Nihilism (Book Review)

Nihilism: The Root of the Revolution of the Modern Age, Eugene (Father Seraphim) Rose.

This short book is a chapter in a greater work that Rose envisioned, an Augustinian The Kingdom of Man and the Kingdom of God. Presumably he was using Augustine’s framework in a version updated for the modern age. The book was never completed, but we do have an outline of the work-in-progress, and this completed chapter, part of the second half of the book, in the section “The Old Order and the ‘New Order’ ”

  • The advent of the ‘New Order’: the Revolution of the modern age
  • The root of the revolution:  Nihilism (the book under review)
  • The Goal of the Revolution:  the Anarchist Millennium

One wonders if he connected his “New Order” with the Novus Ordo Seclorum (New Order of the Ages) that features on the US dollar bill and is the true spirit of the American Founding.

This book/chapter assumes a context, and that context is explicitly Christian, and specifically Orthodox. Non-Christian readers may find the assumptions Rose uses “begging the question”, but the complete book would have set the context.  Christians won’t have a problem with the assumptions, but Rose’s reasoning for them would have been welcome.

Rose uses Friedrich Nietzsche, the master of Nihilism, to define Nihilism. It is not the belief in nothing, nor of a lack of belief in anything, which you might think based on the root nihil. Nietzsche offers:

That there is no truth; that there is no absolute state of affairs–no ‘thing in itself.’  This alone is Nihilism, and of the most extreme kind.  (From The Will to Power.)

Rose notes that his own definition of absolute truth is “the dimension of the beginning and end of things”; I would have liked to have seen his elaboration of that. “There is no truth” is a self-refuting argument, and I know Nietzsche wasn’t making only that point, but it was his foundation.

Ultimately Rose sets Nihilism as a kind of faith opposed to Christian faith:

The whole food of Christian Truth, however, is accessible only to faith; and the chief obstacle to such faith is not logic, as the facile modern view has it, but another and opposed faith. We have seen indeed, that logic cannot deny absolute truth without denying itself; the logic that sets itself up against the Christian Revelation is merely the servant of another “revelation,” of a false “absolute truth”: namely Nihilism.

The real value for me in this book is how Rose characterizes four manifestations of nihilism in the modern age, in the chapter “The Stages of the Nihilistic Dialectic”:

  • Liberalism.  There is no truth, but we maintain the forms from when people believed in and acted like there was truth. One thinks of various mainstream Protestant priests who don’t seem to believe in God anymore, but continue their functions as priests (I believe Kierkegaard noticed this in the state Lutheran church in Denmark). This is more of an introductory stage to the other forms.
  • Realism.  This is the kind of Nihilism the Russian Ivan Turgenev was describing in Fathers and Sons. Tough-minded, realistic, materialistic, self-interested; the atheism is out in the open. Nothing exists but what is most obvious. The Realist is openly hostile to the idea of absolute truth (the Liberal is just indifferent and vague about it all).
  • Vitalism.  Seeing the dead reductionism of realism, vitalism reacts. It does not critique the foundation of realism, only the expression. A more “life-affirming” approach is desired, where one can suck the marrow from the bone of life.   No sensitive man can stand the realist approach, he seeks something dynamic, vital, refreshing, even traditional (the Old Ways). Nietzsche was such a nihilist.
  • The Nihilism of Destruction. A pure rage against creation and civilization, unappeasable until they are reduced to total ruins. Such nihilists glory in destruction.  Bazarov in Fathers and Sons states that “there is not a single institution of our society that should not be destroyed.” The anarchist Michail Bakunin reveled in it: “The passion for destruction is also a creative passion!”

Our age sees all four stages in various institutions and movements, although it seems we are dominated by a kind of nihilism of destruction. I notice that some of the disaffected right do not reject nihilism but seek a roll back to a realist (“Red Pill”) or vitalist (Zarathustra) version; some glory in destructive nihilism (“burn it down, burn it all down”) believing something better will follow.

Rose goes on to talk about “The Theology and Spirit of Nihilism”. He asserts that Nihilism is not atheism, but a profounder malady: anti-theism. Nietzsche himself was haunted by Christ to the end of his life; the closing words of his last book, Ecce Homo, are, “Have you understood me? Dionysus against the Crucified.” He was engaged in a battle.  Thus, the theology is rebellion, or a war against God. The spirit is the worship of nothingness. Rose points out that nihilist “Nothingness” is a denial, a negation. Nietzsche says,

What does Nihilism mean?–that the highest values are losing their value. There is no goal. There is no answer to the question: ‘why?’

Next Rose addresses “The Nihilist Program”. It amounts to the destruction of the old order (violence is essential), the making of the new earth, and the fashioning of the new man. The Soviet Communist system is paradigmatic, but it is also at work today in the West. It is why Paul Gottfried can write a book, The Strange Death of Marxism where he finds it is not dead at all, but alive and well in the West.

Finally, Rose closes with “Beyond Nihilism” where Nihilism, having finished its work, can now be supplanted by the next thing: Anarchism, a new order of existence.  That was to be the next chapter of Rose’s greater work.   Again, Nietzsche:

Under certain circumstances, the appearance of the extremest form of Pessimism and actual Nihilism might be the sign of a process of incisive and most essential growth, and of mankind’s transit into completely new conditions of existence. This is what I have understood.

It is the fondest wish of our current ruling order to reach that state beyond nihilism, the goal of the revolution, a new age of a completely new condition of existence.  Novus Ordo Seclorum.

God save us.