NIHILISTIC PEOPLE Nihilists


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The following profiles are some examples of famous nihilists, and people with otherwise notable nihilistic aspects. These examples include nihilists (with a lower-case ‘n’) for nihilism in the general philosophical sense, as well as Nihilists (with a capital ‘N’) representing the active and political form that this website primarily focuses on. Capitalized Nihilists may also be categorized as classical Nihilists, like Vera Figner or Sergei Nechayev, while those of the post-post-modern variety may be called neo-nihilists, like Marcel Duchamp or The Red Army Faction.

Get the book Nihilism,
by Freydis

Get the book 'Nihilism', by Freydis

King Solomon
10th century BCE

"Everything is meaningless!"

A careful observer can find nihilism in even the most unlikely places. King Solomon was the son of David, king of Israel and is best known in mythology as the acme of wisdom, and historically for his empire building. After accumulating everything any king could want he realized it was all pretty futile since both the wicked and the righteous had the same lot in life. Solomon clearly had the benefit of experience and age, he stated "the more knowledge, the more grief".

In his time-off threatening to cleave infants in two he freelanced proverbs, aphorisms of wisdom as well as a few nihilistic diatribes on the how life is just chasing the wind and "everything is meaningless!" Ecclesiastes is a great book, in it Solomon discusses the conundrum of justice and the ennui of our brief lives on earth. But I'm not going to give away the ending conclusion; you'll have to read it yourself.

Buddha [Siddhartha, Gautama Buddha or 'Enlightened One']
563?-483? BCE

Buddha Siddhartha was born in Nepal. Eventually burned out and bored with the hedonistic lifestyle as the privileged son of a warrior caste ruler in India, Buddha turned to introspection and came up with the path to enlightenment through love, serenity and especially loving serenity.

Realizing that suffering is the common denominator for humankind, meditation and inner-peace is the logical antidote to eternal external conflict. Taking this to its full conclusion, corporeal existence once nullified removes the suffering and leaves nothing but enlightenment within the ultimate state of nirvana. This is the goal of Buddhists, the ultimate desire is to achieve nothingness. Sort of like nihilism turned into religion, more spiritual than logical, but nonetheless still a virulent affront to the ruling Hindu system.

Buddha spoke in Pli but never wrote anything. By using the common language, instead of the elitist Sanskrit that most couldn't understand, he included the average person in his sermons, a novel democratic idea that won converts from the overlooked majority. After all, anyone can be on the path to enlightenment.

Buddha did have some amazing ideas, not only considering his historical era but also giving credit for longevity of the ideas, which I attribute to the remarkable concept of religion as methodology - 'the path' instead of 'the faith'. And to this day monuments in his likeness, the big and the even bigger, litter the entire eastern half of the Asian continent. And incidentally, sculpture and pictures of Buddha intend to portray the bliss attributed to the state of nirvana – facetiously akin to a somniferous drug high, or the original opiate of nothingness.

Buddha died in Kusinagara in Nepal after eating contaminated ham; and if he'd survived I'm sure the ninth path would be 'skip the undercooked pork side-dish'.

Gorgias
~485-378 BCE

Gorgias, who was called 'the nihilist', came from Sicily and went on to fame and fortune as one of the most successful sophists in Greece. He was so adept at rhetoric that he verbally negated 'truth' and elevated argumentative discourse into primacy. Indeed Gorgias claimed to be able to train others to sway opinion regardless of knowledge of the subject utilizing his methods of rhetoric alone. One reputed tactic was to demolish an opponent's seriousness with humor and their humor with seriousness.

...it must have had a beginning. Its being must have arisen either from being, or from not-being. If it arose from being, there is no beginning. If it arose from not-being, this is impossible, since something cannot arise out of nothing.
– Gorgias, a master of logical maneuvering.

With the success of rhetoric Gorgias believed that words have relativistic meanings and since the definitions can change then the meaning becomes debatable. Rhetoric in this case is thus more important than any underlying meaning attached to the words; persuasion negates objective truth since truth is subjective, being defined by opinion which is variable.

Gorgias and other Greek sophists represented the beginning of philosophy and the first conflict between the traditional mystical belief system and a rational, skeptical view of the natural world. It was as basic as the difference between a worldview based on emotion and one on thought. Because the sophists challenged established beliefs they were often condemned by public authorities and critics as moral corrupters or worse.

By leading a frenetically transient lifestyle and talking his way out of trouble, Gorgias, evaded both the city-state taxman, made a comfortable sum on appearance fees long before it became fashionable by unemployed politicians and washed-up actors, and is reported to have lived to be over a hundred.

Diogenes of Sinope
~404-323 BCE

Diogenes of Sinope was a remarkable thinker of classical Greece, one of the Cynics who were known for defying convention, deriding superstition, rejecting money and kings, being scornful of sophisms, and disdainful of Plato. Diogenes concluded that each individual must be guided by reason; otherwise, they’ll be led like an animal by a leash. Reasoned thought can plan ahead and prevent repeated mistakes.

In an encounter with the egotistical conqueror Alexander the Great, after being asked if he wanted anything, Diogenes replied, "Stand a little less between me and the sun."

Diogenes had a talent for undercutting social and religious conventions and subverting political power through rhetoric and humor, but his contentious character wasn’t merely for the sake of rebellion. Diogenes aimed to promote reason over reaction, and consideration of action over blind animal instinct.

Niccolo Machiavelli
1469-1527

Irving Kristol is purported to have once called Machiavelli "the first nihilist". As we can see from this list here that's probably not the case but it's still an intriguing and provocative assessment of a notable character. Machiavelli was a Florentine statesman and a remarkably observant student of human nature. His book The Prince is an apt tool for gaining and maintaining political power as well as the policy making of expediency. Niccolo was a nihilist in the sense that he didn't allow morality in planning or ethics in his treatise to obstruct his judgment, although he was certainly aware of the implications of his endeavor. Consequently he constructed a product that despite complaints and condemnation remains useful and accessible to anyone.

Niccolo used his mastery of history, especially the Roman politicians, to form patterns and draw logical conclusions. He called 'em as he saw 'em, a pragmatism perhaps more accurately categorized within chronology as opportunism but that's just a sign of understandable ambition. Still the infamy ascribed to Machiavelli is remarkably inappropriate given the logical simplicity of his conclusions. "Men in general judge rather by the eye than by the hand, for every one can see but few can touch. Every one sees what you seem, but few know what you are." Machiavelli's message was not a justification of authoritarian excess but the political prudence of a perpetually placated public.

The bottom line is that it's much easier for the people to prevent abuses of power when they actually understand how authorities manipulate and misuse it against them, and this is what makes Machiavelli so important even today. "He [Machiavelli] professed to teach kings; but it was the people he really taught." – Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Mikhail Bakunin
1814-1876

Alexander Herzen referred to Bakunin as the "founder of Nihilism and apostle of anarchy." “I am an impossible person," is how Bakunin once described himself. Thus Mikhail Aleksandrovich Bakunin has been referred to as the father of both anarchism and nihilism, perhaps an over-simplification but nonetheless one granted to a very momentous personality. Born near Moscow into an aristocratic family he gave up his status and became a radical. Bakunin rejected philosophy, detested love and sought to destroy harmony because it meant stagnation and limitation of potential. Indeed his entire worldview was one of action and rebellion even if simply for its own sake regardless of aim or goal. A completed task, be it a revolution, a book, or even a sentence, was anathema to Bakunin because it meant one could go no further, it left nothing else to do! “We must act, act perpetually in order to be human … in order to possess real awareness of ourselves.” The purpose of life to Bakunin resided in the process not the goal!

Bakunin refused to accept the limitation of the present and took nothing for granted. "The commonplace is the most terrible phantom binding us with vain but strong, invisible chains.” Bakunin’s view discarded the standard moral, aesthetic and even emotional elements and distilled everything down to just thought and revolt!

Bakunin had a tendency to communicate through platitude and over-simplification but he really didn’t care because he was mostly out to incite others to action anyway. When he tried to explain things in any depth it usually either didn’t work or he just quit halfway; he didn’t want completion but rather opportunity. “I cleave to no system, I am, only a seeker.” Bakunin wasn’t a mountain climber but a mountain explorer. So, Bakunin’s weakness’ should be fairly apparent, his denial for its own sake only created a religion of denial and his rejection of completion and order only left a broken mess in his wake.

In the end Bakunin can’t really be categorized anymore than you can contain fireworks with your hands. Bakunin’s views still burn today as part of the roots of both anarchism and nihilism.

Friedrich Nietzsche
1844-1900

Back in the biographies page by popular demand, Nietzsche was a philosopher and writer that still defies simplistic characterization. Although in most cases he did not consider himself a nihilist he did contribute greatly to the concept in its modern form.

Having stated that for clarity, Nietzsche definitely did display strong nihilistic characteristics. Nietzsche was quite unafraid to venture into dangerous territory and to craft new powerful ideas while breaking from the burden of tradition and the past. He was a pioneer of the mind that was unlike any of his contemporaries and distant leaps away from any antecedents. In a religious era he broke with God and became an atheist. When most people embraced self-defeat by believing in a pre-determined, static world, Nietzsche embraced self-actualization and the burning ambition to alter human events on a cosmic scale.

Sergei Nechayev
1847-1882

The Russian Revolutionary era, during the second half of the 19th century, was characterised by some very fiery personalities like Michael Bakunin. But if the rest were fiery, Sergei Nechayev was a thermobaric explosive!

For a while Sergei Nechayev operated in an ideological gray area between radical anarchism and political nihilism. But after publishing his 'Catechism of a Revolutionist' and promoting the most violent means to justify a destructive end, the anarchists expressed concern and trepidation over both Nechayev's methods and his highly focused and conspicuous lack of moral boundaries.

And when it came to revolutionary focus Nechayev was downright laser-like. His modus operandi was nihilistic in that he desired destruction of the polity regardless of any constructive future, or at least it wasn't a concern for the present. But by placing all the emphasis upon eliminating the political and social system of oppression and censorship without offering a vision of superior alternative it not only limited popular appeal but this manic adherence to the 'Revolutionist' precepts essentially became one of faith anyway.

Still, given the brutal context of feudal Tsarist Russia there was logic to his methodology because whether you criticized the Tsars fashion sense or threatened to kill his entire family and the little dog too, you'd still end up doing the same 20 years of hard labor when caught by the secret police. Nechayev correctly surmised the lack of benefit to half-measure within the revolution.

Vera Figner
1852-1943

Vera Figner was born into a wealthy family in Kazan Russia. She wanted to become a doctor but Russian society wouldn’t allow it because she was a woman, so she left and went to Switzerland to study. In Geneva she met many other Russians who were frustrated by the backwardness of Russian society and outraged by the repression and police-state terrorism inflicted upon anyone that openly questioned Tsarist authority. Vera rapidly acquired a revolutionary worldview, returned to Russia, and joined the Land and Liberty revolutionary group. She subsequently went with the radical People's Will faction when it split off in 1879. In two years she became the leader of the group, and then planned the successful assassination of Tsar Alexander II that occurred in 1881.

Vera Figner had the courage to challenge a political establishment where property, wealth, and power were all controlled by a small portion of the population, elite that used their influence to perpetuate a dysfunctional society where most Russians lived in severe poverty as feudal slaves. Never one to waste time or mince words, she always took the direct approach: “Murder and the gibbet captivated the imagination of our young people; and the weaker their nerves and the more oppressive their surroundings, the greater was their sense of exaltation at the thought of revolutionary terror.” It's simple cause and effect - you reap what you sow; when the forces of authority make an environment that disallows peaceful change, they make violent revolution inevitable.

Vera Figner was a remarkable woman who survived a death-sentence, prison, exile to Siberia, the Bolshevik revolution, the Bolshevik’s themselves, and still lived to be over 90.
 

Marcel Duchamp
1887-1968

Marcel Duchamp was a dada artist whose approach was intentional, calculated, concise, and even reductionist. Instead of making art through randomness, as some other dada artists attempted to do, he took the opposite course and made art through calculation. Hans Richter, a contemporary of Duchamp, referred to him as “the nihilist of art”.

His purpose was to administer a strong purgative to an age riddled with lies — and to the society which had brought it into being — an age of shame for which he found an artistic counterpart in the shape of a Mona Lisa with a moustache.
- Hans Richter, 1964

Duchamp is most famous for his ‘ready-made’ art where he would take a manufactured object, sign it, reposition it, and then present it as a finished work. But this wasn’t a cynical endeavor to exploit a gullible public for cash, it was an effort to attack and challenge the values upholding art and establishment society around him. In 1917 Duchamp took a urinal and turned it over, signed it 'R. Mutt' and submitted it to an art show! His ready-mades weren’t meant to be admired in an aesthetic sense and because of this he challenged the belief in art as something holy and placed on a high pedestal, art as something distant and divorced from life.

It's interesting to note that Duchamp did not agree with the attitudes and direction taken by Pop Art and Neo-Dada that arrived several decades later. Although those newer art movements took many of the concepts from dada art (1916-1922), instead of being anti-establishment and anti-authority, as dada was, Pop Art only created a new entertainment commodity for the wealthy to consume.

In a letter dated November 10, 1962 Marcel Duchamp wrote: “This Neo-Dada, which they call New Realism, Pop Art, Assemblages, etc., is an easy way out, and lives on what Dada did. When I discovered ready-mades I thought to discourage aesthetics. In Neo-Dada they have taken my ready-mades and found aesthetic beauty in them. I threw the bottle-rack and the urinal into their faces as a challenge and now they admire them for their aesthetic beauty." [1]

Andy Warhol [Andrej Warhola]
1928-1987

Although he didn't think of himself as a revolutionary, nonetheless Andy Warhol had some revolutionary ideas and much of his artwork had a subtle nihilistic character. Undeniably he was very misunderstood artist and individual (a common trait of Nihilists) and part of the reason for that was his tendency to verbally obfuscate explanations and basically sham the interviewers that continually tried to figure out what Warhol was all about. Also, many of the people that swarmed around him were there to leech of his notoriety more than anything else, and this created an undeserved sense of guilt by association towards Warhol.

More than any other major artist before him Warhol strove to achieve a value-neutral state characterized by impersonal artistic production. He wanted to make one image that could be copied as many times as desired so that each one would be a masterpiece, so that everyone could have their own masterpiece.

Values, feelings, seemed not to exist for Warhol. He registered race riots, suicides, airplane crashes, the atomic bomb, the electric chair with the same cool detachment that he brought to registering soup cans, revolvers, flowers and Brillo boxes. The medium was either newsprint or photography, which for Warhol, who occasionally saw himself in the role of a camera even when he was nor using one, was just as important as film. [2]

Andy Warhol took the concept of 'nothing' and turned it into 'something'. His art wasn't art, it was anti-art; something to fill up empty spaces; it was taking nothing and filling it with something - turning nothing into something! He said, "Ideas are nothing". In a sense he believed in what was not there, a philosophy of anti-philosophy. He was even nihilist when it came to traditional values - he confidently asserted that he was married to his tape recorder!

The Red Army Faction [Baader Meinhof Gang] 
1968-1998

The Rote Armee Fraktion (RAF), more commonly known as the Baader Meinhof Gang, was a revolutionary group founded by Andreas "the whole system is shit" Baader and journalist Ulrike Meinhof in West Germany around 1968. Amidst an environment of student-led protest and government/corporate-created carnage in Southeast Asia, the RAF fought back against oppressive powers, leaving a trail of targeted violence and destruction while branching out to connect with other European and Middle Eastern revolutionary groups.

The intent of the RAF was to create an atmosphere of instability in West Germany in order to expose the Federal government as a tyrannical regime masked behind rhetoric of being a democracy. The RAF saw the German public as a reactionary mass that had been usurped by consumerism into serving the commercial capitalist enterprise. As a consequence they concluded that individual expressions of revolutionary action could ignite a new social consciousness.

In the process the West German government became even more authoritarian, nullifying legal rights to stomp out the 'Red menace' without a second thought.

Despite numerous brazen and high-profile actions the RAF succumbed to tactical and strategic mistakes, alienating some of their public support base and leading to the arrest of their main leaders, while struggling against an increasingly fearful, safety-seeking populace. But ultimately, it was the end of the Vietnam War and a general change in social and political climate that eroded their momentum. Nonetheless, the RAF had a remarkable cohesion and intensity that made them the most enduring urban revolutionary group in the western world, lasting around 30 years, while transcending social mores and trite political categories of left and right to move beyond into a realm of socio-political nihilism.

See also, film review: The Baader Meinhof Complex

The Sex Pistols

Hey-hey, remember that day, in 1976, when London town was BORing - until along came this!

The Sex Pistols included Johnny Rotten, Steve Jones, Glen Matlock, Paul Cook and Sid Vicious, while the band concocted its name as an intentional amalgam of sex and violence; so they were like a scam that somehow managed to earn its own legitimacy. They were self proclaimed anarchists (and antichrists) but if nihilism was as much a well-known slogan as anarchism I wouldn't be surprised if they'd proclaimed themselves nihilists.

Gimme World War III we can live again

They were completely unafraid to write and sing something that would get them booted from a label, so take that all you shrink-wrapped alterna-rock bands! I mean who else would do a song called 'Belsen Vos a Gassa'? On The Great Rock and Roll Swindle CD, just about every song has a different label. These guys changed record labels more often than their clothing! And sure they couldn't play for shit (or Sid couldn't anyway) but that just demonstrates that it's not the product, it's the attitude that matters in the public consciousness. And by that standard the Sex Pistols are easily the biggest group ever. OK maybe it's not quite that black and white but you get the idea.

There is an unlimited supply

Their contempt for the world is the most gratifying element to this Nihilist, and indeed the Sex Pistols were against just about everyone but one of their favorite targets was the Record industry long before it was fashionable. Indeed it's an even more poignant criticism today given the rampant monopolistic control exerted to limit supply for ever greater profits.

When there's no future
How can there be sin
We're the flowers in the dustbin
We're the poison in your human machine
We're the future, you're future

FEMEN

A Different Way of Fighting

Started by Inna Shevchenko of the Ukraine, FEMEN are a radical group of unconventional revolutionaries who call themselves ‘sextremists’ and non-violently attack the sources of contemporary cultural and economic problems, focusing on patriarchy and calling for an end to religions, dictatorships and the sex industry. FEMEN's actions usually involve planned demonstrations and (often imaginative) public protests against the people and symbols of oppression.

One of the main goals is to take the masks off people who wear them, to show who they are, and the level of fucking patriarchy in this world, you know? – Inna Shevchenko

FEMEN are the 21st century’s version of the 19th century Russian Nihilists. The movement’s particular power is the ability to send a message that gets heard (and seen). FEMEN knows how to get the public’s attention, and they’ve accurately identified and proceeded to attack the core of our worldwide trouble: the swamp of outmoded and flawed cultural values and the authoritarian people that promote regression and ignorance for private gain.

Maybe it's strange to say this – I know some people already think we're kamikaze – but that's why I now say I'm more of an activist than a person, because I know that tomorrow I could be killed. Inna Shevchenko

... and more nihilists

Here's a brief list of notable persons who've been referred to and/or act as nihilists:

  • Samuel Beckett - Irish novelist and dramatist whose pessimistic productions are sometimes considered nihilistic.

  • Luis Buñuel - film maker

  • Arthur Craven (born name Fabian Lloyd) - author, adventurer, showman, dada precursor

  • John Dewey - social psychologist

  • Ernest Hemingway - famous author

  • Bill Hicks - comedian

  • H.P. Lovecraft - famous author, Cosmicism philosophy

  • David Lynch - film maker and artist

  • Chuck Palahniuk - author of Fight Club

  • Dmitrii Pisarev - 19th century Russian radical

  • Ted Rall - political cartoonist

  • Trent Reznor - musician (Nine Inch Nails)

  • Arthur Schopenhauer: depressive pessimist philosopher, often considered nihilistic

  • Dr. Walter Serner - dada author of 'Final Dissolution'

  • Max Stirner - author of The Ego and his Own

  • Hunter S. Thompson - author, journalist

  • David Thrussell - musician (SNOG)

  • Tristan Tzara - artist and author (dada)

And these ones, suggested to me as nihilist candidates, are non-English language-based, obscure, or (nearly) forgotten. Send me a message if you have any further information or comments:

  • Anna-Varney Cantodea

  • Albert Caraco - Turkish-French philosopher and writer

  • Arthur Rimbaud

  • Charles Baudelaire - French poet

  • Emil Cioran: Romanian-French philosopher

  • Eugène Ionesco - Romanian-French dramatist

  • Gérard de Nerval - French poet

  • Ladislav Klima

  • Nihil Messtavic - author of 19th century book: La clef d'argent

  • Stephane Mallarmé - French poet

[Your Name Here?]

In his 1861 novel Fathers and Sons, Ivan Turgenev stated, "A nihilist is a person who does not bow down to any authority, who does not accept any principle on faith, however much that principle may be revered." And as one "Who regards everything from the critical point of view." Bad Religion once did a song titled The Universal Cynic; "challenging the standards or questioning the established rules, trying to understand how they can better fit you..." yet another apt description for a nihilist.

So, a Nihilist rejects faith but also teleology, meaning such fictions as fate and destiny. Furthermore, a Nihilist:

  • Strives to understand purpose and human nature within objective context.

  • Supports free minds and free thought.

  • Aims to vitiate all authority that demands allegiance to a faith or ideology, and punishes challenges to that belief.

  • Leads by example. People like me are the worst nightmares of corrupt authority; I work for no one but myself, no one owns me and I can't be bought. I have a mind and a voice, I use both, and I call a 'spade' a 'spade'. I can and do say what I want when I want and if I'm wrong I listen to the opposing argument and make a reasoned decision. And that's the way we should be.

1.Dada art and anti-art, by Hans Richter, 1964, translated from the German by David Blitt, pages 207-208, Thames & Hudson world of art, 2004.

2. Art of the 20th Century Volume I, by Karl Ruhrberg, 2005, page 323, Taschen GmbH.

Aim straight for the human heart: to see your true nature is to achieve Buddhahood. – Daruma (Bodhidharma)

   

Content & Design By Freydis
Updated: August, 2013
Created: 1999