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date: 16 May 2021

Nihilism and the Meaning of Life

Abstract and Keywords

In this article, Nietzsche's point is that the medieval world-view, taken over from Plato and modified by Christian theology, was not merely astronomy and physics. It was, rather, a completely integrated account of astronomy, physics, metaphysics, and the meaning of life. As with Nietzsche, a decisive role in George Eliot's loss of faith was played by David Strauss's deconstruction of the authority of the Bible in his Life of Jesus (1835–6). Heidegger also makes a related point. ‘No one’, he says, ‘dies for mere values’. Historical epochs contain anticipations of the future and relics of the past. Western people still sometimes sacrifice themselves for ‘God and freedom’. Nietzsche was right to predict that Western values would slowly lose their power to commit, their power to provide direction and meaning to one's life. He was right to predict the arrival of nihilism.

Keywords: Nietzsche, Plato, Christian theology, astronomy, physics, nihilism

Nietzsche's 1882 announcement of the ‘death of God’ is more complex than it seems. For a start, when the ‘madman’ appears in the late nineteenth-century ‘market-place’ it is filled with educated positivists who have long ago ceased to ‘believe in God’ and so laugh at his self-importance. But the news the madman brings is neither that ‘God is dead’ not that ‘we [men of science] are his murderers’. It is, rather, that the death of God—the transformation of the West from a religious into a secular culture—is no laughing matter.

As representatives of Wissenschaft in general, of a ‘science’ which includes not only Darwin but also nineteenth-century biblical deconstructionists such as David Strauss and Nietzsche himself, Nietzsche picks on Copernicus and Galileo as God's murderers:

What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Where is it moving to now? Away from all [e.g. Plato's] suns? Are we not continually falling? And backwards, sidewards, forwards, in all directions? Is there still and up and down? Aren’t we straying as through an infinite nothing? (GS 125)1

(p. 464) Nietzsche's point is that the medieval world-view, taken over from Plato and modified by Christian theology, was not merely an astronomy and a physics. It was, rather, a completely integrated account of astronomy, physics, metaphysics, and the meaning of life. When the medieval farmer looked up into the night sky from his place on earth, the centre of the cosmos, he simply saw the light of heaven shining down through the openings in the ‘dome of the heavens’ (‘stars’ as we call them). And so he knew the meaning of life. He knew that the purpose, task, or goal of his and every human life was, by living in Christian virtue, to achieve the everlasting, heavenly bliss promised to us in God's sacrifice of himself as man. So the Copernican Revolution in science was in fact much more than that. For in changing our astronomy it also, as the madman observes, robbed life of its ‘direction’; of its ‘sens’ which, in French, means both ‘direction’ and ‘meaning’.

This is the news that has not yet reached the laughing positivists. ‘This tremendous event is still on its way … the light of the stars is still on its way … deeds need time even after they are done to be seen and heard’ (GS 125). The Wissenschaft of Western modernity has destroyed religion. What nineteenth-century positivism did not realize, however, was that the inevitable consequence of this would be the onset of ‘nihilism’, the conviction that our lives are meaningless.

A hundred and twenty-five years on, we ought to be able to answer two questions about Nietzsche's prediction. Was he right in anticipating that God's death would lead to nihilism? And if he was, does it matter?

As with Nietzsche, a decisive role in George Eliot's loss of faith was played by David Strauss's deconstruction of the authority of the Bible in his Life of Jesus (1835–6).2 Eliot, however, thought that though intelligent people could no longer believe in arrival in a supernatural heaven as the meaning of life, they could still believe in the ideal of Christian virtue as its meaning. Eliot, believed, in other words, that Christian morality, previously the means to the attainment of the goal of the Christian life, could and should now stand on its own feet as itself life's ultimate goal.

Nietzsche attacks Eliot (though it is doubtful he ever read her):

G. Eliot. They are rid of the Christian God and now believe all the more firmly that they must cling to Christian morality. This is an English consistency: we do (p. 465) not wish to hold it against little moralistic females à la Eliot. In England one must rehabilitate oneself after every little emancipation from theology by showing in a veritably awe-inspiring manner what a moral fanatic one is. (TI IX 5)

What, in Nietzsche's view, makes Eliot intellectually ‘little’ is her failure to realize that

Christianity is a system, a whole view of things thought out together. By breaking one main concept out of it one breaks the whole…. Christian morality is a command: its origin is transcendent; it is beyond all criticism, all right to criticism; it has truth only if God is the truth—it stands and falls with faith in God. (ibid.)

For all the ignorance contained in his abuse of a one of the supreme minds of his century, Nietzsche has a point here: if you do away with the authorizer of Christian values you are left with mere values, free-floating and with no visible means of support.

Heidegger makes a related point. ‘No one’, he says, ‘dies for mere values’ (QCT, p. 142). Values ‘devoid of background’ (ibid.), values that fail to be grounded in a total understanding of reality—‘ought's that fail to be grounded in ‘is's—lack authority and cannot generate genuine commitment.

If so, then the fact that suicide bombers do die for their values suggests that they are not mere values. Our reaction to terrorism is complex. We experience horror, and revulsion. But typically, I think, we also experience a kind of bafflement. What makes the suicide bomber the representative of an alien ‘otherness’ is that we find it very hard to imagine any ‘cause’ for which we would volunteer ourselves for certain death.

This, however, was not always the case. Five hundred and seventy-eight Harvard men (who could easily have avoided the war by pulling rank) volunteered to fight against slavery in the American Civil War, and as late as 1914 the flower of both the British and German intelligentsia rushed to die on the killing fields of Flanders.

Historical epochs are, of course, never homogeneous. As well as the contemporary, they contain anticipations of the future and relics of the past. Western people still sometimes sacrifice themselves for ‘God and freedom’ (though not, if they can help it, in Iraq). Yet to the extent to which we are baffled by the phenomenon of suicide bombing, to the extent to which we have the sense of confronting a pre-modern cast of mind, what is revealed is how lightly our ‘values’ sit upon us; the fact that they no longer possess the power to commit which they possessed in the past and which Islamic values still possess today.

(p. 466) Nietzsche (and, of course, Dostoyevsky) was, then, I suggest, right to predict that Western values, uprooted by Western science from their metaphysical foundations, would slowly lose their power to commit, their power to provide direction and meaning to our lives. He was right, that is, to predict, the arrival of nihilism.


My second question was: does nihilism, as Nietzsche supposed, matter? Though it might seem almost true by definition that it does, one brave and important thinker who denies this is Albert Camus.

The Myth of Sisyphus was written in German-occupied Paris in 1940 and, on the face of it, casts an extraordinary light on the life of its author, who was, at the time, risking his life in the French Resistance. Its famous opening lines hold that: ‘There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy’ (MS, p. 11).

To say that the question of whether life is worth living is a problem is to say that something at least threatens a negative answer. The threat, according to Camus, comes from ‘the absurd’. This, he says, threatens suicide because it produces a feeling of ‘nausea’ (MS, p. 21), a world-’weariness’ (MS, p. 19), a ‘longing for death’ (MS, p. 14).

What is ‘the absurd’? To live in absurdity is, says Camus, to live in a world in which ‘belie[f] in God’ is no longer possible (MS, p. 7). Since, however, utopian Marxism, with its promise of ‘a miraculous event at the end of time’, is essentially ‘religious in nature’ (MS, pp. 188–9), the impossibility of ‘belief in God’ includes, for Camus, the impossibility of belief in Marxism. So to live in an absurd universe is to live with a post-Marxist, as well as post-Christian, understanding of things.

Essentially, then, the absurd is the death of God (together with, as Nietzsche calls them, his ‘shadows’).3 This, Camus claims, threatens suicide because if (p. 467) God is dead it seems that there is no ‘meaning of life’ (MS, p. 12), no longer any ‘great idea that transcends [life] … and gives it meaning’ (MS, p. 15). And if life is meaningless, one is tempted to think, it is not worth living. One might as well, in other words, commit suicide.

The task Camus sets himself, however, is to show that, even in an absurd universe, ‘suicide is not legitimate’ (MS, p. 7). It is not legitimate because, even in God's absence, life is still worth—indeed splendidly worth—living.

On the face of things, there are two possible strategies one might adopt in order to show this to be the case.

First, one might seek to attack the inference from the death of God to the death of meaning. One might set out to show that even in the absence of God (and his shadows), life—or, at the very least, my life—can still have a meaning. Introducing a more refined use of ‘nihilism’ than we have so far adopted, we might seek to show that the death of God does not entail nihilism about meaning.

Alternatively, while accepting that the death of God is the death of meaning, one might seek to show that life can still be worth living even in its absence. The death of meaning, one might argue, does not entail the death of life's value, does not entail nihilism about life's worth. Life can be both meaningless and wonderful.

The crucial fact about Camus is that he adopts the second, heroic, strategy. With clear eyes, and with an intellectual courage matching the physical courage of his life in the Resistance, he asserts that ‘Hitherto … people have played on words and pretended to believe that refusing to grant a meaning to life necessarily leads to declaring that it is not worth living. In truth, there is no necessary common measure [no necessary connection] between these two judgments’ (MS, p. 15). Not only does the death of meaning fail to entail the death of life's worth, it actually, Camus asserts, increases it: ‘life will be lived all the better if it has no meaning’ (MS, p. 53).

Camus develops his argument by painting a portrait of ‘the absurd man’: an heroic figure who recognizes the absurdity of the universe but lives, nonetheless, a life that, in both his and our eyes, is splendidly worthwhile. What Camus offers, in other words, is a ‘role model’, an exemplary figure who shows us what it is to live well in an absurd universe.

(p. 468) Camus’ absurd hero is distinguished by a gargantuan appetite, a limitless lust for experience. His life is marked by the fact that he ‘expends’ himself in a life devoted to, by all normal standards, ‘excess’ (MS, p. 78).4 What counts is ‘quantity not quality’. The life of the absurd hero is governed by an ‘ethics of quantity’ (MS, p. 69). Camus offers three paradigms of such a hero: Don Juan, ‘the actor’, and the friends of his Algerian boyhood.

Even though signally unsuccessful in Mozart's opera, Don Juan is, by repute, a man who seduces more women in an evening than most men manage in a lifetime. He does not fall in love or engage in improving conversation, but makes the same speech to every woman he meets, since ‘to anyone who seeks mere quantity in his joys, the only thing that matters is efficiency’ (MS, p. 68). When all that matters is conquest, in other words, it is foolish to depart from the tried and true.

‘The actor’ is a marked by a similar lust for experience. As a stage actor, ‘for three hours’ Iago, for three hours Gloucester, is a ‘mime of the ephemeral’ (MS, p. 74), so one who lives like an actor is devoted to ‘dispersion’, lives through a ‘heretical multiplicity of souls’ (MS, p. 78).

The third paradigm of the absurd hero is offered, not in The Myth itself but in a series of lyrically nostalgic essays written a few years either side of The Myth, and published together with it in the standard English translation: ‘Summer in Algiers’, ‘The Minotaur’, and ‘Helen's Exile’.

Writing out of the northern greyness of a Paris winter, Camus recalls the band of ‘brothers’ with whom he spent his youth on the sun-drenched beaches of his Algerian homeland. What characterizes these wondrous beings is a ‘magnificent vocation for facile joys’ (MS, p. 132); the simple joys of just ‘being there’ such as sauntering along the boulevard in shiny new shoes and admiring ‘cool-legged’ girls. In a land where ‘every summer morning seems to be the first in the world’ and ‘each twilight seems to be the last’ (MS, p. 160), in a land where people are not ‘nudists’ (those ‘tedious protestants of the flesh’), but are simply ‘comfortable in the sunlight’, in a land where one says not ‘go for’ but rather ‘indulge in’ a swim (MS, p. 129), one cannot fail to ‘participate in [the] … dialogue of stone and flesh in tune with the seasons’ (MS, p. 130). In a land where a thirty-year-old workman has already ‘played all the cards in his hand’ (MS, p. 132), one has no time to devote oneself to any ‘purpose’ (MS, p. 142). Realizing that, as we say, ‘life is not a rehearsal’, (p. 469) one lives with ‘a haste to live that borders on waste’ (MS, p. 132). Life, that is to say, is ‘not to be built up but burned up’ (MS, P. 133).

Reflecting on this southern dream, Camus concludes that his boyhood friends at once ‘repeat the gestures of the athletes of Delos’ (MS, p. 129) and, he hopes, ‘are modelling the image of a culture in which the image of man will at last find its true likeness’ (MS, p. 133). In a word, what these models of splendid living in the midst of absurdity tell us is that we are to return to the ‘insolence and naïveté’ (MS, p. 129) of the Greeks.5

Two questions need to be raised at this point. First, in what sense, exactly, is meaning excluded from the lives of Camus’ absurd heroes? And second, on what grounds is it excluded?

A meaning of life is I suggested, a defining purpose, aim, or goal. But, of course, all of Camus’ heroes have at least short-term goals—food shelter, warmth—for otherwise they would die. And, in fact, they also have long-term, even life-defining, goals: the Don wishes to seduce as many women as possible (and then some), the actor to live as many lives as possible, and the surfer friends of Camus’ youth to spend as much time on the beach chasing girls and as little in the classroom as possible. So the question becomes pressing as to the sense in which meaning is excluded from the life of the absurd hero.

Camus says, to repeat: ‘Life is not to be built up but burned up. Stopping to think and becoming better are out of the question’ (MS, p. 133). What this excludes is the life of self-improvement, the life guided by the goal of approximating, ever more closely, to an ideal conception of the self. What it excludes, to use a slightly ponderous phrase, is life as a project of self-development.

The second question was: why is life as a project of self-development (for remainder of this essay I will understand ‘meaning’ in this way) excluded? Why are ‘men with a purpose’ confined to the cold grey cities of northern Europe and excluded from the southern joys of the Algerian beach (MS, p. 142)?

Camus’ argument consists in a contrast between the absurd hero and what he calls ‘everyday man’. The latter lives with ‘aims’, ‘weighs up his chances … counts on “some day”, his retirement, the labour of his sons’ (MS, p. 56). He lives, as we say, ‘in the future’. The absurd hero, on the other hand, lives in complete ‘indifference’ to the future (and the past), living instead ‘in (p. 470) he present and the succession of presents’ (MS, p. 62). To him, as we saw, every morning is ‘the first in the world’ and every twilight ‘the last’. So the argument is that to live with a project of self-development is to rob oneself of the present. And since all joy happens in the present, so to live is to rob oneself of life's joys.

The principle strategic role of this argument is to support the claim that ‘life will be lived all the better if it has no meaning’ (my emphasis). Camus wants to reaffirm the Nietzschean point that by making the supernatural the locus of all value, Christianity ‘de-divinized’ natural life, turned it into an joyless waiting room we are forced to inhabit while waiting for the non-existent Godot, waiting for the train to carry us to our ‘true’ (but non-existent) destination. A similar point is made in Ian McEwen's novel, Black Dogs. The life of Bernard, one of its two central characters, is defined by communism, by total commitment to the class struggle and to the coming into being of the final ‘brotherhood of man’. But the very totality of this commitment robs him of the joys, insights, and sensitivities accessible only to those who inhabit the present.

In fact, however, Camus’ argument hits a great deal more than its primary target. For if sound, it shows not merely that we should avoid projects of self-development grounded in grand, world-historical narratives such as those of Christianity and utopian Marxism, but rather that we should avoid projects of self-development überhaupt. That it is the—not necessarily Christian—‘everyday man’ who is criticized shows that the destruction of, as we may call them, ‘personal’ as well as ‘universal’ meanings is what Camus intends.

The irony is, however, that while the ‘everyday man’ of the early twentieth century may have still been committed to projects of self-development—the phrase itself has a slightly Victorian ring to it—the everyday man of the early twenty-first century, when not a work-weary node in the global cybernetwork, increasingly matches up to Camus’ requirement of living without (either universal or personal) meaning. As German sociologists have been telling us for some time, what we increasingly inhabit is an Erlebnisgesellschaft, a society given over, precisely, to the ‘experiences’—thrills—of the present, whether these be the product of recreational drugs, sex, techno music, bungee jumping, or the Sunday ‘hit’ of evangelical Christianity. Reduced to its basics, Camus’ (p. 471) account of the worthwhile life in an absurd universe amounts to something very simple: St Paul's ‘if the dead do not rise let us eat and drink [and be merry] for tomorrow we die’ (1 Corinthians 15:32). But increasingly, this is the way we do live. So if Camus is right as to how to live well in a post-death-of-God world then the (at least leisure-time) life of meaning-less (post)modernity is just fine.

In fact, however, Camus’ argument is open to serious criticism. The first point which needs to be made is that to have a goal is not the same as being obsessed by it. One may conceive one's life as a journey towards a destination and yet be relaxed enough about one's goal to allow oneself genuine freedom to enjoy the sights one passes on the way. (The businessman may be in the foreign city to conclude an important deal yet genuinely enjoy being a tourist as well.) Indeed it is usually part of a sensible strategy for achieving a goal that one does allow oneself a relaxed attitude to it: since stress is counterproductive, generous amounts of stress-relief ought usually to be budgeted into a successful strategy for achieving the goal.

Camus is certainly right to point out that loss of the present represents a serious trap that one can easily fall into. As Schopenhauer wisely observes, purposeful people are prone to live ‘in the expectation of better things’ so that ‘the present is accepted only for the time being, is set at naught, and looked upon merely as the path to the goal’. The result, Schopenhauer continues, is that when, at the end of their lives, goal-obsessed people look back, they find that: ‘they have lived throughout ad interim; they will be surprised to see that the very thing they allowed to slip by unappreciated and unenjoyed was just their life, precisely that in the expectation of which they had lived.’6 Possession of a life-defining goal creates the danger that we will find ourselves robbed of the present. But a danger is not an inevitability, indeed Camus’ signposting of the trap makes it less likely we will fall into it.

A second point against Camus’ argument is that the possession of a future goal is often the precondition of present pleasure. One cannot enjoy the slow emergence into intelligibility of the hieroglyphs on the French wine label unless one is in the process of learning French, one cannot enjoy beating (p. 472) yesterday's mark on the bench-press unless one has the goal of increasing one's muscular strength.

Against Camus, I have argued so far that a goal-defined life does not have to be one of joyless drudgery, that goal-directedness, project-possession, meaning, can belong to a life worth living. Now, however, I want to argue the stronger point that it must.

Nietzsche observes (an observation to which I shall shortly return), that life is ‘essentially’ the ‘will to power’, the will, that is, to ‘grow’ (BGE 259). At least part of what this means is that human beings are essentially project-needing beings, beings who need to experience their lives as continual ‘growth’. This, I think, helps pinpoint something that is seriously wrong with the lives of Camus’ absurd heroes.

What is wrong is that they are completely static. The Don learns nothing from his seductions, nothing carried over from one to the next. Like his speeches, every encounter is just like its predecessor, merely another entry in Leporello's ‘List’ aria. Similarly, ‘the actor’ (a poststructuralist as well as a Camusian hero), since he is a mere sequence of ‘souls’, has no sense of a continuing self and, a fortiori, no sense of a developing self. And the friends of Camus’ youth are so laid back that they do not even try to become better surfers. ‘Stopping to think and becoming better’ are, remember, ‘out of the question’. Camus is quite explicit as to the static character of his heroes’ lives. Of the Don he says that, like his speeches, ‘he will not change’. ‘Only in novels does one change one's condition or become better’ (MS, p. 69). But if this is right what it means, ultimately, is that the life of Camus absurd hero is actually one of deadly tedium, a life, in the end, of boredom. (Weirdly, Camus seems to concede this by making Sisyphus—who is condemned for all eternity to push a rock to the top of his mountain whence it promptly rolls to the bottom again—also an absurd hero.)7 But a life of boredom cannot be one that is worth living.

I suggested earlier, that Camus’ defence of the life of ‘absurd man’ amounts to a defence of what is, increasingly, the character of contemporary Western (p. 473) humanity. If, however, the above critique is correct then it points to what is wrong with Western postmodernity: in so far as it is an Erlebnisgesellschaft, a society of cheap, sensual thrills, its underlying, fundamental mood, its Grundstimmung, to borrow a term from Hölderlin, is one of boredom—or ‘depression’ as we would likely call it these days. From this perspective, recreational sex, drugs, and Christianity appear not so much as the joys of the good life but rather as desperate, ever more futile, attempts to escape the tedium of postmodernity.


Earlier, I distinguished two strategies for discovering a worthwhile life in a Godless universe: the heroic strategy of denying that the death of meaning entails the death of life's worth, and the less heroic, but intuitively more plausible, strategy of denying that the death of God entails the death of meaning. What we have seen in the examination of Camus is the failure of the first strategy. So if we are to overcome ‘nausea’ and ‘world-weariness’ we need to turn to the second.

Traditional meanings of life, whether Christian or Marxist, are marked by two features: they are, as already noted, universal—what makes life meaningful for me is exactly what makes it meaningful for you—and they are discovered rather than created. In a Christian cosmos, that is to say, we do not choose the meaning of our lives. Rather, we are simply born into a situation in which people are sorted into the saved and damned, and into a powerful desire to be numbered among the former rather than the latter. As with our height, gender, and race, the meaning of our life belongs to our ‘facticity’.

What the death of God (and his shadows) might seem to entail is that a life-meaning possessing these two features is no longer available. Still, one might be moved to reflect, that there is no universal meaning does not preclude my having my own personal meaning—that life has no meaning does not preclude my life from having a meaning—and that there is no ready-made meaning waiting to be discovered does not entail that meaning cannot be created. So, granting the point that we are essentially meaning-seeking beings, one might be led to the conclusion that what we need to do in order to live worthwhile lives is to create our own individual meaning by choosing to dedicate (p. 474) ourselves—or, better, choosing to be—a certain project of self-development. These reflections bring us to the works of Friedrich Nietzsche.

Nietzsche quips: ‘If we have our own why of life, we shall get along with almost any how. Man does not strive for pleasure; only the Englishman does that’ (TI I 12). The point here is essentially the same as that made elsewhere in terms of the fundamental status of the will to ‘power’ or ‘growth’. What we need in our lives is not ‘pleasure’—only the English utilitarian (and Camus) regard that as the summum bonum—but rather meaning. If we have a ‘why’ we are here, a project of self-development, then we can live satisfying lives. ‘My suffering … does it matter … am I concerned with happiness?’ Zarathustra asks at the very end of his journey. And replies: ‘I am concerned with my work.’

Yet for Nietzsche, as much as for Camus, we inhabit an absurd universe: ‘the total character of the world is … to all eternity chaos—in the sense not of a lack of [causal] necessity but of lack of order, arrangement, form, beauty, wisdom, and whatever other names there are for our aesthetic anthropomorphisms’ (GS 109). This repeats the ‘madman's’ observation that we post-Copernicans live in a ‘directionless’ universe, that no world-historical meaning is given to us, any longer, as part of our facticity. So, Nietzsche seems to conclude, we must each of us construct our own meaning.8

We must, he says, become the ‘hero’ of our lives. To do this, of course, we need first of all to see the hero we are to be, ‘see … the hero that is concealed in everyday characters’ (GS 78). And to do this we must make use of the techniques of artists. Everyday existence is ‘nothing but foreground’ (ibid.), a mass of meaningless details. As Nietzschean self-creators, we must achieve aesthetic ‘distance’ from our lives so that they appear to us ‘simplified and transfigured’ (ibid.).9 By recessing some details into shadow and bringing (p. 475) others forward into sunlight, we create—as if producing a well-constructed novel—a coherent narrative of our life to date, a narrative which tells us the outline of its proper continuation into the future.

Thus—an illustration simplified to the point of banality—consider Gauguin. A successful stockbroker, Gauguin lives, with wife and children, the comfortable life of the Parisian haut bourgeoisie. Though outwardly successful he is, we may imagine, inwardly miserable. He feels his life to be confused and meaningless. Taking Nietzsche's advice, perhaps on his first trip to Tahiti, he gains ‘distance’ from his life and attempts to grasp, in simple and coherent outline, the totality of the narrative he is in the middle of living. There are two stories (actually, of course, many more) he can decide to adopt.

His first story is that he is a person possessed of both a shrewd grasp of financial markets and the moral responsibility to provide for his family who is making himself miserable with unrealistic yearnings for the life of a painter, a life for which, in the opinion of the admired Paul Cézanne, he has no talent. The outcome of this story is that (like the future Duke of Wellington breaking his violin over his knee on joining the army) he must burn his brushes.

According to the second story, however, Gauguin is a painter of genius with a burning social message who is making himself miserable doing work he abhors out of a sense of responsibility to a wife he does not love, a sense of responsibility which is really nothing more than cowardice in the face of bourgeois opinion. The outcome of this story is that he must abandon job, wife, and children and depart to Tahiti for ever.

Notice two things about the moment of decision—the Grenzsituation—in which ‘Gauguin’ finds himself. First, each story tells him the meaning of his life—loving father and husband on the one hand, painter and messianic social critic on the other. Second, which story he adopts is entirely up to him. His moment of decision really is a moment of decision.

Nietzsche's talk of ‘seeing’ the hero in everyday characters might mislead on this point. But that he is in fact using ‘see’ in the same way as it is used when we speak of ‘seeing’ the duck in the ambiguous picture—a seeing which does not preclude someone else seeing a rabbit—is indicated by the demand that we be ‘creators’ of ourselves, that we become beings who are ‘new, unique, incomparable, who give themselves laws, who create themselves’ (GS 335).

(p. 476) Self-creation cannot be God-like since it is limited by facticity. If I live in the twelfth century I cannot create myself as an astronaut. If I am five foot six I cannot become a professional basketball player. Within these limits, however, there are many, in fact indefinitely many, identities I may construct for myself. So the question is: how should I choose among the plethora of possibilities?

What is crucial, Nietzsche observes, is that whoever we choose to be should be someone we ‘esteem’ (GS 78), ‘desire’ (GS 290), are ‘well-disposed’ (GS 341)—indeed passionately well-disposed—towards. It is perfectly possible to use one's ‘artistic’ intelligence to construe one's life as that of a victim. Or as a life of bourgeois boredom, a life ‘measured out with teaspoons’ (T. S. Eliot). On such paths, however, lie depression and despair. So the hero of our lives must be a ‘hero’ not only in the sense of ‘central character’ but in the sense, too, of being someone we admire.

As mentioned earlier, Nietzsche views the will to continual ‘power’ or ‘growth’ as intrinsic to human nature. And since growth must always have a specific direction, must be growth towards a specific goal, at least part of what he is saying is that human beings require ongoing projects: that a sense of continual ‘self-overcoming’, of ‘continual ascent as on stairs’ (GS 288) is essential to a flourishing life.

Without a sense of ongoing ascent, life will be (leaving aside the continual descent of the depressed) the static, boring life of Camus’ Don Juan. Ascent, Nietzsche holds, is the essence of a life to which one can be ‘well-disposed’. How is one to achieve this?

By, he says, using one's artistic skill in ‘interpreting and arranging events’ to uncover in them a ‘personal providence’. We need, he says, to reach a ‘high point’ where we can see

how palpably always everything that happens to us turns out for the best. Every day and every hour, life seems to have no other wish than to prove this proposition again and again. Whatever it is, bad weather or good, the loss of a friend, sickness, slander, the failure of some letter to arrive, the spraining of an ankle, a glance into a shop, a counter-argument, the opening of a book, a dream a fraud—either immediately or very soon after it proves to be something that ‘must not be missing’; it has a profound significance and use precisely for us. (GS 277)

What Nietzsche is suggesting here is the idea of scripting one's life as a Bildungsroman—a novel (Roman) of ‘education’ (Bildung) in the widest possible sense of the word: a history of progress from immaturity through, as we call them, ‘learning experiences’, towards maturity, a narrative of self-development, of an ever-ascending ‘learning curve’.

(p. 477) Notice that ‘Bildung’, here, really means (and sounds) the same as ‘building’: ‘education’ is ‘building up’ the life of a person. Nietzsche's view directly, and it seems to me correctly, contradicts Camus’ claim that ‘life is not to be built up but burned up’.

So has Nietzsche then provided the answer to the problem of living a flourishing life in an absurd universe, a universe that is in his sense ‘chaos’? As I observed (in footnote 8 above), the foregoing reading of Nietzsche represents the birth of (at least Sartre's version of) Existentialism, the birth of the idea of ‘existence before essence’; of the idea that we are born ‘essence’- or identity-free and have then to choose who we are to be. A way, therefore, of answering the question about Nietzsche is to examine the further development of the idea of self-creation in the Existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre.


In essence, the 600-odd pages of Being and Nothingness (published in German-occupied Paris in 1943) boil down to two tasks. The first is to establish that we are radically free, freedom representing the principle dividing line between être-pour-soi, ‘being-for-itself’ (persons), and être-en-soi, ‘being-in-itself’ (things). The ‘radical’ character of Sartrean freedom can be grasped by contrasting it with what might be called ‘Bush-freedom’—the freedom to do what you want provided that what you want is controlled by big business. The essence of the freedom Sartre affirms is that we are free not only to do what we want but also to determine what it is that we want. Sartre's second, and by far the most space-consuming, task is to work out the consequences of radical freedom.

Sartre acknowledges the inescapability of facticity. There are a huge number of facts about ourselves—cultural facts such as the historical epoch to which we belong and biological facts such as our genetic inheritance—that we can do nothing about. A thesis he calls ‘psychological determinism’ (BN, p. 31) holds that how one acts is completely determined by one's facticity. Who I am, my ‘essence’, is inevitably and unalterably determined by my past. Nature and nurture determines me to be unalterably the kind of person that I am. ‘Wesen (p. 478) ist was gewesen ist’ (BN, p. 35), ‘essence is what has been’. Sartre repeatedly uses this quotation from Hegel to sum up the thesis of psychological determinism.

Psychological determinism denies Sartre's fundamental distinction between the ‘for-itself’ and the ‘in-itself’. It sees no ontological difference between a person and a rock. Each has an ‘essence’ that is determined by the total set of facts about the world at the moment of its coming into being and which, in conjunction with current circumstances, completely determines how it behaves.

Sartre holds psychological determinism to be absolutely false. His argument for this is what is sometimes called the ‘feeling of freedom’ argument: that we are free is simply an immediate and indisputable fact of self-consciousness, more certain than anything else. Hiking along a mountain path I look over the edge to the sheer drop below and simply know that, if I chose, I could throw myself to my death. The weird anxiety of the feeling is generated precisely by its being a confrontation with the uncanniness of absolute freedom (BN, p. 31).

Another way Sartre has of making the same point concerns the phenomenon of ‘questioning’ (BN, pp. 33–4). Descartes held that though most of our powers are limited, in one respect they match the unlimited power of God: my power to withhold assent from propositions that are open to doubt is absolutely unlimited. Nothing can force me to believe that 2 + 2 = 5. Similarly, given that it is absolutely certain, nothing can force me to withhold assent from ‘2 + 2 = 4’.

Loyal to his Cartesian ancestry, Sartre thinks of the self in exactly the same way. What I, this present being, am is nothing but freedom, nothing but the power of assent and dissent. What I am, in particular, is the power of assent to or dissent from my past self, the self established by my facticity. I am the power either to choose that self to be my present self or to reject it in favour of something else. I am, Sartre says (with the Teutonic convolution the French take to be necessary to authentic philosophizing), ‘the permanent possibility of negating what I am in the form of having been’ (BN, p. 439). Radical freedom is the power, overnight, as it were, to trade in an old identity and be ‘reborn’ as a fundamentally new person.10

It might be objected that the ‘feeling of freedom’ could be illusory. That after a few drinks one feels one is saying something terribly profound does (p. 479) not mean that one is. That people on certain drugs feel they can fly does not mean that they can; in fact science tells us quite certainly that they cannot. It is important to note, however, that Being and Nothingness is subtitled ‘An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology’. Since ‘phenomenology’ is essentially a matter of acute, presupposition-less description, this amounts to the claim that, in the language of P. F. Strawson, Being and Nothingness is an essay in ‘descriptive metaphysics’. Sartre's point, I think, is that scientific representations of the world are irrelevant to his interests. His concern is to describe the everyday world in which we live and move and have our human being, and to that world—the ‘life-world’, in Gadamer's language—the ‘for-itself’/’in-itself’ distinction is fundamental.

In sum, then, from the point of view of the life-world, though I am born into an ‘essence’ I can, at this very moment, choose to ‘negate’ it and replace it with another one. Since to refuse to choose a new identity is to endorse the existing one, the only choice I cannot make is the choice not to choose. Freedom is inescapable (BN, p. 439), a point to which I shall return.

I have been talking about ‘essences’ but Sartre also has a more precise way of talking. Choosing one's identity is, for him, choosing one's ‘fundamental project’ (BN, pp. 565, 479–80), that is, choosing the project which makes sense of all one's lesser projects. This idea is essentially equivalent to Nietzsche's idea of ‘choosing the hero’ of one's life, which makes clear the fundamental continuity between the two philosophies.

Sartre often puts the point in terms of ‘values’. One's fundamental project is one's fundamental value. If, for example, one's fundamental self-description is ‘the communist’ then one's most basic value is social equality.

At first sight, Sartre's affirmation of our radical freedom for self-creation—our ability to transmute from Saul to Paul and back again—looks exhilarating, as indeed it was received in the aftermath of the Second World War. After Auschwitz, precisely what we seemed to need was a philosophy that allowed us to be ‘born again’ after the disasters wrought by out parents’ generation.

Yet, carefully read, Sartre himself does not regard radical freedom as exhilarating at all. Far from a blessing, it is, he says darkly, something to which we are ‘condemned’ (BN, p. 439). Far from being something we celebrate it (p. 480) causes us, he says, ‘anguish’ (BN, p. 29), an anguish which we seek to cover over by indulging in ‘bad faith’ (mauvaise foi).

Bad faith is attempted self-deception. In it, we seek to convince ourselves that we are part of the causal order in the same way that an ink bottle or a rock is. We attempt to deny our essence-free existence, to convince ourselves that our existence is our essence in just the way it is for a rock. What we engage in, in other words, is a wilful ‘category mistake’: we seek to transfer ourselves from the category of the ‘for-itself’ to that of the ‘in-itself’. We seek, says Sartre, the ‘impenetrability and infinite density’ of a mere thing (BN, p. 566). In his novel The Age of Reason, his hero, Daniel, ‘wishes to be a pederast as an oak tree is an oak tree’.

Sartre's famous example of this attempt to transform oneself into a thing is the Paris waiter (BN, pp. 59–60), whose waiterly gestures (one thinks here, perhaps, of the mime of Marcel Marceau) are always perfect, indeed too perfect, an exaggeration which endows them with a robotic quality—which is just what the waiter seeks to convince himself that he is.

But why should we do this? What is it about freedom that causes us anguish and so launches us into the (ultimately futile) attempt to deny it? Sartre's answer is that since my own free choice is the ‘unique foundation of values’, it follows that ‘nothing justifies me in adopting this or that particular value, or this or that particular scale of values. As a being by whom values exist, I am unjustifiable. My freedom is anguished at being the foundation of values while itself without foundation’ (BN, p. 38).

Normally, says Sartre, my existence is one of engagement. I am fully and busily engaged in activities shaped by my fundamental project, the result of which is that my life is, or at any rate seems, meaningful. Alarm clocks, traffic lights, even tax forms show up as meaningful things demanding ‘urgent’ attention because they show up within my fundamental project. But sometimes engagement breaks down. I ‘disengage’ from the world (BN, p. 39). Now I look at my fundamental project from without. And what I realize is that my free choice of that project is utterly without foundation. So I see that I—this tiny pinpoint of Cartesian consciousness, naked save for the power of choice—am the ‘foundationless foundation’ of my project, that I create myself, in a certain sense, ‘ex nihilo’ (BN, p. 33).

Realizing this, I realize, says Sartre, that that my choice of values is ‘beyond all reasons’, is, that is, ‘gratuitous’ (BN, p. 479). And realizing this, I realize ‘the absurdity of my choice and consequently of my being’ (BN, p. 480).

(p. 481) What does ‘absurd’ mean here? Not what it means in Camus, but rather ‘a feeling of unjustifiability’ (BN, p. 480).11 I realize that whatever choice I have made is no more justified—or unjustified—than any alternative choice. Suppose, for example, that I am fighting for the French communists against the Nazi occupiers, and that committing myself to communism and to opposing fascism is a life-defining, fundamental choice. Suppose however that the fascist has made a similar act of fundamental choice. How can I show that my choice is the right one and not his?

For Sartre, there is no way I can do this. When it comes down to fundamental choices there is no way of showing that one is any better than another, and so no way of showing that it matters which choice I make. In other words it does not matter, any more than it matters whether I walk on the left or right of the pavement (sidewalk) or whether I drink Pepsi or Coke.

So what is ‘absurd’ about our lives is that we take so seriously something that does not and cannot matter. We are clowns, our lives tragic comedies. Viewed with the insight of disengagement, we are people who devote absolute seriousness and concentration to, as it were, never walking on the cracks in the pavement.

But exactly what is it about the ridiculousness of human being that causes ‘anguish’? It is the fact that once we have seen the absurdity of our fundamental projects we cannot, in our heart of hearts, take them seriously any more. We can no longer, that is, find ourselves genuinely committed to them. And if one is not committed to a goal then one does not really have that goal. Confrontations with the absurd, that is to say, plunge our lives into meaninglessness, frustrate our fundamental need for meaning.

The concrete form taken by this frustration is paralysis of action. Since action requires a purpose it follows that if our lives have no purpose we cannot act. We are reduced to Hamlet-like indecision or are at best ‘going through the motions’. Sartre explores this problem in the novels that make up the Paths of Liberty quartet written during the same period as Being and Nothingness. The only way Sartre's characters can act—get married, join the communist party, die a soldier's heroic death, stab a knife into the back of one's hand—is via the act gratuit— the spur-of-the-moment action performed without reason since it is known that there are no reasons.

(p. 482) Sartre's Existentialism is a philosophy of bereavement. It yearns for a command from God in which to ground one's freedom. But where God should be there is only an absence. So Sartre's philosophy ends in nihilism, nihilism about life's meaning and so about its value. If God is dead then all things are permitted—and so worthless. The only way to avoid anguish is through the repression that is ‘bad faith’, and even then one cannot really succeed since, as Sartre says, to evade something you have to know that it is there (BN, p. 43).

Yet, as observed, Sartre's Existentialism is simply Nietzschean self-creation thought through to its ultimate conclusion. It is self-creationism shooting itself in the back. What this shows is, not that the idea of our need for a life-defining project is defective, but rather that, as in the Christian era, meaning must be something we discover as part of our facticity and so do not have to choose. For Sartre is, it seems to me, right: if—if—our lives must be based on ungrounded choice then they are meaningless and so not worth living. This insight, I believe, plays a crucial role in the early12 philosophy of Martin Heidegger.

Early Heidegger

A prominent theme which links Nietzsche, Camus, Sartre, and Heidegger together, and often underlies their co-classification as ‘Existentialists’, is that of the ‘outsider’: all of them valorize, both morally and cognitively, the heroic individual who stands outside the conventionalities of bourgeois existence. In Being and Time the valorizing term is ‘authentic’; eigentlich, literally ‘ownly’.

Mostly, says Heidegger, our existence is inauthentic. Mostly, we succumb to the ‘dictatorship of das Man’ (‘the One’ or ‘the They’), the pressure to conform to public opinion. Mostly, ‘we take pleasure and enjoy ourselves as one takes pleasure; we read, see and judge about literature and art as one sees and judges; likewise, we shrink back from the “great mass” as one shrinks back; we find shocking what one finds shocking’ (BT 126–7).

Why, Heidegger asks, to we do this? Why do we so powerfully exhibit what Nietzsche calls the ‘herd’ mentality? Why do we allow ourselves to be driven by the ‘One-self’ rather than the ‘I-self’? Why do we evade our ‘ownliness’?

(p. 483) Without conformity, of course, there could be neither language nor society. And without language there could be no thought. Conformity is a necessity of human existence. But conformism is not. Indeed, if Nietzsche is right, the non-conformism of the ‘free spirit’ is an absolute necessity, since it is a condition of the social group's being able to adapt to ever-changing circumstances. So why is it so difficult to become a non-conformist?

Heidegger's startling answer is: death, ‘the nothing’. Individuals die. But the One lives on. So to the extent that I think of myself as the One I transcend the mortality which is the penalty of individuality13 and so seem to evade the object of my most primal ‘anxiety’.

If evasion of death is the source of inauthenticity, facing up to death—Vorlaufen, ‘anticipation’, literally, ‘running forward into’—is the key to becoming authentic (BT, sections 52–3). Heidegger says that facing up to death ‘wrenches Dasein [a person] away from the One’. It does this because, in ‘anticipation’, one realizes that ‘all being-with-others will fail us when [death] … is the issue’ (BT 263).

What Heidegger is suggesting, here, is that inauthentic life is a kind of strategy or device for evading the annihilating nothingness that is death. But, as with Sartre's ‘bad faith’, it involves, of course, self-deception.14 Vivid confrontations with one's own mortality, grasping the ‘mineness’ (Jemeinigkeit) of death, reveal the deception for what it is. In ‘anticipation’, says Heidegger, Dasein is ‘individualized down to itself’ (BT 263). Understanding that entry into death is something I do alone, I attain a vivid grasp of my own individuality. I understand that my choices (even the choice to be a conformist, Sartre might interject) have to be made by me myself. I become (in my own, rather than Heidegger's, language) autonomous.

‘Anticipation’, however, achieves a further effect. Grasping one's finitude, says Heidegger, liberates one from ‘lostness in those possibilities [of self-definition] which may accidentally thrust themselves upon one’, liberates one (p. 484) ‘in such a way that one can authentically understand and choose among the facticial possibilities lying ahead of … [death]’ (BT 264).

Part of the thought here is that grasping that death is inevitable, but even more importantly that it may happen at any moment, makes me realize that there is no time to lose, makes it urgent to cut out ‘accidental’ trivia and pare my life down to its absolute essentials. But to do that, of course, I have to know what are those essentials. Yet this is delivered by ‘anticipation’ too. ‘Running forward’ in imagination to its end, Heidegger says, I grasp my life as a ‘totality’ (BT 232). As in the imminent-car-crash experience, encounters with death place ‘one's whole life’ before one's eyes. I shall call this second effect of Vorlaufen ‘focus’.

Authenticity is, then, autonomy plus focus. Better, it is focused autonomy. To live such a life is to live a life that is intense, passionate, urgent, and committed. It is to live a life, in other words, that is intensely meaningful. Authenticity is early Heidegger's account of what it is to live a meaningful life.

Early Heidegger is, as he acknowledges (BT 396), deeply indebted to Nietzsche. For focus is just what Nietzsche calls being the ‘hero’ of one's life, and autonomy is what he calls being a ‘free spirit’, one of those beings who are ‘new, unique, incomparable, who give themselves laws’ (GS 335, my emphasis) rather than taking them from the ‘herd’. To Nietzsche's discussion of self-creation Heidegger adds the important observation that ‘anticipation’ is the path to grasping the ‘hero’ of your life. Even this, however, is partially anticipated by Nietzsche, who observes that, for all its failings, it has to be conceded to Christianity that, with its notion of sin and final judgment, it at least taught man to see himself ‘as something past and [therefore] whole’ (GS 78).

But if this is so, must it not follow that Heidegger's account of the meaningful life is afflicted by exactly the same fatal flaw that is revealed in Nietzsche's account by Sartre's taking it to its logical, self-immolating, conclusion? Does not, that is, liberation from ‘the dictatorship of the One’ leave me in the position of having to make an ungrounded choice of my life-focus and so render my life ultimately ‘absurd’ and so meaningless? This suspicion is what underlies the frequent accusation that Being and Time propounds a ‘decisionist’ philosophy, a philosophy which requires us to make an heroic but ungrounded act of life-defining commitment (Sartre's act gratuit), and as (p. 485) such helps explain Heidegger's commitment to Nazism. Decisionism means, it is claimed, that any commitment is as good as any other, so that what is really culpable about Heidegger's philosophy is that it failed to provide him with the ‘moral resources’15 for opposing Nazism.

In fact, however, this criticism of Being and Time could only be made by someone who had not read the work to its conclusion. For towards the end Heidegger—noting that, as explained prior to section 74, authenticity (focused autonomy) remains a purely formal concept—explicitly raises the question of content. ‘From whence’, he asks, can authentic Dasein ‘draw those possibilities on which it facticially projects itself?’ (BT 383). And he answers—not ‘from ungrounded choice’, but rather—‘from heritage’ (BT, sections 74–5).

Unlike, say, the U.S. constitution, heritage—the fundamental values or ethical tradition of a culture—is not primarily contained in any written code. Rather—here Heidegger acknowledges his debt to Nietzsche's On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life (BT 396)—it is embodied in exemplary, ‘hero’ figures whose lives belong to the collective memory of a culture and are preserved in the myths, folk-tales, artworks, and sacred texts that are handed down from generation to generation. These figures—very crudely, ‘role models’—show us the outline of what it is to live the kind of life to which authentic Dasein will commit itself.

Heidegger's, for present purposes, crucial thought is that heritage is not something we choose. Rather we are born into it. As we grow to adulthood within particular cultural practices and a particular language, we find ourselves already living our lives in the sight of a particular pantheon of ‘heroes’ or, as one might also put it, ‘gods’.

The values personified by our gods, Heidegger emphasizes, all belong to one's authentic self. One is who one is, in large part, because one has grown to adulthood within a particular culture. The commitments of heritage, he holds, are one's own fundamental commitments. It follows that authenticity, and in particular autonomy, is acting out of the values of heritage. Being true to heritage is being true to one's own, deepest self.

(p. 486) Heritage determines the kind of life to which authentic Dasein commits itself in the following way. I find myself in a particular facticity. This is partially determined by my personal strengths and weaknesses and partly by the historical ‘situation’ (BT 300) in which I find myself. The latter consists in the gap between the ideals of heritage on the one hand and the values endorsed by the current ‘One’ on the other. (Since ideals are just that there will always be such a gap—of greater or lesser size.) So let us suppose that I discover, say, a particular talent for writing and that what strikes me is the gap between fundamental Western values of equality and the currently disadvantaged situation of women. My authentic life will then become that of a feminist journalist.

Notice that while Nietzsche sometimes talks of ‘seeing’, of discovering, ‘the hero concealed in everyday characters’ Heidegger really means it. The meaning of one's life appears not through self-creation but through receptivity. In freeing oneself from the blinkers imposed by the One, one becomes ‘unclosed’,16 receptive to the gap between the true gods of heritage and the false, or at least compromised, gods worshipped by current public opinion.

It seems, then, that the problem of the ‘absurd’, Sartrean nihilism, has finally disappeared. We should indeed, as Nietzsche suggests, live our lives with the economy and clarity of a well-constructed artwork. But the fundamental goal around which that artwork is to be constructed is not to be created in an act of (groundless, and so self-undermining) choice, but is to be discovered, rather, in heritage.

And yet doubts remain. Sartre observes, correctly, that Heidegger's notion of heritage is really a notion of place (BN, pp. 489–96). My heritage is the natural-cultural place within which, according to Heidegger, I become myself. It follows that a way of putting Heidegger's view of the self is to say that, at the deepest level, I am my place. Heidegger thinks that there can be no question of my not choosing my ‘place’ since anyone who chose another ‘place’ would not be me. And so there can be no question of my choosing my ‘place’, either. My (p. 487) heritage is simply my ‘here I stand: I can do not other’. In fact, however, this ‘social constructivist’ view of the self sounds more convincing than it really is.

One line of attack might proceed along the following lines. Suppose, one might suggest, I go and live in Iran and come to believe in a hierarchical, sexually differentiated society. Suppose, that is, that, as a Western woman who has converted to Islam, I come to believe that Western notions of sexual equality are actually immoral. The constructivist might want to defend his thesis by speaking of this as a kind of ‘rebirth’, the replacement of one person by another. In reality, however, the objection might conclude, this ‘rebirth’ is only metaphorical, since continuity of memory and character is preserved. Hence heritage is actually not inescapable in the way Heidegger suggests. One may change one's heritage yet remain the same person.

As stated, however, this line of criticism is inadequate. For the constructivist can reply by suggesting that one can only (non-absurdly) prefer Islamic to Western values on the basis of some already possessed, deeper set of values against which the latter are judged and found wanting. So, actually, the above case just reduces to a critique of the current Western ‘One’ on the basis of fundamental heritage. The imagined ‘taking of the hijab’ actually expresses the conviction that the deepest values of the West are better embodied in current Islam than in the current condition of the West.

Consider, however, another case. This differs from the first in that, rather than choosing to become a Muslim I develop the capacity to view things from an Islamic perspective from time to time, as well as from the Western perspective. The result of this is the realization that my morality hitherto, like all moralities, is ‘just a perspective’. And the result of that is ethical paralysis, an encounter with the Sartrean ‘absurd’.

This is what Nietzsche calls the ‘disadvantage’, the disastrous effect of ‘history’—i.e. knowledge of past and alien cultures—on life. Through the indiscriminate accumulation of facts, Western (post)modernity, he suggests, has become a mere ‘encyclopaedia’ of other cultures (UM II. 4), a ‘fairground motley’17 of confused and different styles (UM I. 1). We have become so ‘tolerant’, so ‘multicultural’, that we have lost the self-confidence necessary to concerted action. An excess of ‘history’, says Nietzsche, breeds ‘cynicism’ (p. 488) and ‘senility’, stifles the ‘fire of youth’ (UM II. 9). Information-overload deconstructs, defuses, the power to act.

This, it seems to me, is what is really wrong with social constructivism. What it actually represents is not the truth about the nature of the self but at best a pious hope. Though at some times and places the self really is a social construction this is by no means universally the case. In particular, it is not the case in our Western postmodernity. What social constructivism fails to accommodate is the ‘placelessness’ of postmodernity, what later Heidegger calls our ‘homelessness’.

According to the Nietzsche–Sartre view that we have examined, the meaning of life is a matter of individual ‘creation’. This view, we have seen, runs aground on the shores of ‘the absurd’ and reduces to nihilism. Initially, early Heidegger's appeal to communal heritage as the source of meaning seemed to promise an alternative to this path of thinking. This alternative, however, now shows itself to be illusory since, along with social constructivism in general, early Heidegger's view of the self as constructed by its society, and thereby endowed with a meaning of life, is not universally true. In particular, is not true now.

This, however, does not mean that the strategy pursued by early Heidegger is mistaken. Quite plainly, in fact, it is correct. If absurdity and nihilism are to be avoided we must once again be able to find a meaning which belongs to our facticity, a meaning that is waiting to be discovered and so does not have to be the object of groundless choice. At this point we may usefully turn to Heidegger's later (post-Being and Time) philosophy.

Later Heidegger

Later Heidegger's starting point is a reflection on the contrast between (partially mythologized) ancient technology and modern technology. Compare and contrast: the ancient wooden bridge (QCT, p. 16) which allows the river to remain a river with the modern hydro-electric dam which turns it into a reservoir; or the ancient peasant farmer who sows just those seeds appropriate to the local soil, climate, and season with modernity's ‘mechanized food (p. 489) industry’ (ibid.) which uses glasshouses, artificial fertilizers, genetic modification, and EU subsidies to force the land to produce whatever the ‘consumer’ demands; or compare the eleventh-century Japanese gardener who, advised by the Sakutei-ki, ‘listen[s] to the request made by the land’ with the modern property ‘developer’ who fells the forest and concretes over the land where it once was. Contrasts such as these suggest that modern technology constitutes a ‘Copernican Revolution’ in something quite close to Kant's sense of the term. Ancient technology seems to have accommodated itself to nature's designs. It allowed itself to be limited by those designs, and sometimes to have put itself at nature's disposal by allowing them to complete themselves through its activity, as when the ancient gardener ‘brings forth’ (QCT, pp. 6–9) the design ‘requested’ by the land. Modern technology, on the other hand, demands and compels nature to accommodate itself to human designs. Whereas ancient technologists saw themselves as the conservers and facilitators of nature's self-expression, modern technologists regard themselves as its masters and conquerors.

Why did this come to pass? Because, says Heidegger, while the ancients experienced the visible world as the self-expression of a divinity—Sophocles refers to Earth as ‘the most sublime of the gods’—to modernity, nature is mere ‘resource’ (QCT, p. 23), human nature counting as ‘human resource’ (PLT, p. 111). To modernity, nature is mere raw material, ‘ready-to-hand’ for human exploitation. It has become nothing but a ‘gigantic gasoline station’ (D, p. 50).

The crucial difference between the world of the ancients and that of modernity is (to hyphenate Max Weber's term) Ent-zauberung, dis-enchantment. The ancients treated the world with the awe and reverence appropriate to a divinity. But for us, who no longer experience the sacredness of things, there is nothing to limit the ‘unconditional self-assertion’ (PLT, p. 111) of the technological will.

But is not the ‘disenchantment’ of reality simply the inevitable result of the advance of knowledge, of the replacement of superstition by science? Not so, Heidegger replies. Rather, the opposite. Modernity's experience, its ‘disclosure’, of the world as ‘resource’, represents an advance, not into enlightenment, but into blindness.

Heidegger argues this in a way that is indebted to Nietzsche's ‘perspectivism’ and, more remotely, to Spinoza's ‘aspectism’. Truth about the world, he says, is always relative to a perspective, a ‘horizon’ of disclosure (D, p. 63). This is not relativism about truth but rather anti-totalitarianism, a rejection of (p. 490) what Heidegger calls ‘metaphysics’. Many of our beliefs about the world are true—unqualifiedly so. But their totality can never amount to all the truth there is since ‘disclosure’ is simultaneously ‘concealment’. The world-disclosure that is quantum mechanics conceals the disclosure that is everyday common sense and vice versa. This means that to every world-disclosure ‘belongs … a reservoir of the not-yet-uncovered, the ununcovered in the sense of concealment’ (PLT, p. 60). So, to deploy a metaphor Heidegger borrows from Rilke, reality resembles the moon in that concealed behind its lighted side is a—in fact infinite—darkness (PLT, p. 124). Modernity's claim to have colonized the totality of truth is thus not merely arrogant but also—arrogance's usual companion—stupid. It resembles the child's belief that the moon is a flat, illuminated disk.

The point, then, is that ‘truth’, disclosure, our world, is ‘awesome’ (PLT, p. 68), ‘sublime’ in more traditional language. It is, moreover, something gifted to us rather than something we create. Truth, that is to say, happens in language, and language is something we have to have before we can think and experience, before we can create anything. So we are constrained to regard our life-world as something gifted to us by an inexhaustible and infinitely awesome ‘mystery’ (P, p. 148). The ancients, in particular the Greeks, are not, therefore, to be patronized. Far from being lost in primitive superstition, they actually possessed a deep ‘insight into that which is’ (QCT, p. 46). Intuitively and poetically, they had a profound understanding of the nature of truth and reality—of ‘Being’, as Heidegger prefers to put it. The progressive ‘disenchantment’ of our world is a march, not into enlightenment, but into ignorance and illusion.18

From this Heidegger concludes that the reverence towards Being embodied in ancient technological practices is in fact the correct stance towards the world. A word he uses for the ancient combination of conservation and facilitation is ‘guardianship’ (PLT, p. 184). Another word is Gelassenheit (D, passim) which, deriving its meanings from lassen, to let or allow, is intended to suggest the notion of ‘letting be’ in the sense of conserving, ‘letting be’ in the sense of ‘allowing what is coming to arrive’, as well as ‘equanimity’ (the ‘letting go’ of anxiety) which is the everyday meaning of the word.

Heidegger emphasizes that Gelassenheit, ‘releasement’ in the standard English translation, is not passivity. Rather, it is receptivity, a receptivity to, for (p. 491) example, ‘the request made by the land’, which is the precondition of ancient technological practice.19

Guardianship, i.e. Gelassenheit, is later Heidegger's account of the meaning of life. If we are to flourish as excellent human beings, if we are to dwell in insight rather than illusion, if we are to achieve ‘equanimity’ and dwell in harmony with our environment, then we will become ‘guardians of Being’ (which includes, importantly, human being)—in whatever way, of course, is appropriate to our own particular facticity.

The thing to notice about Heidegger's later philosophy is how much it represents a retrieval of traditional thinking. Nietzsche's claim that ‘the total character of the world is to all eternity chaos’, that any provision of ‘order’ is a mere ‘aesthetic anthropomorphism’, epitomizes the outlook of postmodernity. Later Heidegger, however, returns us to an order in the human being's relation to Being as a whole, an order which at once provides us with a cosmological homeland—allows us, as he puts it, to ‘dwell’—and determines the task and meaning of our life.

Heidegger calls this task and meaning the human ‘essence’ (QCT, p. 28; P, p. 257). This indicates two things. First, that the task of guardianship or Gelassenheit is something we find ourselves already possessing simply in virtue of being human beings. For present purposes, what is important about this is that it represents a return to discovered meaning—it returns meaning to our facticity—and so avoids the problem of absurdity that afflicts all accounts of meaning as chosen. And second, it indicates that, if later Heidegger is right, meaning is neither merely personal, as in the Nietzsche–Sartre account, nor confined to specific communities, as in early Heidegger, but is, rather, universal. In later Heidegger, therefore, we are returned to a meaning of life which, in two important respects, resembles that which defined the Christian era.

Let me pursue further, for a moment, this return to tradition. Heidegger rejects many times the God of traditional Christianity—‘the God of the philosophers’ or ‘the God of the theologians’—as an anthropomorphic (p. 492) diminution of the ‘mystery’, and so majesty, of the divine. Yet the ethics of guardianship, of, in the broadest sense of the term, ‘caring-for’ (Schonen 20) (PLT, p. 149), is rather clearly a return to Christian caritas, to Jesus’ highest commandment, that of love. It is a return, however, that is all the better for being purged of human chauvinism, of the view that only humans count as proper objects of love.

Nietzsche held Christianity to be a massive aberration—a two-millennia interruption—that obliterated the true, that is, Greek, essence of Western culture. Heidegger shows us, however, how to accept much of Nietzsche's critique of Christianity together with his reverence for the Greeks, but yet combine with it the core of Christian ethics. While Nietzsche rejects Christian- ity in favour of the Greeks Heidegger synthesizes the Greek with the Christian. In this respect Heidegger's later philosophy (to which the present author counts himself a subscriber) represents a deeper thinking than that of Nietzsche, a thinking in which Christian ethics—that is to say, a Christian account of the meaning of life—reappears. It reappears, however, not in the free-floating way Nietzsche criticizes in George Eliot, but rather as grounded, once again, in the fundamental character of reality.


(p. 493)



The Myth of Sisyphus, trans. J. O'Brian (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975)



Being and Time trans. J. Macquarrie and E. Robinson (Oxford: Blackwell, 1978). (Page references are to the pagination of the seventh German edition given in the margins of this translation.)


Discourse on Thinking trans. J. M. Anderson and E. H. Freund (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1971)


Off the Beaten Track, trans. J. Young and K. Haynes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002)


Pathmarks, ed. W. McNeill (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998)


Poetry, Language, Thought, trans. A. Hofstadter (New York: Harper & Row, 1971)


The Question concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans. W. Lovitt (New York: Harper & Row, 1971)


(All Nietzsche references are to sections and sub-sections, not pages.)


Beyond Good and Evil trans. J. Norman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002)


The Gay Science, trans. J. Naukhoff (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001)


Twilight of the Idols and The Anti-Christ, trans. R. Hollingdale (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968)


Untimely Meditations, ed. D. Breazeale, trans. R. Hollingdale (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997)



Being and Nothingness, trans. H. E. Barnes (New York: Philosophical Library, 1956)


(1) For a list of abbreviations used in this essay see its final page.

(2) As Marian Evans, Eliot made what remains the only English translation of the work.

(3) This is a simplification. What Camus actually says is that the absurd is ‘born of the confrontation between human need [for meaning] and the unreasonable silence of the world’ (MS, p. 32). It consists, in other words, in a discrepancy, of large—‘absurd’—proportions, between what we need and what reality provides. As his discussion proceeds, however, the need tends to drop out of the picture, so that the ‘absurdity’ of the universe comes to consist simply in its Godlessness. The two-place mutates into a one-place predicate.

(4) This again is a simplification of Camus’ discussion. For as well as heroic ‘excess’ he also offers heroic ‘revolt’, the latter personified in the figure of the eponymous Sisyphus. See, further, n. 7 below.

(5) One feels, I think, that Camus’ boyhood friends are somehow more attractive than either the Don or the ‘actor’. I shall try to explain why this is so towards the end of this essay.

(6) Parerga and Paralipomena, 2 vols., trans. E. F. J. Payne (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974), ii. 285–6.

(7) Camus tries to justify Sisyphus’ life by glorifying it as a life of heroic, teeth-gritting ‘revolt’ against fate. For a rejection of his argument see my The Death of God and the Meaning of Life (London: Routledge, 2003), 164–6.

(8) I actually believe that, on the best reading, this is not Nietzsche's conclusion: that what he really holds, with early Heidegger (to whom I shall turn shortly), that meaning is part of our facticity, put there by the community into which we are born. (See my Nietzsche's Philosophy of Religion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), passim.) Nonetheless, the reading I am about to sketch (substantially that presented in Alexander Nehamas's influential Nietzsche: Life as Literature (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985)) is (a) a plausible account of The Gay Science, (b) historically important as a principal inspiration for both Sartrean existentialism and French poststructualism, and (c) philosophically important as a repository of important truths (as well as important falsehoods.)

(9) Of course, some works of literature deliberately eschew the clear and simple lines that Nietzsche is talking about here. Implicit in this remark is his lifelong classicism, his insistence that all good art is ‘classical’ art. See my Nietzsche's Philosophy of Art (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 78–81, 86–7, 141–4.

(10) The figure of ‘the actor’ seems to commit Camus, too, to belief in radical freedom. Other such believers are: poststructualists and people on death row who, having been ‘reborn’, feel themselves no longer answerable for their crimes.

(11) But since, as I shall shortly suggest, the absence of God is the source of this feeling, the two uses of ‘absurd’ are not unrelated.

(12) By ‘early’ I mean the philosophy of Being and Time. Some scholars would refer to this as the philosophy of Heidegger's ‘middle’ period.

(13) ‘Penalty’ is the term used by Anaximander in the oldest known fragment of Western philosophy: ‘Whence things have their coming into being there they must also perish according to necessity; for they must pay a penalty and be judged for their injustice, according to the ordinance of time.’ Heidegger's thought is deeply influenced by this aphorism, which he discusses at length in ‘Anaximander's Saying’ (OBT, pp. 242–81).

(14) ‘Inauthenticity’ and ‘bad faith’ are, it seems to me, essentially the same phenomenon. The divergence between Heidegger and Sartre lies in the fact that while the former identifies evasion of death as its source the latter identifies evasion of freedom. Given, however, that both speak of ‘the nothing’ as that which is being evaded, the divergence is not, perhaps, as great as might appear.

(15) The ‘decisionism’ critique was first articulated by Karl Löwith in 1939, but has been repeated many times since. For a detailed discussion see my Heidegger, Philosophy, Nazism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), ch. 3.

(16) Heidegger introduces the term ‘resoluteness’, Entschlossenheit, to refer to the fully developed concept of authenticity. But sometimes he hyphenates it, Ent-schlossenheit (BT 300), the effect of which is to indicate that the essence of ‘resoluteness’ is ‘un-closedness’. This emphasis on receptivity as the precondition of authentic action is the ancestor of Heidegger's later concept of Gelassenheit, ‘releasement’, which will shortly be discussed.

(17) This, of course, is why, in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the town that is the object of Zarathustra's scorn and love is called ‘the Motley Cow’.

(18) This is all very sketchy. For a full discussion of Heidegger's account of truth and reality see the first chapter of my Heidegger's Later Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

(19) Though they lack the readiness for action that is part of Gelassenheit, Camus’ boyhood friends, in their integration into the ‘dialogue of stone and flesh in tune with the seasons’ have something gelassen about them. This, I think, is what differentiates them from Camus’ Don Juan who, in his lust for conquest and exploitation, is, in fact, a paradigm of the modern ‘technologist’.

(20) ‘Sparing and preserving’ in the standard English translation.