Whether It’s Nihilism or Semi-Fascism, They Cannot Be Reached

It’s not always easy to come up with the right word, especially when dealing with ideas like fascism and nihilism. I think “semi-fascist” is an excellent label for today’s Republican Party. I don’t think “nihilist” is, because it usually refers to the belief that moral and religious principles are meaningless, or that life is. Tom Nichols, a writer for The Atlantic, uses the word to describe the the MAGA crowd. Whatever he calls it, he understands that they are beyond the reach of normal politics:

Joe Biden’s “Soul of the Nation” address got at a cold and disquieting truth: The MAGA movement cannot be placated, reasoned with, or politically accommodated in any way. There is nothing its adherents want—and nothing anyone can give them—beyond chaos and political destruction.

Joe Biden’s address to the American people last week was, as I wrote at the time, necessary and right. The staging was bizarre, and the speech had some of the hallmarks of a group product that hadn’t been subjected to a final spackle-and-smooth by a chief writer. But Biden got one big thing right, and that one thing explains why D____ T____ and the MAGA World apologists are reacting with such fury. The president outed them as anti-American nihilists:

They promote authoritarian leaders, and they fan the flames of political violence that are a threat to our personal rights, to the pursuit of justice, to the rule of law, to the very soul of this country … MAGA Republicans have made their choice. They embrace anger. They thrive on chaos. They live not in the light of truth but in the shadow of lies.

This, as Biden pointed out, is what makes the MAGA movement so dangerous. It has no functional compass and no set of actual preferences beyond a generalized resentment, a basket of gripes and grudges against others who the T____ists think are looking down upon them or living better lives than they are. It is a movement composed of people who are economically comfortable and middle-class, who enjoy a relatively high standard of living, and yet who seethe with a sense that they have been done dirt, screwed over, betrayed—and they are determined to get revenge.

Biden broke with tradition by saying what presidents are never supposed to say: He admitted that he was finally giving up on trying to accommodate a group of Americans, because he understands that they do not want to be accommodated. I know that some of my friends and colleagues believe that Biden, as president, must continue to reach out to MAGA voters because they are our neighbors and our fellow citizens…. But how do we reach those voters? These citizens do not want a discussion or a compromise. They don’t even want to “win,” in any traditional political sense of that word. They want to vent anger over their lives—their personal problems, their haunted sense of inferiority, and their fears about social status—on other Americans, as vehemently as possible, even to the point of violence.

How do any of us, and especially the president, engage with such a movement, when every discussion includes the belief that the only legitimate outcomes are ones in which the MAGA choice wins? Such an insistence is not civic or democratic in any way, and it is not amenable to resolution through the democratic process.

This, by the way, is why it was a mistake for Biden to raise issues such as abortion and privacy in his speech. Yes, the opportunists who will ride into political office on the bed of a pickup flying MAGA flags will attack these rights, but that is incidental to their real interest, which is power and the spoils it brings. Issues such as abortion, LGBTQ rights, and contraception are really just hot buttons meant to rile up the voters. (MAGA World, as a movement, seems to have a kind of tabloid-television-style obsession with sex, which makes sense, as it is led by a tabloid star who literally bragged about the size of his penis on a GOP debate stage.)

For Biden even to mention something like abortion undermined the more important part of his speech, which is that MAGA is a movement that doesn’t believe in anything but violence, chaos, and power. Right-wing pundits have seized on that part of his speech because it was the only thing they could argue with; they know that trying to describe MAGA and T____ism with any consistency is pointless. Smaller government? More democracy? Power to “We the People”? Good luck with that: T____ just endorsed a [Republican] candidate for governor, Geoff Diehl in Massachusetts, by telling a crowd that Diehl will “rule your state with an iron fist, and he’ll do what has to be done.”

As a native son of the Commonwealth, I have no concerns that the Bay State is going to elect someone on D____ T____’s say-so. But T____’s authoritarian blather makes Biden’s point. The MAGA movement isn’t interested in politics, or policies, or compromises. It is interested in destruction and seeing others made as miserable as its followers are. MAGA is a movement of people who seem to be, in so many ways, deeply and profoundly unhappy, and suffering from an emptiness and anger deep in their spirit. There is no political solution for that. All Joe Biden did was finally say this obvious truth out loud.

The Meaning of Philosophy Today

While listening to forty-five minutes of Brian Wilson, then 22, creating “California Girls” with a group of studio musicians (“this is real good now, take 43”), I read a series of brief philosophical articles on “Finding Meaning”:

“In this series of articles, contributors from a variety of perspectives reflect on what the philosophical life means to them. In doing so, they do not attempt just to account for what personally led them to philosophy, but what philosophy itself has become today in the wake of “the death of God,” the age of nihilism.”

I don’t think meaning exists in the world independently of us, but rather that we find some things, like particular songs, meaningful (or not). The final paragraphs of the entry written by Mark Anderson, a philosophy professor at Belmont University in Tennessee, were interesting to me, even meaningful:

Philosophy today, as far as I can tell, is mostly either scholarship or the refinement of arguments for the journals, all with an eye toward a monograph with the right academic publisher. This is to be expected when a civilization’s faith in grand Truths and meta-narratives has collapsed. What else to do but dispute the hermeneutical minutiae of other people’s ideas or tweak this or that old chestnut of an argument, especially if such activities are the route to security and prestige among one’s peers? Ahh, it’s all one big job-talk…

I exaggerate, of course, but I’ll let the hyperbole stand.

Maybe I’m saying that philosophy is dead, and that we have killed it. That authentic philosophy was asphyxiated by the philosophy profession. That’s too facile, but it’s true that there are no Platos or Nietzsches around today. Platonists and Nietzscheans, yes. Plato and Nietzsche scholars, in abundance. But where are the living philosophers, the scholar-artists, the creatively deep thinkers? The problem has consumed me for years, and for years I wanted only to become a philosopher myself. Maybe I succeeded; I used to think that I had. But these days I no longer care. Or, rather, my cares have been transformed. I have come to regard our “psychic explorations” and “ontological investigations” as so much internal chatter, our talking to ourselves about the meanings of words and the relations between and among concepts, those meanings we happen to know and those relations that happen to strike us. Hyper-intellectualized, and all too often gloomy, distractions from the real—the real with a lowercase “r”.

Plato set us going on this misguided—this imaginary, illusory search for the Real, and although Nietzsche nearly overcame it, he declined too young to reclaim his true youthfulness. I suspect that if he’d lived to follow through on his own insights, he would have come to Cratylus’s conclusion (shared in a way by Zen, though distorted by religion accretion). He would have let his Übermensch and Will to Power slip into the river of flux and float away; he would have realized that preferring his preferences to others, and wanting to argue about it, is an endless and silly game; he would have held his tongue and, if questioned, only wiggled a finger.

Or maybe not; I don’t know. Plato and Nietzsche were unusual men. Who can say what they were after? But as for me: Lin-chi remarks that when you understand that fundamentally there is nothing to seek, you have settled your affairs. I think maybe I have settled my affairs. Finally. I am done with the make-believe search, stalking the mythical minotaur of wisdom; and although I cherish the years I wandered though the psychic labyrinth, I feel liberated, and rejuvenated. Returned to the sun and the land of the living, out of the shadow of the death of God.

What? Isn’t this just another form of darkness? Isn’t this nihilism! Call it what you will. I call it ataraxia.


“Ataraxia” is Greek for “unperturbed” or “without mental trouble”. Wikipedia says the term was “first used in ancient Greek philosophy by Pyrrho and subsequently Epicurus and the Stoics for a lucid state of robust equanimity . . .”

Ataraxia or not, job-talk or not, Prof. Anderson is chairman of the philosophy department at Belmont University.

A Guide to Reality, Part 10

Chapters 5 and 6 of Alex Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality are all about morality. In chapter 5, he lays out what he calls the “bad news”: there is no “cosmic value” to human life and moral questions have no correct answers. Rosenberg explicitly endorses ethical nihilism:

Real moral disputes can be ended in lots of ways. by voting, by decree, by fatigue of the disputants, by the force of examples that changes social mores. But they can never really be resolved by finding the correct answers. There are none….All anyone can really find are the answers that they like [96].

To be completely consistent, Rosenberg would probably have to admit that there is no “bad” anything, not even news. Since, on his view, “physics fixes all the facts” and there is nothing truly good or bad in the world at all. After all, one quark is just the same as another.

Rosenberg explains that nihilism isn’t the same as relativism or skepticism. It’s not the case that ethical views can be correct at some times and not at others, or that we can never know for sure which ethical views are right or wrong. Nihilism doesn’t even mean that “everything is permitted”, since nothing is morally “permitted” or “forbidden”:

[All moral judgments] are based on false, groundless presuppositions. Nihilism says that the whole idea of “morally permissible” is untenable nonsense. [Nihilism] can hardly be accused of holding that “everything is morally permissible”. That, too, is untenable nonsense [97].

Nothing at all is morally valuable in itself  (“intrinsically”) or even as a means to something that is.

Notice, however, that Rosenberg isn’t a nihilist about everything. At least, he gives the strong impression that he believes some ideas are true and some are false, and some beliefs are justified and some aren’t. But it’s generally accepted that truth and justification are “normative” concepts just as much as “right” and “wrong”, i.e., they are value-laden. True statements are those which “correctly” describe some state of affairs, while justified beliefs are those that have “good” reasons for believing them. But physics has nothing to say about correct descriptions or good reasons.

In the rest of chapter 5, Rosenberg offers an argument for the truth of ethical nihilism. He begins with a version of the famous question Plato asked in his Euthyphro dialogue: If our favorite moral rule (whatever it happens to be) is both morally correct and favored by God, is it correct because God favors it or does God favor it because it’s correct? Some Christian theologians have tried to deal with the question by invoking the Trinity or by claiming that the question presupposes a misunderstanding of God’s nature, but most people would probably agree that God favors moral rules because they are correct, not the other way around.

Rosenberg, of course, isn’t really interested in a theological version of the question. He brings it up because he thinks it presents an important challenge to his own scientistic position.

He next argues that there is a core set of moral principles common to all cultures. These principles are so common and so obvious, in fact, that they are rarely discussed. For example, we all agree that parents should protect their children; self-interest is acceptable until it becomes selfishness; and it’s wrong to punish people at random. Rosenberg thinks this core morality is the product of millions of years of human evolution (which sounds right to me, too).

He then asks a Euthyphro-like question: did evolution result in our core morality because it’s the correct morality, or is it the correct morality because it resulted from evolution?

Is natural selection so smart that it was able to filter out all the wrong, incorrect, false core moralities and end up with the only one that just happens to be true? Or is it the other way around: Natural selection filtered out all but one core morality, and winning the race is what made the last surviving core morality the right, correct, true one [109].

This question seems more difficult to answer than the theological version. Rosenberg, in fact, argues that the question has no answer. On one hand, evolution is blind, so there was no way for evolution to “know” which morality is correct. Furthermore, evolution has resulted in common views and practices that don’t seem ethical at all, like patriarchy and xenophobia. For that matter, the fact that religion is so common implies that evolution is good at generating false (but useful) beliefs.

On the other hand, just because our core morality resulted from evolution doesn’t make it right. Lots of things have evolved that we’d be better off without (like using the same anatomical feature to eat and breathe). More fundamentally, Rosenberg suggests that there is nothing morally right about having children who tend to survive and have other children, which is the principal thing natural selection makes happen.

But if our core morality isn’t correct because it evolved, and it didn’t evolve because it’s correct, the reasonable conclusion to draw is that our morality isn’t correct at all. In other words, morality isn’t true. It’s merely useful:

Scientism cannot explain the fact that when it comes to the moral core, fitness and correctness seem to go together. But neither can it tolerate the unexplained coincidence. There is only one alternative. We have to give up correctness…

Scientism starts with the idea that the physical facts fix all the facts, including the biological ones. These in turn have to fix the human facts – the facts about us, our psychology and our morality…The biological facts can’t guarantee that our core morality (or any other one, for that matter) is the right, true or correct one. If the biological facts can’t do it, then nothing can. No moral core is right, correct, true. That’s nihilism. And we have to accept it [113].

We might immediately object that the biological facts might not justify morality, but the social facts do. Rosenberg claims that lower-level facts, like the biological, determine higher-level facts, like the psychological. That may indeed be true (I think it is anyway), but isn’t it likewise the case that psychological facts determine social facts, which in turn determine ethical facts? If there are ethical facts (if ethical evaluations can have truth values – which is, by the way, a controversial view among philosophers), aren’t those facts determined by lower-level facts as well?

Those who think ethical statements can be true or false would probably argue that evolution has generated morality, but moral disagreement occurs because we simply haven’t figured out what all the ethical facts are. We know some ethical facts (it’s wrong to hurt people at random and other elements of Rosenberg’s core morality) but not others (is paternalism good in some cases? how about euthanasia?). 

I’ll end for now with the comment that philosophical arguments, even interesting ones like Rosenberg’s, hardly ever destroy the opposition. They almost always lead to more arguments. 

In our next installment, we’ll proceed to chapter 6, in which Rosenberg argues that nihilism is nothing to worry about, since nihilism can be nice. 

A Pessimist’s Pessimist

Giacomo Leopardi, born in 1798, was the son of a minor Italian aristocrat. He spent most of his youth in his father’s extensive library. By the time he was ten, he had taught himself Latin, Greek, German and French. Leopardi suffered from poor health throughout his life and died at the age of 38. He is now considered one of Italy’s greatest poets.

He is also revered as the author of a massive intellectual diary, first published in 1898 in seven volumes. Originally titled Pensieri di varia filosofia e bella letteratura (“Various thoughts on philosophy and literature”), it’s now known as Zibaldone (“Hodge-podge”). Last year, a complete English translation was published for the first time. (The translated text is 2,000 pages long, so if you’re interested, an electronic edition might be a good idea.)

In addition to being a great poet, Leopardi was one of Western culture’s great pessimists. Arthur Schopenhauer, probably philosophy’s most famous pessimist, had this to say about him: 

But no one has treated [the misery of our existence] so thoroughly and exhaustively as Leopardi…. He is entirely imbued and penetrated with it; everywhere his theme is the mockery and wretchedness of this existence. He presents it on every page of his works, yet in such a multiplicity of forms and applications, with such a wealth of imagery, that he never wearies us, but, on the contrary, has a diverting and stimulating effect [The World as Will and Idea].

More recently, Tim Parks summarizes Leopardi in The New York Review of Books (behind a paywall):

Obliged by frequent illness to pass his firstborn’s right to inherit to his younger brother, troubled by constant problems with his eyes, frail and almost grotesque, Giacomo saw before him a life without physical love or financial independence. Studying was the one thing he knew how to do, but the knowledge so gained only revealed to him that knowledge does not help us to live; on the contrary it corrodes those happy errors, or illusions as he came to call them, that give life meaning, shifting energy to the mental and rational and away from the physical and instinctive, where, in complicity with illusion, happiness lies.

In a later biography of his son, [Leopardi’s father] would write of Giacomo in this period that “setting himself to thinking about how one breathes” he found he could no longer breathe… “Thought,” Giacomo wrote in a letter in his early twenties, “can crucify and torment a person.”

Maybe more careful thought, perhaps a life devoted to philosophy, might help? That’s what Plato and Spinoza recommended. Leopardi is skeptical:

Those innumerable and immense questions about time and space, argued over from the beginnings of metaphysics onward,…are none other than wars of words, caused by misunderstandings, and imprecision of thought, and limited ability to understand our mind, which is the only place where time and space, like many other abstract things, exist independently and for themselves…”

In his review, Tim Parks suggests that if Leopardi were writing Zibaldone today, it would be a blog. I wonder if he’d throw in a few lighthearted posts to generate traffic.