Nihilism vs Absurdism: Explained and Compared

This article is a summary of the YouTube video ‘Nihilism vs. Existentialism vs. Absurdism — Explained and Compared’ by The Living Philosophy

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Nihilism and the crisis of meaning led to existentialism and absurdism, which explore self-created meaning and rebellion against meaninglessness in a secular world.

Key Insights

  • Nihilism emerged as a crisis of meaning as the religious worldview began to fall away in the 19th and 20th centuries.
  • The meaning of life became a central philosophical question, leading to the emergence of existentialism and absurdism as responses to the crisis.
  • Existentialism, represented by Jean-Paul Sartre, argues that we must create our own meaning through our actions since there is no objective meaning.
  • Absurdism, developed by Albert Camus, acknowledges the lack of meaning in the universe but encourages rebellion against this meaninglessness.
  • Camus proposes three options: suicide, relying on a belief system, or embracing the tension of the absurd and finding fulfillment in the struggle itself.
  • Sisyphus, the mythological figure who rolls a rock up a hill only for it to roll back down again, symbolizes the absurdity of existence and the importance of finding meaning in the struggle.
  • Nihilism is the root problem, existentialism offers the possibility of self-created meaning, and absurdism focuses on rebelling against meaninglessness.

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In the 19th and 20th centuries, modernity came into its fullness, and with this maturation, the vestiges of the religious worldview began to fall away, revealing a crisis of meaning that we’ve come to call nihilism. This emergence of nihilism prompted philosophers to ask in earnest once again the long since cliched philosophical question: What is the meaning of life? Out of this renewed engagement with meaning, three trends emerged. There was the root problem, nihilism, the realization that there is no objective meaning to our lives. And wrestling with this problem, we have two responses: existentialism and absurdism. In this episode, we’re going to explore what nihilism is and how these two schools of thought have attempted to manage the crisis it represents.

For the religious individual, life has an objective meaning. In the Judeo-Christian traditions, the history of this world is bookended by God’s creation on one end and Judgment Day with heaven and hell on the other. For the Buddhists and Hindus, there is a story of karma and the endless cycle of birth and rebirth that it results in. The endpoint of this system is not a heaven-hell dichotomy, but liberation, known as Moksha in Hinduism and Nirvana in Buddhism. In these eastern and western systems of belief, humanity has a privileged place in reality. But as the modernist worldview comes to its full fruition, it casts off the residual holdovers from the religious mindset, and the objective meaning dissolves. As we develop a better and better model of reality and no longer need to rely on divinities to provide an explanation of the world, we begin to jettison these divinities and the beliefs attached to them. As Nietzsche pointed out, Christianity prized truthfulness and sharpened this virtue in its believers, only to fall on the very sword it had honed.

In the 19th century, modernity lurched into the secular mode with a number of explosive works. In the 1830s, David Strauss published his “Life of Jesus.” This book became a controversial literary phenomenon that eroded the belief in the Bible as a historical book. 1841 saw the publishing of Ludwig Feuerbach’s “The Essence of Christianity,” which explored the idea that God was a psychological projection of humanity. Feuerbach, a major influence on Karl Marx, who said that there is no other road for you to truth and freedom except that leading through the brook of fire. Following Strauss and Feuerbach, the real stake in the heart of the religious narrative was the publication of Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” in 1859.

This cultural trend culminated at last in the catastrophic event that Nietzsche’s Madman talks about in “The Gay Science.” Nietzsche’s Madman, like the anecdotal Diogenes, lights a lantern in the bright morning and goes into the marketplace searching for God, only to be mocked by the townsfolk with all the sarcasm of triumphant modernism. And then the Madman gives a speech to the people that echoes God’s speech at the climax of the Book of Job. Whither is God? he cried. I shall tell you. We have killed him, you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how have we done this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving now? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually, backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying as though through an infinite nothing? Do we not hear anything

This article is a summary of the YouTube video ‘Nihilism vs. Existentialism vs. Absurdism — Explained and Compared’ by The Living Philosophy