Recognizing the Stench of Nietzschean Nihilism

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By Ivan Spencer

Nietzsche shaped our culture to a significant extent with his unabashed nihilistic and existential visions of the world. To engage our culture, it helps to understand the deep influences, even if the people around us do not. They usually don’t. Nietzsche’s worldview flows like an undercurrent in the ocean that you may not notice, but it sweeps many away. Teaching philosophy for over two decades has taught me that people increasingly find both philosophy and Nietzsche difficult. Our vivid and sensual entertainment culture casts deep thinking about multilayered abstract ideas into an alien world. So I wrote Tweetable Nietzsche to make the intolerable weight of philosophy lighter.

The little easy-to-read book blends an introduction to philosophy with Nietzsche as a near contemporary example that people can relate to, and one who is far more accepted today than, say, Plato. The book explores a galloping mash-up of Nietzsche’s “tweets,” bite-sized but potent ideas. Many of the notions Nietzsche set forth now reign as major cultural assumptions. About half of his writings aimed to nuke and deconstruct morality, values, and truth. He forged nihilism into a viable option, and many today opt in. Nihilism is a worldview that varies. Some nihilists are happy-go-lucky, hakuna-matata types. Others see a dark melancholic world nearing post-apocalyptic anarchy. Nietzsche hops all over the map, but the upshot is that no truths and no values exist other than the ones you create out of the tenacity of your will. It’s a nihilism rising to become existential. Make you own reality. Bend the world to your will. Be tenacious and don’t be conformed to any guilt-ridden values or morals that you didn’t create for your own benefit. Sound familiar?

After being in a room with a pungent odor for a few minutes, you no longer notice it. So it is with cultural ideas and assumptions.

After being in a room with a pungent odor for a few minutes, you no longer notice it. So it is with cultural ideas and assumptions. The stench of Nietzschean nihilism has become the cultural norm, and people don’t notice, nor do they know it’s source since they can’t even smell it anymore. This book does not aim to promote Nietzsche, but rather to help people smell the nihilism when they get a whiff.

Nietzsche pervades general culture through the arts and humanities, but especially in philosophy, theology, and literature. He inspired existential life patterns that compel us to create our essence and transform our nature through the tenacity of will, choosing our own egoistic virtues. Some radical theologies root in Nietzsche’s thought. Secular theology derives some of its orientation from stark Nietzschean prophecies that “God is dead and we killed him.” The God-centered gig is over, and none too soon. Our secular age now derisively scoffs at transcendent values, believing the divine source for such values was a guilting sham (Nietzsche and Freud) or a political power play (Nietzsche and Marx). If God died, so did all the wholesome traditional values rooted in God.

In literature, Nietzsche conceives and gives birth to a hermeneutic that annihilates textual meaning. Few understand or care what has happened here or why. Nietzsche unleashed Cat 5 hermeneutical hurricanes that make landfall in America and Europe. As a member of the triumvirate of the “hermeneutics of suspicion” (Foucault), Nietzsche provided tools to empty texts of any meaning other than the meanings powerful people or groups impose upon them to control others. I remind readers of the relevancy of this hermeneutic in the major debate running through the US Supreme Court on originalism and the Constitution. Closer to home, there’s the long debate on whether the Bible has an original intent that we can access. Postmodernism and deconstruction drink from poisoned Nietzschean wells.

Read Tweetable Nietzsche today and gain many more insights.

A version of this article originally published at Between the Times.


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  • deconstruction
  • philosophy
Ivan Spencer

Dr. C. Ivan Spencer is Professor of History and Philosophy at The College at Southeastern. He teaches the History of Ideas, Philosophy, and History. Dr Spencer was the creator of the school’s History of Ideas curriculum and has cultivated the study of the greatest thinkers from the past to the present.

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