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 name alive. For this reason, he intoned, the “republic of the rights of man is strictly speaking neither theist nor atheist, but nihilist.”

While the aspiring nihilist did not live long enough to realize his hope for establishing a republic on the moon—Cloots literally lost his head during the Terror—the term he introduced has enjoyed a long and varied life. Indeed, it is now experiencing something of a renaissance. Even the most casual consumer of news keeps stumbling across the term, especially when it comes to the theater of American politics. Rather like neighboring tribes that, according to anthropologists, accuse each other of engaging in cannibalism, our political parties denounce each other for engaging in nihilism. Victor Davis Hanson of the Hoover Institution disparages the “new nihilism” of the Democratic Party, while Alex Pareene of The New Republic decries the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, as the “nihilist in chief.” A Google search of “Trump” and “nihilism” sparks well more than half a million hits, crowding the screen from both sides of the political spectrum: the conservative columnist Ross Douthat reserves “nihilist in chief” for the president, while the liberal columnist E. J. Dionne, as if nihilism alone were not bad enough, castigates Trump for his “incoherent nihilism.”

Yet we must not conclude that nihilism is in the eye of the belittler. “Fascism,” for example, has long been treated as a rhetorical rod for bashing others over the head—such that we forget that the word refers to a clear and uncompromising conception of political and social life. So, too, with nihilism, though on a grander scale. With the bicentenary of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s birthday just around the corner—the Russian government, academic institutions, and global organizations such as UNESCO are well into planning the celebrations for 2021—where better to turn for a grasp of a notion so elusive yet so vital?

To be sure, Dostoyevsky neither coined the term nor gave it currency. The word was loosely applied to semiclandestine student groups in mid-nineteenth-century Russia, at one another’s throats over strategy but united in their determination to overthrow the repressive tsarist state. The publication of Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Children in 1862 firmly entrenched the term in the popular imagination. The novel’s charismatic protagonist, Evgeny Vasilich Bazarov, embodies a heroic conception of nihilism. When asked just who or what is a nihilist, Bazarov proudly replies: “We act on the basis of what we recognize as useful. . . . Nowadays the most useful thing of all is rejection—we reject.” When his shocked interlocutor insists that the construction of a better world is also important, Bazarov cuts him short: “That’s not for us to do. . . . First, the ground must be cleared.”

Appalled by the terrorist activities of the young nihilists on whom Turgenev based Bazarov, Dostoyevsky transformed their political doctrine into something much larger and more dreadful. In his later novels, ranging from Crime and Punishment through The Devils to The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevsky suggested that the true specter haunting Europe was not communism but nihilism. It was an ism unlike any other insofar as it held that the carcass of the past was not worth preserving, the misery of the present demanded that one act, and the promise of the future permitted one to do whatever was necessary to bring it about. Whereas Turgenev’s Bazarov made pronouncements, Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov made plans and acted upon them.

Dostoyevsky drew nihilism from the realms of politics and ethics into that of metaphysics. If everything we have thought is a tale told by an idiot, if everything we have done amounts to a hill of beans, we find ourselves unmoored not just from morality but from the possibility of meaning itself. Everything is permitted, as Ivan Karamazov declares, when you believe in nothing and hold nothing to be important. Whereas the political nihilism that hovers over the characters in Fathers and Children disavows political and social institutions, the metaphysical nihilism that hounds the actors in The Brothers Karamazov disavows existence itself. 

Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche offered prescriptions along with their descriptions of our common predicament.

In order to grasp the relevance of this claim for our own era, we need to glance at the work of the man whose reading of Dostoyevsky led to the definition of nihilism with which we still grapple. In 1887, Friedrich Nietzsche excitedly wrote to a friend about a discovery he had just made: “I knew nothing about Dostoyevsky until a few weeks ago. . . . The instinct of affinity (or what shall I call it?) spoke to me instantaneously—my joy was beyond bounds.” As Nietzsche perceived, the Russian novelist had not just blasted political nihilism but also detonated the enlightened foundations, built with the mortar of reason and means of technology, into smithereens.

That same year, while still reading Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche posed the $64,000 question: “What does nihilism mean?” Nietzsche being Nietzsche, he already had the answer, one he emblazoned in italics: “That the highest values devaluate themselves.” By “values,” Nietzsche means nothing less than truth and reason. The acid of reason, by dissolving every belief we ever held, ultimately dissolves itself. It seems to abandon us in a cosmic dead end, leaving us with a dismal consolation prize—the paradoxical affirmation that “there is simply no true world.” What this offers someone who is dying for meaning, of course, is what an empty glass offers someone who is dying of thirst.

But Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche offered prescriptions along with their descriptions of our common predicament. For the former, the answer was religious faith—and not just any religion, but specifically Eastern Orthodox Christianity—while for the latter, the answer was aesthetic faith, or the belief that art alone could impose meaning on the world.

But for many of us today, these answers come up short. We live in a world that bears an uncanny resemblance to the one foreseen by Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche. It is steeped in claims and counterclaims of fake news and steered by a president who has made more than 12,000 false claims since entering office. In our world, presidential advisers have graduated from deriding “reality-based communities” to deciding that “alternative facts” are all the facts we need. Ours is a world where the claims of objective truth hardly resonate amid the clamor of tribal truths.

Even so, the nihilist is not to be confused with the narcissist or fabulist, the hired gun or hanger-on. On the contrary, a nihilist offers a kind of constancy and hope. “A nihilist is a man who judges of the world as it is that it ought not to be,” Nietzsche declared, “and of the world as it ought to be that it does not exist.” Though this observation runs against the interpretive grain of most Nietzscheans, it suggests that a nihilist—Nietzsche described himself, after all, as the “first perfect European nihilist”—takes the full measure of the situation, plumbs its significance, and searches for an answer. Moreover, and again unlike the narcissist, Nietzsche’s nihilist seeks to overcome that situation by mastering, not by cosseting, the self.

Neither Dostoyevsky nor Nietzsche pretended to be a political theorist. One suspects, though, that if they had, they would have thought twice before dismissing the ideals of modern democracies. We are witness to a political world shorn of the values that Dostoyevsky declared useless without God and that Nietzsche pronounced dead along with God. If our current situation is as dire as many believe, we might leave to others the task of sorting out the status of God and instead wager on the values of the world as it once was and again needs to be.