Nihilism

These times — our times — are very reactionary, full of cynicism, hypocrisy (which is self-contradiction), phoniness and fakery, and violence. These are the symptoms of nihilism and of a civilisation or era in the throes of decadence and decline — the end of the Modern Era. It has been called “the revolution of nihilism”. “All higher values devalue themselves”, as Nietzsche put it in his succinct definition of nihilism.

But this is not necessarily cause for despair or grief, even though the stakes and the perils today are very high, if not life or death for the race, perhaps even the planet. War, climate change, environmental degradation, the Sixth Extinction Event…. the list of our seemingly intractable maladies, now global in scope, is rather long and troublesome.

Nietzsche remained cheerful (or tried to anyway) despite his anticipation of “two centuries of nihilism” which he connected with the death of God. He observed, befitting our recognition of the paradoxical in the coincidentia oppositorum and enantiodromia, that nihilism had both active and passive aspects, or both creative and destructive aspects. In some ways, nihilism can be considered a necessary clearing of the decks to enable new growth, much like a forest fire that devastates an old growth forest nonetheless prepares the ground for the new generation of trees that had suffered the tyranny of the old. Some species can only reproduce and regenerate themselves in this way — by fire.

Nietzsche’s term for that is “revaluation of values” (or “transvaluation of values” — Umwertung aller Werten. The “Um-” prefix in German implies “all around”, “altogether”, or “thorough”. The German word for “environment” is Umwelt, for example). In effect, the revaluation or transvaluation of values is Nietzsche’s definition of, and term for, revolution. Nihilism, therefore, has these two aspects: there is a “passive” form of nihilism we call “decadence”. And there is an “active” form of nihilism we call “revolution”. Revolution is the antidote to decadence because they are two “diseases” of time, as Rosenstock-Huessy also recognised. Revolution destroys the past. Decadence devours the future. This is the key difference between “active” and “passive” nihilism.

Those who insist on lumping Nietzsche in with “conservative” philosophers really do Nietzsche an injustice. He was that, to be sure, but he was also a revolutionary. That’s what I admire about Nietzsche, I suppose. He was himself a dynamic coincidentia oppositorum, which he called “living beyond good and evil”. He was an alchemist, in effect. He also knew himself as a “nihilist” in both positive and negative aspects, of “having one foot in life and another in the grave”, as he put it; or his boasting of his “unique” ability to “switch background and foreground perspectives”, which fluidity of perception and consciousness is the principle of aperspectivity and is quite holistic or integralist. Nietzsche understood integrity because he was also thoroughly familiar with its contrary — disintegration, decadence, and self-contradiction. “The will to a system is a lack of integrity” he wrote. That’s very meaningful given that the Modern Era itself has been described as “will to a system” or as “the invention of a system for creating systems”.

Nietzsche has been described as the first “post-modernist”, but I think that, in many respects, that honour belongs to William Blake, who prophesied the end of the Modern system two centuries ago, also in a bout of nihilism. Some critics complain that Nietzsche, for example, is full of contradictions. Actually, he lived the paradox of life, and was himself a principle of enantiodromia in action — ie, reversal at the extremity. In that regard, he was both a conservative but also a revolutionist. Revolution in a “transvaluation of values” was his antidote to conservative decadence or reactionary attitudes.

You might recognise this from Rosenstock-Huessy’s model, previously discussed. Nietzsche was both “trajective” type (oriented towards the past and Origin) and also “prejective” type (oriented towards the future and Destiny), or what we call “conservative” and “revolutionary” or “progressive”. In that respect, he was “Janus-faced”.

The revaluation of values implies a double-movement. First, an emptying. Old, traditional values are emptied (vanus) of content or meaning. They decay and die. The second movement, which may be coincident with the first, is their resurrection with new content and new meaning. It’s a transfiguration. These values are those often called “eternal”, or those things which Aldous Huxley describes in The Perennial Philosophy. We might call those the “Lazarus values”. Nietzsche’s “revaluation of values” is death and resurrection of those values.

The revolutions of the Modern Era (the Lutheran, the English Civil War, the French Revolution or the Russian Revolution) did not, in fact, create new values. They did not create new values out of nothing. They redefined the decaying legacy values inherited from the past and restored them with new content, new meanings, and attempted to “sanitise” them of any whiff of theological reference or influence. As discussed earlier, the main secular political schisms of our day — liberalism, conservatism, socialism, environmentalism — have their origins in theological controversies and religious sects of the German (Lutheran or Protestant) Revolution. Over time, the theological or religious content of these sects has been suppressed or stripped away to become secular “ideologies” rather than religious theologies, but they can’t deny or suppress their pedigree and geneaology however much they have tried to appear “scientific” or “rational” or the “common sense”. Their theological or even mythical origins and influences are still evident in their rhetoric and symbols.

The perennial values recur again and again, but re-emerge in historical epochs wearing different masks. It is in these terms that Gebser’s “structures of consciousness” are also to be interpreted. The perennial values arise continuously from the “ever-present origin” (or the Heraclitean “Logos”) striving for actualisation, but these same values appear differently according to the structure of consciousness (the civilisational type) in which they arise — the archaic, the magical, the mythical, the mental-rational or the prospective “integral”.

This is another way to understand “integral consciousness”. It is also a revaluation of values. The key difference here is that the value is now perceived in all its aspects — as a holon — rather than just one biased aspect. This is that principle of perception Jean Gebser calls “aperspectivity“. Any value (or ideal) in order to become fully “real” or actualised, must have and be recognised in four aspects because our reality is a fourfold structure of two times and two spaces — past and future, inner and outer. To become “real”, therefore, a value (or ideal) must acquire these same characteristics — subjective, objective, prejective, and trajective aspects.

All the revolutions of the past attempted to restore the perennial values by exaggerating only one neglected aspect of the value or idea. Each had its bias and became lopsided. This is what we call “extremist” or “radical” without really understanding what that truly means. Only one aspect of the value is recognised and regarded as “true” or “real”, whereas to actually become real and actual at all it must acquire all four characteristics of what we call “reality”. It must take time to take place, as it were.

Our ideals and highest values can be actualised, in effect, once we understand their implicit structure as “holons”. They have a fourfold logic as much as our reality and ourselves. Rosenstock-Huessy’s “cross of reality” or the Buddhist mandala or the Sioux  Sacred Hoop or the Christian Cross are actually maps for actualising values and for effecting a “revaluation of values”. The essence of the integral consciousness is the recognition of this implicit fourfoldness.

Jean Gebser refers to this process of actualisation as “concretion” or “presentiation”. Unfortunately, the process of realisation or manifestation of the ideal or value isn’t very clear in Gebser. He lacked a generative method or model. This generative method or model is in Rosenstock-Huessy’s quadrilateral logic and “cross of reality”, which is why I think Gebser and Rosenstock-Huessy belong together in order for the integral consciousness structure to be interpreted correctly. A new consciousness — a metanoia — requires a new logic. And this I think Rosenstock-Huessy successfully provides us.

A holon is represented in a mandala. It wouldn’t be a holon at all unless it were recognised in its multiform or pluriform aspects and as a multidimensional entity. That deficiency of recognition is the problem of what Blake called “Single Vision & Newtons sleep”, which he contrasted with his own “fourfold vision”. Thanks to Rosenstock-Huessy, we can interpret the structure of the holon (value). It has multiple facets, like a gem (to which a value is often compared in the Wisdom Tradition).

We are in position today to master the powers of time and space, including evolution and revolution. Gebser insisted against popular prejudice that evolution was the unfolding of a “pre-existent pattern”, and not random or accidental, as long as we understood the processes of evolution and revolution as value realisation. This is typically omitted, however, in every explanation or description of evolutionary or revolutionary change. It is the bias of the mental-rational or logico-mathematical consciousness structure to exaggerate only the objective or evident aspects of a value, and that too belongs to nihilism. But to become “real”, a value or ideal must pass through the crucible, as it were, through the four stages of realisation because our cosmos is a harmonious fourfold structure like a mandala, as is the human form. Past and future, inner and outer, or trajective, prejective, subjective and objective aspects are required for something to become truly “real”. In fact, it is evidence of our neglect of our full reality (and time) that Rosenstock-Huessy had to invent new terms for past-orientation and future-orientation, in terms of “trajective” and “prejective” to complete the usual subjective-objective polarities.

So this is the promise of the integral consciousness and The Holistic Philosophy — the conscious articulation of the ideal or value as “holon” complete or unified in its fourfold aspects. And this is, in the main, why Gebser speaks of the integral consciousness as featuring “time-freedom”. Consciousness will come to truly master the powers of time in the form of evolution and revolution, or what Nietzsche called “revaluation of values”.

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6 responses to “Nihilism”

  1. Scott Preston says :

    For the recent newcomers to The Chrysalis (of which there are a few):

    You may gain greater understanding of the intent of this blog (and the meaning of “chrysalis”) after reading Rosenstock-Huessy’s important essay “Farewell to Descartes”, which is available online. This essay was originally the concluding chapter to his massive historical study of the Modern Era called Out of Revolution: Autobiography of Western Man. “Farewell to Descartes” can be read at

    http://www.argobooks.org/rosenstock/pdf/I-am-an-Impure-Thinker.pdf

    as the first chapter of his collection of essays entitled I Am An Impure Thinker. I really do recommend “Farewell to Descartes” as a very powerful and cogent critique of what we have been calling “the mental-rational consciousness structure” after the Kulturphilosoph Jean Gebser.

    After you read “Farewell to Descartes”, then (and perhaps only then) will Gebser’s approach to “integral consciousness” have a context. A brief summary of Gebser’s integralism, post-humously published in his own words in 1974, is provided at,

    https://longsworde.wordpress.com/2011/10/24/jean-gebser-the-integral-consciousness/

    “Farewell to Descartes” should also provide insight into why Rosenstock-Huessy felt compelled to articulate a new logic — the “grammatical method” or “cross of reality”. So, it is an important essay in that respect also.

  2. LittleBigMan says :

    A very in-depth essay, indeed.

    I’m thinking about the nihilistic individual and the nihilistic society, and the course of action appropriate for each to free themselves from nihilism.

    For the individual nihilist, it seems to me that the savior antidote may be “the power of here and now.” Focusing thoughts and actions on the here and now may be used as one technique for resurrecting values with new content and new meaning. Even in relation to Rosenstock-Huessy’s “cross of reality,” the center of the mandala represents the “here and now” as the only spot where all four aspects of reality coincide and there’s no radicalization of one’s lifestyle or mentality.

    For societies that are nihilistic, on the other hand, it seems to me that the only saving grace is enantiodromia. Like the edge of a pool table, enantiodromia has the power to reverse radicalized and fanatical tendencies in any one direction. But even then, the question is whether enantiodromia can guarantee that the new emerging consciousness will be closer to the integral consciousness.

    I’d like to think and hope that as long as nihilism is a phase and not a fixed state of affairs, it is possible for it to play a constructive role in the life of an individual or the future of a society. But as long as the only things that are growing in a world of diminishing resources are financial institutions and defense contractors, I don’t think the nihilistic phase we are in will reverse course any time soon.

    • Scott Preston says :

      Even in relation to Rosenstock-Huessy’s “cross of reality,” the center of the mandala represents the “here and now” as the only spot where all four aspects of reality coincide and there’s no radicalization of one’s lifestyle or mentality.

      To be sure, the centre of the cross of reality is the “eternal present” in Rosenstock’s view, and would then correspond to what Gebser calls “ever-present origin”. The centre is also the origin, you see.

      And in that sense, it is the Radix itself. This word “radical” actually means “at the root” or “to the root”. Radix is the root (like the word “radish”). The reason why some people came to be called “radical” is because they insisted on a “return to the root” (or today, in its perverse form, “back to basics” which isn’t a return to the root but to the past, for the Radix or root is not past, but the ever-present Source). So, in fact, radical might have to be distinguished from “extremist” who flies off in only one direction of the cross of reality (which the “back to basics” crowd does). In some ways, the radical and the extremist are quite contrary types, but our language has confused them much as it has confused many other things that should be distinguished (like “totality” and the “whole”).

      I consider myself a “radical” in that sense — a return or recollection of the root in “the ever-present origin”, Source or Logos. I consider our present society “extremist” for having distanced itself from remembrance of the Radix. It’s why it is so nihilistic.

      For Rosenstock, though, the “Present” encompasses the entirety of the cross of reality. The cross of reality is really a mandala of “Presence” or of making Present. As conscious expands backwards, forwards, inwards, outwards, it makes Present what is currently Absent. Correspondingly, Gebser refers to this as “presentiation” or “concretion” of the hidden or invisible. In that sense “Present” is not the moment or the “here and now”, but of striving to make all past, all future, the soul, and the world manifest reality and presence. We would call that “cosmic consciousness”. This is why the cross of reality isn’t static, but is made of “arrows” expanding into the four directions of reality. (But they also contract, too).

      In that sense, the cross of reality is highly inclusive, and continuous integration into “Presence” of all that is considered forgotten or “occult” or absent from consciousness.

      But even then, the question is whether enantiodromia can guarantee that the new emerging consciousness will be closer to the integral consciousness

      No, it can’t do that. Enantiodromia accounts for that “pendulum” of history that some people observe (and complain about), or what we call “going from one extreme to the other” — individualism suddenly reversing into herd mentality and collectivism, or vice versa, collectivism suddenly reversing into the libertinism and anarchy of “every man for himself”, as has happened in the former Soviet Union. The USSR was a disastrous experiment in extreme collectivism (primacy of the “We”), but post-Soviet Russia is not in any better shape — from extreme collectivism to libertinism/anarchy (the primacy of the “I”) is just a swing of the pendulum, and much the consequence of our disastrous tendency to think only in dualisms.

      This is what Gebser refers to as the “loss of the vital centre” with disintegration at the periphery (extremism). The “vital centre” is Rosenstock’s central point in his cross of reality. Time and space don’t really “intersect” at this point, so much as arise from this point I’m calling the Radix. And for all practical purposes, the vital centre is the same as the “ever-present origin” or root (or Radix) or Source or Logos. My Sioux friends here call this “speaking from the centre of the voice”, which is the centre of the Sacred Hoop. I love that saying, because it recognises speech as the integrating power, drawing the powers of the four directions (North, South, East, and West) into relation with the centre or root (Radix). For all practical purposes, that is the same as Rosenstock-Huessy’s “cross of reality”. To “speak from the centre of the voice” is to integrate, because “the Sacred Hoop is in language” — that is to say, grammar.

      So, we can say that Rosenstock’s “cross of reality” is a matrix form of both Radix and Axis. From the centre (which is ever-present origin) reality expands in four directions “the more deeply and intensely we live”, as he put it.

  3. LittleBigMan says :

    A very rich response. Thank you, Sir.

    I can see that I was in fact confused about “radicalism” and “extremism” and considered them as one and the same in my mind. I think perusing the language used in various media may have had something to do with my faulty understanding. Behold the power of the “foreign installation”!Thank you for that insightful distinction between the two. Especially, your use of radishes helps itch the distinction in my mind, since I consume the little round red roots on a daily basis 🙂

    “So, we can say that Rosenstock’s “cross of reality” is a matrix form of both Radix and Axis. From the centre (which is ever-present origin) reality expands in four directions “the more deeply and intensely we live”, as he put it.”

    That’s a quite enlightening description of the “cross of reality.” In fact, I also was laughably confused about the axes of the “cross of reality” crossing each other and behaving like a Cartesian set of axes. But I can see now that the correct interpretation is that it is the Present that creates all that happens in four directions. The Present is the Source, not an Intersection.

    Using USSR’s modern history to discuss how “enantiodromia” can lead from one extreme to another as long as the dualistic mentality that created the former system is still present was very illuminating. Hence, the society wears a new mask while the mental disease still lurks underneath.

    Now, this “speaking from the centre of the voice” is a monumental challenge. The inner territories of one’s Self must go through significant change for one to be able to begin to accomplish this. Ideally, I’m thinking, the voice from the center must be devoid of any ego-boosting charge. The works of Seth and Carlos Castaneda contain great clues as to the importance and ways of accomplishing this. As don Juan Matus put it, it’s the way to live on a “path that has heart.”

    • Scott Preston says :

      Especially, your use of radishes helps itch the distinction in my mind, since I consume the little round red roots on a daily basis 🙂

      Alas, I can’t anymore. Bad for the kidneys. In fact, everything considered “good” and nourishing is bad for the kidneys. Ironically, I can eat doughnuts and fritters, but most fresh veggies are off limits (or consumable only in moderation), as is almost all dairy products except cream cheese. I could go on and on about the absurdities of kidney disease, but maybe that’s for another time.

      The Present is the Source, not an Intersection.

      Yes. The traditional metaphor is the flower, such as the Buddhist Lotus or the Chinese Taoist “Golden Flower”. It unfolds from the centre. In that sense, an image of radiance. So is the “cross of reality” radiant in that respect, since it is a dynamic model. Reality unfolds in four directions — the directions of space and time.

      Now, this “speaking from the centre of the voice” is a monumental challenge.

      It’s actually called “inspired”. The one who “speaks from the centre of the voice” is the one who binds the mandala of the Sacred Hoop and brings them into harmonious (integral) relation, just as the Buddha did with The Guardians of the Four Directions when they brought to him their begging bowls as gifts, but which, the legend goes, he united with his own for the sake of the dharma.

      In other respects, to “speak from the centre of the voice” is much akin to Jung’s Self realisation or the integration of the whole personality. As you know, Jung understood consciousness also to be fourfold or to expand in the four directions called “thinking, sensing, willing (or intuiting), feeling”. Integration of the Self is the harmonious unification and balancing of these consciousness functions. These also correspond to the “directions” of the Sacred Hoop.

      One can’t “get there” by thinking alone. It requires all four to be engaged. Meditating on mandalas is often a preparation for this. As St. Anastasius once put it, you must “take the cross into your heart” — but most people I think misunderstand what this means. The cross is a mandala and the “heart” is the centre of the mandala.

      • LittleBigMan says :

        Hang in there, Chief. I think patience and careful care each day are key in the meantime. It’s funny that doughnuts and fritters are well and good for you to eat, but not radishes. Another thing I didn’t know was that too much tea (a gallon a day in this case) can cause kidney failure. This made the national news here in America a few weeks back.

        http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/to-your-health/wp/2015/04/03/this-mans-kidneys-failed-after-he-drank-too-much-iced-tea/

        When I got pneumonia, I thought I was going to die. But I recovered very very slowly. It took 8 months for my lungs to feel and sound normal again.

        “The cross is a mandala and the “heart” is the centre of the mandala.”

        That sounds reassuring to me. I listen to that thing in my chest often, but it has often, if not always, meant that the easiest way before me isn’t the path that I must take. It seems to me that “the path that has heart” is lined with lots of big pawed large fanged demons 🙂

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