Absurdism vs Nihilism — Explanations and Differences of Both Philosophies

Thinking Deeply with Ben
7 min readFeb 1, 2021

What’s the difference between nihilism and absurdism? Is there any? Upon an initial reading, both philosophies may sound similar since both have to do with a lack of meaning and purpose in the world. But, there are some considerable and essential differences, which I’ll cover in this short article.

First, I’ll go over what existential nihilism associated with the philosophy of Fredrick Neitzche is and what absurdism associated with the philosopher Albert Camus is. Then, I’ll compare and contrast them so you can see the differences.

What is Nihilism?

First, let’s cover nihilism. Existential nihilism is the belief that life has no intrinsic meaning or value. It suggests that each human and even the entire human species is insignificant, without purpose, and unlikely to change in existence’s totality.

Just to note, the word nihilism may refer to several different views in philosophy. For example, there is metaphysical nihilism, moral nihilism, partial nihilism, and more, including existential nihilism, which this article will focus on.

The word “nihilism” was first introduced by Friedrich Jacobi, a German philosopher and socialite. However, it is most associated with Friedrich Nietzsche and frequently appears through many of his philosophical works.

Nietzsche never advocated for nihilism and some philosophers, including myself, consider him more of an existentialist, which we’ll get into. He was, however, the first philosopher to seriously study and write about it.

Nietzsche wrote about how the decline of Christianity had ushered in a state of nihilism in Europe that needed to be solved and overcome.

See, we used to get our meaning and purpose from the church and God, but now that God is dead, at least according to Nietzsche, people may fall into despair since it appears that we’re just meaningless animals in a meaningless universe.

As he wrote in his work “The Will to Power”:

“…Nihilism appears at that point, not that the displeasure of existence has become greater than before but because one has come to mistrust any ‘meaning’ in suffering, indeed in existence… it now seems as if there is no meaning at all in existence, as if everything were in vain.”

In his works, such as in “Human, All Too Human,” he talked about how brutal nihilism can be, and living in a world without the comfort of religious dogmas can be depression.

Perhaps, you’ve had times in your life where you felt directionless, powerless, and that nothing matters.

However, he believed that nihilism could be overcome and wished to hasten the departure of it.

He wrote about two types of nihilism, active and passive nihilism.

Passive nihilism recognizes there will never be any meaning in the world, and passive nihilists should try to separate themselves from their wills and desires to reduce suffering as much as possible. He called this a ‘will to nothingness’.

Ultimately, though, this ‘will to nothingness’ is still a will, and thus will end up being a futile attempt that ends in deep despair or the individual embracing a mass movement once again to find some meaning.

On the other hand, one can be an active nihilist. If this was a possibility for us, we should try to choose this option. He didn’t’ think everyone had it in them to be an active nihilist by the way.

Active nihilists are individuals who actively destroy our old, fake false values like those in Christianity and begin constructing our own subjective beliefs and interpretations of meaning.

Like a sculpture, we bash away false meaning and start to chisel out our very own.

By writing about active nihilism, Neitzche is really one of the first existential philosophers, which leads us to french philosopher Albert Camus and the existential movement of the 20th century.

The French existential movement that included philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Simon de Beauvoir, Camus, and others was basically a response to nihilism and what we should do about it.

Existentialists believe the world intrinsically has no objective meaning similar to nihilists, but through a combination of free will, awareness, and personality responsibility we can, and in some views should, create our own subjective meaning in life.

Absurdism is one of these such responses. Just to be clear Absurdism isn’t the same as the existentialism associated with Sartre. Although the two philosophies have aspects that overlap, they arrive at vastly different conclusions.

So what specifically is the philosophy of Absurdism then?

What is Absurdism?

According to Absurdism, it’s only natural for humans to seek out meaning in life. However, conflict occurs when we go to do so and find the universe is really cold, chaotic, and utterly devoid of any meaning at all. It’s this contradiction between our mind’s search for meaning and the reality of nature that Absurdism’s founder Albert Camus calls ‘The Absurd.’

Unfortunately, we have no choice but to confront reality and solve this dilemma.

How do we solve it? Camus says we have three options, and we have to choose one.

Choice #1. Suicide

The first is suicide, which isn’t a good idea according to Camus. Suicide only makes the Absurd more absurd, and it ends your life, which was sort of a miracle to begin with.

Choice #2. Philosophical Suicide

Then there’s option two, ‘The Leap of Faith.’ Basically, we can do what Camus refers to as “commit philosophical suicide” and pretend there’s a higher power that gives our life meaning — in other words, God. We’d have to pretend that make-believe was the actual truth and accept a limited role of freedom in our lives. By accepting the imposed moral codes of faith, we may be suppressing what we truly believe and want deep down.

Choice #3. Embrace the Absurd

Finally, we have option three, wherein we can embrace the Absurd and realize that we’re truly free. From there, we’re free to pursue anything we want and try to embrace what life has to offer.

Camus chose to illustrate his philosophy in his famous book, The Myth of Sisyphus.

The story entails Sisyphus, a character in ancient Greek mythology who was banished to push a boulder up a mountain only to have it roll back down for him to push up again for eternity.

Camus says our lives are a lot like the life of Sisyphus. It’s impossible to really know the meaning of anything, and many unavoidable hardships will happen during our lives. Camus writes that we have to imagine Sisyphus happy despite his circumstance. We’re all stuck rolling meaningless boulders up hills in a way, so why not be the happiest we can and enjoy the process?

What’s the Difference?

Ok, so what’s the difference between nihilism and absurdism?

Nihilists, specifically passive nihilists, believe that there’s no intrinsic meaning in life and “it is futile to seek or to affirm meaning where none can be found”. That’s where the philosophy essentially ends. Absurdists, on the other hand, hesitantly allow the possibility for some meaning or value in life. Yes, there’s certainly no objective meaning in life and we can’t possibly begin to understand the universe or the absurd, but it’s a logical possibility that we can find subjective meaning in life, even if it’s ephemeral and eventually nullified by death. According to Absurdists, this is the only reasonable way one should life one’s life, pursue meaning-making projects, and engage in what makes us happy. Again, think of Sisyphus enjoying rolling the boulder up the hill.

As far as its relation to active nihilism, both philosophies are very similar. One could make a case that Camus was really an active nihilist. Still, it seems to me active nihilism is more like the existentialism of Sartre, as it pushes us to create our own meaning and essence in life that could live on, while absurdism suggests this is just a possibility if we want. Plus, with absurdism, we need to understand any meaning we create may eventually becoming meaningless during our lifetime and will absolutely becoming meaningless when we die. Also, Nietzche’s philosophy makes no mention of the Absurd and how truly futile it is to understand it the Universe.

So hopefully, this outlined what nihilism is, what absurdism is, and the key differences between them. Let me know what you think of each of these and do you identify as a nihilist, an absurdist, or something else?

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