nihilism in christianity and stoicism Nietzsche

Nietzsche’s meaning

Anthropologists have long known that when a tribe of people lose their feeling that their way of life is worthwhile they […] simply lie down and die beside streams full of fish.

Ernest Becker

What is nihilism?

Nihilism is a confusing term. It can mean rejection of societal norms (political nihilism). This is not what I am going to discuss here.

I will talk about Nietzsche’s definition of nihilism: the radical rejection of value, meaning* and desirability.

I think this communicates the most important concepts. Of course, there are more specific definitions, so I will get them out of the way here. There is moral nihilism that says that there is no right and wrong. Epistomological nihilism says there is no universal truth or meaning. Existential nihilism rejects meaning in life.

why we need meaning in life

Stoicism vs nihilism

Stoicism is really en vogue these days. Seneca’s writings have grabbed my attention early last year and haven’t really let go. First, his Moral Letters are incredibly easy to read – compared to most undigested original philosophical texts (e.g. A. Schopenhauer). Second, they make one feel good, a bit like after watching Pulp Fiction. I was starting to wonder – what’s the catch? My “too good to be true” radar was going off.

Here’s a short summary of Seneca’s views:

  • life is set in circumstances that we’ve no control over;
  • it is possible to get through life by working on our response – not on the circumstances;
  • there is no need to fear death because
    • it is just like the blissful nothingness that came before we were born;
    • it would, so to speak, “end the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to”;
    • we didn’t earn life – it was given to us by circumstance. Hence, we cannot expect to hang on to it.

Nietzsche on meaning of life and nihilism

This doesn’t sound so bad. In fact, it is quite resonant with the ultimate optimist Viktor Frankl: “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves” and more or less the basis of modern day talking therapies like CBT and REBT. However, Seneca is quite pessimistic. Having re-read his letters a number of times, I picture him as a man who barely endured his life.

Any modern psychiatrist would say Seneca had a passive death wish.

It’s also interesting to remember that he was one of the wealthiest people of all time. Here’s a telling quotation from Letter 65:

“The wise man, the seeker after wisdom, is bound closely, indeed, to his body, but he is an absentee so far as his better self is concerned, and he concentrates his thoughts upon lofty things. Bound, so to speak, to his oath of allegiance, he regards the period of life as his term of service. He is so trained that he neither loves nor hates life; he endures a mortal lot, although he knows that an ampler lot is in store for him.”

Nietzsche famously pointed out that Christianity is nihilistic in the sense that it is denying the value of one’s current existence and instead placing it on a dream of a better afterlife.

By that same logic, Seneca too seems nihilistic. One might argue that in the context of Seneca thinking of death – it is kind of hopeful.

Nonetheless, Seneca belittles the value of the current life, encourages escapism and hope for, essentially, life in heaven after death.

At the same time, Seneca repeats that we have limited time on Earth and we better use it wisely. Just like Christianity, this philosophy appealed to all strata in society. Using either philosophy, anyone could be a hero by thinking themselves so. In a sense, one is less responsible for their actions as this world doesn’t really matter. Certainly, making the right choices matters – as it will be assessed for the purposes of a heaven vs hell decision, but it presents life as something that happens to a person – and the person has little agency. Having said that, much of what Seneca demands of Lucilius could safely be called overcoming-oneself, a cardinal virtue according to Nietzsche.

Nietzsche on nihilism

Meaning by school of thought

Unbound by any aspiration to philosophical scholarship, I have taken the liberty of making these one liners on how different schools/philosophers viewed meaning:

Stoics: there is meaning, it is to be wise and kind;

Schopenhauer: there is meaning; awareness of suffering and death create the need for meaning;

Buddhists: there is meaning, but it is ambiguous;

Hinduism: there is meaning; it is to shed the illusion and realise the unity of the universe;

Christianity: there is meaning; the meaning is to live so as to attain entry into a superior world;

Nietzsche: there is meaning; meaningful suffering is sought after, meaningless suffering is a curse – more on this later;

Nihilists: there is no meaning.

are stoics nihilist

A nihilist’s escape routes

Being a bone fide nihilist is intolerable: there’s nothing to wish for, nothing makes a difference – like the tribes that encountered Western culture described by E. Becker in the epigraph, one may as well lie down and die. It’s a state fundamentally indistinguishable from severe and enduring depression.

Those who proclaim they are nihilistic and still go on about their lives as if nothing’s wrong are probably hedonistic, or have some kind of meaning they simply don’t call meaning. Or, they are like Anony Mole who appears to think that meaning is a psychological hack to staying motivated to live on, but ultimately hypothesising that there is no meaning at all.

For someone who doesn’t see meaning in life there’s another option, however. It is to defer meaning to one’s next life. In this sense, Christianity is a form of escapism away from nihilism.

In Christianity, the purpose of life is to live one’s current life in a certain way and attain entry into an alternate, “real and true” world – heaven. At first glance, it would seem that Nietzsche is overreacting by accusing Christianity of being nihilist. Christianity is full of ways that make this life meaningful. On closer reflection, the motivation behind acting according to the tenets  of Christianity is that someone, from a place that we all really belong in, said that it is the right thing to do. This life is only a smoke and mirrors version of the blissful life in heaven. Nietzsche rejected true world theories as nonsense. He demonstrated that it was an assumption of his – and ultimately unknowable. Richard Dawkins says it’s intellectual cowardice to not come down on one side or the other. I think it is intellectual cowardice to not admit that there are certain things that we just don’t have a way of knowing.

Despite his rejection of true world theories, Nietzsche understood that they are the fabric that holds people’s lives together.

Of course, there are many more true world theories than Christianity, but it is the one that dominates the Wester world today. For example, Marxism is a true world theory – yearning for a future utopia. Nietzsche also argued that a Christian heaven helps the human sense of self: it is kind of validating to know that, really, one belongs in a special true world – not here.

Pema Chodron wrote about the psychology of our need for such a world in an accessible way. [There’s a funny story to go with that. I was sitting on the beach right after reading Chodron, reflecting on the ways in which we’re conditioned to want a fatherly God. An elderly man approached me and wondered if I was OK – I guess I must have looked distraught. It’s rather unusual for a man in his 80s to approach a random person on a beach, so I was wondering what’s going on. He didn’t say much, just asked again if I was ok and if I like reading. He reached to hand me a brochure – looking directly at me – and said only this one thing: “Oh, and there is a God”. I thanked him, mind-boggled. After he walked away, I looked at the brochure – turns out he was a Jehovah’s witness. I didn’t know they mind read.]

Besides turning to true world theories, there is another way to avert the pain of nihilism.

Like David Foster Wallace pointed out, there’s no such thing as atheism. We all believe something.

Science slowly becomes scientism and provides explanations for things it can and cannot explain. Following a political movement gives a sense of belonging. Our culture is a kaleidoscope of options for all tastes.

meaning of life nihilism

Searching for meaning is nihilistic

Nietzsche argued that asking the question “What is the meaning of life” and demanding an external answer by some superhuman authority diminished the value of the person asking – as if it comes from a lack one’s faith in their own ability to figure it out.

Nietzsche argued that nihilism arises when people get disillusioned with their default set of beliefs – let’s say beliefs that are inherent in one’s cultures – and take this disillusionment to more generally mean that no beliefs could ever be satisfactory.

This view of nihilism is once again almost indistinguishable from depression. Nietzsche expressed it best here:

“A new pride my ego taught me, and this I teach men: no longer to bury one’s head in the sand of heavenly things, but to bear it freely, an earthly head, which creates a meaning for the earth.”

nihilism in christianity and stoicism Nietzsche

Prof. Nietzsche’s meaning of life

So what did Nietzsche himself think the meaning of life was? It was to realise one’s inner potential.

Nietzsche believed in radical responsibility: it is only ourselves who we have to blame if we miss our life’s calling.

To him, we weren’t all born human. We become human by realising our potential. This is what he meant when he said “become who you are”. Fear and laziness are our ultimate enemies. Incidentally, this sounds like it is straight out of Seneca’s writings. Nietzsche claimed there was a higher self, a kind of will that dragged us to become who we are. To me this is terribly reminiscent of a true world theory albeit one confined to the self and to this life. His method was through setting difficult goals pursuing which elevates the soul. Congruent with the traditions of Buddhism, Nietzsche argued that suffering isn’t inherently bad – and one doesn’t need to immediately try and fix it or worse, distract oneself away from it. It is an opportunity for growth and wisdom, according to Nietzsche.

Nietzsche on meaning of life

I guess it comes down to awareness, adaptability and agency again. This whole piece makes me sound like a Nietzsche fan girl. In a sense, it’s true, but he was a bit too anti-social, self-contradicting and melancholic for my liking. I will put that in more analytical terms at a later stage.

You may want to read

Kevin Simler’s reflections on meaning

Schopenhauer’s genius and mindful boredom

*[To be clear, we’re talking about meaning to a given person, not some universal, objective meta-meaning because ultimately an attempt at identifying this universal meaning will always be the meaning to the person thinking about it, or a projection thereof. This is one of the reasons humans are so naturally self-centred. David Foster Wallace describes it well here. As seen above, none of the major philosophies really even try to answer what the ultimate meaning of the universe is. This is probably because the question isn’t asked very often. This author is more interested in the tangible psychology of it – than the unknowable philosophy].

65 thoughts on “Nietzsche’s meaning”

  1. You are an intern in a flower shop. You have been given the task of removing the thorns from long-stemmed roses … quite a few of them. After you master the technique, you find there is a certain mindless pleasure in doing the job well. Or … you could find the task stupid and boring and leading to the consideration of other internships. The task has no meaning in the greater scheme of things.

    So, why cannot our lives be the same, basically meaningless tasks one encounters along the way which while doing them we encounter other people and other ideas and have opportunities to be one way or another?

    This is what I believe. There is no such thing as “meaning” when applied to a life that is external to a person. As proof, I offer this example. I am a person of great magical ability. I snap my fingers and everyone else in the world disappears. I snap my fingers again, and voilà, they are back. Question: what happened to all of the “meanings” during the interim?

    Thank you, than you very much. (Ladies and Gentlemen, Elvis has left the theatre …)

    ;o) (Puck is alive and well!)

    Liked by 2 people

  2. “To him, we weren’t all born human. We become human by realising our potential. This is what he meant when he said “become who you are”.

    Good point. This is why Nietzsche is at odds with the “everybody gets a trophy” approach of a culture that places too high an importance on feeling instead of virtue.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. And here I thought the correct answer to the question, “What’s the meaning of life?” is ’42’. I must be reading the wrong philosophers.

    Adams captures the absurdity of the question.

    Meaning is – as far as I can determine – always applied to and never extracted from. That means (excuse the term) nihilists are partly correct in recognizing that nothing has objective inherent meaning. But to then conclude that because nothing can have any objective meaning and therefore life itself has to be meaningless is in effect a thinking error. Subjective meaning does not negate its productive value… any more than subjective measuring – whether Imperial or metric or universal units subjectively created and then applied – negates our ability to produce value in exacting measurements to astounding degrees of accuracy. (We can measure at our leisure if our units stay the same.) The objective/subjective divide is only as meaningful as the degree to which we assume its value is based on its universality. That assumption is flat out wrong, hence any conclusions based on it being the case is in error.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I agree actually. To be clear, I am talking about meaning to a given person, not some universal, objective meta-meaning because ultimately an attempt at identifying this universal meaning will always be the meaning to the person thinking about it. Sorry, who is Adams?


      1. Oh, the ’42’ is from Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy where it answers The Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything”, which is calculated by a supercomputer called Deep Thought over a period of 7.5 million years; however, no one knows what the question is.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. One has to read Adams with the right mindset… that most philosophy – and those academic subjects that rely on it for their grounding like theology – is really earnest windbaggery.

        I adore his understanding and analogy of the Fine Tuning argument in particular – which relates back to this dysfunctional philosophical notion about our tendency to treat certain situations as if they possessed ‘meaning’ independent of us – and how it naturally extends to something so dysfunctional as, say, denying climate change on theological grounds:

        ““This is rather as if you imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, ‘This is an interesting world I find myself in — an interesting hole I find myself in — fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!’ This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, frantically hanging on to the notion that everything’s going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for.”

        Liked by 1 person

  4. If nihilism teach to reject everything, it either becomes fully isolated and without meaning itself. If cannot deal with its own position self-referentially applied to nihilism itself. Or it becomes trivial in an ‘anything goes’ type of style. Seneca is still relevant today and deserves to be read a lot (again).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree with you. It took me 2 days though to understand what that meant! It boggles the mind 🙂 Seneca is great. My problem is that I have yearning for someone who has all the answers, so I constantly have to remind myself to not sink into any particular philosophy mindlessly – this is especially the case with Seneca 🙂


      1. ‘My problem is that I have yearning for someone who has all the answers’.

        But why? How can you be truly happy with someone else’s answers?

        If you look at the world from a mechanistic perspective, the planet is full of species that live. Some ‘live’ better than others, in a survival sense, and prosper. Others ‘live’ in a non-survival way and die out. And the process continues and cycles ad infinitum, or until the planet finally dies out or burns up.

        In that sense, homo sapiens is no different to the dinosaurs, and will either die out or evolve into something else. So if our whole species has no special value in an objective sense, how can one single life have ‘meaning’?

        But this need not be a depressing realization, because we have all the meaning we need – on the inside. We are born with a unique set of DNA which is acted upon by the external environment [read society, culture, history etc] as we grow. Once we reach adulthood, however, we have the capacity to take control of /how/ we grow. Rather than allowing the environment to dictate what value we place upon ourselves, we can choose to become the best that we are capable of being.

        Of course, before we can live according to our own, personal belief set, we have to create it by questioning everything. Whatever remains after all the questions have been asked is unique and personal. More importantly, it will be our own roadmap for life. And at the end of this precious, one and only chance at life, we will be the judges of whether we lived it well or not.

        The thought of that much responsibility may be scary, but it should never be depressing. It’s like standing on a precipice with brand new wings. Until we let go of the fear of falling, we will never be able to fly.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. You see, I have a lot of faith in humanity. I assume that the x thousand years’ worth of people who came before me figured things out so that I don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Very often I do – when it comes to philosophical matters. It’s quite understandable. Also, you said that our species is a transient phenomenon and that means that there can’t be meaning. A lot of people say that, but it makes no sense to me at all. Could you explain?


      3. Two things I’d like to say – philosophy isn’t meant to provide answers, it’s meant to make you think. The instant it makes a claim to some sort of absolute ‘truth’ it stops being a philosophy and becomes a cult or religion of some sort. The second thing is we humans never see ourselves as just one more animal amongst other animals. We’ve always seen ourselves as ‘apart’, ‘special’, ‘close to god’ etc. Darwin debunked that, but as we’re still the apex predator on this small planet, we still think of ourselves as absolutely special. Therefore, if we’re special, there must be meaning to our lives, otherwise why would we be here?
        But the reality is that I am special only to myself and we, as a species, are special only to ourselves. We are the heroes or our own stories but is that the same as having some absolute ‘Meaning’ with a capital ‘M’?
        Logically, we can’t justify our existence. As a species we have done far more harm than good. Only as individuals can we attempt to give meaning to our lives by saying ‘I was the best that I was capable of being’.
        Apologies for going on and on.


      4. Your first point is brilliant. I can’t believe I needed someone else to tell me (… wait, maybe others do have answers…) As for your second point, I don’t think that meaning hinges on being special. Even if you’re not the apex predator, but a feral cat, there’s meaning. And even if we’re just special to ourselves – that’s meaningful, isn’t it? It is a psychological construct, it is in the eyes of the beholder. I don’t think that existence can be justified really. I also don’t understand what you mean by more harm than good: on what scale? In what terms? How do you judge that? I like you going on, you’re great xo


      5. Ah sorry, I wasn’t clear – by meaning, I meant an external, absolute kind of meaning, the sort that religions give to human life. For example, that god made us in his own image, so being ‘good’ will make god happy or something like that.

        For the next bit, please read ‘I believe’ for every statement.

        Subjectively, we give meaning to our own lives in the same way that the life of a cat has meaning…i.e. a cat that is a good hunter and reproduces its genes is being the ‘best’ cat that it can be [biologically speaking].

        A human, however, needs to do more than just survive and reproduce in order to be the best human he/she can be. Part of becoming that ‘best human’ is to make the most of the genetic heritage you are born with. This means that the benchmark for each person will be different. A person who has a green thumb and spends her life making things grow has as much ‘value’ as a concert pianist who spends her life making glorious music. They are both being the best that they, individually, are capable of being.

        To me, this is the only true ‘good’ and it’s not as easy as it sounds. First we have to find out who we are, then we have to consciously decide to work on ourselves as if we were a piece of fine machinery. Finally, we have to keep doing it for a lifetime.

        Trying to live up to my best self gives meaning to my life. But that’s my take on the world. I can’t dictate that this is the only way to gain meaning from life. It has to come from within.


      6. This idea of searching for answers has been richly rewarded for me by through reading mythology and really experiencing them anew with human meaning – meaning that is archetypal human. In this sense I both supply the meaning and recognize the symbols of what is quintessentially human and thus experience the teaching first hand. That’s why mythology possesses both a timeless beauty and life-affirming value as self-teaching method.

        Liked by 2 people

      7. A terrific introduction is the softcover book href=””>The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell interviewed By PBS hoist Bill Moyers.

        Liked by 1 person

      8. Germane to this conversation about meaning (to life) is this quote from Campbell about the art of transformation from child to adult:

        “People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”

        And this:

        “It’s important to live life with the experience, and therefore knowledge, of its mystery and of your own mystery. This gives life new radiance, a new harmony, a new splendor. Thinking in mythological terms helps to put you in accord with the inevitables of this vale of tears. You learn to recognize the positive values in what appear to be negative moments and aspects of your life. The big question is whether you are going to be able to say a hearty yes to your adventure.”

        Untested, often inherited, not yet owned beliefs about certain values are really the question here about informing meaning with something more than droll and sometimes ignorant pleasure preference. That’s why Campbell talks about gaining this knowledge through experience, and that myths offer us a way to do this. As strange as it may sound, I know of no other teaching method that does what myths do: allows a person to experience the myth first hand – not in some actual supernatural setting but by supplying personal understanding to the mythic figures and the supernatural elements to have it make sense.

        Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, for example, does exactly this, by allowing us to inform the symbols in the story with our own modern day meaning and still come away with understanding why virtues must pass from untested beliefs to values forged through our own life experiences in order to become owned. This is what the Garter from the myth represents – personal ownership of virtues gained by recognizing the impossibility and hopelessness of attaining perfect chivalry yet by having to accept its limitations understand that the pursuit itself as a most worthy calling – the Garter used as the 3rd highest award in the British Commonwealth – the sovereign, the Prince of Wales, and 24 selected Companions. The lesson is as important today for all of us as it was in the 13th century when the myth was written for the education of Kings and Queens and royal courts, that “whether fate be foul or fair,/ Why falter I or fear?/ What should man do but dare?” It’s the living that matters. That’s when we come to own our own being.

        Genesis read as myth is an entirely different experience than the Judeo-christian back assward rendition so many of us are spoon fed. And we wonder why so many 30 year olds still live at home and don’t know how to grow up.

        I could go on but I think you get the point.

        Liked by 1 person

      9. Do you mind me asking how you came across this?

        Not at all:

        1) Public Broadcasting Service that carried the Campbell interviews in the now defunct Bill Moyer’s series. These tweaked my interest in mythology.
        2) Private reading of some of Campbell’s recommended readings.
        3) a Liberal Studies university Honour’s program (and an actual major and not equivalent to a Liberal Arts degree) with a very large reading list and dozens and dozens of thesis papers involving Great Books.
        4) a 4th year major thesis on this connection and Board presentation and adjudication.


  5. You all seem to have a very un-nuanced view of religion and I don’t mean Christianity in particular. Meaning derived solely from self ultimately achieves nothing. “In the end we are all dead”. Drawing meaning from aspiration towards “something greater than ourselves” is the only sort of meaning that transcends our individual limitations. Now what that “something greater” is can be problematic. Some causes are even more destructive than individual selfishness… but I’ve gone far enough for now

    Liked by 1 person

      1. We can never transcend ourselves. What we can do is choose and aspire to direct that self at something, some ideal, that we take to be better (in some sense) than what we can “invent” for ourselves. Establishing what really *is* better is another story as is where it comes from. The metaphysical question is “does this better thing that we do not invent but rather *detect* exist?” That subject I address in my books and most of the philosophy category of my blog

        Liked by 1 person

  6. First of all such long post ,it needs good time to read and understand ,I feel every human has his thoughts , perceptions, theories ,and I feel its like software which is embedded at time of birth ,it can’t be changed ,circumstances ,family ,friends etc are hardware ,which influence externally only , there is nothing permanent and true or false ,its just a programme which is running ,so just be a viewer not get involve in it .

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Any philosophy has failed to come up with a globally applicable definition of a true meaning and purpose of existence. I believe, that’s impossible because every unique personality creates meaning while implementing their understanding of meaning along the way and in the process of either failing or achieving their goals.
    I loved studying philosophy, and it’s interesting how you are exploring such controversial opinions of such distinctive directions of philosophy. However, I turned to psychology in real life because I tend to agree with the statement : the real meaning and purpose of life is life itself.
    We could switch our point of view nowadays because our horizons have expanded tremendously.
    I think basing everything on energy circulation makes so much sense. What else is there in the Universe from the smallest cell of human body to the largest galaxy? So, building the philosophical approaches on global effects of energetic exchange and transformation also makes sense because any person can implement lots of features of all kinds of labelled attitudes from nihilism to stoicism and any other. I believe a strict definition cannot be applied to any life in particular as its meaning might change, as well. Everything changes, develops, progresses, regresses and dies or takes another form of energy.
    Enjoyed reading your post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your insights. Yes, meaning is in the eye of the beholder, for sure. This is just me trying to see what other people thought. I guess it is tempting to look to other people – hoping they’ve already figured it out!


  8. I would accept your summary of meaning in Christianity only if you concede that the “superior world” can be here, now. We build the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth. Eschatology concerns a change of life, here, now, as radical as entering your mother’s womb and being born again. And then another. And another.


  9. You mentioned Buddhism as ambiguous. The first Noble truth of Buddha’s dharma is Life is suffering. So, that would define Buddhism better it also coincides with Christianity but contradicts what Nietzsche said about Christianity. The Buddha and Christ both traveled the Silk Route at similar times its a theory that they are the same person. I don’t know. I think, that’s where the social construct comes from for meaning is from the interpretation of the Bible and Christ’s life. Before, Romans prayed to Gods and just plundered. Commoners, just quaked in fear.


    1. Nietzsche wished his dearest family members suffering because it is the only way “to become who you are”. In other words, it brings out the real you and teaches you.

      As for Buddhism, I meant that the meaning is ambiguous – judgement is meaningless under Buddhism. They aren’t as attached to right and wrong, and good and bad – from what I gather. What do you think? 🙂


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