Understanding as nihilism.

from The Rebel by Albert Camus nonfiction ~3 min read

The nihilism of the 1860’s began, apparently, with the most radical negation imaginable: the rejection of any action that was not purely egoistic. We know that the very term nihilism was invented by Turgeniev in his novel Fathers and Sons, whose hero, Bazarov, was an exact portrayal of this type of man. Pisarev, when he wrote a criticism of this book, proclaimed that the nihilists recognized Bazarov as their model. “We have nothing,” said Bazarov, “to boast about but the sterile knowledge of understanding, up to a certain point, the sterility of what exists.” “Is that,” he was asked, “what is called nihilism?” “Yes, that is what is called nihilism.” Pisarev praises Bazarov’s attitude, which for the sake of clarity he defines thus: “I am a stranger to the order of existing things, I have nothing to do with it.” Thus the only value resides in rational egoism.

In denying everything that is not satisfaction of the self, Pisarev declares war on philosophy, on art, which he considers absurd, on erroneous ethics, on religion, and even on customs and on good manners. He constructs a theory of intellectual terrorism which makes one think of the present-day surrealists. Provocation is made into a doctrine, but on a level of which Raskolnikov provides the perfect example. At the height of this fine transport, Pisarev asks himself, without even laughing, whether he is justified in killing his own mother and answers: “And why not, if I want to do so, and if I find it useful?”

From that point on, it is surprising not to find the nihilists engaged in making a fortune or acquiring a title or in cynically taking advantage of every opportunity that offers itself. It is true that there were nihilists to be found in advantageous positions on all levels of society. But they did not construct a theory from their cynicism and preferred on all occasions to pay visible and quite inconsequential homage to virtue. As for those we are discussing, they contradicted themselves by the defiance they hurled in the face of society, which in itself was the affirmation of a value. They called themselves materialists; their bedside book was Buchner’s Force and Matter. But one of them confessed: “Every one of us was ready to go to the scaffold and to give his head for Moleschott and Darwin,” thus putting doctrine well ahead of matter. Doctrine, taken seriously to this degree, has an air of religion and fanaticism. For Pisarev, Lamarck was a traitor because Darwin was right. Whoever in this intellectual sphere began talking about the immortality of the soul was immediately excommunicated. Vladimir Veidle is therefore right when he defines nihilism as rationalist obscurantism. Reason among the nihilists, strangely enough, annexed the prejudices of faith; choosing the most popularized forms of science-worship for their prototype of reason was not the least of the contradictions accepted by these individualists. They denied everything but the most debatable of values, the values of Flaubert's Monsieur Homais.

However, it was by choosing to make reason, in its most limited aspect, into an act of faith that the nihilists provided their successors with a model. They believed in nothing but reason and self-interest. But instead of skepticism, they chose to propagate a doctrine and became socialists. Therein lies their basic contradiction. Like all adolescent minds they simultaneously experienced doubt and the need to believe. Their personal solution consists in endowing their negation with the intransigence and passion of faith. What, after all, is astonishing about that? Veidle quotes the scornful phrase used by Soloviev, the philosopher, in denouncing this contradiction: “Man is descended from monkeys, therefore let us love one another."

—Albert Camus, The Rebel, p. -1