Last week The Stone ran a piece by Sean Kelly on nihilism and how we deal with it. Besides fitting well with the current LSA theme semester, I thought this was a really good essay. Broadly speaking, nihilism is the philosophical position that life is without objective meaning or purpose, and Kelly argues that the collapse of religious faith leads to nihilism, and his interests lie in what we can do about it.
Here’s the basic picture: the world’s major religions generally offer a univeralistic story about the universe, i.e., one that applies, or ought to apply, to every single person. Christians believe that all people should accept Christ as their savior; Muslims believe that everyone should acknowledge that there is one God and Mohammed is his prophet; and so on. The thing that really gives meaning to the lives of Christians, Muslims, and other pious folk is their belief that their religion is the real deal, true across all time and space. But if a religious person loses their faith, they may very well experience a crisis of nihilism. If the religion they bought into wasn’t true, why would any other religion be true? Who’s to say there isn’t any meaning in the world at all?
Of course, no one can stare beliefs like this in the eye for very long; they need somewhere else to turn. Rather than take up yet another universalistic philosophy, though, here Kelly suggests people instead adopt a patchwork of local but non-nihilistic philosophies. He endorses
a life that steers happily between two dangers: the monotheistic aspiration to universal validity, which leads to a culture of fanaticism and self-deceit, and the atheistic descent into nihilism, which leads to a culture of purposelessness and angst. To give a name to [this] new possibility— a name with an appropriately rich range of historical resonances— we could call it polytheism. Not every life is worth living from the polytheistic point of view— there are lots of lives that don’t inspire one’s admiration. But there are nevertheless many different lives of worth, and there is no single principle or source or meaning in virtue of which one properly admires them all.
This “polytheism” is an admirable goal, but I have my doubts about whether it can really stave off nihilism. As Kelly pointed out, some philosophies and lifestyles are better than others; any reasonable person would endorse, say, liberalism over Nazism, or the practice of the Eucharist over Aztec human sacrifice. In fact, Kelly’s reasoning suggests that all reasonable people would judge certain philosophies to be worse than others—but isn’t that a form of universalistic thinking? He implies that there are certain universal principles one ought to use when judging life philosophies, and if this isn’t universalism I don’t know what is.
Not that I think this is a problem: I don’t think we should abandon universalism at all. I doubt that Kelly’s “polytheism” is possible. We’ve really only got universalism and nihilism, and the challenge is to find the best universalistic philosophy we can. We don’t want that to be a fanatically dogmatic religion—I’m against that as much as Kelly is—and we almost certainly want it to be tolerant of a variety of lifestyles. But whether it’s a religion, a political system, or something else altogether, we must strive to find the best universalistic philosophy we can. The only alternative is nihilism.
(Photo by sxc.hu)