Nihilism As an Antidote for Nihilism?

An antidote for nihilism is a complex of thoughts and intertwined sentiments which removes or alleviates the anxiety provoked by thinking and feeling life has no meaning – that which the theologian Paul Tillich called “the anxiety of meaninglessness.” A successful antidote to nihilism provides, I propose, what Tillich calls the “courage to be.” Use of the medical term “antidote” motivates using another medical term: homeopathic. In a homeopathic treatment we try to cure a diseased condition by actually producing that very condition.

What is the structure of antidotes to nihilism? Especially what is relation between soteriology and eschatology? Broadly speaking, soteriology is an account of how we can be saved from failure at life, viz., hell. Eschatology is an account of an afterlife in which we are saved or damned. My conjecture is that soteriology conceptually precedes eschatology in so far as eschatological theories are properly developed to accommodate how salvation is lived out. Historically, I suspect that eschatologies were invented along with, and perhaps before, clear thoughts about salvation were articulated.

Epicureanism an antidote which can be fairly labeled “nihilistic.” Bold admission that nothing matters and everything is permitted is prescribed as therapy for feeling downcast by such a predicament for humanity. That is the kind of bold “eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we die” thinking condemned by the sage of the Book of Wisdom and developed by the Greek and Roman Epicureans: Epicurus, Lucretius et al. This, I believe, is the antidote against nihilism for millions of people in our current secular age, who are not blessed with distraction from nihilistic anxieties by cares of daily life and do not die from or with despair. From the Epicurean stance, dying with or from despair is losing at life which is hell.

The soteriology of Epicureanism is to be saved from physical and mental pain. The eschatology of Epicureanism is that there is no after life for any living individual. The Epicurean eschatology is supported by an atomistic metaphysics. Upon biological death an entity dissolves into the atoms which it consisted of while living. Or, better, those atoms of which it consisted at the moment of death.

There is no need to fear punishments of the gods after our biological death. We can be free from the pain of fearing pain after death because upon death we vanish.

In fact, Epicurean prescriptions for applying the soteriology, viz., prescriptions for salvation are far richer than “eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.” I use “In fact,” because there are most likely millions of people who are more or less Epicureans. Guidelines for prudent living might well include serving those less fortunate to avoid our own pain of feeling compassion for them. Also, prudential guidelines might well prescribe distracting oneself from thinking about suffering and dying, feeling guilt and wondering if there is a point to it all. In other words, distract yourself from thinking which leads to the anxieties Tillich identified as anxiety over fate and death, judgment and condemnation and meaninglessness. Only on rare occasions, might philosophically minded individuals explicitly admit Epicureanism.

Why accept Epicureanism? The strongest reason for accepting Epicureanism is the belief that the “atomistic” metaphysics underlying the eschatology is true. I put atomistic in scare quotes to indicate that the atoms of current natural science are not the simple solids of Lucretius’ On Nature. This contemporary atomism is scientism. Scientism is the belief that there is nothing but what is knowable by the methods of natural science.

If the reductive belief of scientism is true, then one might as well be an Epicurean if one wants to recognize the truth. Of course, once the truth of scientism is granted, then prudential guidelines might propose developing ideologies about God, freedom and immortality to distract oneself from the meaninglessness of life lived explicitly recognizing the truth of the pointlessness of living. Recognizing the truth at all times might be imprudent!

And Epicureanism offers salvation for only a fortunate few. For most, no prudential guidelines lead to a life with more pleasure than pain. Only a fortunate few live successfully – to hell with the rest.

The wheel of fortune revolves. For all, there is the risk of fall from fortune. For all, there is the risk of more pain than pleasure which is hell. So, Epicureanism does not really offer a firm conviction that a life well lived accomplishes anything.

An important point, though, has been brought out. To show that Epicureanism is not the only antidote for nihilism, it needs to be shown that scientism is not true. Metaphysics is needed to provide an effective antidote to nihilism.