Nihilism in Literature, and What It Tells Us


By: William Bowen

Nihilism in Literature, and what it tells us Nihilism is the philosophy that throughout all the universe, nothing really matters, there is no truth, and nothing is real.

Perhaps the most famous case of nihilism throughout modern literature would be Frederick Nietzsche’s quote, “God is dead, and we have killed him.” When the German philosopher proclaimed this, it should not have been in celebration but a lamenting cry of anguish. Now that the truth is gone, what do we have left?

Famous writers like Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Leo Tolstoy wrote brilliantly on nihilism and what it does to a person.

In Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the lead character Raskolnikov has begun to question his faith and become a nihilistic narcissist in the process. He spends night after night drinking himself to sleep. Over time he begins to wonder what it feels like to kill someone. He knows now that the arbiter of right and wrong is no more, so now he can do as he pleases. After murdering a woman, he tries to justify it to himself: “The old woman was a mistake perhaps, but she’s not the point! The old woman was merely a sickness . . . I was in a hurry to step over . . . it wasn’t a human being I killed, it

was a principle! So I killed the principle, but I didn’t step over, I stayed on this side . . . All I managed to do was kill.”

He repeatedly tries to convince himself that he has not done anything wrong, dehumanizing the woman he killed as merely a principle, a concept. His pride shows not only by playing god but also when he says, “To go wrong in one’s own way is better than to go right in someone else’s.” He would rather be wrong in his way than right in God’s.

Leo Tolstoy’s book The Death Of Ivan Ilych follows a remarkably ordinary man who has now grown old. He went to school, married, had a career, and retired. But for what purpose? The narrator describes his life this way: “Ivan Ilyich’s life had been most simple and commonplace–and most horrifying.” It was not horrifying because of war, or tragedies in his family, it was horrible because he had an ordinary life where he did ordinary things, living day by day, never taking the time to think that there might be something more, something extraordinary.

He is diagnosed with a terminal illness, and begins to mourn his entire life. He loathes his wife, job, children, and friends. He can’t help but understand that this is not all there is in life, saying “It can’t be that life is so senseless and horrible. But if it really has been so horrible and senseless, why must I die and die in agony? There is something wrong!”

After lots of thinking, regretting, and fussing, he concludes that God is the only thing left to hope for. He converts, and dies shortly after. In the classic fantasy novel The Return Of The King by J.R.R Tolkein, there is a man named Denethor. He is mourning the loss of his son Borimer after he was killed by a monster called Lurtz while defending the weaker Hobbits. He also thinks his son Faramir to be dead, after a failed attempt to retake the outpost Osgiliath, which is only a few miles from Minas Tirith, the capital city of Gondor. After the orc armies assault Minas, he commits suicide by setting himself on fire and jumping off a cliff into the town below as it is under siege.

In all of these books, there are only a few ways they end. The main character believes that there is no higher truth, and is horribly depressed for the rest of his existence (like In Crime And Punishment). The main character gives up his nihilism and comes to acknowledge a higher truth (like in The Death of Ivan Ilych). The main character is completely consumed by nihilism, severe grief, or depression, and commits suicide because of it (Denethor in The Lord Of The Rings).

People who misuse science, and turn it into scientism (the belief that the scientific method is the best and only objective way to determine anything), will typically quip, “That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence”

(originally said by Christopher Hitchens) (Pictured above is the average scientism worshipper) However, the examples from the literature show that it is so typical of humans to lose hope and delve into madness that it has become an archetype. We must have something to look up to as an ideal, something we are submissive to. Otherwise, we turn ourselves into gods and rule as we please.

Western society has bought into atheistic nihilism. Now that we have no objective right or wrong path to go down we can do as we please. And just like Raskolnikov, we have ideas to look up to but ourselves, and that is not ideal at all. Some good quotes on nihilism and ideals:

“Men invent new ideals because they dare not attempt old ideals. They look forward with enthusiasm because they are afraid to look back.” – G.K. Chesterton, What’s wrong with the world “It can’t be that life is so senseless and horrible. But if it really has been so horrible and senseless, why must I die and die in agony? There is something wrong!” ― Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilych

“The greatest hazard of all, losing one’s self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all. No other loss can occur so quietly; any other loss – an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc. – is sure to be noticed.” ― Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death: A Christian Psychological Exposition for Upbuilding and Awakening …if there is no truth if Christian truth is not to be understood literally and absolutely, if God is dead if there is no immortality- then this world is all there is, and this world is absurd, this world is hell.” ― Seraphim Rose, Nihilism: The Root of the Revolution of the Modern Age

“The work of Nihilist Realism, in practice as in theory, has been parallel and complementary to that of Vitalism: a work of standardization, specialization, simplification, mechanization, dehumanization; its effect has been to “reduce” the individual to the most “Primitive” and basic level, to make him in fact the slave of his environment…” ― Seraphim Rose, Nihilism: The Root of the Revolution of the Modern Age

“Life, it seems, will fade away Drifting further every day Getting lost within myself Nothing matters, no one else I have lost the will to live Simply nothing more to give There is nothing more for me Need the end to set me free – Metallica, Fade To Black My prospects have become less promising, I find it hard to believe in anything. Seems I lost my world and so I lost my faith, and I can’t go back to where I’ve been. A brand new day, it can’t get worse I have no lies or truth in what I say there is no meaning” – Katatonia, Anathema

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.