That there is no truth; that there is no absolute state of affairs – no ‘thing-in-itself.’ This alone is Nihilism, and of the most extreme kind.
- Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power
Nihilism: The Root of the Revolution of the Modern Age, by Eugene (Fr. Seraphim) Rose
In 1962, the young Eugene Rose undertook to write a monumental chronicle of the abandonment of Truth in the modern age. Of the hundreds of pages of material he compiled for this work, only the present essay, on Nihilism, has come down to us in completed form.
- From the back cover
Although he was not Fr. Rose when he wrote this work (he was still Eugene), this is how I will refer to him throughout my review of this book.
Nihilism, Fr. Rose offers, is the belief that there is no Absolute Truth; all truth is relative. The heart of this philosophy is expressed most clearly by Nietzsche and a character of Dostoyevsky: ‘God is dead, therefore man becomes God and everything is possible.’
Keep in mind, he wrote this before the nihilism of the 1960s came to full blossom – for which I will point to 1967 as the milestone year: the release of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s album (which I label the start of their drug-induced era, whether or not they were taking hallucinogenics), and the release of the first Pink Floyd album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (who only had a drug-induced era).
Fr. Rose regularly turns to Hitler, Bolshevism (both Lenin and Stalin), and the Dadaist attack on art as examples of this nihilism. He looks at poets, revolutionaries like Bakunin, and what he labels “prophets” like Nietzsche. But he describes all of these as “the spectacular surface of the problem of Nihilism.” These are just extreme examples.
We have examples around us every day, in everyday people. Fr. Rose does not excuse them as innocent victims, because “No one, in the last analysis, serves Satan against his will.”
Nihilism has become so pervasive in our time (his time, almost sixty years ago), that there is no longer any front on which it may be fought. It is deeply engrained in the hearts and minds of all men living today; even those who believe they are fighting it are using nihilism’s own weapons.
Few of nihilism’s even most ardent opponents believe in the possibility that there is Absolute Truth – objective, unchanging Truth. Even many of its ardent opponents will lean on relative truth – some truths are better than others; some truths lead to less evil than others. We use arbitrary scales to judge the relative truth of different truths.
Some will perhaps object…that we have set our net too wide; that we have exaggerated the prevalence of Nihilism….
I am certain that in the early 1960s this was true; I am even more certain that even a few short years ago I am not sure that I understood this to be true. But Fr. Rose (Eugene) understood it several years before Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.
Fr. Rose will describe the nihilist mentality, offer a sketch of its historical development, and then probe more deeply into its meaning and historical program.
“Relative truth” is primarily represented, for our age, by the knowledge of science….”
Wow! Consider that. Our most supposedly objective discipline offers only relative truths.
It is always discursive, contingent, qualified, always expressed in “relation” to something else, never standing alone, never categorical, never “absolute.”
An honest scientist recognizes that the science is never settled. In other words, science never arrives at Absolute Truth. It is always standing on something that is subject to challenge, and to have that challenge be successful.
…the absolute cannot be attained by means of the relative.
“All truth is empirical,” the scientist will say; but this is a metaphysical statement. “All truth is relative”; but this statement is absolute. This is the world science offers, and in its proper place, it is a valuable world. But when placed at the top of the pyramid, it falls short of the standard set by those who have transformed science into scientism.
…the first principles of any system of knowledge cannot be arrived at through the means of that knowledge itself, but must be given in advance; they are the object, not of scientific demonstration, but of faith.
I am reminded of something offered by John Vervaeke, which I have captured here:
What I mean is: does science exist? If it is, what kind of entity is it? Tell me, just using chemistry, physics, or biology – using just those – tell me what science is. And tell me how it has the status to make the claims that it does. And tell me how science is related to meaning and truth. And how do meaning and truth fit into the scientific worldview. They are presupposed by that worldview, but they have no proper place within it. That’s what I mean.
Fr. Rose offers four forms of what he calls “negative metaphysics.” In other words, we all have a metaphysical first principle, even if that metaphysical first principle is one that denies a metaphysical first principle:
1) Naïve realism, or naturalism: this doesn’t precisely deny absolute truth, but makes absolute claims of its own which cannot be defended. It claims the absolute truth of materialism and determinism. It is a suicidal philosophy, in that it renders all philosophy invalid.
2) Critical realism, or positivism: a straightforward denial of metaphysical truth. It abandons the absolute altogether; we are limited to empirical, relative truth.
3) Naïve agnosticism: posits the absolute unknowability of any absolute truth. Which is, of course, using an absolute truth to deny that absolute truth exists.
4) Critical agnosticism: a renunciation of everything:
…we do not know whether there exists an absolute truth, or what its nature could be if it did exist; let us then – this is the corollary – content ourselves with the empirical, relative truth we can know.
But if there is no absolute standard, then can we really know anything? Here, we have the abandonment of truth. What is left is a world with no Revealed Truth, and, according to Fr. Rose, if there is no Revealed Truth, there is no truth at all.
Now, before continuing, perhaps this statement should be examined. Many will look at such a statement and immediately react – a reaction against the idea of God. Just because there are some words in an old book that supposedly are directly from God, we are supposed to take this as truth?
But you don’t have to go down this road if it makes you uncomfortable. Can you accept that things are created for a purpose? Oh, wait. I know. That “created” word is troubling for you. How about…there is a reason that things are as they are? Maybe you can accept…things evolved the way they did for a purpose.
Is there a revealed truth in this? For example, consider the hand. There is a purpose in this – the opposable thumb and all that. Or, and I know this will get me in trouble, consider both the male and female anatomy. Is there not purpose in each, in each part that is different one from another? Can this not be considered a Revealed Truth?
And then there is the mind (I know many don’t like the word “soul” when used in a Christian context). That it is what it is, and it is something different than what is found in any other being on earth – does this not reveal some sort of truth? Perhaps man’s place in the hierarchy of creation…whoops, I mean randomly-produced evolution?
Which brings me to the point that this nihilist road must pass through if it is to get to a place where we can be human again: natural law, which is built on the knowledge that there is a purpose for man, that purpose is knowable, it is objectively true, it is revealed based on man’s nature.
…the search for truth outside of Revelation has come to a dead end.
Man without a purpose leaves him in a meaningless condition. Remember, he wrote this about sixty years ago. The dead end was obvious to him then; it has grown overwhelmingly so to many, I would say exploding on the scene with the rise of Jordan Peterson several years ago – and labeled as the meaning crisis by John Vervaeke (I believe).
Truth, solely in the form of propositional knowledge (“science” in the modern meaning), has run its course and has left us empty. Not that propositional knowledge is negative or harmful; just that it isn’t the only form of knowledge, and much of life’s meaning is lost when we limit ourselves to this.
We see the desperation today of those desiring to continue keeping science on top and man as an object to be tamed, caged, manipulated, and dehumanized. The best among them have come to recognize the logical conclusion of their “philosophy”: since we are the result of nothing more than random atoms smashing together randomly, there is no free will, there is no freedom, there is no purpose.
There is no meaning.
…the only position that involves no logical contradictions is the affirmation of an absolute truth which underlies and secures all lesser truths; and this absolute truth can be attained by no relative, human means.
When there is no sure foundation on which to stand, both life and a home will buckle and crack. Absolute truth provides that foundation.
I will only temper the last part of Fr. Rose’s statement: the discovery of natural law from the bottom up is possible, but only to a certain point. It cannot fully grasp man’s highest purpose: love, or other-regarding action. Not love in a bland sense, but love as Jesus commanded.