Nihilism & the Meaning of Life in Nietzsche

Originally published at Counter Currents.

By Julius Evola

Editor’s Note:

The following text is Evola’s Preface to his translation of Robert Reininger’s Friedrich Nietzsches Kampf um den Sinn des Lebens [Nietzsche’s Struggle for the Meaning of Life] (1922) as Nietzsche e il senso della vita [Nietzsche and the Meaning of Life] (Rome: Giovanni Volpe, 1971).

Among the very many books written on Nietzsche, Robert Reininger’s, translated here, deserves to be pointed out, for two reasons.

The first reason is that at the heart of this book are the solutions to the problem of the sense of existence that Nietzsche tried to give in the suffering of his thought, of his very existence. The author correctly states that this problem, and the closely connected problem of the guideline to be chosen for one’s existence, that is, of ethics, are central to Nietzsche, since the various theoretical positions he adopts, which differ widely from one another, only have a subordinate character. They served, so to speak, experimentally; once adopted, lived out, and tested in relation to this problem, they were progressively left behind — as demonstrated by Reininger — in continuous “overcomings,” in a manner reminiscent of “a flame which moves forward without leaving anything behind it.”

The second point of interest, in the examination of Nietzschean thought from the special angle chosen by Reininger, is the importance given to the “situational value” possessed by a problematic which has not ceased to be topical. Reininger says rightly that the figure of Nietzsche has also the value of a symbol; his person incarnates also a cause; “It is the cause of modern man for which one fights here: man who no longer has roots in the sacred world of tradition, oscillating between the peaks of civilization and the abysses of barbarism, searching for himself; trying, that is, to create a satisfying sense of purpose for an existence completely left to itself.” The problem takes shape as that of man of the age of nihilism, of the “zero degree of all values,” of the age in which “God is dead,” all the external supports vanish, and the “desert grows.”

Nietzsche had foreseen “European nihilism,” and considered it the fatal conclusion of modern thought, having contributed to its completion, by means of his critique of all values, ideals, and idols. The fundamental point is however that, to Nietzsche, it is not the final point, but rather something to be left behind, once it has served a special, positive function. In fact, Nietzsche considered himself to be “the first perfect nihilist of Europe, who, however, has even now lived through the whole of nihilism, to the end, leaving it behind, outside himself.” The problematic of Nietzsche is therefore that of the post-nihilist age. It addresses the man who, having passed unafraid over an abyss, feels he must not retrace his steps. (Therefore, let us notice in passing, those who, on the basis of some oscillations in Nietzsche’s positions, always so saturated with intense, restless emotional power, have fantasized about a possible religious, or bluntly Christian, conversion, have been absolutely on the wrong track.) The positive function of nihilism dwells in the dangerous test of the complete liberation of the individual; if he does not want to fall, he has to find, in himself alone, a firm point, and to make himself capable of an absolute affirmation. Therefore, nihilism is “instrumentalized,” in the service of the rising of a superior type and a new morality. By means of its spiritual destructiveness, it creates a situation of challenge. And it is precisely here that, through bitter struggle, an absolute sense of existence is sought and found, and, beyond man, the “superman” is brought into being.

It will be worth our while to take a closer look at this position, because the situation already supposed, with the lucidity of a visionary, by Nietzsche, is not effectively different from that of the present age, providing that the deep existential crisis, which characterizes it, is not covered over.

As Reininger shows, the point of maximum danger is passed successfully only if the law which the unbroken superior man sets for himself assumes the same character of unconditionality as that which was derived previously from something external or transcendent — even though it has freedom and the “beyond good and evil” as its basis, and is expressed no longer as a “you must,” but as an “I want.” In this connection, Reininger is not wrong in noting the apparently paradoxical analogy between the ethics of Nietzsche and those of Kant: both are “absolute moralities.” Moreover, Nietzsche himself stated plainly that he had only unmasked the decadent, false, deceitful, “all too human” realities that lay behind all common morality in order to make way for a superior morality, and to oppose this “great morality” to the “little morality” of the herd, of anxious minds, dependent on crutches and phantoms. Therefore, the “immoralism” exhibited and proclaimed by Nietzsche so often and with such relish is merely intended to “épater le bourgeois.”

Therefore, if we wish to grasp the positive and essential aspects of Nietzsche’s solution, we must not let ourselves be misled by all those descriptions of it, almost always dictated by a controversial “animus,” in which only individualism and a glorification of “Life” as pure immanence seem to be prominent. In fact, the individualism of Nietzsche is associated with a strict inner discipline, almost with a virile, rather than religiously self-mortificatory, asceticism. Reininger is not the only author to have noticed that, in this respect, Nietzsche’s affirmation of life has more features in common with Schopenhauer’s “negation” of it, than with a passive, greedy identification with it. Not only is the “will-to-life” transformed into “will-to-power,” but also, a sovereign principle is always postulated which distances itself from instincts, and which despises, not only hedonism, but also eudemonism (the doctrine which pursues happiness rather than mere pleasure). And even when “dionysianism” is exalted, when a right is claimed “beyond good and evil,” when openness to every sound “heathen” experience is advocated, rejecting as cowardice all inhibition of passions and of impulses from the depths, this higher dimension is always presupposed. It is the essential prerequisite for the one who is able to remain standing and to create values in the middle of the “desert which grows,” since it ensures that this desert gains no hold over him.

For this very reason, one must not make the mistake of seeing Nietzsche’s glorification of “Life” as mere naturalism. If, as has just been said, Nietzsche’s position involves an absolute affirmation, beyond pure instinctive being, it is obvious that, in the concept of “Life,” even if one wishes to retain it as central, something which transcends it is implicitly introduced, or, if you prefer, that, in “Life,” exalted against every misunderstood “Afterlife,” one must admit not only the thing itself, but also a power which transcends and dominates it. Unfortunately, Nietzsche has not found his way to the perception of the “transcendence” at work in him, to its recognition and incorporation as such in his ideal, and this is perhaps a cause of his tragedy and final collapse.

Once this frequent, two-fold misunderstanding, involving individualism on one hand, and the concept of “Life” on the other, is removed, we think that it may be interesting to highlight, in passing, the distance which separates the essential Nietzschean guideline from the atmosphere of anarchism which proliferates these days in many of the currents which flow between the cracked structures of a desecrated world and an absurd “contested” society. Actually, this anarchism, whether individualistic or mass-based, reduces itself to a confused, irrational and centreless revolt. Undiscriminating intolerance for all disciplines and bonds, dictated solely by the impulses of the instinctive and natural part of the individual, who does not want to recognise anything beyond himself, is very clearly the predominant feature in these movements, beyond the various reasons or pretexts given by the “system” or structures of the world of recent times. Thus, it is as significant as it is natural that, in these movements of today, Nietzsche is absolutely ignored, although he was the first and the greatest rebel. The fact is that, in the human material, there is nothing which corresponds to Nietzsche’s thought; the true — plebeian — elective affinities of such movements are revealed in their frequent collusions with Marxism and its by-products, in their formulæ of hysterical pacifism and absurd “integrationism,” and in their consequent collusion with the “third world” and the lowest depths of society and race, while the limit constituted by semi-illiterate intellectuals appears in a confused increase in the value attributed to mediocre thinkers such as Marcuse, which contents itself with his more or less legitimate positions of rejection (which are not the thing of central importance for a true revolt), not perceiving the bleakness and extreme utopian-idyllic triviality of the alternative he proposes, proceeding as he does from an aberrant sociology massively dependent upon Freud. Nietzsche does not belong to this world at all, as is instinctively apparent. Because of its aristocratic and exclusivist character, its high level of engagement, and the inner stature that it implies, the Nietzschean path would be the object of specific rejection by all these “protest” movements, which can be well defined in terms of a “revolution of the void,” if its exact relation to the most serious problematic of a nihilist age of dissolution was perceived at all.

To make this clearer, it is necessary to explore further the terms in which Nietzsche’s ethics have tried to define themselves.

If one confined oneself rigorously to the principle of pure affirmation of a “freed Life,” it is clear that any evaluative position or stance would be absurd. There would be no foundation from which to assess, and to champion, for example, the forms of a full and ascending life, unfolding a “will-to-power,” as against those of the opposite, “decadent” direction, and in particular those which, according to Nietzsche, have undermined “sound” and “higher” civilizations by means of their morality. They, after all, are also “life,” “beyond good and evil,” part of its ebb and flow, its creation and destruction, and it would be absurd to take a stand, which however Nietzsche continuously and vehemently does, evidently with reference to a higher factor.

If this factor, to which the ethics of Nietzsche owe their specific imprint, is sought, it appears conditioned by his individuality. The principle, in the first instance, is the affirmation of one’s own nature. This becomes the only norm, the autonomous “categorical imperative”: to be oneself, to become oneself. The “realist” conception peculiar to the last phase of the thought of Nietzsche can then act as theoretical background, and, had the tragic darkening of his mind not occurred, would have most probably developed into an elimination of the crude “naturalistic” and biological aspects which continue to mar it (a defect of Reininger is to stick too much to these aspects). In essence, this is a vision of a world stripped bare, denuded of everything merely human, “idealistic,” unreal, and finalistic which has been coated onto it. In part, this is almost a resumption of the tragic, “Dionysian” vision of the first period — but, to understand Nietzsche’s feelings regarding this, what he wrote among the mountain peaks, about the purity of the “free forces still not spotted by spirit,” is suggestive. As after a catharsis, only the “real” (“nature”) remains, in the unique shape of “being” and “power.”

Given this background, which, in a way, confirms the nihilist themes, the individual can only find support and root in what he is in his own deeper nature, in his “being,” his immutable identity.[1] Fidelity to this being, affirmation of it, is therefore what gives content to Nietzschean morality, as its general guideline, so to speak. It is the first dry land, at which, however, Nietzsche does not stop, since, here, basically, the same indetermination which we found in relation to “Life” appears again. Under the sign of the pure “to be oneself,” one should be able to assume, to want, to affirm absolutely what one is, even when, in one’s own nature, there is nothing which corresponds to the positive ideal of the “superman” announced by our philosopher, when one’s own life and one’s own destiny show corruption, perversity, decline, ignominy. That is why, if one sticks to the aforementioned principle, the only ethical value remaining would be that of “authenticity.” Ultimately, it would have to be said that he who, being “inferior” by nature, is himself, has the courage of being absolutely himself, would be higher than one who would like to develop a “superiority” which is not rooted in his authentic being.

If, more recently, some existentialists have been content to halt at these positions, they have been fatally left behind by Nietzsche. When he makes himself the imperious propagator of a new morality, he indicates what proceeds from a particular nature, a “noble nature,” projecting what he himself felt he was, or aspired to be. One is faced, therefore, with a morality of “pride” (opposed, as indicated by Reininger, to one of love or fear) and of “distinction”; with a reaffirmation of the fundamental feature of which we have already spoken, that of a sovereign personality as far from the “flock” as from the merely natural part of himself. What Nietzsche presents to us, again and again, is the type for whom it is natural to be resolute, self-confident, ready to assume every responsibility, straightforward, resistant to everything which is gross and “all too human”, hard, inflexible certainly (and towards himself first and foremost), but also capable in a spontaneous way of the “virtue which gives of itself”, which springs from the inward-looking attitude and the overabundance of his mind, and not from a weak sentimentalism; one who does not seek to evade anything which can put him to the test, who remains untouched by the tragic, dark and absurd aspects of his existence, thanks to the positive and independent law which dictates to him his being.

As is superabundantly clear, Nietzsche’s post-nihilistic ethics of pure self-affirmation and fidelity to oneself lead directly or indirectly to an ideal of this sort. From the generic law of “being oneself,” it is this precise law which therefore differentiates itself in Nietzsche, and gives the specific imprint to his morality. It is in these terms — as noted by Reininger — that the type of the “positive superman” should be understood, not taking seriously the headline-hitting references to some historical figures, or the famous “blond beast of prey,” leaving aside the exaltation of pure force and of the shapeless will-to-power (a power which would beg the question: what to do with it? — as Zarathustra asks one who aspires to break free from every bond: free, for what?), leaving aside also the baroque superman of the d’Annunzian style, the fomented results of the pomposity of a presumed Herrenvolk, factually far from any aristocratic virtue, and the foibles of a misunderstood, biologistic racism.

If we overlook the slag and waste materials of the “less than optimal Nietzsche” — the one who often happens, unfortunately, to have aroused the greatest resonance — it is in the above described terms that there appears the “positive superman,” the man who remains standing, even, and above all, in a nihilist, devastated, absurd world, without gods. The “superman” appears therefore as an individual, élite ideal, not as a hypothetical, general, future “evolutionary” human state, to be made almost the object of a programmed culture, as was suggested by another of the ravings of our philosopher, in a certain phase of his thought.

As the reader of his book will see, Reininger brings these contents to light by separating the essential from the accessory, throughout the twists and turns of Nietzsche’s thought, thus showing the effective positive contribution that the “immoralist”Nietzsche has made to ethics. For our part, we are convinced that what Nietzsche has to offer today in this connection has been in no way discredited in the fight for a sense of existence, provided that one avoids that collapse, that “revolution of the void,” and that plebeian, lower, anarchism, to which, as has been mentioned, the deep crisis of the modern world has given rise in such quantity. In reality, today, given adequate discrimination and adaptation, few ethics offer as many important ideas for the student of the post-nihilist problematic, who has rejected any path to the rear, and faces the test of a new and dangerous freedom. One can even consider it as a touchstone for one’s nature, for one’s true vocation.

It will be evident how much respect, comprehension and sense of measure the author of the present book has brought to the consideration of the person and the thought of Nietzsche. Holding a position of philosophy teacher at the University of Vienna, his exposition is closer to a philosophical study than to the present style of topical essay. We have reduced in our edition the difficulty which the use of certain philosophical terms may constitute for a certain category of readers, by explaining such terms or by using equivalents.


1. There are sporadic but illuminating intuitions in Nietzsche which seem to refer variously to a subpersonal stratum of the individual, to its transcendent root, to a Self beyond the little I, as when Nietzsche speaks of the “great reason” enclosed in the mystery of our body (of one’s own individuation), as opposed to the little reason — to the great reason “which never says I but is I,” which has “spirit and senses as a little instrument and toy,” “the powerful dominator, the unknown wise man whom one calls his own being, or Self (das Selbst).” These allusions could even remind us somewhat of traditional “inner teachings.” Reininger speaks of an “esoteric” aspect to Nietzschean thought, but this would be going too far, if this expression is taken in its strict sense.


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