The roots of nihilism.

Author:Barker, Mark J.
Position:Correspondence - Letter to the Editor

Many thanks to David B. Hart for his exquisitely written, magisterial article, "Christ and Nothing" (October 2003).

If I may nuance the article's thesis: to posit nihilism in the ancient world is not free of a certain anachronism. Should one nonetheless seek to uncover the roots of nihilism in ancient Greek thought, one would need to unearth them in atomistic materialism (regarding Nietzsche), or in Protagoras (regarding Hiedegger's pseudo-ethics of "authenticity"). Contemporary nihilism is rightly linked by Mr. Hart to the absolute primacy of freedom of choice (and not freedom of determination, though that is another story). Culturally, this freedom is being played out in terms of materialistic Epicureanism in one form or another (utilitarian, hedonistic, etc.).

Mr. Hart attempts to escry the roots of nihilistic dialectic in Platonic dualism. Although I think that he grants too much to Nietzschean animus and Heideggerian historico-epistemology on this point, the Platonic physical universe is indeed portrayed as one of deceptive illusions. But to label the relationship between act and potency as "dialectic" would seem to overlook the whole point of these two meta-physical principles, which must be understood in the light of final, and not merely efficient, causality, if one accepts Aristotle's claim that potency is in view of act. As for the alleged Neoplatonic nihilism, even if one were to grant it, it would be in terms of the Pseudo-Dionysian apophasis regarding God which has borne perennial fruit in mystical theology. Both the rejection of teleology and ersatz mysticism are unmistakably at the root of Nietzscheo-Heideggerian nihilism.

When Christ meets Pilate, the focal point is indeed the question of truth, as evidenced by the divinely noble affirmation: "I was born and came into the world to bear witness to the truth" (John 18:37). But the philosopher cannot help but be reminded of Socrates before his accusers. Mr. Hart's reflection could be enriched by stressing the striking proximity between revealed truth and philosophical truth, especially in their "happy marriage" in Aquinas. The divorce occasioned by Luther and the Reformation is clearly at the root of contemporary nihilism. Nietzsche's hatred of religion was something of a reaction to the harsh reprobating God of his Protestant youth, and Heidegger eventually became a nondenominational Protestant after leaving the Catholic Church, since he did not see the former as in any way...

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