Potash Hill


Nietzsche vs. Nihilism in America 
By Derek Tollefson ’18   

Artwork by Henry Robinson ’19, part of his Plan show titled Post Cute. It’s hard to be optimistic about politics right now. For those committed to improving political life in America, it’s hard enough to figure out what can or should be done, let alone actually doing it, and thinking it’ll all work out in the end is just naive. 

Nietzsche prophesied the advent of nihilism in Europe, and if he’d lived to see the holocaust, Stalin’s gulags, the starvation during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, and the innumerable casualties of both World Wars in the century to follow, he could have said, “I told you so.” 

Americans have every reason to be nihilistic: not only are we grappling with more intractable problems than we can count, but we’re exposed to these problems constantly, graphically, and intimately through social media information bubbles. Britain left the EU. People are publishing books and articles about the end of the nation-state system, the primary source of political identity and stability for most of the world over the last two hundred years. The doomsday clock is set at two minutes to midnight, and the man with the nuclear codes is a philandering reality TV host who doesn’t read books. 

The writing, it would appear, is on the wall. 

Perhaps these concerns are overblown. Perhaps everything will work out in the end. Perhaps not; I can’t say. But in uncertain times people look for certainty anywhere they can, and that is certainly dangerous. Existentialism, and Nietzsche in particular, offers a way to put humanity first without making feckless, empty promises of certainty and stability. In fact, Nietzsche revels in uncertainty, making it into a strength and not a weakness. 

If things are moving too quickly to tell right from wrong, if the world is changing too rapidly to really make sense of it, then why not give up on making sense and doing what’s right, which were never really options in the first place, and just focus on making things better? It might require getting our hands dirty, but maybe they were never clean from the start. 

Derek Tollefson graduated with a Plan in politics titled “No clean hands: The politics of revenge using Nietzsche and storytelling.” He is now working on the second issue of Milkfist, the literary journal he and a friend founded several years ago, and on finding a PhD program where he can build on his Plan portfolio.