It’s been more than a decade since I wrote this essay for my 19th-century philosophy class. My favourite essays from my university years are this and my essay on Aristotle’s notion of friendship. The perspectives that were gained still inspire me today. I want to post this one here, so it’s preserved on the Internet. (Disclaimer: this is a dense read)
Kierkegaard and Nietzsche’s Solutions for Overcoming Nihilism
April 11, 2012
Schopenhauer describes nihilism as suffering that proceeds from our acts of the Will and thus “as long as we are the subject of willing, we will never have lasting happiness or peace” (Schopenhauer, Introduction xxx). In their respective writings Fear and Trembling and The Birth of Tragedy, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche address Schopenhauer’s nihilistic view of the world that entails endless suffering. Although Kierkegaard had not been influenced by Schopenhauer’s writings as Nietzsche had been, Kierkegaard was also able to depict this nihilistic view of the world. He says, “if at the bottom of everything there were only a wild fervent, a power that twisting in dark passions produced everything great or inconsequential; if an unfathomable, insatiable emptiness lay hid beneath everything, what would life be but despair” (Kierkegaard, 14). Nihilism possesses a problem for these philosophers since our world would be a senseless realm and a place of endless suffering if it, our world, had no other meaning. In this essay, I will present Kierkegaard and Nietzsche’s solutions to Schopenhauer’s nihilism. Kierkegaard, on one hand, argues that this suffering can be overcome by acknowledging the existence of an eternal consciousness that is created by God. For Nietzsche, it is the expression of our Will through art that helps us overcome nihilism. Furthermore, I will compare and contrast the similarities and differences in their views.
In Kierkegaard’s Fear And Trembling, Kierkegaard argues that art and great individuals convince us there is a spirit, an eternal consciousness in man that compels us to live. Kierkegaard, as Johannes de silentio, elaborates in the section, Speech in Praise of Abraham, that life would be meaningless and nothing but despair “if there were no eternal consciousness in man” (Kierkegaard, 14). However, Johannes argues that this dispirited view of the world is not the case, since God created the hero and the poet. The hero and the poet overcome this despair by experiencing the eternal consciousness, which is the awareness of one’s selfhood through the absolute. In doing so, they resign themselves to God as the eternal truth. As Kierkegaard writes about himself as Johannes the poet, “I am convinced that God is love; this thought has for me a pristine lyrical validity” (Kierkegaard). However, Johannes remarks that he could not reach the height of joy that the hero experiences, Abraham, does because he does have such faith in God. Johannes writes about various great heroes and concludes that the one “greater than all was the one who believed in God” (Kierkegaard, 16). Abraham is the epitome of the religious hero who made the leap of faith. Unlike the poet and ordinary people, “he believed on the strength of the absurd, for there could be no question of human calculation” (Kierkegaard, 38). Abraham contradicts himself by going against all reason and to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, trusting God that he will regain him. The second movement he makes that goes beyond the first one, “by means of a double movement had he come back to his original position and therefore received Isaac more joyfully than the first time” (Kierkegaard, 38). Abraham experiences the greatest joy in life, since he could find delight in the finitude of the world through appreciating what had been lost. The religious hero is able to regain what had been lost in the finite world after resigning from the temporal world, in order to remain in an absolute relationship with the absolute.
No one could understand Abraham because he lived on a religious level that could not be understood on the ethical level, since his private relationship with God goes beyond reason and could not be explained in a moral sense. In addition, the movement of faith that he made was absurd and could also not be explained by reason. It is impossible for Abraham to justify his actions and even speak about it, since his religious life could not be explained on an ethical level: “After all, who could have understood him? Hadn’t the test by its very nature exacted an oath of silence from him” (Kierkegaard, 22). The poet then, is required to write and praise the hero through song and speech so that “no one great will be forgotten” (Kierkegaard, 15). In doing so, the poet expresses spiritually what the hero was able to accomplish with God that which the poet himself could not. Johannes acknowledges that he could not understand Abraham, but that he could only admire him and his faith in God that is beyond any reason. Although Johannes “can only admire, love and take pleasure in the hero”, he is able to discover happiness and meaning in life. He achieves this through preserving the memory of the hero and being convinced that there is an eternal consciousness to help us overcome the despair in this world. In his words, the poet praises and preserves the memory of great individuals, such as Abraham, who have the highest faith in God. We are then convinced through the expressions of the poet that there exists an eternal consciousness of reality that is created by God; by resigning ourselves to God as the eternal truth do we then find meaning in our lives.
Nietzsche talks about overcoming Schopenhauer’s nihilistic view of the world in The Birth of Tragedy through art alone, specifically in the form of music. He says, it is “only the spirit of music that allows us to feel joy at the destruction of the individual” (Nietzsche, 81). Nietzsche was influenced by Schopenhauer’s concept of the Will, where music allows us to gain a direct access to this. Music being the highest form of art is unlike “as all the others are, a copy of appearances, but a direct copy of the Will itself, so that it represents the metaphysical in relation to all that is physical in the world, the thing-in-itself in relation to all appearances” (Nietzsche, 77). Music is able to supersede all other appearances made in the phenomenal world, where it reaches the metaphysical world that is our Will. Nietzsche takes this excerpt from Schopenhauer’s World as Will and Representation, toagree with his view on the difference between music and other representations. Schopenhauer explains that music gives us the universality before the fact, “universlaia ante rem” as well as the real world, “universalia in re”, contrasted to concepts that are universal after the fact (Nietzsche, 79). Music is able to reveal the truth about our Will and the real world that cannot be explained by any concept or reason. What is intelligible, our reason, according to Nietzsche is what destroys us.
Nietzsche criticizes Socrates and the Socratic culture for destroying the Dionysian Greek spirit. The Greeks were able to overcome nihilism through using music to create meaning onto a senseless realm. They thrived on a culture of Greek tragedy that involved the interplay between the Dionysian and Apollonian drive. It is the connection between music and tragedy, “Dionysiac art and its tragic symbolism this self-same nature speaks to us in its true, undisguised voice”, which compels us to “forc[e] life into existence” (Nietzsche, 80). The Dionysian held the redemptive truth for our existence, under the veil of the Apollonian art. It is the Dionysian art that expresses the heart of the Will “behind the principium individuationis, as it were, life going on eternally beyond all appearance and despite destruction” (Nietzsche, 80). It was able to experience joy despite the destruction of the individual, showing that the hero’s Will is eternal and could not be overcome by death. The Socratic culture destroyed this Dionysian art with its obsession with logic and concepts. Nietzsche describes that Socratic culture as culture of the opera where the “singer speaks more than he sings” (Nietzsche, 89). The problem with this culture is that the inner essence of the Will itself is no longer expressed by music. Instead, the music “simply reproduce[s] appearances inadequately, in an imitation mediated by concepts” (Nietzsche, 82-83). Despite the destruction of music due to Socrates’ influences on Greek culture, Nietzsche is optimistic that it will soon exhaust itself and reach it limits, and music would promise a rebirth of tragedy.
For further reflection, both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche describe the ways in which reaching the highest state of being and thus, overcoming Schopenhauer’s nihilism, are achieved beyond the world of phenomenon. For Nietzsche, the expression of the Will through music allows us to reach that spiritual realm. According to Kierkegaard, it is one’s absolute relationship with the absolute where one has an immediate access to it. Nietzsche provides us with a more tangible solution for ordinary people since Kierkegaard’s alternative is only limited to the religious hero. Although, the poet in Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling is able to overcome nihilism, through being convinced and convincing others that there exists an eternal consciousness, that does not provide a sufficient enough solution. As Johannes the poet says, “I am happy and satisfied, but my happiness is not that of faith and compared with that is indeed unhappy” (Kierkegaard, 36). The happiness that is experienced by the hero is the highest of all, since it is only the hero that has such faith in God. What the poet can only do is find delight in praising the hero and resigning himself to God. Others will share a similar delight through understanding the works of the poet for overcoming despair, knowing that there exists an eternal consciousness created by God. In addition, Nietzsche may criticize that the artistic expression of the poet does not provide a direct access to the spiritual realm. As mentioned earlier, Nietzsche espouses Schopenhauer’s concept of music, where music being the highest form of art is unlike all others, “a copy of appearances, but a direct copy of the Will itself” (Nietzsche, 77). Kierkegaard does not mention the use of music to gain a direct access to the spiritual realm. As stated earlier, Abraham was able to have this direct relationship with God through silence, as it is “the test by its very nature exacted an oath of silence from him” (Kierkegaard, 22). Again, Kierkegaard suggests that we can still have access the spiritual realm without being in an absolute relation with God. We can recognize the existence of the eternal consciousness through comprehending the words of the poet. However, for Nietzsche, using language and words in attempt to discover the truth that lies in the metaphysical world, cannot be done in the same way as music. He describes this notion with lyric poetry, “whereas lyric poetry depends utterly on the spirit of music, music itself, in its absolute sovereignty, has no need at all of images of concepts but merely tolerates them as an accompaniment” (Nietzsche, 36). Poetry requires to use images and concepts in order to convey a mode of expression, whereas music does not, since music expresses the Will directly.
An interesting correlation that can be observed between Kierkegaard and Nietzsche is that they place absurdity and what cannot be understood by reason as the highest order of existence. For Kierkegaard, the hero’s highest faith in God defies any reason and cannot be understood by others. In order to make the movement of faith, the hero had to “believe on the strength of the absurd, for there could be no question of human calculation” (Kierkegaard, 38). For Nietzsche, music is the highest form of art that provides us with a direct access to the Will. Music cannot be explained by any reason, for it is unintelligible, as it “refers symbolically to the original contradiction and original pain at the heart of the primordial unity” (Nietzsche, 36). Nietzsche speaks about how music is able to embody the original contradiction and pain of the Primal Unity where suffering is transcended and where the Dionysian spirit takes place. The truth cannot be explained by any concepts or reason, but by what is unintelligible such as our Will expressed through music. As mentioned, music gives us the universality before the fact, “universlaia ante rem” as well as the real world (Nietzsche, 79). Both philosophers appeal to the concept of absurdity and paradox to show that these are the highest forms of expression.
In this essay, I have discussed Kierkegaard and Nietzsche’s solutions for overcoming Schopenhauer’s nihilism. For Kierkegaard, the solution is that suffering can be overcome through acknowledging the existence of an eternal consciousness that is created by God. For Nietzsche, it is the expression of our Will through art that helps us overcome nihilism. Kierkegaard’s explanation for an individual’s capability to access the highest spiritual realm is limited to the religious hero, whereas for Nietzsche, all individuals have direct access to this through music. Both philosophers appealed to the notion of absurdity as having the highest order. The truth that lies in the metaphysical world cannot be explained by any reason known to us.
Kierkegaard, Soren. Fear and Trembling. Trans Hannay, Alastair. England: Penguin Books Ltd, 1985.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Birth of Tragedy. Trans Speirs, Ronald. Cambridge: Cambridge University Pres, 1999
Schopenhauer, Arthur. The World as Will and Representation. Vol. I Trans Judith, Norman, Welcham, et. al Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.