This article will feature in Issue 36: Ideology & Faith (May 2020)

There are few bigger questions than that of the meaning of life. Why do we exist, possess aspiration, and abide by certain ethics? For centuries, the answers to these questions have been provided by something many now regard as simplistic and irrational: religion. In 1882, this orthodoxy was challenged by a new philosophical movement symbolised by Frederich Neitzsche’s exclamation, ‘God is Dead!’. This article will explore the foundation of Existential Nihilism in a historical framework. It will argue that Marxism, Capitalism and Modernisation led to the erosion of historically accepted values, principally religious determinism, which led to a crisis in morality. Nietzsche began to formulate an answer to this problem, and work was then developed by Jean-Paul Sartre.

Nietzche’s (often-misinterpreted) dramatic hypothesis was an expression of a fundamentally moral argument which characterised public debate for the following decades. A central concern for thinkers at the time was whether or not a society could peacefully operate without Christian morals. For Nietzsche, in line with Hobbes and Locke, the significance of religion did not derive from its virtues and spiritual teachings, but rather from the role of consoling hearts and minds in a period in which the government was powerless, or otherwise failed, to alleviate physical and mental suffering. 

The rise of Nihilism, popularised in Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, further influenced Nietzsche’s thinking. Nietzsche asserted that Christianity was life-denying and placed a heavy burden of guilt upon individuals who sought levels of perfection they could not possibly reach. At the same time, Nietzsche seems to be paradoxically arguing for the value of religion in holding society together. However, these two positions are not as paradoxical as they may seem. It is true to say that Nietzsche saw the value of religion in holding society together, yet central to his argument is the idea that the bonds provided by religion had unjust grounds. Nietzsche’s view developed from religious ideas such as evil, which distorts human behaviour. This is derived from an overarching Kantian view of morality in which morals are not naturally possessed by individuals.

However, Nietzsche saw himself as a moralist: in rejecting traditional forms of morality, he was creating an ethical system which was in the process of overcoming morality and its societal value. Consequently, much of his thought was dedicated to finding true moral values. This attempt to find a remedy or replacement for the declining force of religion and its moral binding of society allowed the nature and content of morality to become a defining debate across western societies.

The decline of religion and the ensuing moral debate was and remains prevalent across the western world. In the 40 years following the turn of the 19th century, the number of registered Christians in Britain dropped by 12%. However, even in 1851, 40% of the population still regularly attended church. According to the latest census, only 722,000 do today. Moreover, this is nothing compared to the crisis in religion seen in states such as Russia, a traditionally more spiritually orientated society. Russia has produced some of the greatest writers across all societies. Yet even the most ardently religious such as Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, found themselves writing about a quest for morality within society. In both Anna Karenina and Resurrection, the main protagonists, Levin and Nekhydov attack traditional social values. There appears to be a paradox here. Orthodox writers, in an ardently religious society, are writing about a quest for morality, something which one would assume God provided to them. Perhaps then, Nietzsche’s diagnosis of a crisis in morality resonated in countries that remained heavily theist, as well as in places with rising levels of atheism. Having said that, it is striking that by 1941, only 500 Orthodox churches remained across Soviet territory.

Yet, larger historical and political forces must be involved to provoke such a profound change in religious observance and moral and spiritual understanding. Vital to understanding this is to recognise the fact that the emergence of mass capitalism created a new form of mass morality. Max Weber argues that capitalism led to the Bureaucratization of society. That is to say, that new questions were asked of governing institutions, which religion could no longer answer. Karl Marx’s damning insight into religion being the ’opium of the masses’, has clear resonance here. The emergence of a radically new system, which transformed and shaped the everyday life of citizens, slowly began to replace religion in defining the purpose of daily existence. Capitalism involved itself in individuals lives to such an extent, that a new form of societal morality was required.

If we accept Nietzsche’s diagnosis – the view of Capitalism and Modernisation creating a new foundation of society, which in turn eroded the role of religion – we arrive at Jean-Paul Sartre to provide an existential analysis. For Sartre, Marx’s theory resonated. The ‘Ideology of existence’, was merely an alienated form of the deeper social and historical reality provided by Marx’s dialectic approach. However, Sartre did not fully accept Marx’s writing and viewed aspects of his work as historically specific. Central to Sartre’s work is the notion of life possessing no abstract meaning. Accepting Nietzsche’s diagnosis, Sartre then argued that there was no moral solution: ‘existence precedes essence’. That is to say that there can be no formal account of what it means to live, as life can only be given meaning, through existing itself.

The dominance of Existentialist thought in philosophy today must be traced back to the work of Nietzsche and the development provided by Sartre. Moreover, these ideas would not have such resonance if it were not for dramatic historical changes resulting from the development of capitalism. The growing acceptance of the idea that there is no abstract meaning to life should be viewed in conjunction with the mass decline of religion and the emergence of capitalism, which held the lives of individuals in a vice-like grip. Viewing morality and religion in a historical perspective leads us to the conclusion that perhaps Nietzsche’s dramatic hypothesis is not as a dramatic as we might have first assumed.