Philosophers and thinkers have been trying for centuries to combat the growing sense of nihilism present so strongly in much casual philosophy. Nihilism is the belief that life has no intrinsic value or meaning, and some, like Nietzsche, tried to remove the sluggish, lethargic mode of nihilism and replace it with a more active response, arguing that the lack of meaning and structure in life can be an opportunity for agency and action. His work Thus Spoke Zarathustra strongly presents a subject who can create of life what he likes, positing his own values and ideas as central and making use of them to craft the world around him. Other thinkers took different approaches: Albert Camus, for instance, in The Myth of Sisyphus posits that we must face the meaninglessness of our lives with a smile on our face, adding our own meaning to our existence and transcending our finite, inconsequential lives through artistic creation.
These thinkers and others like them, however, were writing at different times, when nihilism was gaining traction as a holistic philosophy, but not as a social phenomenon in the form it is today. The proliferation of nihilist memes and thoughts on social media today has meant that viewing reality as fundamentally meaningless has become more widespread than ever before, and has, to some extent, infiltrated day-to-day thinking amongst many of today’s youth.
Social theorists argue that factors like high unemployment, the decline of religion, and even the emptiness of hyper-consumerism in late-stage capitalism have had a huge impact on the thinking of young people; when people are entering adult life with no job, no belief in a higher order, and a vague desire to fill their lives with meaningless objects, it’s no surprise that they ultimately feel a sense of listlessness and emptiness. This is certainly true, but the distinction that needs to be made is between nihilism that results in serious problems, and nihilism that is a minor belief within a functioning modern life.
While in past years the advent of nihilism was seen as a seriously worrying problem, today it has largely taken form as a source of light-hearted comedy, and this is a good thing. Although many young people today do feel a real sense of emptiness, the majority of modern nihilists are people who on some level recognise the lack of inherent meaning in life but refuse to take this as a debilitating sadness, instead preferring to look upon this fact in high spirits. And that is where the beauty of nihilist memes lies. Camus would be proud of today’s younger generations, staring into the abyss and laughing. That isn’t to say that the listlessness and discontentedness of young people today is not a serious issue with problematic consequences, but the proliferation of nihilist memes and nihilist comedy can hardly be blamed for these issues; they are merely a divergent consequence of the same problems. There are a huge number of social, economic, spiritual, and political reasons for the rise of nihilist thought in today’s younger generation, but memes and jokes aren’t one of them; in fact, they are a healthy outlet for discontented youth, and contribute to a happier, enlightened life.
Illustration: Bee Anderson