Despite some earlier anticipations, nihilism is a peculiarly modern phenomenon that first emerged around the middle of the 19th century in Europe and Russia. The word derives from the Latin nihil, meaning “nothing.” Although it is a complex phenomenon with a complicated history, more generally nihilism is the belief that nothing really matters and that everything is ultimately meaningless. In the words of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the nihilist views human life and history as a tale full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Nihilism, thus, appears as the obverse of the metaphysical or theological belief in a meaningful, rational cosmos, found in the philosophical teachings of Plato, Aristotle, and many others, as well as in the belief systems of virtually all religions.

If nihilism represents ...

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