More specifically existential nihilism (the most commonly presented form) which is defined by Alan Pratt as arguing that life is without objective meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value.
Shakespeare summarizes existential nihilism from a pessimistic perspective near the end of Macbeth when Macbeth spouts his disgust for life:
Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more; it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
While I’m sure most kids who read Macbeth in school fail to realize that he is referring to nihilism, I’m certain that most people today are familiar with this other non-flattering definition of nihilism.
But what really is nihilism? And what do nihilists feel? I mean certainly all nihilists don’t just want to die, that would certainly be a sad existence. Instead nihilism to me is freeing, it’s like removing the roof and the floor on life. Instead of anything having intrinsic meaning it has no meaning but your own and other people’s meaning (and you can accept or reject other people’s meaning). Instead your life and what goes on it it has no purpose, so you can mold it to your liking.
Really what I’m trying to say is that nihilism isn’t as crazy as it’s been made out to be. Instead nihilism is more about accepting the world for how it is. As a dumpster diver it quickly becomes impossible to believe any object has any intrinsic meaning. And as an anthropology major it quickly becomes impossible to believe there is any intrinsic morality (you can also get this view by reading the news). Nothing is sacred, nothing has inherent value. The final part of nihilism is that life has no intrinsic meaning, I’m sure that most people have already discovered that as they try and figure out a purpose for their own life.
Nihilism for me frees me of expectations, guilt and many societal pressures and lets me do what I want. A good deal of my friends are nihilists and some have brought this same exact point. This liberation enables you do what you are passionate about instead of what you feel pressured to and what you feel needs to be done. Doing what you want makes for a much happier self and for better interactions with others since you’ll be genuinely interested in something instead of doing it out of guilt or a perception that you must do it for the good of society or what not.
I will say there are negatives that negate some of the positives of nihilism. Nihilism for isolated folks isn’t the best because the emotional floor seems to be gone since their is nothing to rely on, believe in, or reason to live, which can cause some to plummet quite far. This also explains the MacBeth quote about wanting to kill himself because there is no meaning to life.
I must add though, while I love nihilism dearly and consider myself an anarcho-nihilist I feel weird and even bad talking about it with others who aren’t nihilists. When I talk about nihilism I cannot help but try and explain why I am one and I feel as though I come of as trying evangelize people (even if they don’t perceive this is happening). I always try to make it clear that I don’t want to convert anyone. If someone is on the path already I will always entertain this conversation but I have less than no desire to convert people to this understanding. I just can’t believe that this philosophy is right for everyone.
Interestingly Nietzsche (who is well known philosopher who wrote much about nihilism, though wasn’t a nihilist himself) had a somewhat optimistic view of nihilism’s effect on society, one that is similar to mine, but certainly more developed.
I praise, I do not reproach, [nihilism’s] arrival. I believe it is one of the greatest crises, a moment of the deepest self-reflection of humanity. Whether man recovers from it, whether he becomes master of this crisis, is a question of his strength. It is possible. . . . (Complete Works Vol. 13)
I guess only time will tell if humanity can take this self-reflection, whether humanity can look in the mirror at this horrible thing we call humankind and recover from it. I feel nihilism growing in this world with it being seen through increased presence of disillusionment and disinterest in people. It seem like all we can do as nihilism grows is to embrace the self-reflection, at this point we certainly can’t stop it, though some may try.