Thursday, March 19, 2015

Philosophy Thursday: On Nihilism

I was thinking to myself, "What does this blog need more of? Of course! Pretentiousness! And navel-gazing!" And thus Philosophy Thursday was born. 

In all seriousness, I have long been interested in philosophical matters. I actually considered majoring in philosophy in college, but opted for history instead under the mistaken assumption that it was a better choice from a professional standpoint.

A couple of caveats: One, I make no claims of being some sort of expert on philosophy. I am a layman. A reasonably well-informed layman, but still layman. Two, my approach to philosophy is very personal and subjective. Some of my views may be confusing, troubling, or even offensive to some readers.

With that, please enter freely and of your own free will!

To kick off Philosophy Thursday, I want to look at the cheery subject of nihilism. What is nihilism, or better yet, what is a nihilist? For the purposes of this post, I'm going to go with Friedrich Nietzsche's definition: 

A nihilist is a man who judges of the world as it is that it ought not to be, and of the world as it ought to be that it does not exist. 

I tend to simplify this by saying a nihilist as one who thinks that the world that should exist doesn't, and that the world that does exist shouldn't. 
 Sounds like a rather dark way to view existence. I should know, as I've struggled to resist the lure of nihilism most of my life.

That statement might sound a bit melodramatic, but it's true.

Though I didn't know it at the time, my first inkling of nihilism was when I was a little kid, not yet in first grade. Even before I could read, I loved books. One of my favorite picture books as a child was Pussy Willow, a sweet story about a kitten's adventures written by Margaret Wise Brown. It wasn't just because I have always been a die-hard cat person. I was totally captivated by the lovely, soothing art by Leonard Weisgard. The world he depicted was so just so beautiful. 

Alas, Pussy Willow's world was too beautiful. Even as a small child, I was painfully aware of how ugly the real world looked by comparison. The evidence was all around me. Looking at my own backyard, I could see majestic oak trees, rose bushes, grapevines, squirrels, raccoons, and birds of all sorts. It was something of an echo of the idealized world of Pussy Willow. But looking towards the front of my house, I could see a large, four-lane street, where loud, smelly cars sped by, occasionally killing animals that attempted to cross the road.  It was like a hideous scar on an otherwise perfect face. It should come across as no surprise that I spent a great deal of time in my backyard. (One of my fondest memories is of a day when I was feeling sad, so I climbed up in a tree to be by myself. My cat Nubbie strolled by, saw me in the tree, and joined me. We sat on a branch for who knows how long, just watching nature.)

I so wanted to live in Pussy Willow's world. Or the Hundred Acre Wood. When I got older and discovered J. R. R. Tolkien, I wanted to live in the Shire or Rivendell. The real world, the world I lived in, just seemed so dark and ugly by comparison. Essentially, I did think that the world that should exist didn't, and that the world that did exist shouldn't. 

It would be nice to say that as I grew older I outgrew these juvenile nihilistic tendencies. I didn't. I did, however, develop ways to deal with them. 

"I take pleasure in great beauty."
Even though this world is filled with ugliness, it is also filled with beauty. One of my favorite James Bond quotes is from the underrated The World is Not Enough. When asked how he manages to survive, Bond answers "I take pleasure in great beauty." So do I. I seek out the beautiful and the sublime as much as I can. I make my home something of a refuge, filled with art, books, and music (and of course, cats).

Not only is this ugly world with beautiful things, it is also filled with beautiful people. I am not referring to physical beauty (though that is nice!) but to beauty of the soul. We do not have to journey through a broken existence alone. We are all on this journey together, so making sure to be around friends and loved ones who will help make our travels happier is invaluable.

I also try to live my life as if the world is actually a better place than it is. I love the television show Angel, partially because so much of it resonates with my own outlook. In one episode, the character Lindsey McDonald says, "Heroes don't accept the world the way it is. They fight it." I don't dare call myself a hero, but I try not to merely accept the world as is. I do try to fight it, even in small ways, such as volunteering for the humane society, living a vegan lifestyle, teaching people self-defense, or just trying to be a compassionate person.

Does embracing beauty, maintaining friendships, and trying to live somewhat heroically help? Immensely. Nietzsche thought that one of the antidotes for nihilism was a total, loving embrace of this life and this world. I try to do that as best as I can. It's something of an ongoing struggle. Even though I'm a fortysomething adult, that child who grew melancholy over Pussy Willow is still inside me.

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