Recently, I’ve seen a lot of articles and discussions mentioning the idea of ‘optimistic nihilism.’ Reading about this newfangled philosophy, I’ve reached a simple conclusion. These folks need to read Camus!
Before I go on my whole Camus-influenced rant, I think it’s important to define these terms at play. After all, what is nihilism, and why are people making a big deal about attaching the word ‘optimistic’ to it?
The cliche question: what is the meaning to life?
Nihilists believe the answer to the question, “what is the meaning to life?” is simple: life has no meaning. There is no inherent meaning to the universe. The pursuit of meaning will not bring meaning. An individual’s construction of a meaning is not possible. Finally, there is a lack of resolution to an individual’s desire to seek meaning in life.
Okay, that sounds really bleak. So, what are the constituents of ‘optimistic nihilism’ saying? As far as I can tell, optimistic nihilism isn’t really a universally defined term. However, the gist of it is that, following that first tenet of nihilism, life does not have meaning, and it does not matter what we do to find this meaning, it won’t matter. With all that nihilism stuff as a base, optimistic nihilists then posit the following: if life doesn’t matter, we might as well enjoy it while it lasts!
That’s… interesting. I feel like I’ve heard a somewhat similar, yet absolutely more thought-out philosophical viewpoint somewhere. Ah, yes! I’m thinking of the works of Albert Camus, oft considered the founder of the viewpoint of philosophical absurdism. As a simple person on the Internet with an interest in philosophy, I feel an imperative to explain the concept of absurdism to these self-acclaimed optimistic nihilists in the hopes that we can all really engage in a discussion about it.
So what in the world is absurdism?
Absurdist philosophy is a set of viewpoints primarily focused around the works of Albert Camus, a French philosopher of the 20th century. Absurdism functions around the eponymous concept of the Absurd, which is a situation that is born of the dissonance between the pursuit of meaning and the apparent lack of meaningfulness in the universe (although, absurdists don’t even have a definite answer to the question of whether there is meaning to the universe. It’s more of a ‘maybe’ thing). Now, given this dissonance, Camus believed an individual had three choices for combating this disharmony between the pursuit of meaning and the lack thereof.
The first option, which Camus disagreed with, and I’m inclined to disagree with as well, was “escaping existence,” a euphemism for suicide. Essentially, if life is pointless, why bother? The problem with this notion is that it doesn’t make this whole reality any less absurd. The ending of one’s own life, philosophically, just makes the situation more disharmonious and absurd. So scratch that one.
The second option is the belief of a reality outside of the Absurd reality we live in. This means a belief in a religion or spirituality that would make the lack of meaning in this world meaningful. This option is difficult for myself (and for Camus) to come to terms with because it requires a pretty big jump into ideas that aren’t empirically provable.
So, if we’ve taken out two of the three potential ways to combat the Absurd, what’s left?
Accepting the Absurd
Here’s where I finally connect the idea of optimistic nihilism to absurdism, dear readers. If there is no way around the fact that the Absurd exists, we must truly accept the fact that it exists! This acceptance is not meek, for to truly embrace absurdism, we must live in spite of the Absurd, making choices for ourselves while understanding that we cannot combat the assumed lack of inherent meaning in the universe. Camus described it in his essay The Myth of Sisyphus, calling back to the figure Sisyphus of Greek mythology, who was tasked with pushing a boulder up a mountain, only for it to keep rolling down. “One must imagine Sisyphus happy,” he said.
So why use absurdism as a phrase to represent your philosophical viewpoint rather than optimistic nihilism? The difficulty with attaching any word to ‘nihilism’ is that it carries the burden that the word nihilism itself carries. That burden is one of a viewpoint that represents a truly, truly bleak outlook on life, and one that many philosophers including Camus fought against their entire lives. Even if you put the word ‘optimistic’ before it, the connection to nihilism is still there, and it doesn’t quite represent the viewpoint that optimistic nihilists espouse.
So that’s my short explanation of absurdism. If you see yourself as an optimistic nihilist, perhaps you’re really an absurdist. Of course, you’re always entitled to your own viewpoint, and if you truly feel that optimistic nihilism encompasses your worldview, then go for it. The world is one’s (meaningless) oyster, after all!