One of the most popular maxims in the world of philosophy, granted to us by good old Socrates, is that “the unexamined life is not worth living”
Surely, the unexamined life is less interesting. But does it make a person sadder?
To be a true philosopher, you must contemplate life and approach your transcendence.
Simone de Beauvoir, my favorite philosopher, and area of study, explains of the stages of freedom in her book Ethics of Ambiguity.
Now, I won’t go into too much detail about each step of the ladder, as there are 5 steps before we approach “genuine freedom,” which is ultimately how we reach our transcendence. But the important thing about de Beauvoir is that she addresses nihilism.
Nihilism is the third and inevitable step towards transcendent freedom.
Nihilism is an attitude; it is a conclusion that life is meaningless.
Now there is both active nihilism and passive nihilism, the latter of which we want to especially avoid.
Passive nihilism is what I would call modern-day dispassioned depression.
This is a dangerous combination because it is an awareness of one’s own sadness but also paired with a lack of passion or willingness to actually do anything. It’s almost like a complacency with one’s own conclusion that life is meaningless. Quite a sad attitude to carry for the rest of your life.
Eventually, you’ll burn.
Active nihilism, on the other hand, is how we are able to escape the nihilistic attitude entirely and approach the next steps to transcendence (which is called the “adventurer,” a person who does things for the sake of doing)
The active nihilist is in a rather precarious situation (as nihilism, in general, is quite a dangerous rope to cross). The active nihilist is aware of his conclusion that life is meaningless, but he fights against this conclusion—contemplating the notion and challenging his own predicament.
Eventually, the active nihilist, after much (or little) contemplation, will either move on towards his transcendence or revert to a passive nihilism.
I think every philosopher will approach nihilism at some point in their contemplative career, and often many times. Nihilism isn’t something we are able to just escape entirely unless you have approach full and complete transcendence. I know of no such person, except maybe the Buddha.
So yes, philosophers, true philosophers who are dedicated to a life of contemplation, will reach nihilism at some stage in their path to transcendence. Simone de Beauvoir calls transcendence “genuine freedom”; Nietzsche calls it the “Overman”; Plato has the “Good” and “Truth.”
All-in-all, if we want to truly achieve our philosophical potential, it’ll be difficult, it’ll be confusing, and it’ll also have a lot of sadness.
A sadness in nihilism. A sadness in lack of direction. A sadness through too much contemplation. But just know that sadness can be turned into passion and used to approach our transcendence.
If you’d like to read some Simone de Beauvoir, check out her book Ethics of Ambiguity where she discusses freedom, humanity, and the meaning of life, etc. (She has a special place in my heart; she also essentially founded the second feminist movement).