Often when people fear hell, they fear it in the sense of an afterlife of eternal torment, or, perhaps more sophisticatedly, eternal separation from God. As others have noted, though, hell exists on earth in a variety of forms. For example, you can read Sartre’s “No Exit” as making the case that “hell is other people.” As an introvert, I find that line of thinking attractive, but I think a more pressing form of hell on earth is putting one’s effort, ones being, into a daily existence that faces some form of nihilism. Nihilism in the sense that nothing that exists and nothing that one may do has any meaning or significance. I take it that anyone who has been tempted by, or succumbed to, nihilism knows how this is hell, and how it can make all the other hells all the more hellish. Suffering, whether other people, a kidney stone, or a broken heart, can feel all the more hellish when the loss is simultaneously (paradoxically?) experienced as meaningful and yet for nothing.
There are various reasons we might point to for thinking that life is without meaning, without significance. The sheer transitoriness of things may get you there, particularly the idea of death without an afterlife. The line of thought that begins with “This part of my life, or life in general, is only significant if it is taken by someone to be significant. Right now, I take it as significant, but one day I will be no more. Thus, when I am gone, it will all be without significance.” It is little consolation that others might carry on the “taking as significant,” since, for one, they are themselves mortal and given enough time, my life will fade from the collective memory, and for another, not everyone is privy to what I have experienced, what I have found to be important. In this vein, Hans Küng regarding writes:
Simone de Beauvoir…, growing old, finished the third volume of her memoirs, Force of Circumstance, with a review of the life she had so passionately affirmed: “Yet I loathe the thought of annihilating myself quite as much now as I ever did. I think with sadness of all the books I’ve read, all the places I’ve seen, all the knowledge I’ve amassed and that will be no more. All the music, all the paintings, all the culture, so many places: and suddenly nothing…. If it had at least enriched the earth; if it had given birth to…what? A hill? A rocket? But no. Nothing will have taken place, I can still see the hedge of hazel trees flurried by the wind and the promises with which I fed my beating heart while I stood gazing at the gold-mine at my feet: a whole life to live. The promises have all been kept. And yet, turning an incredulous gaze towards that young and credulous girl, I realize with stupor how much I was gypped.” (p693, From Hans Küng, Does God Exist?)
Another reason for nihilism is, as Nietzsche suspected, the death of God. One reason why is that one function a God such as the Judeo-Christian one plays is as a transcendental source of meaning. Everything of this world is perishable (and corrupt), but God stands outside the world, eternal and perfect. If our transitory, imperfect lives could participate in some form of Godliness, then they have the chance to signify something of True Significance. But with God dead, that possibility is nullified.
Further along Nietzschean lines, if we think about Nietzsche’s idea of hollow idols, the ones sounded out with the tap, tap, tap of the philosophical hammer, then we might say that many people who today still affirm God, affirm an idol, a hollow remnant of meaningful existence. That is, when one’s religion is centered around oppressing others in God’s name, whether in the form of anti-abortion protests and the harassment (and even murder) of abortion clinic workers and clients, or anti-LGBTQIA campaigns, etc., all while amassing or attempting to amass material fortune, then we have good reason to question the significance of such a religious life, and whether it could be considered Godly in the way needed to signify transcendental meaning.
But the central reason Nietzsche understood the death of God to lead to (suicidal) nihilism is because of suffering and the question of its meaning. Nietzsche writes that humanity’s problem, “was not suffering itself, but that there was no answer to the crying question, ‘why do I suffer?’…The meaninglessness of suffering, not suffering itself, was the curse that lay over mankind so far—” (Genealogy of Morals, III 28). As I have discussed elsewhere, Nietzsche reads Christianity as providing an answer to the question of the meaning of suffering by way of the ascetic ideal and the ascetic priest. The ascetic ideal is a valorization of self-denial: “The three great slogans of the ascetic ideal are familiar: poverty, humility, chastity”(Genealogy of Morals, III 8). Humans are creatures of desire, creatures whose instincts go against the ascetic ideal. Seeing this, the ascetic priest uses it to give meaning to suffering: suffering is punishment for going against the ascetic ideal. Man is made to feel guilty for transgressing the ascetic ideal—man as sinner deserves to suffer. With this, not only does suffering acquire meaning, one actually welcomes more suffering. Through the “sorcery” of the ascetic priest, “one no longer protested against pain, one thirsted for pain; ‘more pain! more pain!’ the desire of his disciples and initiates has cried for centuries” (Genealogy of Morals, III 20). Thus, with the death of God and the concomitant picture of the world as fallen, etc., suffering, according to Nietzsche, loses its meaning. Faced with a life of meaningless suffering, we are thrust into a world drained of meaning more generally. This is not a thought isolated to Nietzsche. In Man’s Search For Meaning, holocaust survivor Viktor E. Frankl writes, “In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice….That is why man is even ready to suffer, on the condition, to be sure, that his suffering has a meaning” (117). A life filled with meaningless suffering is simply too much to bear.
Nietzsche offers an alternative ideal in response to the loss of the ascetic ideal as a means to stave off (suicidal) nihilism: the eternal recurrence. One so radically affirms life in the face of all its vicissitudes that one would be willing to live it again and again:
The ideal of the most high-spirited, alive, and world-affirming human being who has not only come to terms and learned to get along with whatever was and is, but who wants to have what was and is repeated into all eternity, shouting insatiably da capo—not only to himself but to the whole play and spectacle…. (Beyond Good and Evil, 56)
It is not clear whether this radical affirmation is supposed to produces a life of meaning or whether it is a kind of radical spitefulness. At times, his alternative ideal seems grounded in the desire so many of us have to be exceptional, since Nietzsche thinks that it is only the higher types of humankind that can muster the strength for such a radical affirmation of life. And, don’t YOU, want to be a higher type? But, regardless, Nietzsche takes himself to be offering up the only alternative to the failed ascetic ideal in history.
I want here at the end to suggest another alternative, or at least an alternative way of looking at things, one that is clearly indebted to Nietzsche’s analysis, and that of others, however. I want to suggest that nihilism is only able to get a foothold on us when our first and foremost concern is ourselves, the meaning of our own lives, our own suffering. When we consider the suffering of others (aright), we cannot but be moved to take as meaningful the act of helping, the compassionate act—and by extension, the life of compassionate activity becomes a life imbued with meaning. Self-compassion is, in the beginning at least, too foreign—moreover, and more importantly, our own suffering, taken as central, is what leads back into self-interest, back into egoism. A life spent attempting to alleviate, first and foremost, one’s own suffering is one that must be filled with suffering—as it is rooted in self-interest—characterized by the chant of, “Why me? Why me?” We think: If life is nothing but struggle, then it is nothing worth living. And this is vitally different from Nietzsche’s saying, “the ascetic ideal says you suffer by your own hand, your sinfulness.” “Sin” covers the real ground of nihilism, since sin is the outward manifestation of ego. One can strive to live a life without sin, a life of “doing the right thing,” but that is no guarantee that one’s life is not centered around the ego. Consider the motivation of a life lived free of sin: is it only to avoid hell and to be rewarded with heaven? Or is it because we recognize the value of a good will?
One might object that given the other reasons for nihilism mentioned above, why would we view it as meaningful to help others whose lives are themselves meaningless? As an initial response, I want to say that nihilism is the product of reflection; it is not something immediately apprehended absent a background of other considerations. By contrast, unless one is a sociopath in the clinical sense or in the sense that can be engendered by a consumerist or racist or sexist, etc. society, when we view the suffering of another, we immediately apprehend it as something of significance, something that demands something from us. That is the ground of meaning, and, in its connection to compassion, it is the ground of the good, and the ground of the holy.