Against Nihilism

Maïa Stepenberg
Humanities Faculty

This post originally appeared on The Bloggers Karamazov under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


against_nihilism_front_cover_jpg_mediumQ1.How would you describe what Dostoevsky and Nietzsche have most in common?

They’re God-obsessed:  they’re both obsessed by the idea of God.  It’s a tormenting or all-consuming concern for them, whether God is there or not.

The most interesting part is not where they coincide, but where they diverge.  It’s actually like a labyrinth of concerns:  the more you read each of them, the more you realize they would have probably profoundly agreed on practically everything – everything that really matters.  That’s what’s really interesting.  But where they begin to diverge is just as irrevocable as a train going down the tracks:  there’s no turning back at that point:  and so Dostoevsky ultimately chooses to believe (like St. Paul says, “Lord, help my unbelief”), whereas Nietzsche ultimately chooses to reject all legitimacy of faith.

Q2.What questions compelled these two thinkers and writers?

Beauty, truth, goodness – it’s basically these three eternal enigmas that drive their writings.  So I’ve tried to organize them as large overarching themes in the book.  There’s the liberating allure of criminality, for one (a very big one!) – and then there’s the existentialist crisis of meaning (because both men are certainly two of the most influential fathers of existentialism); then there’s the tension between paganism and Christianity (actually an argument between aesthetics and morality), and finally there’s the terrible disease or cultural malaise of nihilism.  It’s the last issue that remains especially urgent and timely, so it appears in the title of the book.

Q3.Why do you think nihilism is so urgent for today’s world?

Nihilism is the number one concern in our world today.  Nihilism is the spectre of nothingness haunting our society.  As I began to teach Dostoevsky and Nietzsche, I could see the rise of the very thing that they both had predicted with such dread:  nihilism indeed, in virtually every expression or experience of modern life.  Technology and globalization have removed all boundaries and reduced and flattened everything that matters, in human terms.

Q4.Do Dostoevsky and Nietzsche provide a remedy for nihilism?

I`d say that each of them definitely do.  They identify the same problem, but they come up with different solutions.  One could say that Nietzsche’s way out of the problem has been tried, but misunderstood or misapplied:  the fascist appropriations of Nietzsche’s “will to power” or “aristocratic radicalism” point to a failure to bring to life his cherished ideal of the individual overcoming “the herd” (or the mediocre majority), alone and untrammelled.  On the other hand, one could say that Dostoevsky’s solution has neither been tried nor understood since it’s all there in his last great novel The Brothers Karamazov – a way to overcome the world while loving it, “watering the earth with your tears,” as he had one character put it – something akin to what Chesterton said about Christianity being the greatest ideal in the world, still not fully tried.

I’d like to add that there is something undeniably hideous about the way the world is turning:  something deeply wrong and sick in our failure to inculcate true values, support living institutions, nourish each other in true fellowship.  There is so much that is wrong in the world today that no one can fail to recognize it. The question is, can anyone still feel enough love or energy to change it?  For the flip side of nihilism is always apathy and despair.

But the point of reading and thinking alongside Dostoevsky and Nietzsche is that they were anything but apathetic.  They cared deeply and passionately about everything they wrote, and that is surely why fresh readers flock to them generation after generation: Dostoevsky and Nietzsche wrote with a palpable love and energy, and they each proposed vital solutions that demand individual effort, awareness, and spiritual work.

Q5.Should we take this nineteenth-century remedy just as seriously today?

Well, Nietzsche once thought he’d provided a remedy to the perils of nihilism (or at least been on the road towards providing such a remedy).  But only time can tell whether we can apply it correctly.  Nietzscheans of every imaginable stripe have not in fact moved the world forward:  the cataclysms of the twentieth century all somehow bear the palimpsest of Nietzsche`s signature.  And it’s equally true that a Dostoevskian future has yet to be fulfilled in accordance with Dostoevsky’s own vision.  Will beauty save the world?  Can we ever set ourselves aside long enough to feel truly “responsible to all for all”?  This is all still in potentia:  the truly momentous imitation of Christ en masse has yet to pass.  Clearly, if neither man’s vision has yet succeeded in positively transforming the world, that does not mean it is irrelevant.  Quite the contrary.

Q6.What value lies in reading Dostoevsky and Nietzsche in dialogue?

The beginning of philosophy is defined by dialogue.  You have two of the greatest minds of the nineteenth century whose writings still exist, and they seem meant to be read together because they so naturally complement each other’s voices and amplify each other`s points.  So the actual debate they might have had never happened in time or space, but it can happen for the reader today.

In addition, my own understanding has been infinitely enhanced by approaching Dostoevsky and Nietzsche in tandem.  For me, it started in graduate school.  Nietzsche was the focus of my doctoral dissertation, and Dostoevsky was the focus of the doctoral dissertation of my best friend.  We consequently spent many wonderful hours discussing each other’s chapters together as study buddies.  So the seeds for the book were planted for me back then.

Once I started teaching I thought of combining Dostoevsky and Nietzsche in an original course, and I was immediately struck by the excitement that these two thinkers generated in students when they were presented together, rather than separately.  The success of the course from the very beginning told me that there was a book that needed to be written, not only for the benefit of the students (since a book we could use did not exist in any library), but as a tribute to the students` generosity of involvement with both Dostoevsky`s and Nietzsche’s ideas.

A research essay topic that I regularly assign in this course asks students to imagine a sustained and serious dialogue between Dostoevsky and Nietzsche based on assigned readings from each.  Most students excel at this exercise.  Since so many student scripts of Dostoevsky and Nietzsche turned out to be so refreshing and delightful, a shortlist of ten excerpts are showcased in an appendix to the book. Here’s one example:

I always tell my students that if I could ever go back in time and talk with anyone from the past, there is no one I could imagine wanting to converse with more than Dostoevsky and Nietzsche. They are without a doubt my two favourite men of all time (with the exception of my husband and three sons, of course!).

Here’s a video my sons made that imagines a conversation between them:

Dostoevsky and Nietzsche could have only talked together in French, by the way – since that was the only language they had in common.

Q7.At the end of your introduction you state that in today’s world there are only two choices:  Dostoevsky’s path or Nietzsche’s path.  What would draw a person to one over the other?

You know, it’s a funny thing:  I’ve noticed in my classes that a lot of young women are drawn to Nietzsche (an irony that he would have found delightful, I’m sure!), just as a lot of young men are impressed by Dostoevsky.  There’s also the factor of religion: those who are comfortable with religious structure often prefer Dostoevsky.  And then people who like the idea of rebellion tend to find themselves attracted to Nietzsche.  There are all kinds of things that can incline a person more one way than another, and then inclinations can change over time too.

It comes down to a very old divide, I think:  before Socrates there was Parmenides (a philosopher who asserted that changeless being is the one binding law of the universe) as opposed to Heraclitus (a philosopher who claimed that change is the only constant we can know).  Nietzsche and Dostoevsky are like that: one playing Heraclitus to the other`s Parmenides.  It’s a never-ending argument about what came first and why.

With this book I have sought to infect others with my own enthusiasm for Dostoevsky and Nietzsche because I am convinced that they are deeply good for the world and our possibilities of improving it.  They ask us to confront the hardest questions about ourselves, and we are better for struggling to honestly face and answer those questions.  Whichever one you prefer, there’s no doubt that both Nietzsche and Dostoevsky will speak to you, either together or in turn, about all of life’s most unanswerable preoccupations and questions.


Last Modified: November 5, 2019