Compared to the Christian Middle Ages, our world is pretty much without compass. By this I do not mean that we should return to the beliefs held during that time – not only would this be anachronistic, but it would conflict fundamentally (and probably violently) with the techno-scientific tenor of the present era. I simply mean that there was a kind of “unified”, theocentric framework that everyone took more or less for granted, and it was the source, broadly speaking, of “meaning” in their lives. For better or worse, they did not face what one might call an “existential vacuum”, as is arguably the case today.

With the waning of the medieval era humanity gradually entered the modern period, which was dominated by the rise of the nation state, and more fundamentally, by the emergence of reason and its product, science, as the forces shaping the world, until about the middle of the 20th century, when what is commonly referred to as postmodernity incrementally made its appearance. While the first two historical eras both rested on a central idea-framework of sorts – which gave people of the time something in relation to which they could “find a place” in the world, even if they argued incessantly about it – the present one (postmodernity) provides no such solace.

Its overriding characteristic is one of fragmentation at every level (cultural, social, theoretical, ethnic, and so on), except perhaps for one, namely the prevailing economic system (which thrives on difference and fragmentation as opportunities for profit-making, as Hardt and Negri demonstrate in Empire). Postmodernity, in other words, lacks an “existential compass” comparable to those governing the preceding two eras.

The other day I had an experience which impressed upon me just how rudderless the world (or the society) in which we live really is. I was talking to a young man who had recently been given the means to pull himself out of a difficult personal patch which had caused his parents a great deal of worry because, as is often the case today, it went hand in hand with the use of drugs. Eventually the young man was assisted in gaining a measure of equilibrium again by a traditional medicine-man who practises “past-life therapy” and convinced him that he had had past lives in which he had been something or someone distinct, and presumably to which or whom he had to be faithful.

From a purely pragmatic point of view the therapy has been successful, because someone who, a short while ago, was psychically adrift, clutching at the proverbial straws (some of them of a narcotic variety, with potentially damaging neural and cerebral effects), has attained an even keel again, and comes across as being confident and stable. When he assured me that he was “a tiger”, however, while his girlfriend was “a wolf” (in their respective past lives), and asked me how that made me feel, all that I could honestly say was that I admired his powers of imagination.

Clearly this was not the answer he had been anticipating, and his disappointment deepened when I proceeded, as best I could (without offending him) to debunk the idea of “past-life therapy” as belonging squarely in the province of the Lacanian imaginary, and instead of assisting someone to face their own lives resolutely, encouraged them to take refuge in a fiction which actually distracts and alienates them from the one life that is theirs.

Needless to say, this upset him considerably, and indignantly he asked me whether I was trying to persuade him that all there is to his existence is that his parents had sex and he was the result. My answer could only be that, if he needed to believe in himself as having been something “before” his parents got together in order to have a sense of a meaningful life, he was looking in the wrong direction. It is our present actions, in the light of our future-directedness and anticipation, and not our belief about “repeating the past” endlessly, which ultimately infuses meaning into our lives.

In order to encourage him to continue actively finding (or rather, generating) meaning in his life, minus the redundant distraction of an untenable pseudo-therapeutic mythology, I introduced him to Nietzsche’s evocative distinction between passive nihilism and active nihilism (nihilism: the claim that there is no [pre-given] meaning in life). In both cases someone first notices that the systems of “meaning” (religious, political, ideological) that they always took for granted, amount to nothing more than convention (tacit agreement among members of groups that such systems are somehow “true”), and that, as a consequence, there is no such thing as pre-fabricated “meaning”.

The difference is that the “passive” nihilist is so disconcerted by the realization, that all values rest on the thin air of convention (what Nietzsche calls the “abyss” of non-meaning), that, as Nietzsche puts it, they turn around and run straight back into the arms of the priests (where “priests” represents, metonymically, the most widely accepted convention of his time), pretending that nothing has changed.

By contrast the “active” nihilist, who also notices the chasm of non-meaning, instead of promptly embracing convention once more, prefers to “dance upon” the abyss. This is Nietzsche’s poetic way of saying that one is capable of “creating” or generating meaning where there is none to begin with, and that embracing conventional belief-systems is not the only option one has. The crucial question, of course, is whether such active meaning-creation – through the practice of art, architecture, philosophy, mathematics, engineering, or any other discipline one might pursue; or, for that matter, creatively bringing up one’s children (which presupposes that one has the creative, meaning-generating resources to do so), or practising a craft or “trade” such as gardening or carpentry – can pass the test of being-with-others. (Arguably Nietzsche addresses this question in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, where Zarathustra’s “animals” [which are “of the earth”] may be understood as comprising such a “community” that is receptive to Zarathustra’s active nihilism.)

By this I mean that “up to a point” it is accurate to say that one should “create meaning” in one’s life, because no one else is going to; and if you discover that your life’s meaningfulness depends crucially on someone else, such as your children, or wife, or husband, this should be a wake-up call; what will happen when they are no longer there? But only up to a point: one runs the risk of painting yourself into an existential corner, as it were, if your creative activity involves only yourself. For all intents and purposes you may turn out to be what the ancient Greeks thought of as being an “idiot”, or someone who lived in the closed circle of their own ideas (as good a definition of “insanity” as any).

The question, in other words, is whether the fruit of your active nihilism is open, or lends itself to, intersubjective confirmation and agreement, or dissent and questioning, regarding its viability. By which I do NOT mean that everyone should agree (or disagree) on what it means, or stands for, but simply that one should be able to conduct a sensible conversation, or dialogue about its epistemic status. And the more it lends itself to debate and differences in interpretation (themselves opportunities for “creative nihilism”), the richer or more fruitful it is, because anything with only one “indisputable” meaning is blatantly of an ideological nature.

I don’t know if the young man in question got anything out of our conversation. It was clear that he was in dire need of an existential “compass” for navigating his life in this complex, often confusing world, and all I was trying to do was to disabuse him of one that paradoxically located such a compass in a fictional place beyond this life. I believe that Nietzsche’s “active nihilism” does constitute one such “compass”; one with which one can face up to the vicissitudes of human life.

Anyone interested in pursuing this question further could read my paper, “Nietzsche, immortality, singularity and eternal recurrence”, South African Journal of Philosophy, 26 (1), 2007, pp.70-84.


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.


Bert Olivier

As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it...

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