Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe
On-line version ISSN 2224-7912
Print version ISSN 0041-4751
VAN TONGEREN, Paul. Nihilism and morality. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2013, vol.53, n.4, pp.589-601. ISSN 2224-7912.
The term "nihilism" is often used as an invective to blame a person or a way of thinking. If used in that way there would be a simple opposition between "nihilism and morality"'. That opposition could maybe point to a practical problem, but certainly not to a theoretical one. If, however, we follow Fr. Nietzsche's analysis of what he calls "the European nihilism" we must conclude that morality is not so much the opposite of nihilism, but rather itself nihilistic. The inescapable nihilistic "catastrophe" (Nietzsche is never afraid of big words) arises as soon as morality discovers its own nihilistfeatures, which - according to him - is happening at present. The problem indicated in the title refers to the question what could be the result of this self-undermining discovery; and if morality survives - as it seems to be the case - how is this at all possible? In my elaboration ofthis problem I focus on a particular element ofour moral tradition. That tradition can in general be summarized in the three well-known ethical positions: utilitarianism or consequentialism, Kantianism or duty-ethics and eudaimonism or virtue-ethics. In the historical development of the latter, the introduction of Christianity in Western culture was responsible for some additional virtues that were strongly different from the Greek ones. These explicitly religious virtues seem - strangely enough - nevertheless to survive in our present secular context. The question how this survival is possible is being stressed in the article by describing our contemporary situation in the light of Nietzsche's analysis of nihilism. For Nietzsche "nihilism" refersfirst andforemost to the platonic-christian tradition in which reality is denied or "annihilated" through the fictitious construction of a "true world". This annihilated world can, however, also itself be called "nihilistic", in the sense that this world (this "reality" which is denied by the platonic construction) is characterized by chaos and absurdity. The event of the so-called "death of God" is the collapse of the imaginary construction of the Christian-platonic world. This event characterizes the present age according to Nietzsche. Literary imagination since the 19th century gives us a picture ofwhat it would mean to live in this situation. If we cannot live without morality, what would living under these nihilistic conditions mean? Nietzsche explains why nihilism is a catastrophe, but nevertheless, at least for the time being, remains unnoticed to most people. In a certain sense God seems to survive his own death: platonic philosophy survives in the sciences as Christian morality does in contemporary humanism. But this survival is only relative and temporal. Sooner or later, the catastrophe will break through. Although Nietzsche sometimes speaks of an overcoming of nihilism, he does not seem to be able to conceptualize what that would consist of. Nihilism is, according to him, the inevitable result of a process in which the platonic-Christian structure (most clearly in the form of its "will to truth") undermines itself. The philosopher who understands and describes or even promotes this process cannot get any further than becoming himself the incarnation of the problem that he describes. But Nietzsche's self-descriptions seem to show that this paradoxical or even contradictory identity of the philosopher has a positive reverse side. On the one hand it is the untolerable aporia of not being able to believe in those fictions that one needs in order to live. On the other hand, however, it appears as the continuing attachment to those values and virtues that were undermined. Maybe we can still adhere to even the Christian virtues in a kind of parasitic attitude.
Keywords : Nietzsche; nihilism; morality; virtues; faith; hope; love; the death of God.