Nihilism doesn't have a great reputation.
It's associated with existential dread, immorality and Nazis.
But writer and journalist Wendy Syfret says the philosophy can also lead to a happy, positive, fulfilling life.
Syfret says nihilism's basic message is that "life is meaningless".
"Anything around you that is trying to give you any kind of direction whether that is politics, religion or your understanding of love is kind of just made up," she tells ABC RN's Life Matters.
Supplied/photo by Ben Thomson
Nihilism says that, in the scheme of things, everything we do is pointless and everything we experience is irrelevant.
It can be.
In her new book The Sunny Nihilist, Syfret gives some examples of nihilism-gone-wrong, including being used by the aforementioned Nazis to justify their atrocities and by Russian anarchists to justify a political assassination.
Life Matters is here to help you get a handle on all the important stuff: love, sex, health, fitness, parenting, career, finances and family.
Today we see nihilism espoused by alt-right influencers and "black pill" incel groups.
Syfret says if you come to nihilism looking for something destructive, you will find it.
"Like all philosophies, you get out what you put in in many ways, it is a void," Syfret says.
And as a famous nihilist philosopher said:"If you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you."
Syfret describes FriedrichNietzsche as "the poster boy of nihilism".
"He didn't invent it but he very much brought it to the forefront," Syfret says.
But, she says, Nietzsche didn't consider himself as a nihilist.
"He didn't say nihilism is this endpoint where you reject all meaning and then you just sit in a dark room," Syfret says.
"He was more saying, use nihilism as a way to look at the people who are telling you what to value and to ask, 'What are these people getting out of this? And how are they trying to control me?'"
Nietzsche was wary of systems of power religion, nationalism or any other system that claimed to offer easy answers to life's big questions.
Once we reject the morals and values promoted by existing systems of power, Nietzsche argued, we are free to explore for ourselves what we truly believe.
His rejection of the status quo can be seen in how, in 19th century Germany, he fiercely opposed anti-Semitism.
So while Nietzsche wasn't the cheeriest guy in the world, Syfret says, he was not an inherently bad person.
His sister on the other hand
Nietzsche's sister Elisabeth was a Nazi when she died in 1935, Hitler attended her funeral.
In 1943, a letter to a journal named Angry Penguins marked the beginning of one of the most sensational hoaxes in Australian history.
In 1887, she and her husband attempted to found a colony of 'racially pure' Germans in Paraguay.
It failed spectacularly. The couple returned home and her husband killed himself.
By this time, FriedrichNietzsche had experienced a mental breakdownand in the years following he suffered multiple strokes.
This was when Elisabeth took control of her brother's archive and used it to further her own racist agenda.
She took bits and pieces of his writing and spliced them together into a manufactured book called Will to Power, which was published under Nietzsche's name soon after his death.
More than 120 years, yes. But Syfret says nihilism is now embedded in internet culture.
She gives the example of young pop music fans posting about their idols murdering them, or the gleeful memes shared at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic when a Japanese theme park banned screaming, instead asking ride-goers to 'scream inside your heart'.
Young people, Syfret says, have witnessed the decay of the structures that were supposed to bind society together: religion, government, the media.
At the same time, she says, those in power are failing to make choices that allow young people to have a steady job, own their own home or live on a planet that isn't wracked by fossil-fuel-induced climate change.
The uncertainty of the pandemic has many of embracing stoic and existentialist ideas, even if we don't know it.
Now, employers try to convince workers to find meaning in their jobs (Syfret devotes a chapter of her book to showing how destructive this can be) and advertisers pretend meaning can be found through the consumption of products.
In her book, Syfrettells of a meeting she witnessed where copywriters were desperately trying to imbuea popular brand of ice cream with meaning.
"It's exhausting when every single interaction you have with your day is trying to tell you that it's some meaningful, life-altering event," Syfret says.
"Sometimes you just want an ice cream."
So do I. But ultimately, millennia from now, neither younor Inor that ice cream will exist.
Pexels: Kindel Media
"Whether you have a great day at work, whether you absolutely nail your presentation, whether you're super charming on the zoom date you have tonight in the scope of human history, of the history of the planet, the reality is these things don't really matter," Syfret says.
"That can be a liberating way to step back from your life a little bit [and] not focus on the incredibly stressful things that we tell ourselves are the centre of the whole universe."
Hopefully, Syfret says, being confronted with how insignificant your life ultimately is also causes you to examine what is truly of value to you.
For some, she says, that might be art, music or social justice. For Syfret, knowledge that the planet will continue long after she's ceased to exist has led to her involvement in climate activism.
"As the idea of the self dissolves, it can also be a way to feel more connected to a larger community, or a sense of the health of the planet."
And, Syfret argues, by acknowledging that nothing you do ultimately matters, you're more likely to take time to enjoy the simple things whether that's patting a dog, breathing fresh air or eating an ice cream.
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