In the light of recent events, many of us are noticing that politicians who promote left-wing “politically correct” agendas are also favouring the growth of tendencies that one would imagine to be diametrically opposed to their own interests and any notion of human rights. The case in point is the rape of European women by young immigrant men from northern Africa and the Middle-East. The response of the Mayor of Cologne is that the victims asked for it by being dressed provocatively. An article I read this morning, The Left’s Embrace of Islamic Rape, wonders if German women would be advised to dress in the burqa or the niqab. Was there any expression of a resolve to bring the men in question to justice and impose the usually heavy prison sentences provided for by the law?
What is at the basis of all this? There are conspiracy theories that are more or less fantastic, but I would tend to look for an underlying philosophy and psychological underpinning in the collective consciousness. We do need to unpack things a little, because young women in towns often represent a degenerate culture in their dress, manner and choice of “music”. Women’s fashions have changed a lot since Edwardian days through the two world wars and the 1960’s. Girls are generally allowed a good amount of tolerance within the limits of public decency. Should there be laws about how we should dress over and above covering our intimate parts? What is considered as provocative?
To what extent should indigenous populations in Europe adapt to immigrant Muslim populations? To Muslims of fundamentalist tendencies, we should dismantle our own culture and adopt theirs, purely and simply, finish with democracy and our system of law and submit to their system of Sharia law. Life in France, Germany and England, everywhere, would be like in Saudi Arabia: no religions other than Islam, torture and capital punishment for any opposition to Islam, etc., etc. It was in the early eighteenth century that public opinion turned against the barbarity of hanging, drawing and quartering, and in the late nineteenth against all public hangings. This humanist movement would be reversed in a heartbeat! What has this to do with modern socialism? Why the glaring paradox?
Perhaps there is a belief that Muslims coming to live in Europe would learn to appreciate democracy and consumerism. With some luck, they would become atheists and contribute to building the new Orwellian order – one way of looking at it. There is the idea of action and reaction: get Europeans radicalised into extreme right-wing ideologies by multiplying the outrages, thus starting a civil war and revolutions like that of Hitler and the Nazis, and then an unknown stage involving some other ungodly alliance. The agenda would seem to go much further than getting nationalist parties into power in Europe.
What is most characteristic of the Left’s agenda? How is it possible to believe it is possible to conciliate hard-line feminism with Islamic “head choppers” who rape women and would make slaves of them? The answer would seem to be Nihilism. Large numbers of disenchanted young Europeans have been going to Syria to join Daesh. Some were “cradle” Muslims, others were “converts”. Did they really believe in the tenets of a monotheist religion invented in the sixth century on the basis of bits and pieces of Judaism, Christianity and older bits and pieces from Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism? Or did they believe that the world should be “suicided” by their own death wish?
One possible analysis is one of the most powerful yearnings of the human psyché, that of submitting oneself to a totalitarian entity. It can be religion, a cult, a political ideology, anything. The individual, having failed to identify with his own context and life, finds power and purpose in the authoritarian collectivity. Yes, I can hear you say it – the Church too! Yes, indeed. I have done so myself when I went to be “received” by the Society of St Pius X and sought to go to their seminary. Gradually, I discovered that there were still aspects of my identity and personality that attached me to the humanist values in which I was brought up. I sought to find another way with the old liturgy, and those were the days before the Indult, Ecclesia Dei and Summorum Pontificium. Those who truly submit, as I could not, reach the stage of being a true adept of a cult. They are ready to give their life, to become a “martyr”. It is hard to find one’s own identity, and few have the tools for discovering the “key of knowledge” – γνῶσις. Jung helped many, but most of us do not have access to such a person or the money to pay him for his time as a professional. Most of us are on our own to discover our own “archetypes”, and most of us find the work so hard that we give up and submit to whatever it is.
I quote Umberto Eco in his Name of the Rose novel:
Jorge, I mean. In that face, deformed by hatred of philosophy, I saw for the first time the portrait of the Antichrist, who does not come from the tribe of Judas, as his heralds have it, or from a far country. The Antichrist can be born from piety itself, from excessive love of God or of the truth, as the heretic is born from the saint and the possessed from the seer. Fear prophets, Adso, and those prepared to die for the truth, for as a rule they make many others die with them, often before them, at times instead of them. Jorge did a diabolical thing because he loved his truth so lewdly that he dared anything in order to destroy falsehood.
It is not only Islam or some weird cult where the adepts are persuaded to take cyanide. There were men like Anthony Blunt and Kim Philby who kicked the British establishment in the teeth to convert to Soviet Communism. I think that those two men died from natural causes, but they were certainly used by their new masters. I mentioned an elderly man a few days ago on this blog who more than dabbled with Nazism in the 1930’s and during the war. He died in dark circumstances, perhaps killed for money by a rent boy, who knows…
Nihilism has produced many paradoxes and alliances, notably between the Nazis and the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. The Hezbollah is known for its ambition to rid the world of Jews as well as its opposition to Daesh. The Shi’ites are just as bad as the Sunnis with their torture chambers and terror. Nihilism is hard to define in any universal way. The word is easy enough, from the Latin nihil meaning nothing.
It might collude with severe depression by which someone sees life as meaningless and all negative. There are extreme alleged psychiatric conditions like the Cotard delusion. I am dubious about modern psychiatry as something that lacks scientific rigour. However, some of these “conditions” remind us of philosophical nihilism. There are also depersonalistion disorders and reactions to trauma (soldiers returning home after a war) in PTSS. The human being is a spiritual animal, and thus is susceptible to being damaged by his environment, both physically and spiritually. As an extreme condition, the description of the Cotard delusion illustrates nihilism rather well. The subject believes he is dead or does not exist. Common characteristics are despair, self-loathing, delusions of negation and clinical depression. Some patients would deny the existence of parts of their bodies, the need to eat. Many would commit suicide. Psychiatrists love to attach names to anything, and many things are confused and misdiagnosed, because undiagnosable, but the bottom line is this dark melancholy into we we can all descend into it for a short time or chronically. Without medical or psychiatric qualifications, I can only offer an approximate opinion, and then prefer a philosophical approach.
Nihilism is most often associated with Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), an incredibly complex character and the subject of many research doctorates. There are many tragic Greek themes in this view of life, some aspects of Romanticism, but notably the destruction of morality and metaphysics. I posted Byron’s Darkness last All Souls’ Day. Nietzsche is the one who most comes to mind in this reflection on nihilism, but he did not invent it. We find it particularly in nineteenth century Russia. Dostoevsky described it very well in his book Demons (Бесы). This novel is probably one of the most profound analyses of Russian nihilism of that time. Nihilism very quickly became associated with the revolutionary movement against the Empire of the Czars and the Church. When anarchism and nihilism are combined, it is one of the most destructive forces of modern history. When man’s spiritual being is denied and all that is left is materialism and rationalism, the exaltation of freedom becomes wanton evil and destruction, murder and terrorism. I have often written in favour of anarchism, but Christian anarchism, on the basis of spiritual gnosis and a higher principle than human authority. There is a difference!
Does nihilism have roots in Greek philosophy? Perhaps the Skeptics who denied knowledge and truth. They were epistemological nihilists to coin an expression. The three main areas affected by nihilism are political, moral and existential. A university friend once described existentialism as driving into a brick wall at high speed! Life is meaningless and absurd as often satirised by entertainers like the Monty Python group in the 1960’s and 70’s.
Nietzsche is a really difficult one to understand. He was a tortured man and was unhealthy spiritually and psychologically. It seems that any idea of truth or value was baseless and deserved only to be destroyed. Many of his ideas like the Ubermensch (the “master race”) and the role of the will, would help to form the basis of the Nazi ideology. Nietzsche’s analysis influenced Oswald Spengler in The Decline of the West (1926). It is amazing how ideas from the 1920’s collude with our own concerns today! Russians like Berdyaev saw the rot creeping in, as did Julius Evola, René Guénon and others looking for a ticket out of the hell of the modern world under the banner of Integral Traditionalism. From these analyses came Existentialism. Martin Heidegger found nihilism to be man’s “normal state”. We can only begin to imagine the effect of the World War I hecatomb in Europe with so many dead and maimed. Life loses all purpose and morality except strength and will. This would be the earth from which Nazism grew in that era, to Hitler’s election in 1933 and his downfall to even darker forces in 1945.
Historically, nihilism is related to the old Skeptics in their denial of truth and knowledge, but in the twentieth century, it described the idea according to which life is meaningless. You just exist until the day you die. This depressing idea formed the basis of writings by Camus and Sartre in Paris. Gaie Paris can indeed be a depressing place! Jean-Paul Sartre’s (1905-1980) defined Existentialism as l’existence précède l’essence, which seems not to require any translation. Existence without being – the idea seems impossible as it indeed is. If we are alienated beings in exile, I would prefer to believe that we are based on an image of God, and that are purpose of life is to seek spiritual knowledge of that image, spark or whatever. For Sartre, when you “man up”, you have to strip away the illusions and cope with the boredom of it all. All the same, I see something parallel with the old Gnostic mythology in that an individual is thrown into an alien world and barred from knowing. The Gnostic would seek knowledge. The Existentialist denies that knowledge or meaning exists! Camus was able to see where it would all go: nihilism is followed by destruction, hatred and war.
I have sometimes tried to grapple with the notion of post-modernism. Is there much difference in this idea from nihilism. The stereotype is some suburban lout who isn’t interested in anything, gets drunk, gets into trouble with the police and hasn’t the slightest ounce of culture, reading or thought about him. They’re not interested in politics, religion or spirituality, being or doing anything intelligible. One feels that the only thing such a person deserves is a bullet through his head or at least a stint in an Army boot camp! I have sometimes looked for desires for knowledge, understanding and beauty beyond the categories of rationalism, a new kind of Romanticism. Perhaps I live in illusions, yet I am one of humanity. There is another aspect: the refusal of institutional hypocrisy and pretending to be a caricature of the conformist. We can only question hyper-rationalism and the mechanical world of machines and bureaucracy, and we sink into irrationality and despair. Post-modernism is indeed a nebulous idea that leaves us deeply unsatisfied.
The association between Nietzsche and Hitler’s crackpot stuff has served to warn us away from many of those ideas. Nihilism has mutated in its outward forms since the days in the spring of 1945 when people in Berlin were blowing their brains out to the strains of Wagner’s Götterdammerung and ordering Germany to be completely destroyed because the war was lost. It is the one human instinct that will enable us to begin to understand why individuals become inconsolably depressed and why people in high positions of political power are prepared to go to war, even with nuclear weapons. The apocalyptic overtone spreads anxiety, gloom, terror, anger and hatred from which evil feeds. Even in the Church, we wonder if it would be better if we let the old worn-out “mainstream” die its death in order to bring about something new. I am tempted to think along those lines – but there is a difference between bringing it about and the acceptance of its demise. I would not commit suicide, but I have to accept that I will die one day. The idea that something good would come out of destroying everything is an illusion, a very dangerous one. There is something of the nihilist in us all. This is our spiritual combat with darkness and the shadow. Berdyaev resumes this theme of the night following the end of the Renaissance. It is almost reminiscent of St John the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul. This darkness is necessary so that we can come to the light. The night is close to the mystery of all beginning. Berdyaev wrote The End of Our Time in 1933, doubtlessly aware that there was no further obstacle to the evil and darkness descending over Germany and the rest of Europe. His words remain alive to us today. But, there seem to be two kinds of darkness and night, one in which we find hope and a glimmering of the light.
Berdyaev likens the Middle Ages (or the “new” Middle Ages) to the night, not in the meaning of rationalists referring to irrationality and obscurantism, but a transition from rationalism to a new beginning. The previous “day” could not go on for ever, and it is tarrying in coming to its end. Perhaps this is the deepest intuition of nihilism – except that something has to follow the nothingness. The Romantics were but a shadow of that role in the wilderness left by the French Revolution, but their vision was but limited. Did Berdyaev think he would see the New Middle Ages in his lifetime? Perhaps, but only within himself. In a way, Islamic barbarity has proved too much of a challenge for western humanism that is aware of its own fragility and illusions. In the absence of God, there is only hell and the antichrist. We cannot go on with the present western status quo. Berdyaev wrote about capitalism in the 1930’s, and we recognise the same blight and diabolical hold today. Nothing has changed, except that the cracks are there. It is no longer about real money but debt!
Like in the 1930’s, the downfall of the old system is being challenged both by nationalism and Islamic jihadism and the oppositions and individualistic reactions are the same. For Berdyaev, the new Middle Age will not be the old one, unless it is the version Deash would like to impose with the horrors for which they are renowned and serfdom. Out of the barbarianism came the notions of fair maids, knights, chivalry and a whole new civilisation from the ashes of the “dark ages”. How might that happen with the collapse of liberal capitalism and the twin demons of nationalism and jihadism? We have to see that our concerns go back back in history.
There is a prophetic role to be seen in post-Communist Russia and Vladimir Putin, not as a new nationalist movement and an authoritarian regime, but a precursor of Christ and the eternal Church. I have great hope there, and pray I am not mistaken or deluded. It is ironic that hope comes from the east, not from the rotten corpses of America and western Europe. Berdyaev’s reflections on women – in 1933 – are amazing, as if he could foretell the excesses of modern feminism in its negation of masculinity. There is not only the thought of Berdyaev, but also of other Russians, especially Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Soloviev. There is something great coming our way from that country. I believe it very strongly. We can’t become Russians, but we can learn from their most noble spirits.
Perhaps nihilism is our painful passage from the old dying world to something new and radiant. Our only way through and out will be our human capacity for self-reflection and the quest for γνῶσις. There is no guarantee of our salvation, redemption, call it what you will, but it is in our hands. Nothing is automatic. Berdyaev wrote in 1933, and the old dying world is still ours to suffer from, almost a century later. Will God help us? We cannot presume it before we have done something for ourselves.