Existentialism vs Nihilism — Explanations and Key Differences of Each

Thinking Deeply with Ben
6 min readJan 25, 2021


A medium commenter recently asked me what the difference was between nihilism and existentialism. So, in this short article, I will explain the difference between the two and give you some background on both.

Just to be clear, I’ll be focusing on existential nihilism associated with the philosophy of Fredrick Neitzche, and the existentialism associated with the 20th-century philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who popularized the term.

What is Nihilism?

First, it’s essential to understand the term nihilism refers to a number of different views in philosophy, but for this article when I refer to nihilism I mean existential 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.

The word “nihilism” was first used 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.

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

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 difficult 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 can be overcome and wished to quicken 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.

Active nihilists are individuals who actively destroy our old, fake false values like those in Christianist, 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, although commonly associated with nihilism.

So, what does existentialism mean then?

What is Existentialism?

Existentialists believe the world intrinsically has no objective meaning, but through a combination of free will, awareness, and personality responsibility, we can create our own subjective meaning.

According to Nietzsche, we should interpret existence in a manner that is life-promoting or creates our own authentic meaning in life. Specifically, we should work on becoming a greater version of ourselves, a Higher Man, as he called it.

This Higher Man is in touch with his deep feelings, instincts, and drives we all have, especially suffering, and his life’s mission is to make peace with the chaos.

His work would pave the way for the French existential movement, in particular, laying some of the foundations for the work of the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre who is the one to have popularized the term existentialism.

The basis of Sartre’s existentialism is the phrase ‘existence precedes essence,’ meaning no general account of what it means to be human can be given, and that meaning can only be decided and constructed through existence itself.

For example, the phone you may be reading this article on already has a meaning or essence. It was built for communication and entertainment. Human beings, however, create our own meaning and essence through the choices we make while we live our lives.

At the end of the day, no one else is responsible for this meaning but us. In fact, Sartre wrote that we’re ‘condemned to be free’ because of the overwhelming, near-infinite choices we can make to give our lives meaning.

If we choose to live without pursuing freedom and our own meaning, then we’re what he called ‘living in bad faith.’ Bad faith is the phenomenon of accepting that we are a certain way, and subsequently refusing to pursue alternate options.

He explains this concept through the example of a waiter who’s so immersed in his job that he believes a waiter is what he truly is and all he’s ever meant to be. He lives in bad faith because he rejects his freedom and his responsibility to explore the possibilities life presents him. He believes the choice to do something or not to do it is ultimately not his, even though according to Sartre it is. Thus, he does not allow himself to be a truly free human being.

Through embracing freedom and creating authentic meaning, we better our lives and humanity in general.

The meaning and essence that we create is ontological and we will live on, in a way, after our death just as Sartre is living on through his ideas and philosophical works through this article.

What’s the Difference?

Now, there’s a lot more the philosophy of existentialism and nihilism, but I think this gives you an understanding of the difference between the two.

While existential nihilism deals with the idea that there’s no intrinsic meaning anywhere in the universe, existentialism deals with ways to address this. The end goal of existentialism, that is Sartre’s existentialism, being the creation of one’s essence and subjective meaning.

Do you consider yourself a nihilist or existentialist? Let me know what you think below.

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