’d found my people.

All Cassidy is really saying is that with no transcendent meaning attached to either marriage or monogamy, she felt them too difficult to endure. Such endurance became especially hard for her, of course, in light of the potential real-life pleasure and excitement she expected to find in the beds of others and in the “kink scene.”

And to the nihilist, pleasure is all that matters. In pleasure, the nihilist hopes to find some meaning, however fleeting. Thus does the pursuit of pleasure unify both types of nihilists.

Not all nihilists have the courage of their convictions.  It only seems so because rebels like Cassidy get the attention. The conformists stay under the radar, and never stray too far from the crowd. They won’t announce their pursuit of extra-marital sex in the newspapers until rebels like Cassiday make having a little side action more mainstream.

In the meantime, conformist nihilists delight themselves with those diversions considered normal: the pursuit of every consumer good advertised, the passionate pursuit of comfort and affluence, the religious devotion to sports and popular entertainment.

We don’t need to scour the media for an example of these people. You know them already. They are your coworkers, your neighbors. Maybe they are you.  They don’t make waves. They may even seem wholesome.

But, beneath the surface of their cultivated normality lies the same nihilism. No one who believes deeply in a transcendent and universal system of morality and meaning can conform to this culture.  Anyone unwilling to concede the nihilists’ premise that whatever meaning is possible can only be found in pleasure will find himself an outsider.

The first type of nihilist succeeds in driving society further down the path of decadence because they encounter no serious resistance from the second type. The rebellious nihilist sets the agenda and the bulk of the population, conformist nihilists all, follow it to the letter. The end result is a culture led by those most willing to act and speak on their basic conviction that nothing exists beyond the material, and that no values beyond pleasure and affluence are valid.

Reflecting on this has helped me understand the future of this blog. When I began blogging here, I wrote advicey posts. Those were popular and seemed to help people. But, I think a greater focus on the macro-issues is warranted. My hope is to begin exploring in this space what it might mean to live a life of virtue and faithfulness in an ever more nihilistic context.

I have already begun doing that to some degree. Future posts will focus on topics that allow me to dissect our underlying cultural despair. You should look for posts on family, education, religion and place as well as on trends that make visible the nihilism I have described.

My hope, however, is not merely to complain about the darkness that surrounds us. Rather, I hope  contribute what I can to those who are already engaged in building an alternative culture, one that might, by the grace of God, outlast the one passing away.

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2 Comments

  1. Kelly

    Aligns well with Mike Cosper’s recent book, ‘Recapturing the Wonder: Transcendent in a Disenchanted World’. Agreed, you see this pervading even the church, particularly here in the West. In teaching high school for the past 18 years, I’ve watched as this nihilism/complacency has become so much typical among our youth. When a ‘combustible’ young person catches fire in my class – a rare occurrence – it’s definitely cause for rejoicing. Increasingly, it just seems as though we are taking on the qualities of senility (risk-averse, utilitarian, cynical) even before hitting the legal adult age.

    • Dean

      Thanks. I am vaguely familiar with Mike Casper. I’ll look into him. Yes, we are in a situation where our young are prematurely old and are adults are unnaturally immature.

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