The Practical Nihilism of Our Time

Fernando De Haro: In the last ten years, Communion and Liberation (CL) has talked a lot about nihilism, the practical nihilism of our time. Why?

Costantino Esposito: Actually, nihilism as a phenomenon and as a risk or “drifting” of the person and society, had long been on Fr. Giussani’s[1] radar. Consider what he said in a 1997 lesson during the CL spiritual exercises entitled You or About Friendship:

Nihilism is the inevitable consequence, first of all, of an anthropocentric presumption, according to which man is capable, or would be capable, of saving himself. This is so false, that all those who live defending this position, in the end, even openly, become dissolved in a dualism whose bitterness they attempt to chase away with images, with imaginations borrowed from the Eastern religion or from other kinds of traditions, but in any case spiritualistic ones, of the Western world (as, for instance, the New Age movement from the United States) . . . which always live out, in the end, a pantheistic ideal (Engl. transl., 13).

Faced with the impossibility of maintaining dominion over oneself and reality, one easily slips into the temptation to dissolve one’s powerless subjectivity into the flux of nature and the world.

There is a major consequence to this:

These two theories and positions (nihilism and pantheism), these two attitudes, dictate all of today’s behaviors (all of them!); they are the only explanations of the common general mentality (also the practical mentality, or rather, above all the practical); a general mentality which penetrates and weighs on everyone’s mind and heart, and therefore ours, too, Christian hearts, even many theologians’ hearts. Both these theories, with all their consequences, play the same game, they have a common ground: the faith in power and the longing for power however conceived, in any of its versions (13–14).

Men yield to power because only in it—at the level of affirmation of the individual and of the order decided by the state—can they find a consistency and form that they would not have on their own. Giussani presses on:

You ultimately reduce yourself to nothing, to a lie, you become a farce, you feel you are a farce, an appearance of being. If your “I” is born totally as a part of the “great becoming,” as an appearance of being, as the mere outcome of its physical and biological presuppositions, it does not have an original consistency; the only criterion you can have is that of adapting yourself to what comes, just as it comes, to the mechanical impact of circumstances, and the more power you have in them, the more your consistency—which is and remains an appearance—increases, seems to increase, and therefore the illusion, or rather the deception, increases . . . But both pantheism and nihilism destroy what is inexorably greatest in man, they destroy man as a person (14).

FDH: But what has happened in the last twenty-five years, from the late 1990s to the present?

CE: Briefly, we could put it this way: nihilism, from being an ambiguous and deceptive perspective in conceiving of oneself and the world, from being an ever-looming risk of loss of self and reality, has become the “normal” air we all breathe. We are not “other than” what chance or the social system or the struggle for survival decide about us in each moment. And this is irrespective of our theoretical beliefs or opinions about the world: nihilism has turned from a pathology of modern anthropocentrism into a kind of physiological condition of contemporary humanity. It is a ubiquitous tendency: in us and in society, in the secular world and in ecclesiastical circles, in progressive ideologies and in reactionary ones, in amoral practices as in moralistic arrangements of existence.

The common thread is the aching sense—often unspoken or evaded—that we are ultimately destined for nothingness, that our nature carries within itself as its insuperable law that we end, and that is all. There is no true meaning that can transgress this literally senseless destiny. There is no ultimate meaning in nature, only a necessity to be managed as one can, and finally to be suffered as one must. But it is also what bursts forth most, especially in the young: the conflict between the desire for happiness and social competition. It is something that takes one’s breath away, or rather takes away the oxygen to breathe. So at best in order to survive we have to continually mourn this lack—or better, this impossibility—of an ultimate meaning of our being in the world, through many cultural disguises (as the tragic Nietzsche already said), from politics to art, from economics to religion. We are all desperate for someone to tell us, with their gaze, “you will not die,” you are not destined for nothingness. And what we would give to meet someone like that! In this way, nihilism points to the chasm of loss, or our permanent suspension over uncertainty, as if dangling above the crater of a volcano or the crest of a ravine and were destined to live in this position.

As Julian Carrón[2] pointed out in Disarming Beauty (2015):

If we do not perceive its meaning, reality does not move us to the point of becoming interesting to us. This is the origin of nihilism, of that position that ends in boredom, because nothing arouses my interest. We thought that reality could go on being attractive even without a meaning, reduced to mere appearances, and that young people could be interested in transmitting mere notions and data, without communicating a theory about meaning. But this did not happen. With the reduction of reality to its immediate aspect, to appearances, a new form of nihilism has appeared, a weak, jovial, cheerful one, in which desire is not awakened, curiosity is not awakened. Now, only the one who manages to rouse the self from this feebleness will be able to make a contribution to the dramatic situation in which we find ourselves” (141).

So, I think that in CL we have often spoken of nihilism because it constitutes the critical point of the human condition of our time, and therefore precisely the one in which we are called to verify the existential novelty of the Christian proposal.

FDH: If I understand your recent work correctly, you have been talking about nihilism as an opportunity, and it seems to me that this may be contradictory.

This in my eyes is a very interesting question, perhaps one of the most fascinating indices of the Christian experience: the fact that a loss or a lack can become the place where a longing is reawakened and one’s need is aroused, the place where one encounters an Other-than-oneself. I still have in my memory the moved tone of voice and the look of a particular intensity with which Fr. Giussani read us Montale’s poem “Perhaps one morning going into a glassy air,” or other verses by Leopardi and Pavese, as well as Pascoli and Lagerkvist: the dramatic possibility that the life of the “I” would be caught up in the whirlpool of nothingness was a possibility for him—for Fr. Giussani—as well, and his emotion arose precisely from seeing that a presence like that of Christ, in that present moment, imposed itself on the “I” and illuminated, enhanced, and fulfilled his whole desire to exist. It was like the discovery of the ultimate stake of human existence: that in every moment I am affirmed in being with respect to nothingness and above all that I can then accept and embrace this irreducible positivity of myself and the world as a “gift” for me: precisely as something that is given to me.

I believe this is why in recent years, with Fr. Carrón, the phenomenon of nihilism has come back to the center and has been faced not only as the risk of loss, but also—surprisingly—as the emergence of a cry for salvation. The moment when we finally no longer censure our own human need—that is, our very self, which is a need for everything—and catch a glimpse of that without which, at least as an expectation, we could not live up to our heart and reason.

But on this we must be clear: nihilism does not reveal itself, nor does it overcome itself. It takes someone who does not belong to the desert to see the desert and recognize it as such. As Italo Calvino wrote in a marvelous page of Invisible Cities, when faced with the “hell of the living” that we already “inhabit every day,” there are two ways of responding in order not to suffer from it. The first arises out of habit and consists of “accepting hell and becoming part of it to the point of no longer seeing it.” The second, on the other hand, “is risky and demands continuous attention and learning: seeking and knowing how to recognize who and what, in the midst of hell, is not hell, and making it last, and giving it space.”

There is a need for a “divine” gaze, that is, a gaze that goes to the bottom of the self of each of us, to reveal all the power of questioning that is the human being. From this point of view, it is not contradictory—though, it must be acknowledged, neither is it usual—that nihilism is also seen as an opportunity. After all, it is the logic of incarnation, that a Presence makes itself present, as the new event of being, right at the threshold and all the way into the nothingness that whispers and seduces our every gesture with its deceits. The embrace of this Presence is at the same time a struggle against nothingness. And it is only in the experience of such an embrace, in recognizing this preference over us, that there is reborn in us a preference for the reality of being over nothingness. For the ultimate meaning is revealed precisely in this way, in the discovery that we are wanted in the world, and not simply there at random.

And indeed, one of the points most emphasized and repeated in recent years in the experience of CL (perhaps one of the peculiar points of the charism given to Fr. Giussani) is precisely that the experience of a living encounter with the presence of Christ finds its most striking index of verification in the rebirth of the awareness of one’s own self, a new subject from which alone the gift of a witness to the world and a responsibility for social life can arise. Thus, the Church is not only a bastion of defense against nihilism, but (as Pope Francis never tires of reminding us) a place where the nihilists of our time—in a word, ourselves!—can find a gaze that snatches them away from nothingness and makes their humanity flourish again.

A position such as this proves capable of meeting the desire, or the confused need, or even just the hoarse cry of so many people, of so many young people especially, and even of adults who navigate but are not entirely drowned in skepticism, who feel a surprising esteem for themselves-this time truly acting toward its desire for happiness. In short, the encounter with Christ reveals to man that he is truly capable of being, and above all that he is free to be himself.

FDH: Why has Michel Houellebecq’s letter to Bernard-Henry so captivated you and others in CL? Houellebecq writes, “I find it painful to admit that I have felt more and more often the desire to be loved. A minimum of reflection naturally convinced me each time of the absurdity of such a dream: life is limited and forgiveness impossible. But reflection could do nothing about it, the desire persisted and I must confess that it still persists.”

CE: From a certain point of view, Houellebecq is like a testimony to what a nihilistic experience of self and the world can become: the re-emergence from the scorched earth of values and ideals, though often consumed and reduced to a blocked mechanism of action and reaction. Of an irreducible desire, against which all theoretical justification has little hold. One can safely explain the world in a certain way (in a materialistic way but even in the light of Christian values!) and at the same time “live” oneself differently. The turning point is to realize this asymmetry, not to censor this crack or wound in experience and not to consider it less “real” than instinct and power.

Rather, to be willing to follow its call as what is most real, concrete, and urgent belongs to our being. This desire to be loved—which is a wonderful formula for saying that ours is an infinite desire and of the infinite—is the true non-negotiable value of human experience, because our very “self” is never simply at our disposal. We cannot reduce it to what we have in mind a priori, but we must follow it—yes, really follow ourselves!—as an objective datum that always goes beyond us. Nihilism wants to enclose the human ego within itself; here, on the other hand, it is a matter of bringing the ego to recognize the Other-from-itself, following precisely the trace of its desiring, irreducible, created being. This is the challenge of our nihilistic time: that we come to recognize what is given, indeed to desire the relationship with the one who generates us, and to want it freely. And indeed, is not the most telling sign of this generation our own restlessness?

FDH: CL insisted that nihilism can only be overcome with the Christianity of Presence. And Pope Francis’s insistence on the danger of reducing Christianity to Gnosticism or Pelagianism was emphasized. What Christian experience is this about?

CE: Nihilism can be faced and challenged only by the presence of a witness. Witnessing is the most appropriate method in the face of this phenomenon now that dialectic and rhetoric have failed and can no longer sustain a person’s posture in reality. In one of his last speeches to university students in CL, in 1998, Fr. Giussani grasped the critical point of the human condition of our time with a precision and a care that have something unprecedented:

In the time we are living, we have come as if to the sandy shore of a barrenness, of a human desert, where the subject of punishment is the “I”: not society, but the “I,” because for this society all possible and imaginable “Is” arise from it. Whereas for us, society arises from the existence of the “I” . . . However, now, the development of [our] movement, the dynamics of the movement has come to a point from which we understand . . . that the only resource to curb the encroachment of power is in that apex of the cosmos which is the “I,” and that is freedom . . . The only resource we have left is a powerful recovery of the Christian sense of the self (On the Way, 340–342).

And as a true witness, Fr. Giussani communicated precisely the great personal struggle in which the self decides to recognize and follow the reality of a true encounter that overcomes nothingness. And he proposed the same to his young friends:

Therefore . . . you fulfill the whole dynamic, you too develop the dynamic, which we have been following for years, of the main reason for our friendship . . . which is the fulfillment of the heart, of the demands of the heart, without which nihilism would be the only possible consequence (344).

It was from here that I saw develop a path of awareness of the decisive character of the charism given to Fr. Giussani in the life of the Church—of the Church as an interesting and fascinating life for the people of our time, as a reality of communion that becomes the content of personal experience. Nihilism has led to a gradual loss of the sense of the “presence” of what is present in the world and in the self—as if things no longer speak to us, no longer intimate their ultimate meaning, and our very being in the world has stopped asking for it—starting from a fierce ideological denial of the data of reality and finally arriving at a bored homologation in the great social machine.

From this point of view, the proposal made in the public discourse of CL over the past fifteen years is revolutionary. Fighting nihilism cannot mean putting a brake—out of fear—on people’s desire and freedom, thinking that, left to themselves, they would always be in danger of losing their way, as a certain kind of Christian anthropology teaches. Precisely the contrary: it means focusing on desire as the only way by which to recognize what really can satisfy the restlessness of the heart.

This is a distinctly Augustinian emphasis on the way to reconquer the truth about man and reality that the Christian tradition has transmitted to us, but which can no longer convince an already acquired set of doctrinal convictions of its rightness. What we can ultimately be thankful for in nihilism is that it has made the verification of the true ruthless, forcing us to take up Christianity as an experience that happens in the present, only thanks to which tradition does not become a quiet “past” and the future is not reduced to an abstract program of change oscillating between moralism and utopia.

Nihilism can be faced and transcended only because reality reaches for us and if we welcome it as an event. That is, it addresses us as a call, an invitation to each of us, so that we may recognize the meaning that inhabits the world and the One who continually calls it to be. And for this, precisely, the experience of a witness who speaks with fascinating and effective words is decisive. Fr. Carrón recalled this in one of his most significant contributions in this regard, in his The Radiance in Your Eyes. What Saves from Nothingness? (2020). He writes,

What can defeat the nihilism in us? Only being magnetized by a presence, by flesh that brings with itself, in itself, something that corresponds to all our expectancy, all our desire, all our need for meaning and affection, for fullness and for esteem. We will be saved from nothingness only by that flesh able to fill the “abyss of life,” the “mad desire” for fulfillment that is in us (54).

But there is a final twist in the “tail” of nihilism. It is to regard this gusto for life and time as something suggestive and appreciable, to be sure, but ultimately powerless before the prospect of changing the structure of our culture and the system of power into which we have settled, and which we might want to challenge. In this scenario, this flesh Fr. Carrón speaks of would be at best a passable form of psychological stimulation, but not the harbinger of novelty or real change. To change, to assert something new, one would have to replace one power with another. But the question is, what is the real power?

In the history of Christ’s presence in the world, in the history of the Church, this problem has always punctually arisen, and in every age, in every generation, it has always demanded a personal and critically conscious response. Is reawakening the life of the self truly decisive for the presence of faith in the world, or not? The self, to be sure, is never an individual or a monad, but is born in a web of relationships, and throughout Christian history it is in a lived community that the person is reborn, by grace. But no organizational initiative or sociological arrangement can pass unscathed through the test of nihilism, unless in these dynamics the faith of an “I” touched by an encounter with the divine Presence is revealed as its guiding principle.

In this case, too, nihilism is the litmus test to realize what novelty the life of the Church and its unprecedented witness brings. As Fr. Giussani once wrote in his message to the 2003 Macerata-Loreto Pilgrimage, “When we get together, why do we do so? So as to tear out from the hearts of our friends, and if it were possible from the heart of the whole world, the nothingness in which all men find themselves.” And Fr. Carrón simply repeats it in this way: “Who would not wish to be reached by such a friendly gaze that tears him away from nothingness?” (Preface to L. Giussani, Through the Company of Believers, 2021, XV).

If nihilism leads to atomizing and separating the “I” from the world and from itself, paradoxically it also helps us to find, at the bottom of each of us, the irrefutable expectation of such a friendship.

EDITORIAL NOTE: Translated by Bruno Cassara. This interview originally appeared in “pá,” February 28, 2023

[1] Monsignor Luigi Giussani (1922–2005) was the founder of the lay ecclesial movement Communion and Liberation.

[2] Fr. Julian Carrón (1950) succeeded Fr. Giussani after his death and led Communion and Liberation until 2021.

Featured Image: Statue of Magritte's "The Healer" in Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, photo taken by Alireza.heydear; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-4.0.


Costantino Esposito

Costantino Esposito is Professor of History of Philosophy and History of Metaphysics at the University of Bari Aldo Moro (Italy) and at the Institute of Philosophical Studies of the University of Italian Switzerland in Lugano. His research concerns the thought of Heidegger, Kant, and Suárez. His book The Nihilism of Our Time: A Chronicle, is forthcoming from UND Press.

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