The Challenge of Nihilism
In a world awash today in nihilistic intent, it is worth turning to Nietzsche — the philosopher of nihilism nonpariel. He was that above all else, really. He knew nihilism intimately from his own “stare into the abyss”, and he knew nihilism as the worthiest of all worthy opponents. The struggle with nihilism honed the human spirit, and compelled it to transcend itself. Anything truly worthwhile and everlasting — the treasures of darkness — were won from the struggle with nihilism. Probably, this is one of the chief lessons Jean Gebser took away from his study of Nietzsche. The fruit of Nietzsche’s own struggle with nihilism is summed up pithily in one memorable saying: “what does not kill me makes me stronger.”
Nietzsche was not being mean-spirited or immoral, then, in looking forward to “two centuries of nihilism” and welcoming the onset of the global tragedy. He knew it would have to be faced, and that in the struggle with it, a new human type would emerge victorious — the “overman” or “transhuman” who had bested nihilism. Nietzsche is, in that respect, an alchemist. The “two centuries of nihilism” represents the alchemist’s crucible, through which leaden matter must pass in its transmutation into spiritual gold. The crucible is also a chrysalis.
The relation of the word “crucible” with “crucifix” (and with the words crucial and crisis) is not coincidental. Passing through the crucible is experienced as a crucifixion (as is the chrysalis stage of the larva). There again is the irony of the Great Antichrist Nietzsche, for his “two centuries of nihilism” follows the pattern of death, resurrection and transfiguration. Mankind’s “two centuries of nihilism” is a crucifixion, a transformative passage through the portal of death, leading to the transfigurative, luminescent resurrection called “overman”. This is also William Blake’s “Albion” of his own mythology and prophecy. In Blake’s Vision of the Last Judgement is represented also Nietzsche’s “two centuries of nihilism”.
Nihilism is the disguised form of social and spiritual death. But then, again, “death is the teacher”, as don Juan tells Castaneda. For the social philosopher Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, as well, the true grandeur of the human spirit and its latent potentialities only emerged in the struggle with nihilism — with nihilism in its four social forms as total decadence, total anarchy, total war, or total revolution. For Rosenstock-Huessy, crisis was always a struggle between Creation and the Void, and yet the danger of nihilism was also a blessing too “because it compels us to wake up”.
The power of Nietzsche’s and Blake’s spirit was such that they transformed nihilism itself into an ally of self-transcendence. Gebser and Rosenstock-Huessy teach pretty much the same thing, and this belongs to the Hermetic philosophy — the principle of enantiodromia as coincidence of opposites. This is known, in Buddhism, as “making friends with death” — enlisting nihilism itself as an ally in transformative practice. This is, in essence, befits the practice of non-duality. It is, at root, the often misconstrued meaning of Heraclitus’s notion that “war is the father of all things”. It should really be understood as “crisis is the father of all things”, and as essentially about the struggle between Creation and the Nihil.
Lesser, more violent and belligerent intelligences have misconstrued Heraclitus’s (and subsequently also Nietzsche’s) meaning, for it corresponds to Blakes “without contraries there is no progression”. Nietzsche expressed the truth of Heraclitus’s remark in his understanding of the warrior’s way: “in times of peace, a warrior goes to war against himself”, and “it’s not the courage of one’s convictions that counts, but the courage to attack one’s convictions that counts.” As in don Juan’s teachings, the warrior is someone on the way to self-overcoming, and who is enlisted in the struggle of creation against nothingness. This is encapsulated in don Juan’s dictum: that the art of the warrior is “to balance the terror of being alive with the wonder of being alive”. This is the essential “critical” or crisis situation — the struggle of terror and wonder. It is simply a variant on Nietzsche’s theme that “what does not kill me makes me stronger”. Terror and wonder, or the awful and the awesome, are echoes in the soul of the pre-primordial situation of origin, reflections of Genesis and the Void, Being and Nothingness. That balance of terror and wonder, or death-pole and life-pole of the soul in Gebser’s terms, is called “equanimity”. That’s the authentic place of the “dialectic”, as expressed by Gebser: the secret to the integral consciousness is to know when to “let happen” and when to “make happen”.
To look the devil in the face without losing your marbles, as don Juan expressed it to Castaneda, is why Nietzsche, Gebser, Rosenstock-Huessy, and others wrote books at all. They are all concerned with what Rosenstock-Huessy called “survival knowledge” and with not being drawn into the maelstrom and succumbing to mass anxiety (Rosenstock called it “outrunning the modern era”, outrunning “modern man’s distintegration”). What Nietzsche, Gebser, and Rosenstock-Huessy, amongst others, are attempting to do is instill in us a new faith — a new confidence — resilient enough to endure and survive the trials and tribulations of Nietzsche’s “two centuries of nihilism”, a faith strong enough to endure the passage through the crucible, or what we tend to call today “chaotic transition”.
It should be clear, then, what terror and wonder, non-Being and Being, Nothingness and Creation (or Genesis) are: they are the life-pole and death-pole of the soul as described by Gebser — the very contraries that are needed for progression. They are the bookends that frame the parable of the journey of the Prodigal Son, aren’t they? Even in the life of Plotinus, as described by Porphyry, Plotinus’s journey towards the “Uniate” was stimulated by his need to master the ugliness of “the blood-stained world”.
It’s probably best to think of Genesis and the Void as dialogical — represented in speaking and listening moods, which correspond to the life and death poles of the soul and expressed in the form of Gebser’s “make happen” and “let happen”. This was also expressed in don Juan’s initial frustration with Castaneda’s “stuckness” , his lack of tempo or timing: “you rush when you should wait, and you wait when you should rush”. There is, in that accusation, a judgement about “modern man’s disintegration” as a loss of equipoise, and of loss of clarity and sobriety of mind.
That is to say, no wisdom at all.