The following profiles are some examples of famous nihilists,
and people with otherwise notable nihilistic aspects. These
nihilists (with a lower-case ‘n’) for nihilism in the
general philosophical sense, as well as Nihilists (with a
capital ‘N’) representing the active and political form that
this website primarily focuses on. Capitalized Nihilists may
also be categorized as classical Nihilists, like Vera Figner
or Sergei Nechayev, while those of the post-post-modern
variety may be called neo-nihilists, like Marcel Duchamp or
The Red Army Faction.
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10th century BCE
observer can find nihilism in even the most unlikely places. King
Solomon was the son of David, king of Israel and is best known in
mythology as the acme of wisdom, and historically for his empire
building. After accumulating everything any king could want he
realized it was all pretty futile since both the wicked and the
righteous had the same lot in life. Solomon clearly had the
benefit of experience and age, he stated
"the more knowledge, the more
time-off threatening to cleave infants in two he freelanced
proverbs, aphorisms of wisdom as well as a few nihilistic
diatribes on the how life is just chasing the wind and
"everything is meaningless!"
Ecclesiastes is a great book, in it Solomon discusses the
conundrum of justice and the ennui of our brief lives on earth.
But I'm not going to give away the ending conclusion; you'll have
to read it yourself.
[Siddhartha, Gautama Buddha or 'Enlightened One']
Siddhartha was born in Nepal. Eventually burned out and bored with
the hedonistic lifestyle as the privileged son of a warrior caste
ruler in India, Buddha turned to introspection and came up with
the path to enlightenment through love, serenity and especially
that suffering is the common denominator for humankind, meditation
and inner-peace is the logical antidote to eternal external
conflict. Taking this to its full conclusion, corporeal existence
once nullified removes the suffering and leaves nothing
but enlightenment within the ultimate state of nirvana. This is the
goal of Buddhists, the ultimate desire is to achieve nothingness.
Sort of like nihilism turned into religion, more spiritual than logical,
but nonetheless still a virulent affront to the ruling Hindu system.
spoke in Pli but never wrote anything. By using the common
language, instead of the elitist Sanskrit that most couldn't understand,
he included the average person in his sermons, a novel democratic
idea that won converts from the overlooked majority. After all,
anyone can be on the path to enlightenment.
have some amazing ideas, not only considering his historical era
but also giving credit for longevity of the ideas, which I attribute to the remarkable
concept of religion as methodology - 'the path' instead of 'the
faith'. And to this day monuments in his likeness, the big and the
even bigger, litter the entire eastern half of the Asian
continent. And incidentally, sculpture and pictures of Buddha
intend to portray the bliss attributed to the state of nirvana –
facetiously akin to a somniferous drug high, or the original opiate
in Kusinagara in Nepal after eating contaminated ham; and if he'd
survived I'm sure the ninth path would be 'skip the undercooked
who was called
'the nihilist', came from Sicily and went on to fame and fortune as
one of the most successful sophists in Greece. He was so adept at
rhetoric that he verbally negated 'truth' and elevated argumentative
discourse into primacy. Indeed Gorgias claimed to be able to train
others to sway opinion regardless of knowledge of the subject
utilizing his methods of rhetoric alone. One reputed tactic was to
demolish an opponent's seriousness with humor and their humor with
have had a beginning. Its being must have arisen either from
being, or from not-being. If it arose from being, there is no
beginning. If it arose from not-being, this is impossible, since
something cannot arise out of nothing.
– Gorgias, a master of logical maneuvering.
success of rhetoric Gorgias believed that words have relativistic
meanings and since the definitions can change then the meaning
becomes debatable. Rhetoric in this case is thus more important
than any underlying meaning attached to the words; persuasion
negates objective truth since truth is subjective, being defined
by opinion which is variable.
Gorgias and other Greek
sophists represented the beginning of philosophy and the first
conflict between the traditional mystical belief system and a
rational, skeptical view of the natural world. It was as basic as
the difference between a worldview based on emotion and one on
thought. Because the sophists challenged established beliefs they
were often condemned by public authorities and critics as moral
corrupters or worse.
a frenetically transient lifestyle and talking his way out of
evaded both the city-state taxman, made a comfortable sum on
appearance fees long before it became fashionable by unemployed
politicians and washed-up actors, and is reported to have
lived to be over a hundred.
Diogenes of Sinope was a remarkable thinker of classical Greece, one of the
Cynics who were known for defying convention, deriding superstition,
rejecting money and kings, being
scornful of sophisms, and disdainful of Plato. Diogenes concluded
that each individual must be guided by reason; otherwise, they’ll
be led like an animal by a leash.
Reasoned thought can plan ahead and prevent repeated mistakes.
encounter with the egotistical conqueror Alexander the Great,
after being asked if he wanted anything, Diogenes replied,
"Stand a little less between me and the
had a talent for undercutting social and religious conventions and
subverting political power through rhetoric and humor, but his
contentious character wasn’t merely for the sake of rebellion.
Diogenes aimed to promote reason over reaction, and consideration
of action over blind animal instinct.
Kristol is purported to have once called Machiavelli
"the first nihilist".
As we can see from this list here that's probably not the case but
it's still an intriguing and provocative assessment of a notable
character. Machiavelli was a Florentine statesman and a remarkably
observant student of human nature. His book The Prince is
an apt tool for gaining and maintaining political power as well as
the policy making of expediency. Niccolo was a nihilist in the
sense that he didn't allow morality in planning or ethics in his
treatise to obstruct his judgment, although he was certainly aware
of the implications of his endeavor. Consequently he constructed a
product that despite complaints and condemnation remains useful
and accessible to anyone.
used his mastery of history, especially the Roman politicians, to
form patterns and draw logical conclusions. He called 'em as he
saw 'em, a pragmatism perhaps more accurately categorized within
chronology as opportunism but that's just a sign of understandable
ambition. Still the
infamy ascribed to Machiavelli is remarkably inappropriate given
the logical simplicity of his conclusions.
"Men in general judge
rather by the eye than by the hand, for every one can see but few
can touch. Every one sees what you seem, but few know what you are."
was not a justification of authoritarian excess but the political
prudence of a perpetually placated public.
The bottom line is that
it's much easier for the people to prevent abuses of power when
they actually understand how authorities manipulate and misuse it
against them, and this is what makes Machiavelli so important even
[Machiavelli] professed to teach kings; but it was the people he
really taught." –
Herzen referred to Bakunin as the "founder of
Nihilism and apostle of anarchy." “I
am an impossible person," is how Bakunin once described
himself. Thus Mikhail Aleksandrovich Bakunin has been referred to
as the father of both anarchism and nihilism, perhaps an
over-simplification but nonetheless one granted to a very
momentous personality. Born near Moscow into an aristocratic
family he gave up his status and became a radical. Bakunin
rejected philosophy, detested love and sought to destroy harmony
because it meant stagnation and limitation of potential. Indeed
his entire worldview was one of action and rebellion even if
simply for its own sake regardless of aim or goal. A completed
task, be it a revolution, a book, or even a sentence, was anathema to Bakunin because it meant one could go no further, it left nothing
else to do! “We must act, act perpetually in
order to be human … in order to possess real awareness of
ourselves.” The purpose of life to Bakunin resided in the
process not the goal!
refused to accept the limitation of the present and took nothing
for granted. "The commonplace is the most
terrible phantom binding us with vain but strong, invisible
chains.” Bakunin’s view discarded the standard moral,
aesthetic and even emotional elements and distilled everything
down to just thought and revolt!
had a tendency to communicate through platitude and
over-simplification but he really didn’t care because he was
mostly out to incite others to action anyway. When he tried to
explain things in any depth it usually either didn’t work or he
just quit halfway; he didn’t want completion but rather
opportunity. “I cleave to no system, I am,
only a seeker.” Bakunin wasn’t a mountain climber but a
mountain explorer. So, Bakunin’s weakness’ should be fairly
apparent, his denial for its own sake only created a religion of
denial and his rejection of completion and order only left a
broken mess in his wake.
end Bakunin can’t really be categorized anymore than you can
contain fireworks with your hands. Bakunin’s views still burn
today as part of the roots of both anarchism and nihilism.
Back in the
biographies page by popular demand, Nietzsche was a philosopher
and writer that still defies simplistic characterization. Although
in most cases he did not consider himself a nihilist he did
contribute greatly to the concept in its modern form.
that for clarity, Nietzsche definitely did display strong
nihilistic characteristics. Nietzsche was quite unafraid to
venture into dangerous territory and to craft new powerful ideas
while breaking from the burden of tradition and the past. He was a
pioneer of the mind that was unlike any of his contemporaries and
distant leaps away from any antecedents. In a religious era he
broke with God and became an atheist. When most people embraced
self-defeat by believing in a pre-determined, static world,
Nietzsche embraced self-actualization and the burning ambition to
alter human events on a cosmic scale.
Revolutionary era, during the second half of the 19th century, was
characterised by some very fiery personalities like Michael
Bakunin. But if the rest were fiery, Sergei Nechayev was a
For a while
Sergei Nechayev operated in an ideological gray area between
radical anarchism and political nihilism. But after publishing his
'Catechism of a Revolutionist'
and promoting the most violent means to justify a destructive end,
the anarchists expressed concern and trepidation over both
Nechayev's methods and his highly focused and conspicuous lack of
And when it
came to revolutionary focus Nechayev was downright laser-like. His
modus operandi was nihilistic in that he desired destruction of
the polity regardless of any constructive future, or at least it
wasn't a concern for the present. But by placing all the emphasis
upon eliminating the political and social system of oppression and
censorship without offering a vision of superior alternative it
not only limited popular appeal but this manic adherence to the
'Revolutionist' precepts essentially became one of faith anyway.
given the brutal context of feudal Tsarist Russia there was logic
to his methodology because whether you criticized the Tsars
fashion sense or threatened to kill his entire family and the
little dog too, you'd still end up doing the same 20 years of hard
labor when caught by the secret police. Nechayev correctly
surmised the lack of benefit to half-measure within the
Vera Figner was born into a
wealthy family in Kazan Russia. She wanted to become a doctor but
Russian society wouldn’t allow it because she was a woman, so she
left and went to Switzerland to study. In Geneva she met many
other Russians who were frustrated by the backwardness of Russian
society and outraged by the repression and police-state terrorism
inflicted upon anyone that openly questioned Tsarist authority.
Vera rapidly acquired a revolutionary worldview, returned to
Russia, and joined the Land and Liberty revolutionary
group. She subsequently went with the radical People's Will
faction when it split off in 1879. In two years she became the
leader of the group, and then planned the successful assassination of
Tsar Alexander II that occurred in 1881.
Vera Figner had the courage
to challenge a political establishment where property, wealth, and
power were all controlled by a small portion of the population,
elite that used their influence to perpetuate a dysfunctional society
where most Russians lived in severe poverty as feudal slaves. Never one to waste time or
mince words, she always took the direct approach:
“Murder and the gibbet captivated the
imagination of our young people; and the weaker their nerves and
the more oppressive their surroundings, the greater was their
sense of exaltation at the thought of revolutionary terror.”
It's simple cause and effect - you reap what you sow; when the
forces of authority make an environment that disallows peaceful
change, they make violent revolution inevitable.
was a remarkable woman who survived a death-sentence,
prison, exile to Siberia, the Bolshevik revolution, the
Bolshevik’s themselves, and still lived to be over 90.
Marcel Duchamp was a dada
artist whose approach was intentional, calculated, concise, and
even reductionist. Instead of making art through randomness, as
some other dada artists attempted to do, he took the opposite
course and made art through calculation. Hans Richter, a
contemporary of Duchamp, referred to him as
“the nihilist of art”.
His purpose was to
administer a strong purgative to an age riddled with lies — and
to the society which had brought it into being — an age of shame
for which he found an artistic counterpart in the shape of a
Mona Lisa with a moustache.
- Hans Richter, 1964
Duchamp is most famous for
his ‘ready-made’ art where he would take a manufactured object,
sign it, reposition it, and then present it as a finished work.
But this wasn’t a cynical endeavor to exploit a gullible public
for cash, it was an effort to attack and challenge the values
upholding art and establishment society around him. In 1917
Duchamp took a urinal and turned it over, signed it 'R. Mutt' and
submitted it to an art show! His ready-mades weren’t meant to be
admired in an aesthetic sense and because of this he challenged
the belief in art as something holy and placed on a high pedestal,
art as something distant and divorced from life.
It's interesting to note
that Duchamp did not agree with the attitudes and direction taken
by Pop Art and Neo-Dada that arrived several decades later.
Although those newer art movements took many of the concepts from
dada art (1916-1922), instead of being anti-establishment and
anti-authority, as dada was, Pop Art only created a new
entertainment commodity for the wealthy to consume.
In a letter dated November
10, 1962 Marcel Duchamp wrote: “This
Neo-Dada, which they call New Realism, Pop Art, Assemblages, etc.,
is an easy way out, and lives on what Dada did. When I discovered
ready-mades I thought to discourage aesthetics. In Neo-Dada they
have taken my ready-mades and found aesthetic beauty in them. I
threw the bottle-rack and the urinal into their faces as a
challenge and now they admire them for their aesthetic beauty."
Although he didn't think of himself as a
revolutionary, nonetheless Andy Warhol had some revolutionary ideas
and much of his artwork had a subtle nihilistic character. Undeniably he was
very misunderstood artist and individual (a common trait of
Nihilists) and part of the reason for that was his tendency to
verbally obfuscate explanations and basically sham the
interviewers that continually tried to figure out what Warhol was
all about. Also, many of the people that swarmed around him were there
to leech of his notoriety more than anything else, and this created
an undeserved sense of guilt by association towards Warhol.
any other major artist before him Warhol strove to achieve a value-neutral
state characterized by impersonal artistic production. He wanted to make one image that could be copied as many times
as desired so that each one would be a masterpiece, so that
everyone could have their own masterpiece.
feelings, seemed not to exist for Warhol. He registered race
riots, suicides, airplane crashes, the atomic bomb, the electric
chair with the same cool detachment that he brought to registering
soup cans, revolvers, flowers and Brillo boxes. The medium was
either newsprint or photography, which for Warhol, who
occasionally saw himself in the role of a camera even when he was
nor using one, was just as important as film.
took the concept of 'nothing' and turned it into 'something'. His
art wasn't art, it was anti-art; something to fill up empty
spaces; it was taking nothing and filling it with something -
turning nothing into something! He said,
"Ideas are nothing".
In a sense he believed in what was not there, a philosophy
of anti-philosophy. He was even nihilist when it came to
traditional values - he confidently asserted that he was married
to his tape recorder!
The Red Army Faction
The Rote Armee Fraktion
(RAF), more commonly known as the Baader Meinhof Gang, was
a revolutionary group founded by Andreas
"the whole system is shit" Baader and journalist Ulrike
Meinhof in West Germany around 1968. Amidst an environment of
student-led protest and government/corporate-created carnage in
Southeast Asia, the RAF fought back against oppressive powers,
leaving a trail of targeted violence and destruction while
branching out to connect with other European and Middle Eastern
The intent of the RAF was
to create an atmosphere of instability in West Germany in order to
expose the Federal government as a tyrannical regime masked behind rhetoric of being a democracy. The RAF
saw the German public as a reactionary mass that had been usurped
by consumerism into serving the commercial capitalist enterprise.
As a consequence they concluded that individual expressions of
revolutionary action could ignite a new social consciousness.
In the process the West
German government became even more authoritarian, nullifying legal
rights to stomp out the 'Red menace' without a second thought.
Despite numerous brazen and
high-profile actions the RAF succumbed to tactical and strategic
mistakes, alienating some of their public support base and leading
to the arrest of their main leaders, while struggling against an
increasingly fearful, safety-seeking populace. But ultimately, it
was the end of the Vietnam War and a general change in social and
political climate that eroded their momentum. Nonetheless, the RAF
had a remarkable cohesion and intensity that made them the most
enduring urban revolutionary group in the western world, lasting
around 30 years, while transcending social mores and trite
political categories of left and right to move beyond into a realm
of socio-political nihilism.
See also, film review:
Baader Meinhof Complex
|The Sex Pistols
Hey-hey, remember that day, in
1976, when London town was BORing - until along came this!
The Sex Pistols included Johnny Rotten, Steve
Jones, Glen Matlock, Paul Cook and Sid Vicious, while the band
concocted its name as an intentional amalgam of sex and
violence; so they were like a scam that somehow managed to earn
its own legitimacy. They were self proclaimed anarchists (and
antichrists) but if nihilism was as much a well-known slogan as
anarchism I wouldn't be surprised if they'd proclaimed
Gimme World War III we can
completely unafraid to write and sing something that would get
them booted from a label, so take that all you shrink-wrapped
alterna-rock bands! I mean who else would do a song called 'Belsen
Vos a Gassa'? On The Great Rock and Roll Swindle CD, just
about every song has a different label. These guys changed
record labels more often than their clothing! And sure they
couldn't play for shit (or Sid couldn't anyway) but that just
demonstrates that it's not the product, it's the attitude that
matters in the public consciousness. And by that standard the
Sex Pistols are easily the biggest group ever. OK maybe it's not
quite that black and white but you get the idea.
There is an unlimited supply
contempt for the world is the most gratifying element to this
Nihilist, and indeed the Sex Pistols were against just about
everyone but one of their favorite targets was the Record
industry long before it was fashionable. Indeed it's an even
more poignant criticism today given the rampant monopolistic
control exerted to limit supply for ever greater profits.
there's no future
How can there be sin
We're the flowers in the dustbin
We're the poison in your human machine
We're the future, you're future
A Different Way of
Started by Inna
Shevchenko of the Ukraine, FEMEN are a radical group of
unconventional revolutionaries who call themselves ‘sextremists’
and non-violently attack the sources of contemporary cultural
and economic problems, focusing on patriarchy and calling for an
end to religions, dictatorships and the sex industry. FEMEN's
actions usually involve planned demonstrations and (often
imaginative) public protests against the people and symbols of
One of the main goals is to take the
masks off people who wear them, to show who they are, and the
level of fucking patriarchy in this world, you know?
– Inna Shevchenko
FEMEN are the 21st
century’s version of the 19th century Russian
Nihilists. The movement’s particular power is the ability to
send a message that gets heard (and seen). FEMEN knows how to
get the public’s attention, and they’ve accurately identified
and proceeded to attack the core of our worldwide trouble: the
swamp of outmoded and flawed cultural values and the
authoritarian people that promote regression and ignorance for
Maybe it's strange to say this – I
know some people already think we're kamikaze – but that's why
I now say I'm more of an activist than a person, because I
know that tomorrow I could be killed.
and more nihilists
Here's a brief list of notable persons
who've been referred to and/or act as nihilists:
Samuel Beckett - Irish novelist and dramatist whose pessimistic
productions are sometimes considered nihilistic.
Luis Buñuel - film maker
Arthur Craven (born name Fabian Lloyd) - author, adventurer,
showman, dada precursor
John Dewey - social
Ernest Hemingway -
Bill Hicks - comedian
H.P. Lovecraft - famous author, Cosmicism
David Lynch - film maker and artist
Chuck Palahniuk -
author of Fight Club
Dmitrii Pisarev - 19th century Russian
Ted Rall - political cartoonist
Trent Reznor - musician (Nine Inch
Arthur Schopenhauer: depressive pessimist
philosopher, often considered nihilistic
Dr. Walter Serner - dada author of 'Final
Max Stirner - author of The Ego and his Own
Hunter S. Thompson - author, journalist
David Thrussell - musician (SNOG)
Tristan Tzara - artist and author (dada)
And these ones, suggested to me as
nihilist candidates, are non-English language-based, obscure,
or (nearly) forgotten. Send me a message if you have any
further information or comments:
Albert Caraco - Turkish-French philosopher and writer
Charles Baudelaire - French poet
Emil Cioran: Romanian-French philosopher
Eugène Ionesco - Romanian-French dramatist
Gérard de Nerval - French poet
Nihil Messtavic - author of 19th century book:
La clef d'argent
Stephane Mallarmé - French poet
In his 1861 novel Fathers
and Sons, Ivan Turgenev stated,
"A nihilist is a
person who does not bow down to any authority,
who does not accept any principle on faith,
however much that principle may be revered." And as one
regards everything from the critical point of
view." Bad Religion
once did a song titled The
standards or questioning the established rules,
trying to understand how they can better fit you..." yet another apt description for a
So, a Nihilist rejects faith but
also teleology, meaning such fictions as fate and destiny.
Furthermore, a Nihilist:
to understand purpose and human nature
within objective context.
free minds and free thought.
to vitiate all authority that demands
allegiance to a faith or ideology, and
punishes challenges to that belief.
by example. People like me are the worst
nightmares of corrupt authority; I work
for no one but myself, no one owns me and
I can't be bought. I have a mind and a
voice, I use both, and I call a 'spade' a
'spade'. I can and do say what I want
when I want and if I'm wrong I listen to
the opposing argument and make a reasoned
decision. And that's the way we should
1.Dada art and anti-art, by Hans Richter, 1964,
translated from the German by David Blitt, pages 207-208, Thames
& Hudson world of art, 2004.
2. Art of the 20th Century Volume I, by Karl Ruhrberg,
2005, page 323, Taschen GmbH.