Lent- Day 22: Wading in the nihil.
Jay-Z in “On the Run” (Radio Lab)
It’s been a long, long day. Rainy, gray and layered thickly with foreboding. A real walking in “the valley of the shadow of death”. I’m not being dramatic, it’s just really been that kind of day.
This morning I began “Søren Kierkegaard – Subjectivity, Irony and the Crisis of Modernity”, an online University of Copenhagen class offered through Coursera. It’s totally free, so if you’re a nerd, and cheap, like me, you can still register if you like. In the “About” descriptor:
It is often claimed that relativism, subjectivism and nihilism are typically modern philosophical problems that emerge with the breakdown of traditional values, customs and ways of life. The result is the absence of meaning, the lapse of religious faith, and feeling of alienation that is so widespread in modernity. The Danish thinker Søren Kierkegaard (1813-55) gave one of the most penetrating analyses of this complex phenomenon of modernity. But somewhat surprisingly he seeks insight into it not in any modern thinker but rather in an ancient one, the Greek philosopher Socrates.
Yup, nihilism. If you need a reminder of what, exactly, nihilism actually is, let’s go to good old Wikipedia:
Nihilism… is a philosophical doctrine that suggests the negation of one or more reputedly meaningful aspects of life. The Greek philosopher and Sophist, Gorgias (ca. 485 BCE–380 BCE), is perhaps the first to consider the Nihilistic belief. Most commonly, nihilism is presented in the form of existential nihilism, which argues that life is without objective meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value.
Moral nihilists assert that morality does not inherently exist, and that any established moral values are abstractly contrived. Nihilism can also take epistemological or ontological/metaphysical forms, meaning respectively that, in some aspect, knowledge is not possible, or that reality does not actually exist. The term is sometimes used in association with anomie to explain the general mood of despair at a perceived pointlessness of existence that one may develop upon realising there are no necessary norms, rules, or laws. Movements such as Futurism and deconstruction, among others, have been identified by commentators as “nihilistic” at various times in various contexts.
Nihilism is also a characteristic that has been ascribed to time periods: for example, Jean Baudrillard and others have called postmodernity a nihilistic epoch, and some Christian theologians and figures of religious authority have asserted that postmodernity and many aspects of modernity represent a rejection of theism, and that such rejection of their theistic doctrine entails nihilism.
Later while putting laundry away, I listened to the latest On the Media podcast, and wouldn’t you know, nihilism (and a bit of Kirkegaard, too) was a major topic. Check out both parts.
It’s a fascinating discussion on nihilism in pop culture from Kerouac and The Beats, to Sid Vicious and yes, Jay-Z pictured above. Of particular interest to me is the question of if we are currently more nihilistic (or maybe, at least pessimistic) than previous generations, and if so why. On the Media co-host Brooke Gladstone argues not so, it’s more cyclical- coming in and out of fashion (like culottes?).
One thing is for certain, no matter where a person may come down on the subject of nihilism and death in general. Eventually, every single one of us will have an end.
Reflection for the day: God has set eternity into our hearts. (Ecc. 3:11)
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