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Have you ever learned something so impactful that it stuck with you for years? I had one of these rare experiences during my very first semester at Harvard, when I took an existentialism course in the Philosophy department. While most of my knowledge on Kierkegaard and Sartre went out the window the moment I finished the final exam, there was one lesson that has stayed with me for the past two years: the lesson on active nihilism.
When most people hear the term “nihilist,” they might imagine a man sitting in a dark, windowless room, somberly contemplating the meaninglessness of his existence. Though nihilism can lead some people into despondency, it can also function as a path to personal fulfillment.
As a start, “nihilism” is commonly defined as “the belief that life is meaningless.” A fuller definition would further add that nihilism is the belief that life has no objective meaning. In other words, nihilists suppose that there is no single, factually-correct meaning to life that unites all of humanity. Nihilism and religion are therefore essentially incompatible, because most religions argue in favor of a universal purpose for human life, while most irreligious people are forced to admit that no such purpose could exist — the laws of physics alone cannot create “meaning.”
Because of the incommensurability of purpose and life and irreligiosity, I believe Harvard is already full of nihilists. A majority of surveyed students from every recent class have labelled themselves either “Not at all religious” or “Not very religious.” In addition, the threat of global warming is sending many young people into “climate despair” as they question how life on a dying planet could possibly have any meaning. Overall, it seems like the upcoming generation could be the most nihilistic in history.
Yet, this is not something we should necessarily fear.
You see, nihilists can be broken into two specific groups. The first are the passive nihilists. These are the individuals who, when faced with the realization that existence has no inherent meaning, can fall into a deep depression as a result. This is an act of resignation; the passive nihilist no longer sees any purpose in life, and his mental and physical condition suffer as a result. And, this is the kind of nihilism we should avoid.
However, there exists another group of nihilists: the active nihilists. An active nihilist is someone who, when confronted with the exact same realization, rejoices at the freedom that it gives her. If there were a specific meaning to human life, then each of us would be bound to follow it. But if there is not, then we all have the freedom to decide the purpose of our own lives — in fact, we are required to do so, if we wish to avoid the pit of passive nihilism. So, one active nihilist might conclude that the purpose of her life is to combat poverty across the globe. Another might commit himself to protecting the environment. Active nihilists have tremendous freedom in determining the best way to live their own lives.
Finding the meaning of your life is not easy. It requires walking a fine line between rigidity and flexibility. You don’t want to change your life’s purpose as often as you change clothes, but you also might realize that the path you were planning to follow at 18 isn’t fit for you now that you’re 28. Plus, when seeking your life’s meaning, it can be difficult to know where to start. Thus, I recommend taking time to reflect on your skills, interests, and personal ethical code. You may also find guidance in the teachings of religion, as I have.
Obviously, the concept of active nihilism is not without faults, and leads to important questions on how we can hold each other accountable for our actions if we truly believe that the meaning of life is subjective. So, I’d like to clarify that I am not saying everyone should convert to active nihilism. It’s essential for each of us to feel that our lives have a purpose, regardless of whether we do it through religion or philosophy.
I wrote this op-ed because I believe that many Harvard students (and young people more broadly) are already nihilists. If you are questioning the meaning of life as you read this, I encourage you to avoid becoming a passive nihilist. I know how bleak that state of mind can be, but you can avoid despair by following the path towards active nihilism instead. This may not be an easy adjustment, but once you’ve accomplished it, you’ll feel like your life is starting to make more sense. And, as I can attest, that’s one of the greatest feelings there is.
Daniel L. Leonard ’21, a Crimson editorial editor, is a joint History of Science and Philosophy concentrator in Winthrop House.
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