The most intelligent minds of our age do not find theism as a reasonable choice and many smart people have a tendency to willingly or inadvertently destroy what is seemingly good for them. These are two simple contentions that came up during exchanges with two different friends this week. Given the room to disagree with both the contentions, there is indeed a lot of underlying truth. In my view, from a contemporary perspective, even though both the contentions seem different at first glance, they are in fact two different aspects of the same modern phenomenon.
Needless to argue that there are no stringent universal principles that define the most basic human disposition, just as there are no universal definitions of notions like reason and and objectivity. All of us have our share of craziness, irrationality and subjectivity all the time, albeit in varying degrees. Speaking about the extremity of this spectrum, insanity, madness and nihilistic tendencies are also manifestations of an allegedly darker or twisted side of human nature.
Regardless of its expression, one characteristic of this disposition is persistent denial of norm; any kind of norm, may it be the social, moral, ethnic or religious. Since antiquity, from the time of great Greek sophists, highly intellectual people, including sages, philosophers and prophets, have been consistently depicting this tendency to grapple with this urge for denial, as opposed to those who are perhaps seemingly a little low on the intellectual curve, and thus not equipped to challenge the established norm through reason. In any case, this urge to deny has always been supported with diverse rational grounds, such as spiritual dictates of the self, desired social good against an existing tyranny or revelation of new religion.
With the advent of modernity, however, this same urge to deny has transformed itself into two novel dimensions, that is, 1) the ontic dimension wherein the modern individual has gone to the extent of denying his own existence and 2) the epistemic dimension wherein the denial is manifested in the form of absolute disregard of any modes of knowledge beyond empiricism. The first part of this exposition deals with the former dimension, that is, nihilism.
I have failed not only to become spiteful – but to become anything else for that matter: vicious or kind, scoundrel or honest man, hero or insect. And now I am living out my days in my corner, taunting myself with the vicious and useless consolation that an intelligent man of the nineteenth century can’t seriously make himself into anything and that only a fool can succeed in making himself into something. Yes, sir, an intelligent man of the nineteenth century must be – indeed is morally bound to be – essentially a creature without character. - Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground 
Isn’t it interesting that when a layman like me tries to recall any notable suicidal accounts of antiquity, the only names that immediately come to mind are the peculiarly motivated instances such as Marcus Antonius and Cleopatra; or, the ones which are committed under duress, such as drinking of hemlock by Socrates; or what is sociologically termed as an egoistic suicide, such as the one committed by Cato the Younger or Hannibal?
Indeed there are many more such accounts for more or less similar reasons. However, regardless of the specific data throwing some light on the socio-psychological motives from the ancient as well as pre-modern times, I want to contend that if it was not for French (and later Russian) obsession with popularizing, what has been regarded as a social deviance during antiquity and middle ages, we might not have been introduced to the notion of plausibility of suicide as a valid moral choice. Therefore it is not startling that every child of modernity is kind of awed (if not completely obsessed) by the suicides of highly enlightened and extraordinary gifted intellectuals such as Sylvia Plath, Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf or David Foster Wallace.
It was perhaps Durkheim’s 1897 masterpiece , which brought the phenomenon of suicide from the accidental, emotive and provocative domains to a more formal ambit of statistical sociology and therapeutic domains. According to Ian Hacking, who tries to put various modern and post-modern in the statistical context , the earliest recorded English and French instances of the word occur somewhere around 1651 and 1734, respectively. But even before Voltaire’s first usage of the word in 1739, enlightenment gave way to a kind of ‘anticlerical’ tradition which exerted peculiar thematic influences, which not only created spaces for viewing the phenomenon from new moral and rational standpoints, but also vaguely defended it as a moral choice, albeit a radical one.
Therefore, it is no wonder that since the formative period of the so-called age of enlightenment, there is no dearth of expression of awe in the literature. Hence, whether it is Voltaire’s defence of Cato the Younger and his suicide , Thomas More’s recommendation of voluntary suicide in his Utopia , Montaigne’s reference to Roman reverence for their heroes who committed suicide  or Hume’s strong challenge to classical Thomistic arguments , an individual’s choice for self-annihilation is a recurring theme in the whole enlightenment literature.
But post-formative literary movements of 19th and 20th century, supplied two fresh perspectives to whole moral and rational enquiry around existential nihilism.
One, that there is inherently no universal meaning in life except that the ultimately authority providing the essential basis of meaning rests with the individual. Consequently, man is essentially and incessantly confronting the absurd. Due to this sheer meaninglessness, the concepts like good, bad, love or hate are merely the abstract manifestations of the universal ‘absurd’ and therefore, nothing but ludicrous. Hence, whether its the underground man of Dostoevsky, the new man – the essential rejecter of Turgenev or the ‘condemned’ hero of Sartre or Albert Camus, all are perplexed between their being and nothingness .
Two, that this meaninglessness of life is not just an inherent absurd characteristic but there is also an underlying element of rationality to it. Therefore, we see, for instance as in the case of Dostoevsky’s man under the floorboards, that the absurdity is not only provoking perplexity but also a kind of natural response to celebrate the very acknowledgement of this psychological condition. Hence, we see that the nihilist – the ‘new man’ – is not only emerging as a self-annihilating idol but also as a supra-intelligent agent which rises above the ordinary intelligence of his so-called social interlocutors and denies the whole existence of the cosmos with full force.
What is important to note that both these dimensions of nihilism are not just the logical imports from philosophies of enlightenment but are quickly being backed by a more scientific post-modern discourse. Therefore, it should not be surprising for an observant reader aware with modern scientific developments that modern human being is increasingly being studied through the lens, which have been primarily used to study the animals in pre-modern societies. Modern evolutionary psychology is quickly transforming itself into a religion, giving way to a cult of self-worship .
A logical import of these scientific developments combined with the existentialist/ nihilistic philosophies is that the modern man is essentially born to be pleased , unlike the pre-modern man who was essentially born to be good and consequently, saved. Just like Dostoevsky or Sartre’s hero, a modern man is always trapped between social-alienation and a kind of lethal narcissism. His ultimate aim is to somehow find a way to tackle his perennial confrontation with boredom. In the words of David Foster Wallace,
The underlying bureaucratic key is the ability to deal with boredom. To function effectively in an environment that precludes everything vital and human. To breathe, so to speak, without air. The key is the ability, whether innate or conditioned, to find the other side of the rote, the picayune, the meaningless, the repetitive, the pointlessly complex. To be, in a word, unborable. It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish .
The following part of this exposition would attempt to study the same original question from the second perspective, that is, how post-modern sensibilities have given way to agnosticism and atheism as a completely rational and valid moral choice.
- The translation is from Kyril Zinovieff and Jenny Hughes, the version published by Oneworld Classics.
- Émile Durkheim (1897), Suicide.
- Ian Hacking (1990), The Taming of Chance.
- Voltaire, Philosophical Dictionary, Part II: Cato. On Suicide, and the Abbe St. Cyran’s Book Legitimating Suicide.
- Thomas More, Utopia.
- Michel De Montaigne, The Complete Essays. It is interesting to note that the word for ‘suicide’ did not exist in French in 1580. For an interesting analysis, please refer to Patrick Henry, The Dialectic of Suicide in Montaigne’s “Coustume de l’Isle de Cea”, The Modern Language Review, Vol. 79, No. 2 (Apr., 1984), pp. 278-289.
- David Hume (1783), Of Suicide.
- The existentialist/ nihilist themes are continuously explored by the mentioned writers. Some representative fictional works are for instance, Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground; Turgenev, Fathers and Sons; Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea; and Albert Camus, The Stranger.
- Paul C. Vitz (1979), Psychology as Religion: The
Cult of Self-Worship.
- Philip Rieff (1987), The Triumph of the Thera
- David Foster Wallace, The Pale King.