The history of meaninglessness

Nihilism before Nietzsche
October 13, 1995

Why do we go on so enthusiastically producing and reading books about the history of western philosophy, when nowadays we are bound to report that the leading characters in our narrative held contradictory opinions about, and in some cases fiercely denounced, the very story we are now telling about them? Nietzsche and Kierkegaard cursed in anticipation the academics who would surely one day systematise them, make heritage waxworks of them, and set them up as figures in a canon. And, of course, the scholar dutifully incorporates their curses within his reconstruction, for the modern academy out-Hegels Hegel and engulfs everything, including denunciations of itself.

Michael Allen Gillespie is no stranger to these paradoxes. In Hegel, Heidegger and the Ground of History, he wove into a single story the extremest optimism and the darkest pessimism. In Hegel's story all antinomies and oppositions are reconciled, and "the parousia of the absolute is the truly understood Parousia of Christ, and thus not merely the promise but the actualization of eternal life in and as spirit". But Heidegger's story exactly reverses Hegel: the history of western metaphysics is the history of the withdrawal, self-concealment and forgetting of being, ending in the nihilism of power for power's sake, world technology, totalitarianism and total war. Then the reader asks: "What sort of story is this book, which purports to present and do justice to both these visions within a single narrative?" The paradoxes of Gillespie's new book are even darker. It takes a certain amount of hubris to open with a claim that Nietzsche misunderstood nihilism. But it is paradoxical then to construct an epic narrative history of western nihilism. Nietzsche himself refers us to Buddhism, which he probably did misunderstand; but Gillespie omits any discussion of Buddhism. Instead (like Heidegger) Gillespie is still caught up in, and still trying to rewrite, a version of the old western theological epic of fall and redemption. He is busy constructing a meaningful theological history of absolute meaninglessness. And what are we supposed to do with it, when we have understood it: do we take any action, or is it simply to become one more item in the infinite imaginary museum of academia?

Enough of these dark thoughts. Gillespie has a bold and very interesting thesis. Nihilism arose from voluntarism, and especially the doctrine of God that was taught by Ockham and other nominalist theologians. God was pure, sovereign, self-founding, omnipotent Will, unconstrained by any logical or ethical principles independent of himself. This god reduced nature to a chaos of individual and unconnected objects. "Descartes constructed his bastion of reason to shield man from this god and to establish (a base) from which to undertake the conquest of the natural world. He was able to accomplish this, however, only by attributing to man the same infinite will that had proven so problematic in God. In this way will was established as the foundation of modern reason I The history of nihilism is the history of the development of this notion of will," a history Gillespie traces well So Nietzsche remained more theological than he knew, and Descartes was a voluntarist wolf in rationalist clothing. Gillespie stresses Descartes' somewhat esoteric doctrine of the dependence of the eternal truths upon the divine Will, but even in the plain text of the Meditations there is much evidence to support this book's thesis. I cannot say that this book is simply right, because there is no limit to the number of stories that can be told, and will be told, about the history of western philosophy. But Gillespie tells a very good story and one that is highly stimulating.

Don Cupitt is director of studies in philisophy at the University of Cambridge.

Nihilism before Nietzsche

Author - Michael Allen Gillespie
ISBN - 0 226 29347 5
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Price - £21.95
Pages - 311

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