Between Pragmatism & the Transcendent:
A Review of Brett Stevens’ Nihilism
Nihilism: A Philosophy Based in Nothingness and Eternity
Colac, Australia: Manticore Press, 2016
The title of Brett Stevens’ new book, Nihilism: A Philosophy Based in Nothingness and Eternity, inclined me to think that this work would be in the same vein as other works of pessimist philosophy such as Thomas Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, or Eugene Thacker’s Horror of Philosophy trilogy. But it rapidly becomes apparent that the trajectory Stevens is plotting is very different to those works and in fact points towards a life-affirming, optimistic philosophy. For this reason, I think the title might be likely to put some people off, as it seems to suggest that the book will be a doom-heavy tome, riffing on cosmic angst, whereas it is actually more akin to a sort of self-help guide for prospective aristocrats of the soul.
Stevens’ philosophy starts from a familiar position, that of the Idealist philosophers, who realized that humans can never have direct access to anything in the “real” world. Everything that we are capable of perceiving comes to us through one or other of our perceptual faculties, such as sight or hearing, and can only be known to us as a perception. For Kant, this meant that we can never experience the thing-in-itself, or noumenon. We are trapped within a world of human mentation. This chasm that exists between the world as it is in itself and the world as we perceive it means that there can be no inherent meaning in anything, only meaning that we create and attribute to it. For many people, this realization leads to the conclusion that if there is no inherent meaning in anything, then one must simply sate one’s appetites to the fullest and fashion some sort of enjoyment out of the brief time that we spend as a sensory-perceptual creature. Alternatively, others freeze like a cat in headlights with the thought that death is a real and everlasting cessation of being, that there is no afterlife, no God, and no way out of the impending blackness. These people may try to ameliorate reality through drugs, religion, or consumerism, or they may try to end it through suicide.
Stevens rejects both of these responses, characterizing them as fatalism, as opposed to nihilism proper. He defines nihilism as “discerning what is real from what is unreal” (p. 54), or, more directly still, “a bullshit eliminator” (p. 115). That is, human beings seem to spend a great deal of time arguing about mental constructs, ideologies, religions, and other things, without apparently noticing that these things are essentially fantasies based on (at best) extrapolations from our perceptions. What Stevens would like to see more of is a pragmatic assessment of the way that societies work and an efficient implementation of best practice. Instead of this, we can see that people tend to decide (or are told) what is true and false, what is good and evil, and they then go to any lengths they need to in order to make reality conform to the expectations that these prior beliefs engender.
Western societies in general are characterized by wishful thinking and egalitarianism, and when these fantasies are proven to be untrue, their governments proscribe more and more draconian thought crimes to reinforce the notion that they are true. This seems to me unarguable. But Stevens extends his argument to some areas that readers of this Website may wish to argue with. In particular, he notes that Right-wing and Left-wing politics are both facets of a broader reality, and that the conflict between them is usually the expression of groupthink and therefore a misapprehension of the herd. He also tends to view most racially-orientated political groupings as being to some extent in thrall to ideological projections belonging to the phenomenal world of illusion.
On the first point, he seems to see the conventional understanding of the political spectrum as a rather banal way of schematizing a complex reality onto a puerile chart of Left and Right. Instead of a more holistic understanding of the nature of society which would see each different element as performing a specific function, rather like the caste system, modern societies expect each individual to make a choice (like the consumers they are) between Left and Right. The upshot of this is that everyone feels atomized and in a state of conflict with everyone on the other end of the political spectrum regardless of their own natural place in society. That is, instead of a healthy body politic functioning as a balanced organism, everyone mistakenly believes that they are in some sort of position to decide on the general direction of society by virtue of the fact that they are encouraged to see themselves as votaries of democracy. This creates a very unhealthy situation as people become frustrated by the mismatch between their belief in their power to change things and the evident impotence of their actual position. Although it has become heresy to say so, people are far happier with a natural role that they can perform well rather than with an illusory participation in the rule of the people.
When one holds this view, it’s no longer necessary to “fight” leftists or rightists, but to see them as part of an order that balances itself and perpetuates the state of confusion. This order is overloaded with confusion arising from the tendency to sort things into “self” and “not self,” roughly corresponding to “good” and “evil” in the absolute view of the herd that is also the psychological underpinning of leftist and mass culture “conservatism,” if we even take that seriously . . . If you’re a liberal, you buy Apple computers, attend certain types of social functions and buy certain kinds of products, and there’s a conservative equivalent as well. Most of this is social behavior and has zero effect on anything of import, but it makes people feel like they “belong” to a group and that they can justify their existence with the concept that they’re doing the “right” thing. (pp. 212-213)
On the second point, racial politics, Stevens is clear that he does not support a sort of colorblind politics, and he emphasizes that all cultures need to preserve their own ethnos in order to flourish. He does, however, reject any notions of racial supremacy, and also remains skeptical of any suggestion that particular ethnic groups are uniquely responsible for the present illness of the West. His view is that multiculturalism and diversity are attempts to mold societies into a particular egalitarian form and that they have proven to be wholly unworkable.
One aspect of Traditional civilization worldwide, regardless of race, is ethnoculture, which is the idea that no culture can exist without its traditional ethnicity to uphold it, because the tens of thousands of generations that produced that culture also shaped the population through selection for those who tended toward upholding its ideal values. Ethnoculture does not designate an Absolute “superior” or “inferior” race. Instead, it asserts an “I prefer”: for each culture to exist, it must prefer to have its own ethnic group isolated from all others. (p. 256)
On both of these questions it will be seen that the end point that Stevens envisages is pretty much similar to that which readers here would also like to see: that is, an ethnonationalist state that exists in order to manifest the highest ideals of that particular ethnos. The significant point of Stevens’ take on these issues is in his insistence that ideas should not be turned into idols, that they should not become stand-ins for the reality that they purport to describe. And this is because he repeatedly insists on interpreting society in a pragmatic way, understanding and describing what works well rather than insisting on a particular preconceived outcome.
But this is not to deny the value of meaning. Stevens knows that we impose meaning on reality, but he sees this as a necessary and positive thing. The important point is to impose meaning that derives from a realistic understanding of how things work. He sees this as providing a transcendental attitude to life because nihilists recognize the necessity of the “good” and the “evil” in the world, of both life and death, and so they are able to impose a holistic meaning onto the world, one which encompasses these apparently contradictory states.
When we transcend, we no longer need false absolutes. Instead, we delight in reality because it is a space of potential. Good and bad are methods we can use to realize that potential; morality is measured by results, not methods or intentions. (p. 32)
My feeling about all of this is that the necessary cleansing of the doors of perception is a healthy and worthwhile process. We are surrounded by increasing amounts of abstract and illusory white noise and we are often in danger of becoming deafened to the quiet and patient rhythms of nature. Any philosophy that asserts the importance of stripping away the layers of ideological accretion which have built up at both societal and individual levels is starting on a firm footing.
And I also agree with the importance of pursuing some sort of transcendental path in life, something that is dedicated towards the realisation of higher ideals rather than social approval or the accumulation of personal wealth.
But I sense that between these two approaches to life, between the pragmatic assessment of efficient social functioning and the pursuit of the transcendent, there falls the shadow. This is not to say that there is anything contradictory or incongruent between them, but they each appeal to different parts of the human psyche. Clearly, some people are motivated more by rationalism and some more by poetic inspiration, but I don’t see how the former can lead to the latter. Sometimes when Stevens writes about choosing a transcendental path, it can seem like a simple conscious action: “You now know the basics of the esoteric discipline of nihilism, which will lead you first to realism, and next to idealism and finally, to transcendence” (p. 227). But it seems to me that the pursuit of the transcendent, at least for most people, must be inspired by something that is essentially non-rational. In particular, the numinous can only be sensed or apprehended as something “wholly other” , something that does not inhabit the known order of things.
It may be that such an experience can be intuited as a foreshadowing of a future order; that those who create the conditions for a future ethnostate may be able to experience the transcendent sense of the sacred that such an order might come to embody. Stevens characterizes the process thus:
Civilizations start out young and healthy, unified by whatever ideals made their members come together in the first place with the intent of building something new; when succeeding generations take this for granted, they drift into illusory ideals, at which point no “higher ideals” can overcome the illusion, because one cannot get “higher” than the notion of individual self-interest enforced by group fear. One must instead go lower, to the state before civilization reformed, to re-design its ideals. (p. 113)
This is pure Spengler, and it more or less reflects my own views. We are living through the end times and there is no possibility of retreating to an earlier form of civilization. Even if it were possible, it would merely replicate the same trajectory that has led us to the present. Instead we must focus on building a new type of society based on the idea of the ethnos and discovering in what unique form the numen will reveal itself to that new type of order.
1. This phrase is used to describe the numinous in The Idea of the Holy by Rudolf Otto.