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Nineteenth-Century Nihilists Foretold Our Era

Why the Age of Alternative Facts Might Have Unnerved Even Nietzsche

A “March for Truth” protest in Los Angeles in June 2017 John Fredricks / REUTERS

Most historians view the French Revolution as the source of the ideologies that have shaped the modern and postmodern eras. For any ism—from liberalism, conservatism, and communism to nationalism, totalitarianism, and anarchism—historians can make the case that it springs from the cascade of events that began in 1789. An ism that usually fails to make the list, however, is one that now seems to be on the tip of every pundit’s pen—namely, nihilism.

In one of the odder footnotes to the revolution, the Baron de Cloots, Jean-Baptiste du Val-de-Grâce—better known by his pen name, Anacharsis Cloots, if not by his chosen title as “Orator of the Human Race”—embraced the term “nihilism.” Determined that the fledgling French Republic be truly secular, Cloots insisted that its citizens avoid all reference to God. Even atheists, he warned, by their denial of God’s existence keep God’s

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