Beyond the Nihilist Barriers: Radical Uncertainty and Its Consequences

Without Ideals, Humanity Lacks a Common Compass and Mutual Effort for the Common Good

Share this Entry

Modern society does not permit and rejects, with the accusation of dogmatism, any personal decision that goes jenseits der Dinge (beyond the things). In a kind of “materialistic imposition“, disguised as “scientific paradigms” with a bitter ideological taste, there is the clear attempt to ban every metaphysical call, considered an “illusory light“[1] or a “leap in the dark“[2]:

Belief would be incompatible with seeking. From this starting point Nietzsche was to develop his critique of Christianity for diminishing the full meaning of human existence and stripping life of novelty and adventure. Faith would thus be the illusion of light, an illusion which blocks the path of a liberated humanity to its future.[3]

Instead of “adventurous novelties’, a bland indifference characterizes the turning point of the modernity: if everything is meaningless, or has at most an instantaneous value, why should we involve ourselves in things that require difficult choices, sacrifice, discipline and courage? It seems that, in a context of purposeless searching or subtly linked to the level of technological obsolescence, a suspicious “immanence” replaces in a radical way the “formative and forming projectuality”[4] waiting for a techno-messianic revolution[5], the future source of perennial joyfulness and current cause of profound instability.

This semantic precariousness and ontological uncertainty[6] become the main basis for the definition of any ideals, defining an absolute individualism proudly independent from any intrinsic norm:

The intellectual consciousness of modern Europe as commonly delineated and accepted even in our day proclaimed  these three ideals: a nature consisting in itself, an autonomous personality of human subject and a culture self-created out of norms intrinsic to its own essence.[7]

U. Beck speaks of the Risikogesellschaft[8] (Risk Society) to interpret the dehumanizing conditions of post-industrial and post-ideological society, in which the individual is constantly changing perspectives in an “elastic” milieu that favors a sort of cultural nomadism[9] or relativistic eclecticism[10].

The new Prometheus, amazed and astonished, fails to control his products and thinks that he can reduce the world to an easy instrument of his absolute power:

Technological minds see nature as an insensate order, as a cold body of facts, as a mere given, as an object of utility, as raw material to be hammered into useful shape; it views the cosmos similarly as a mere space into which objects can be thrown with complete indifference.[11]

Such indifference is envisaged as necessary narcotics for the survival: the Leitmotiv of the modernity. We prefer to be “narcotized” rather than be engaged actively in return for fictitious, sudden and momentary satisfactions. The choice of disenchantment, however, is a self-imposed mental trap. This auto-generative laziness is in contrast with the original need for idealism which characterizes any human action and differentiates humans from all the other living-beings[12].

An uninterrupted flow of stimuli and information, in a context of technological opulence, causes furthermore a sense of loss by affecting the formation of real ideas and concepts, obscuring the traditional channels of socialization and radically changing the collective identity. There is the risk to become vulnerable to the modern “Leviathan” which offering the “saccharin of the world” and putting the higher virtue to sleep replaces not only individual freedom but even the reason. This lack of interest and concern is the first and unavoidable step toward acute forms of selfishness:

We see signs of an idolatry of wealth, power and pleasure which come at a high cost to human lives. Closer to home, so many of our own friends and contemporaries, even in the midst of immense material prosperity, are suffering from spiritual poverty, loneliness and quiet despair. God seems to be removed from the picture. It is almost as though a spiritual desert is beginning to spread throughout our world. It affects the young too, robbing them of hope and even, in all too many cases, of life itself.[13]

A general irresponsibility in a triumphant disenchantment is one of essential contributors to the dismantling of social relationships and in the obscuration of the basic rules of coexistence. This is evident, first of all, in a continuous process of infantilization of adults, the evident product of mass-media society, where caprice, extravagance and frivolity are considered the most important needs, worthy of being pursued at any cost[14].

Without ideals and “happily” adrift, humanity lacks the highest stimuli and inspirations that, despite the fragility of their condition, are opposed to a pernicious and selfish pride. It is clear that we lack a common compass, a shared feeling of community, a mutual effort for the common good:

The whole is greater than the part, but it is also greater than the sum of its parts. There is no need, then, to be overly obsessed with limited and particular questions. We constantly have to broaden our horizons and see the greater good which will benefit us all. But this has to be done without evasion or uprooting. We need to sink our roots deeper into the fertile soil and history of our native place, which is a gift of God. We can work on a small scale, in our own neighbourhood, but with a larger perspective. Nor do people who wholeheartedly enter into the life of a community need to lose their individualism or hide their identity; instead, they receive new impulses to personal growth. The global need not stifle, nor the particular prove barren.[15]

On the contrary, an overwhelming fatalism is the main characteristics of contemporary society: we are faced with a vague wandering, living hand-to-mouth and as the days and hours pass untidily. It seems that civilization has no fears to disintegrate itself, with its own cultural “weapons”, singing joyously its end.



[1] Francis, Lumen Fidei, n. 2

[2] Francis, Lumen Fidei, n. 3

[3] Francis, Lumen Fidei, n. 2

[4] Cfr.  L. Pareyson, Existence, Interpretation, Freedom. Selected Writings, edited by P.D. Burgio, Davies Group Publishers, Aurora- CO. 2009.

[5] Cfr. V. Possenti, La Rivoluzione biopolitica. La fatale alleanza tra materialismo e tecnica,  Lindau, Torino 2013.

[6] M. Grimshaw (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Virtuality, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2014, p. 52

[7] R. Guardini, The Essential Guardini. An Anthology, Liturgy Training Publications, Chicago IL, 1997, p. 18.

[8] Cfr. U. Beck, Risikogesellschaft. Auf dem Weg in eine andere Moderne, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main 1986.

[9] Cfr. Z. Bauman, Life in Fragments. Essays in Postmodern Morality, Basil Blackwell, Cambridge, MA 1995.

[10] “On one side of the dilemma of eclecticism we confront the problem of relativism, the view that one perspective is as good as another. Extreme relativistic eclecticism presents several dangers. First it is simple confusion: eclectic analysis tend toward haphazard, opportunistic use of explanatory constructs that mix different orientation carelessly. Second, eclectic research tends to be ineffective, as  concentration of the problems at hand is constantly broken by “new perspectives” and “other factors that have to be taken into account”. Third, scientific research is often concerned with phenomena, such as the psychological roots of the German Fascism or the technical basis of modern atomic we
aponry, whose realtions to concepts of “good” and “evil” is so direct that a relativistic unbiased perspective, though it may be desired,  is realistically out of the question.” A. W. Johnson, Quantification in Cultural Anthropology: An Introduction to Research Design, Stanford University Press, Stanford 1978, p. 19

[11] R. Guardini, The Essential Guardini. An Anthology, Liturgy Training Publications,

Chicago IL, 1997, p. 17

[12] H. Plessner, Gesammelte Schriften. Bd. V: Macht und menschliche Natur, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main 1981, pp. 135-234.

[13] Francis, Address – Meeting of the Asian Youth at the Shrine of Solmoe, 15 August 2014

[14] “Another indicator of the totalizing and homogenizing character of consumer culture is its apparent addictiveness. Addictive behaviour places the addictive object in the forefront of both consciousness and subconsciousness in a manner that can obliterate rival interests. In the fisrt instance it is a medical and psychological issue. But in a hyperconsumer society, it has a cultural and economic dimension […]” B.R. Barber, Consumed. How Markets Corrupted Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole, W. W. Norton & Company, New York 2008, p. 235.

[15] Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, n. 235

Share this Entry

Giovanni Patriarca

Support ZENIT

If you liked this article, support ZENIT now with a donation