Fr. Seraphim on nihilism in art and the humanities


“The logic of unbelief leads inexorably to the Abyss; he who will not return to the truth must follow error to its end.  So does humanism, too, after having contracted the Realist infection, succumb to the Vitalist germ.  Of this fact there is no better indication than the ‘dynamic’ standards that have come to occupy an increasingly large place in formal criticism in art and literature, and even in discussions of religion philosophy, and science.  there are no qualities more prized in any of these fields today than those of being ‘original,’ ‘experimental,’ or ‘exciting’; the question of truth, if it is raised at all, is more and more forced into the background and replaced by subjective criteria:  ‘integrity,’ ‘authenticity,’ ‘individuality.’

Such an approach is an open invitation to obscurantism, not to mention charlatanry; and if the latter may be dismissed as a temptation for the Vitalist that has not become the rule, it is by no means possible to ignore the increasingly blatant obscurantism which the Vitalist temperament tolerates and even encourages.  It becomes ever more difficult in the contemporary intellectual climate to engage in rational discussion with Vitalist apologists. If one, for example, inquires into the meaning of contemporary work of art, he will be told that it has no ‘meaning,’ that it is ‘pure art’ and can only be ‘felt,’ and that if the critic does not ‘feel’ it properly he has no right to comment on it. The attempt to introduce any standard of criticism, even of the most elementary and technical sort, is countered by the claim that old standards cannot be applied to the new art, that they are ‘static,’ ‘dogmatic,’ or simply ‘out-of-date,’ and that art today can be judged only in terms of its success in fulfilling its own unique intentions. If the critic sees a morbid or inhuman intent behind a work of art, the apology is that it is an accurate reflection of the ‘spirit of the age,’ and it is implied that a man is naive if he believes that art should be more than that. The latter argument is, of course, the favorite one of every avant-garde today, whether literary, philosophical, or ‘religious.’ For men weary of truth it is enough that a thing ‘is,’ and that it is ‘new’ and ‘exciting.’

These are, perhaps, understandable reactions to the overly literary and utilitarian approach of Liberalism and Realism to realms like art and religion which use a language quite unlike the prosaic language of science and business; to criticize them effectively, surely, one must understand their language and know what it is they are trying to say. But what is equally clear is that they are trying to say something:  everything man does has a meaning, and every serious artist and thinker is trying to communicate something in his work.  If it be proclaimed there is no meaning, or that there is only the desire to express the ‘spirit of the age,’ or that there is no desire to communicate at all–why, these too are meanings, and very ominous ones, which the competent critic will surely notice.  Unfortunately, but very significantly, the task of criticism today has been virtually identified with that of apology; the role of the critic is generally seen to be no more than that of explaining, for the uninstructed multitudes, the latest ‘inspiration’ of the ‘creative genius.’  Thus passive ‘receptivity’ takes the place of active intelligence, and ‘success’–the success of the ‘genius’ in expressing his intention, no matter what the nature of that intention–replaces excellence.  By the new standards Hitler too was ‘successful,’ until the ‘spirit of the age’ proved him ‘wrong’; and the avant-garde and its humanist ‘fellow-travellers’ have no argument whatsoever against Bolshevism today, unless it be that, unlike National Socialism, which was ‘expressionistic’ and ‘exciting,’ it is completely prosaic and Realistic.

But perhaps the most revealing of the infection of humanism by Vitalism is the strange axiom, romantic and skeptical at the same time, that the ‘love of truth’ is never-ending because it can never be fulfilled, that the whole of life is a constant search for something there is no hope of finding, a constant movement that never can–nor should–know a place of rest.  The sophisticated humanist can be very eloquent in describing this, the new first principle of scholarly and scientific research, as an acknowledgement of the ‘provisional’ nature of all knowledge, as a reflection of the never-satisfied, ever-curious human mind, or as part of the mysterious process of ‘evolution’ or ‘progress’ ; but the significance of the attitude is clear.  It is the last attempt of the unbeliever to hide his abandonment of truth behind a cloud of noble rhetoric, and, more positively, it is at the same time the exaltation of petty curiosity to the place once occupied by the genuine love of truth.  now it is quite true to say that curiosity, exactly like its analogue, lust, never ends and is never satisfied; but man was made for something more than this.  He was made to rise, above curiosity and lust, to love, and through love to the attainment of truth.  This is an elementary truth of human nature, and it requires, perhaps, a certain simplicity to grasp it.  The intellectual trifling of contemporary humanism is as far from such simplicity as it is from truth.”

–Fr. Seraphim Rose, Nihilism:  The Root of the Revolution of the Modern Age


22 Responses to “Fr. Seraphim on nihilism in art and the humanities”

  1. The Lichenthrope Says:

    I love it.

    “People who don’t agree with us are obscurantists and charlatans!”

  2. The Lichenthrope Says:

    But in all seriousness, what does he mean by “Realist” and “Vitalist”? He doesn’t really give any description of the former in this passage, and the latter is not quite something I recognize.

  3. Krause Says:

    “People who don’t agree with us are obscurantists and charlatans!”

    Yeah, except that’s not what he’s saying. It’s not that the people simply disagree, its that they are obscurantists and charlatans. It’s not even clear to me why a nihilist of the Nietchian variety would even argue the point.

    About the realist and the vitalist, that’s not really Fr. Seraphim’s fault, I just quoted a passage in a section where he’s already made the terms clear.

    There are basically 4 stages of the nihilist dialectic: 1) Liberalism: this stage involves taking the traditional terms and structures of the old order and religion and imparting in them a completely different meaning; the liberal may still appeal to “truth,” but this no longer occupies the central role it used to. The traditional terminology is largely used to invoke emotional, rather than rational responses. It is not explicit Nihilism, but it is the necessary breading ground for it and the first major stage on the way to pure Nihilism. (Think Episcopalianism)

    2) Realism: This stage is characterized by a realization that the Liberalism is using words that no longer refer to anything in reality. The realist appears to care about truth, but regulates truth to only the sorts of earthly realities within the realm of science. They confuse facts with Truth. (Think Dawkins and Marx)

    3) Vitalism: In the Vitalist stage, the realization dawns that man cannot really live in this stark, barren reality. It is characterized by a restless spiritualistic searching that misses Truth because it has already written off the real God as dead. It seeks to fill the void left in the wake of the death of God with various spiritual experiences and movements which really have nothing to do with, nor do they generally really claim to have a handle on truth. (post Scientism spiritual seeking)

    4) The Nihilism of Destruction: this is the stage where the Nihilist project is brought to it’s completion. The nihilist tries to destroy everything in response to the worship of the absence of God in his soul.

    These are oversimplifications of the categories and are certainly lacking in relation to Fr. Seraphim’s analysis, but hopefully that gives you some idea.

  4. The Lichenthrope Says:

    Ok, so those are just his characters, and they’re not necessarily meant to match up with the actual schools of thought whose names they bear?

    And, honestly, I have to disagree. That is pretty much exactly what he said. The unbeliever has abandonded truth (or, at least, what ol’ Eugene considers to be truth) and therefore hides it with obscurantism and charlatanry. It seems to me that, in the above analysis, the obscurantism and charlatanry are seen as following from the abandonment of “truth”, hence my initial characterization of the passage: “People who don’t agree with us are obscurantists and charlatans!”

  5. MG Says:

    The Lichenthrope,

    Krause wrote the following to you:

    “It’s not even clear to me why a nihilist of the Nietchian variety would even argue the point.”

    Mark seems to be suggesting something that includes (but is not exhausted by) the following: some of the nihilists Fr. Seraphim is writing about are not even taking themselves to be arguing for anything (for the sake of themselves or others). They are not suggesting that their ideas are good. They are not suggesting their ideas are rational. They are just trying to exert an irrational, affective influence on us (and themselves) to believe things through attractive terminology that makes us appreciate their sentiments. They may do this through means that superficially seem rational, but they in fact are not. For example, they may state arguments for their position, while not believing that the arguments are actually intellectually normative. Or, when a flaw in one of their arguments is pointed out (or maybe after several layers of pseudo-argument are peeled back), such persons may retreat into claims like “this is what I feel like” or “this idea is who I am”. Or they may just avoid the issue by accusing others: “well no one is really rational, so I don’t have to justify my intellectual positions”; “you have biases too, and this is what I believe, so there”.

    Do you disagree with Mark about this? Do you think that this is not characteristic of any major nihilists?

  6. The Lichenthrope Says:

    I would certainly disagree with such a characterization of Nietzsche or even most well-know Nietzscheans that I can think of (i.e. Foucault, Deleuze, Heidegger). Maybe you might characterize the hermeneuticists or true existentialists in this way—Gadamer, Sartre, etc.—but I think that would probably be wrong. In fact, I do not know anyone who seriously upholds such things, and I would certainly agree that they would be charlatans.

    However, I think the main thrust of what you just said is a little different to what Genie wrote as quoted above, since it is hard to read his passage without thinking that he has a particular truth in mind when he says certain people have abandoned truth. It reads to me like the abandonment of Christianity is at issue here.

  7. Krause Says:

    If you believe that there is no truth, no thing in itself, but only the will to power, then why would you be upset if someone called you a charlatan or an obscurantist for using rhetoric to manipulate people into bowing to your will?

  8. MG Says:


    On your interpretation, does Nietzsche hold that reason is objectively normative?

  9. The Lichenthrope Says:

    Krause, I’m sorry to see that you haven’t gotten much of a handle on Nietzsche and Nietzscheans beyond the pop-nihilism of A Fish Called Wanda’s Otto.

    MG, I think he must, in some sense, otherwise his spats with Wagner and others don’t make any sense.

  10. CircularReason Says:

    Ouch. Apparently Lichenthrope “gets” Nietchze. Wizard of Oz, step behind thy megaphone! Prove it.

  11. CircularReason Says:


    Thanks so much for posting the summary of the Four Stages. I tried to summarize them awhile back for my screenwriting partner and well, failed. I ended up sending him the 30-ish page introduction, which he promptly avoided reading.

    We’re working with the concept of Vampire as Nihilism. The family he is consuming are at various stages of the dialectic. Eventually, they all become violent conservatives (think Chesterton’s final revolution) or slide every more rapidly into the Abyss.

  12. The Lichenthrope Says:

    Keith –

    The only thing I’d claim to “get” is how to spell his name. I’m more than willing to defend a view, but I haven’t really done more than object to Krause’s characterization of the views discussed above as Nietzschean. If there’s a more specific question you’d like to ask, I would be glad to answer, as well as engage in a discussion of Nietzsche. I think both Krause and MG know me well enough to understand that I’m hardly bullshitting them from behind a curtain.

  13. CircularReason Says:

    Well, Mark’s gloss is that Friedrich “N.”

    “If you believe that there is no truth, no thing in itself.” As a consequence, if someone called him a “charlatan” or worse (for Nietzsche) a “former Christian” (see then Nietzsche would not feel insulted. How insulted do you feel when a child sneezes, or a horse-fly buzzes by, or a shooting star dissolves into the atmosphere? None of them have “truth;” none even have CONTENT.

    Whatever else Nietzsche says after that, (“will to power,” or “Here comes the Ubermench to save us from the nasty resentful Christian priests”) seems to me rather meaningless if we take the first premise seriously. Just so much proto-Nazi bullshit.

  14. The Lichenthrope Says:

    . . . what? Did you even state a full thought?

  15. CircularReason Says:


  16. CircularReason Says:

    Well, Mark’s gloss is that Friedrich “N.”


    “If…” etc. My bad.

  17. CircularReason Says:

    The point being, that if Krause’s gloss is correct, and if that premise, that great “thought that stops all thought,” is truly Nietzschean, then, well, that thought alone must be stopped.

  18. The Lichenthrope Says:

    So, you’re merely reiterating Krause’s views? (Well, with the addition of some left field stuff about Nazis that I didn’t think anyone seriously believed anymore.)

  19. Krause Says:

    Zakk, I’m wondering what exactly about Nietzsche’s critique of Wagner doesn’t make any sense if you view Nietzsche as denying the objective Normative character of reason (or at least holding to a view of truth similar to say Rorty)? I read the Contra Wagner the other day and the critique seemed to be focused on the aesthetic. He mentioned anti-Semitism and Christianity to point out how far Wagner had fallen, but it’s unclear to me that anything (at least in this work) totally clears up my misconceptions. Maybe you could be a little more explicit in what you’re claiming and where you’re getting it from?

  20. The Lichenthrope Says:

    I’m not really claiming anything other than that your characterization of the above views as Nietzschean is off the mark. I’m getting it from Nietzsche’s work, interpreted in light of the evidence of both his forbears and successors.

    I am avoiding making a positive claim of what exactly I think Nietzsche is saying on any particular point because I am not particularly interested in arguing out my views. Since a specific better interpretation isn’t necessary to nullify a bad one, I felt I could get away with this.

  21. MG Says:


    You were making the positive claim that there is evidence in Contra Wagner (or a text or incident related to it) that Nietzche does not deny the objective normativity of reason. Are you now retracting that claim?

  22. Krause Says:


    There seems to be some misunderstanding going on and i would like to clear up 2 things.

    1) I’ve never offered up my own interpretation of Nietzsche. I haven’t read enough to offer an interpretation. Rather, I posted a large quote of Fr. Seraphim’s and tried to explain it a little bit, and then asked questions which were based on a couple Nietzsche quotes. (If you doubt this feel free to go back and check the comments)

    2) It’s unclear to me that you’ve nullified any particular Nietzsche interpretation since all you’ve done is state that “Krause’s interpretation” is wrong in a variety of ways without argument or evidence. (Once again, you can just go back and read the comments)

    Basically what I’ve done in the comments (aside from clarify Fr. Seraphim’s categories) is ask you questions that you in general seem to be ignoring.

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