In a world where people search for meaning, nihilism and existentialism offer two very different answers. Nihilism believes that life has no intrinsic meaning, while existentialism holds that humans must create their meaning. Despite their differences, nihilism and existentialism share a common belief: that the world is a cruel place. Let us look at these two philosophies and see how they differ!
What is Nihilism?
The Latin word “nihil” means “nothing.” It may also be found in the verb “to annihilate,” which means bringing nothing or destroying something. [Source].
It is the “rejection of all religious and moral principles, believing that life is meaningless” [Source]. Nihilism is a “philosophy, or family of views within philosophy that rejects generally accepted or fundamental aspects of human existence, such as objective truth, knowledge, morality, values or meaning.” Nihilists believe that life is meaningless and rejects all religious and moral principles.
What is Existentialism?
“Existentialism is the attempt to confront and deal with meaninglessness…to not succumb to nihilism or despair: to give up or avoid responsibility” [Source]. It can also be defined as “a philosophical theory or approach which emphasizes the person’s existence as a free and responsible agent determining their development through acts of the will” [Source]. Existentialists believe that humans must make their own rational decisions despite existing in an irrational universe. They also argue that people are born without purpose into a senseless world, but they can make their sense of meaning and peace.
Nihilism vs. Existentialism
It is argued that “Nihilism ‘is the belief that nothing matters. Existentialism is the attempt to confront and deal with meaninglessness…to not succumb to nihilism or despair: to give up or avoid responsibility” [Source]. The relationship between nihilism and existentialism is explained in the following statement: “The nihilist says, “There is no god, no heaven or hell, so screw it: there can be no right or wrong. Let’s party!” The Existentialist says, “There is no god, no heaven or hell, so you and I alone must figure out how to make life meaningful and good — we must work without cosmic aid to figure out what ‘good’ itself is.” Existentialism believes that people can create their subjective meaning since life has no objective meaning. On the other hand, nihilists believe that there is no meaning in this life, so people have the liberty to do whatever they want, and they are usually inclined to cause destruction. Existentialists are more concentrated on people defining their purpose.
Nihilism and existentialism can form Existential nihilism, which “is the philosophical theory that life has no intrinsic meaning or value. With respect to the universe, existential nihilism suggests that a single human or even the entire human species is insignificant, without purpose, and unlikely to change in the totality of existence” [Source].
Existentialism vs. Absurdism
Existentialism is best defined as an attempt by humans to define their purposes and craft meaning out of a senseless and meaningless world. Absurdism is a philosophy accredited to Albert Cams in the book ‘The Myth of Sisyphus.’ It is described as “embracing the Absurd or meaningless in life and simultaneously rebelling against it and embracing what life can offer us” [Source].
Existentialism notes that “man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself,” and absurdism argues that a man will find out that the world is a cold and cruel place for him. Existentialism pushes people to try and find one’s essence, but absurdism encourages man to embrace the absurd or meaningless of life. Absurdism is centered on rebelling against a meaningless world and living in defiance. Existentialism is about free will and a duty to pursue freedom [Source].
Difference between Absurdism and Existentialism
Existentialism focuses on free will, but absurdism is not set on free will. Also, existentialism notes that people ought to fulfill the duty of pursuing freedom, while absurdism argues that people do not have the freedom to do what they want and live in defiance of the cold world. The goal of existentialism is to find one’s essence, but the goal of absurdism is to embrace the absurd and rebel against it. Existentialists argue that life has no meaning, so one must create meaning [Source]. Absurdism says that there is no meaning to life but absurd all over, so people can escape this through suicide, the leap of faith, and embracing the absurd [Source]
Existentialism vs. Absurdism vs. Nihilism
Nihilism states that people were created for no purpose, and life is meaningless. Existentialism argues that since life is meaningless, people have the liberty to create meaning and purpose. Absurdism is of the view that the only known reality is how our world is a cruel and cold place, so people ought to embrace this reality and, at the same time, rebel against it.
These three philosophies agree that the world is a cruel place for humans but differ on how people must react to this harsh reality.
Nihilism vs. Stoicism
Nihilism is defined as a philosophy that rejects any meaning of life and the purpose of creation. It is a “philosophical theory stating that nothing exists as a correspondent component of reality and that the world and humans do not exist” [Source]. Stoicism is a philosophical school attributed to Zeno of Citium in Athens. “It holds classical Greek values and is focused on following reason with humility over emotion” [Source]. Stoicism and nihilism are similar in that they encourage people to accept the harsh reality of the cold world. Both philosophies agree that some problems cannot be solved; hence, individuals should look out for themselves. Also, according to these philosophies, people should not be worried about whether their desires were met because those desires might not even exist.
But they differ in other aspects; for instance, stoicism is against modern values and believes it is best to live in silence. For nihilists, life is meaningless, and wealth and power are worthless. When dealing with evils, stoicism notes that people must not be worried about things they cannot control. And nihilism propels the idea of ‘radical acceptance’ in which humans must accept pain as a reality, and that suffering is unavoidable.
Nihilism vs. Cynicism
Nihilism argues that there is no meaning to our lives, so one must not waste time looking for meaning. Cynicism is explained as “skepticism regarding people and organizations that claim to be selfless, altruistic, and good” [Source]. Cynicism is all about negativity.”Cynics are not nihilists because cynics embrace rather than evade mendacity.” Under cynicism, people act out of their selfish interests. “Cynics say that human nature is intrinsically selfish or evil. Nihilists would say that nothing is intrinsically good or evil” [Source].