In Woody Allen’s movie Annie Hall, a young boy named Alvie Singer stops doing his homework because “the universe is expanding.” As his mother pleads with a cigarette smoking psychologist, Alvie declares, “what’s the point?” Alvie's frantic mother declares that the expanding universe is "none of his business" and that in any case, "Brooklyn is not expanding!"
This hilarious scene might owe some of its amusement to familiarity. Most people will agree that nihilism in any form is an unproductive and possibly destructive approach to life. Yet, we ourselves may fall into nihilistic tendencies or attitudes when confronted with the problems of the world and our seemingly inability to solve them. The sense of hopelessness which many people feel about the world, as well as their lives, frequently leads to apathetic attitudes and "subtle" forms of nihilism.
It seems easier to fall into apathy than open oneself to hope. After all, world history is filled with unhappy endings. Cultures die, as people do, and we are hard pressed to find a historical culture that does not end in decline. Failure is much more common than success. Wrong answers tend to outnumber right ones. Today, the news is filled with stories which reflect the worst of humanity and some social media algorithms privilege "outrage" which sends negative stories to the top of our newsfeeds.
Despite the despair many feel, there are still extraordinary examples of hope, courage, wisdom and compassion. It is important that humanity's best examples form a vibrant part of our consciousness. Survivors of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings report perfect strangers, not medical professionals, who heard the blasts and ran towards the danger, providing life-saving emergency assistance. At times, the best examples are found in the worst situations. In a natural disaster, we are struck by the suffering of those affected but we should also give our attention to those who provide assistance to those in need.
Are we hard-wired to be pessimistic? Buddhist views on the nature of the human mind may be instructive here. The mind left to its own devices tends to fall into past thoughts of regret, future thoughts of anxiety, and present thoughts of an unproductive and unhealthy comparison to others. This is why Buddhist thought emphasizes the cultivation of watchfulness and awareness as the way to freedom, peace and the development of a generous disposition. Pain and suffering are never pleasant but they tend to act as vehicles for awakening and compel us to examine the causes of our suffering. As such, pain and suffering are vehicles of conscious awareness.
Another feature of Buddhist psychology is that awareness, referred to as Right Attention in the Buddhist Noble Eight-fold Path, makes one conscious of the uniqueness of every moment. Right Attention opens us to the needs and suffering of others. It manifests as an immediate response of generosity and compassion. If we wait too long to respond to these "higher impulses" they become derailed by more self-serving thoughts such as regret, anxiety and apathy.
Nihilism, as an approach to life, tends to deny three essential aspects of the human experience: denial of meaning, denial of relationship, and denial of knowledge. It is rare to find people who are 100% nihilistic. It is far more common to find "subtle" forms of nihilism in others and in ourselves. Nihilism, in any form, is a source of unhappiness for ourselves and others. Let's examine these destructive forms of nihilism and their anecdote: HOPE.
Emily Esfani Smith, in her Ted talk, There's More To Life Than Happiness, suggests that fulfillment does not come from happiness but from meaning. Happiness comes and goes. Meaning is more enduring and serves something beyond ourselves. Nihilism is a rejection of meaning. Pure nihilists do not seek or accept meaning as a byproduct of lived experience. As such, they also reject the value of experience. Even though it is doubtful that any of us are pure nihilists, we sometimes fall into nihilism's shadows when we see experience purely as good or bad. Viewing experience through the extremes of good or bad produces a dismissal of the value of the present moment and a continuous "leaning into" the next and "hopefully better" next moment. All experience, including personal tragedy, produces meaningful transformations in our lives. Meaning is simply the opening to all experience as a revelation. This revelation need not be of a religious nature at all. It simply means that experience has given us some new knowledge of the world and of ourselves which is beneficial.
Hope is a warm embrace of both experience and meaning. Hope moves us to act for the future without abandoning the present. Hope is not an abandonment to fantasy but an embrace of the human imagination and the knowledge that human experience has meaning and something to teach us. Hope is an openness to having one's mind changed, and an openness to polishing up one's own philosophical lens by which we view the world.
Nihilism is a rejection of relationship and the interpersonal. All moral philosophies embrace a recognition of the other as a meaning seeking being whom we must relate to as a Thou. Nihilistic tendencies reject the notion of relating to another is any meaningful way. A common "subtlety" of modern nihilism sees the other as a statistic or a news story. Martin Buber drew a clear distinction between the I-It and the I-Thou. The I-It is a common form of nihilistic belief which, as Roger Scruton explains, "is a falling away from the moral life; of people who take some gratification in reducing others to mere It." Scruton goes on to explain how I-It helps explain some of the great crimes of the 20th century such as the Holocaust, the Rwandan Genocide, and unfortunately for more episodes to list here. Joseph Stalin is reported to have said that "a single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic."
Hope recognizes the interpersonal relationship as an intrinsic good. Immanuel Kant viewed hope as an essential element for the "improvement of the human race as a whole." Hope involves the establishment of the I and Thou journey which consists of recognition, relating and empathy. The I-Thou experience is the very essence of ethical living.
Nihilism rejects knowledge as an inherent good. Nihilism also rejects investigation as a vehicle for knowledge and in turn the very notion of asking questions, and seeking answers. The abandonment of questioning is an inevitable result of the rejection of knowledge and the idea that knowing leads to more conscious and understanding human beings. The essence of knowing is embodied in the Pre-Socratic phrase "know thyself." Many philosophical traditions note that human happiness and fulfillment seems to be analogous to the degree to which we know ourselves, our strengths and weaknesses, virtues, vices, etc...
Hope embraces the inherent relationship between knowledge and human happiness, both for ourselves and others. The philosophical experience as "love of wisdom" cannot occur without the quality of Hope. The philosophical journey always begins with a question and hope allows us to clearly see the inherent relation between questions and answers, and between answers and the very actions which make the world better for everyone. Plato, in his Symposium says that all things seek to be re-unified with that which created them out of a primordial Love. In this way good answers are the offspring of good questions. Knowledge is a form of Love.
Pandora's Box and Hope
The term Pandora means "all gifts." Zeus gave her husband Epimetheus a sealed casket with a demand that it should never be opened. Pandora could not resist the temptation and opened the box, releasing all the forms of suffering in the world. Frantically, Pandora rushed to close the box, keeping HOPE from fleeing. Hope contains within it, "all gifts" needed to mitigate and eventually eliminate all the suffering of the world. Seeking Hope is not simply a form of optimistic thinking. Hope is an essential way of training the philosophical mind, to live a good life through meaning, relationships and knowledge.