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What is Nihilism?

Nihilism, Nihilists, and Nihilistic Philosophy


The term nihilism comes from the Latin word 'nihil' which literally means "nothing." Many believe that it was originally coined by Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev in his novel Fathers and Sons (1862) when in fact it probably first appeared several decades earlier. Nevertheless, Turgenev's use of the word to describe the views he attributed to young intellectual critics of feudal society generally and the Tsarist regime in particular is what gave the word widespread popularity.

This usage came at a fortuitous time because there was a burgeoning radical movement that seem to fit that term quite well — at least as far as conservatives were concerned. They were perhaps the first to latch onto the word, using it as a slur to describe a generation that was in revolt against established social norms. These youth themselves were not eager to adopt the term, but it eventually came into general usage.

This Russian Nihilism would have seemed very familiar to anyone who lived through the 1960s in America. It was largely a youth movement comprised of a new intellectual class that was growing rapidly due to increased attendance at schools by commoners, increased wealth in the middle class, and the development of independent presses.

The result was a "culture war" with an older generation that felt a stronger allegiance to traditional norms, traditional religion, and traditional morality. Against these "Fathers" were arrayed the "Sons," children who no longer believed in the ideals of their elders, were disillusioned at the hypocrisy around them, and feared that any attempt to improve things would only be in vain.

As one might expect, the more the young Russian Nihilists were pushed into conforming to tradition, the more they pushed back — acting out in crude or vulgar ways, expressing contempt for traditional values, opposing religious authority, etc. Some attempted to change society through political action, but most were disillusioned with politics and "dropped out," preferring instead to seek greater personal development through a complete break with the past. It was these latter individuals who perhaps most merit the label Nihilists — apolitical youth who shared much in common with Turgenev's character Bazarov.

Ultimately, Russian Nihilism didn't accomplish much itself — it certainly didn't produce general cultural and political changes anywhere close to what was created by the 1960s youth movements in America and Europe. The problem, it seems, is that the radical cultural and political critiques were not well-balanced by an equally strong program of alternatives. Basically, the Nihilists had little or nothing to offer in exchange for what they hoped to tear down. Some certainly tried, but there just weren't enough to effectively strengthen the movement.

This is not to say, however, that Russian Nihilism left no mark whatsoever. Its emphasis on materialism as opposed to idealism probably helped pave the way for the later ascendancy of communism. It is also reasonable to conclude that the critiques of traditional culture helped Russians to shed past prejudices and assumptions, even if they didn't embrace the Nihilist philosophy entirely.

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