Jacques Maritain Center: Thomistic Institute

The problem of Nihilism in Fides et ratio

Vittorio Possenti

In this encyclical, which deals with the necessary and fruitful encounter between faith and reason, the theme of nihilism, though not developed at great length, is of crucial importance. The fact that this is the first time a major document of the Church has touched on the topic (which was shelved by the second Vatican Council) confers a dramatic quality on Fides et Ratio, which deals with man's permanence in or escape from nihilism. By addressing the subject, the papal Letter produces two powerful effects: it places itself at the center of the spiritual situation of the present age, and it offers a determination of nihilism that has hitherto been lacking in the world's culture (an assertion that I attempt to motivate below). There is so far little awareness that the encyclical has contributed something new to the subject; and the reason for this is deeply rooted: the fields of philosophy and culture which still exist in the shadow of nihilism are incapable of perceiving its baleful influence, and even less capable of escaping from it.

Almost half a century ago - when nihilism had long been a familiar topic and was in fact considered rather an old hat -, E. Jünger held that a substantial definition of it was still wanting. "A good definition of nihilism would be comparable to the identification of the cause of cancer. It would not in itself be a recovery, but it would certainly be the precondition for one, provided that men work to that end. It is in fact a process that occupies largely the history" (1). It is hardly reassuring that still today - in a period when the term "nihilism" has been used in all possible senses, handled as a term of condemnation and even as mark of benediction - the question remains confused. This situation is very similar to what Sartre diagnosed as happening as a result of the increasingly copious and indiscriminate use of the term "existentialism": namely that it no longer had any meaning, since all too many and heterogeneous currents prided themselves on being existentialist. The word became a conventional term put to the most varied uses and serving to deck out very different silhouettes.

So it remains difficult to imagine how nihilism can be overcome. In my opinion, one factor of this outcome is the lack of a prior philosophical investigation of the subject, so that often the philosophical and the theological approaches overlap and cause confusion; or else the theological approach is taken up very prematurely without an adequate method for tackling the problem, i.e. without the conceptual infrastructure indispensable to deal with the arduous ontological problems entailed by the theological approach.

Absorbed by age-old confrontation with the modern cultures of action, especially Marxism, Christian thought has tended to overlook nihilism, and in this it has been remiss with the result of a considerable delay on this matter. It has been aware of the challenge, it has feared nihilism above all on the moral plane, has sought to exorcise it by keeping it at a distance, yet has rarely looked it steadily in the face. The major Christian thinkers have partly laid the foundations for an understanding of the character of nihilism, but without going far enough. One consequence of this failure is that the dominant philosophical line has been that embodied by other thinkers, especially Nietzsche and Heidegger. The documents of the Church's teaching (social encyclicals and pastoral letters) have often dealt with consumerism, nearly never with nihilism. Now, by investigating this issue more carefully, we see that nihilism is one of the causes of consumerism and the hedonism related to it. This leads to an important shift of perspective from the centrality of consumerism to that of nihilism, considered a far more radical and disquieting phenomenon.

What is nihilism?

Fides et ratio takes a first step towards correcting this accumulated delay by offering that determination of nihilism ("What is nihilism?"), which world philosophy has been seeking with unusual assiduity for 150 years though without much success (2). To understand this event we need to grasp, in the encyclical's pithy phrasing, the way in which it presents the essence of nihilism. The problem is firstly touched on in no. 46. "As a result of the crisis of rationalism, what has appeared finally is nihilism. As a philosophy of nothingness, it has a certain attraction for people of our times. Its adherents claim that the search is an end in itself, without any hope or possibility of ever attaining the goal of truth.. In the nihilist interpretation, life is only no more than an occasion for sensations and experiences in which the ephemeral has pride of place. Nihilism is at the root of the widespread mentality which claims that a definitive commitment should no longer be made, because everything is fleeting and provisional". Subsequently the encyclical returns to the question at nos. 81, 91, and above all no. 90. Making reference to the horizon common to many philosophies, which have taken leave of the sense of being, the encyclical refers to the nihilist outlook "which is at once the denial of all foundations and the negation of all objective truth. Quite apart from the fact that it conflicts with the demands and the contents of the word of God, nihilism is denial of humanity of man and of the very identity of the human being. It should never be forgotten that the neglect of being inevitably leads to losing touch with objective truth, and therefore with the very ground of human dignity". The era of nihilism brings the end of the age of certainties, replaced by the absence of meaning.

The two formulations complement each other. While the first, acute in grasping the origins of nihilism in rationalism and its crisis, presents some symptomatic features that are not always necessarily connected with nihilism (the reference to the ephemeral), the second seizes on the nature of nihilism, especially theoretical (or alethic) nihilism, which is often both preliminary to and more original than moral nihilism. Four characteristics are presented as integrating the very nature of nihilism: crisis in the concept of truth, neglect or oblivion of being, breakdown of real or objective knowledge, negation of man's humanity: we might say that nihilism arises when the light of the speculative intellect is no longer directed on being, so that men and things are no longer ordered according to their nature and value of being (3).

The original speculative core, to which many forms of nihilism (first of all theoretical nihilism and subsequently, and with specific modes, practical nihilism) can be traced, can be found in a compact, negative structure, within which some events combine to reinforce each other, and in which as many negations are clearly perceptible: a) a profound existential rift between man and reality, of which gnoseological antirealism is the most decisive theoretic expression; b) oblivion/concealment of being, so that the aim always and continually sought by philosophy is not (any longer) the knowledge of being, which it considers to be permanently blocked or obstructed. The knowledge that escapes philosophy may, perhaps, be replaced by the scientific knowledge or by the will to power; c) victory of nominalism over realism within the framework of a widespread antirealism, in which generally the concern with being is abandoned for a concern with the text, in the passage from a metaphysical ontology to an "indirect" ontology of some other kind. The fundamental language of philosophy is no longer seen as that of metaphysics but that of the sciences, or in the hermeneutic axis addressed towards the understanding of texts and hence at most within a second degree of immediacy; d) the attempt to do without the concept of truth or to transform it by attacking the very idea of truth as adaequatio between thought (or statement) and being: truth is born of consensus and not of a consonance between intellect and objective reality ( 56). In the compact core of nihilism there also takes place a sort of annihilation or dissolution of the object, considered by idealism as an unconscious product of the Self (4).

The probings of Fides et ratio, compared with some intuitions of Nietzsche and Heidegger, but transported into a different horizon of thought, help to conceive the post-metaphysical and post-Christian essence of nihilism. It includes a strong 'antinomianism' (antinomos), a notable sign of which is the widespread rejection and at times even the hatred of the lex naturalis; as well as a comprehension that is no longer revelatory ( phanic and theophanic), but mute of being and the cosmos. Man, engaged in surviving in a hostile cosmos, develops within himself an anti-contemplative spirit and a corresponding innerworldly activism. If the eclipse of the "phanic" or revelatory nature of being and an anti-contemplative attitude refer to each other, the search, so common today, for a barrier against nihilism, identified in ethics, risks becoming a diversion. Ethics cannot last long when the realm of truth and meaning is compromised. With clear insight Nietzsche grasped that the death of ethics would follow upon the "death of God", if only because (I would add) it is a "secret agent" in the service of the Almighty.

Objectively bound up with these fundamental definitions of nihilism, beyond the intentions of the author, is Nietzsche's dazzling statement: "Nihilism: the end is lacking, the answer to the question 'why?' is lacking!" (5). Reality exists, being is a donnée, yet everything is without meaning, since it is rigorously impossible to discover any meaning when the ideas of purpose, of intelligibility, of reason of being (raison d'être), have failed. Nihilism appears to us here as the loss or total concealment of meaning, and most probably the refusal of the original, primordial Logos as everywhere present in the whole (en archè logos en; in principio erat Verbum). If right from the beginning there is Logos, this implies that being, life, nature be intelligible, in principle open to the human reason. And reason cannot proceed from an obscure, original abyss of irrationality.

The above mentioned assumptions, anything but isolated, hold in their grasp, for example, the generative insights that underpin the monumental work of Weber, a lucid yet disenchanted disciple of Nietzsche; for, unlike him, Weber felt no confidence in future philosophy as creation and place of manifestation of the superman (Ubermensch). The nihilistic character of the work of Weber emerges in many of his formulations. Especially eloquent among them is his statement that culture "is a finite section of the infinite, meaningless world-becoming, to which is attributed sense and significance from man's point of view" (6). This formulation confirms that a feature of nihilism is the lack of meaning (the answer to the question 'why?' is missing, the purpose is missing), and its reduction to an act of will on the part of the subject, who to survive and not fall into the absurd posits meaning as a challenge to an existence devoured by becoming and which appears to be hostile, mute, absolutely non-revelatory. The Weberian idea of the modern era as directed by a powerful "instrumental rationality" is highly dependent on nihilistic presuppositions and mainly on Nietzsche's determination of nihilism as lack of end/purpose. If ends cannot be neither known by reason nor placed in hierarchy, then a science of ends will be impossible, and only a science of means - in sight of purposes which will be only decided by desire or by factual power actually in force - , is allowed. The "instrumental rationality" exactly consists in irrationality of ends accompanied by technical decisions about means.

The nihilistic content of the core, in which the rift between man and reality, oblivion of being, and the crisis of the idea of the truth all combine, is high because, bearing on the origin, its effects are transmitted indefinitely in many directions. One of them is the question of essence, to which the philosophical tradition attributed great importance for the comprehension of existence and the whole. There is a nihilism that holds the concept of essence to be inconsequential, a mere linguistic convention, flatus vocis. I term this attitude nihilism of the essences. To it is directed the ideology (in itself nihilistic) of technological scientism, whose advanced wing today is in the biological-genetic sector. The source from which this specific form of nihilism is nurtured lies in an emphatic raising of becoming alone, conjoined with the a priori negation of the necessary stratum of being and the assumption that essences are mere lexical conventions, something that depends fundamentally on the choices of man and on the never firm determinations of his freedom.

The gnoseological-ontological antirealism here takes the form of unreality of the essences/natures. Given that this negation is postulated and therefore illusory, it appears to the scrutiny of the intellect to be condemned to failure and also dangerous, since many undesirable results can flow from the attempts to violate the inviolable. For this reason Fides et ratio shows itself clear-sighted in its invitation not to stop at how language expresses and understands reality, but to go further and verify the ability of reason to discover essences. This would make it possible to establish a limit to the drive towards the omnipotence of technology, which can "attempt essences" but not transform them. The essences represent the 'unavailable'. To the oblivion of being and of essences corresponds with geometrical precision nihilism as the will to power of technology.

Coordinate with the position defined as "nihilism of the essences" is the attack on the idea of substance, in an attempt to resolve it into that of function, as in the case of Kelsen. An inner necessity links theoretical nihilism as oblivion of being with the abandonment of the concept of substance, as it is the first and fundamental expression of real being: only individuals or individual substances exist.

If now, without losing sight of the speculative diagnosis, we pass to the practical field, we can speak of an ethical nihilism, understood as an attack on values, an attempt at their dissolution, relativism. The moral nihilism that today constitutes perhaps the most evident component of the theme of nihilism, by the frequency with which it is evoked in culture, possesses some practical roots (as well as much else). To us it seems to originate from the primacy of the negative over the positive, of eros over agape, of the indirect-negative over the direct-positive. This nihilism, in which it is postulated that the positive stems from the negative, is paradigmatically matched by Nietzsche's idea that the morality of love, of forgiveness, of mercy, is born not from a positive heroic impulse of the person, but emerges as an unconfessable disguise of a harsh feeling of ressentiment against life, strength, and joy (7).

It is not difficult to connect with this picture another remarkable meaning of ethical nihilism, which stems from a weak, plural reason, skeptical and resigned to decline. The "soft" form of moral nihilism which seems to prevail in the contemporary West, is rather like a form of "do it yourself" and originates in the metamorphosis of the criterion of autonomy, on which modernity had staked its best cards. Maintaining that the supreme principle of morality is autonomy as the self-legislation of the reason, Kant (cf. Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten) had before his mind a single moral law and a single, universal, and immutable self-legislation of the reason. But what can be said today, when the one has become many? When the moral law has crumbled into the unlimited plurality of the empirical self-legislations of single individuals? Within this new spiritual climate both prohibiting and prescribing become meaningless.

To express our own conviction fully, in many forms of speculative nihilism a leading part is played by an intimately anti-realistic logico-dialectical formalism. Empty and sterile in real terms, it is devoid of all sense of being: an absolute logicism reduces it to nullity. Its decisive origin can perhaps be found in the concealment of real being of which the great and delusive machine of Hegelian dialectic is pregnant: on this basis, being, that which is richest and most fully determinate, is seen in the Science of Logic as the emptiest, poorest, the most indeterminate, the pure nothing. Rarely in the history of philosophy has there been a form of oblivion of being of equal intensity. Meanwhile it will remain as a constantly revived question whether it is ever possible to grasp reality while remaining enclosed within a grid of merely logical concepts. In logicist nihilism there circulates to a greater or lesser degree a feeling of contempt for reality: it appears perhaps too humble to the eyes of the doctors of logic for them to pause to consider it.

Nihilism and analogia entis

The diagnosis that links nihilism to the removal of being, hence to oblivion of being and to the loss of contact with objective truth, while it goes to the roots, leaves much unexpressed. Dwelling in its space, it is now required to grasp the unspoken, starting from the element by which the dismissal of being relates to another notable core of ideas, which we shall formulate as follows: oblivion of being includes the oblivion and ultimately the rejection of the analogia entis and of onto-theology. The separation from these is often driven by a more or less conscious desire to deconstruct the concept of God as an obstacle to the radicality of the philosophical duty, and to deny the identity between God and Being. The criticism of the onto-theology and the analogy, now become almost a commonplace in many schools, is generally conducted by drawing on Heidegger. Moreover there is little awareness of a crucial point: namely, if a thought like his, which rests on the finiteness and the insuperable transcendental circle of temporality, does not seem inadequate to pass judgment (whether positively or critically) on the infinite, on whatever lies beyond that circle. To attack onto-theology and the analogia entis on this basis is like biting granite.

Heidegger's criticism is contained in numerous writings, among them those of "Identity and Difference" and especially "The onto-theo-logical constitution of metaphysics". They maintain the proposition that God is conceived by onto-theology as the supreme being and as causa sui. It is not an adequate solution to attribute this - colossal - misunderstanding to Heidegger's inadequate knowledge of history of philosophy, which yet played its part (where and when did the more reputable natural theologies conceive the God who enters into philosophy as causa sui?). In reality two positions that cannot co-exist are being maintained here: on the one hand the limitation of onto-theology is identified in having conceived God as ens and not as esse; on the other it is held to be impossible to posit the identity between God and being (esse). In this regard important are the passages of the Beiträge zur Philosophie where God is determined as unfailing need of being (Notschaft des Seyns), as if possessed by an obscure hunger; and also in those parts where the equation Deus=Esse is denied with a clarity that leaves nothing to be desired: "Being and God are not identical and I would never seek to think the essence of God through being. Some know that I come from theology and that I have preserved an old love for it, and understand a little about the subject. If I were to write a theology - and at times I feel the urge to do so - the term "being" would not appear in it. Faith has no need of being. If it uses the term, it is already no longer faith... I hold that being can never be thought as the essence and foundation of God" (8).

In these words are expressed two aversions: one anti-Hellenic and one anti-biblical, for in the Bible the attribution of being to God is common. This is part of the idea that he is original Perfection: he is neither a God that makes himself, that feels hunger for being, nor a future God, analogous to the "last God" introduced by the Beiträge. The denial that faith is faith if has recourse to being, vividly reveals the risk of ontophobia in Heidegger's thinking. In no onto-theology has the problem of the difference between esse and ens been explored with such profundity as in that of the Seinsphilosophie, which asserts the validity of the identity of Deus with Esse, and hence God's infinite distance from beings, his value as the Unique and Other. Only by conceiving of God as Esse can one perceive the difference between being as esse and being as ens. This grandiose development escaped Heidegger, who here, too, failed to get rid of the oblivion of being.

Attempts to break out from nihilism

If technological scientism - for which "to be/being" in the highest sense does not signify "to be forever/always being" but only "to remain in the presence, ready for every transformation" - reveals itself as an important trait of nihilism, it does not seem to us that the existentialist philosophies, those of freedom or the transcendental ones, are capable of achieving the desired escape from it. Often existentialism hangs existence to an act of freedom and ultimately to the abyss of freedom (the term is symptomatic), that is in the last resort to a decision. The existentialist, understanding that one cannot dwell endlessly in relativism and nihilism, decides to emerge from it by an act of freedom. The problem does not consist in escaping from relativism or nihilism, but in the way we do it.

Perhaps the most inward character of existentialism is its awareness that at the bottom of all knowledge and of ourselves we discover the abyss, that-which-is-not-founded. It is so radical that it threatens the Absolute itself, so that in the last analysis all truth and meaning rest on the unfounded abyss of freedom, human or divine, as the case may be, but the original structure of the reality is not altered. If all meaning comes from the obscure and 'principial' ( i. e., that has reference to the principle) act of freedom, then all meaning is founded on a decision and ultimately there is no such thing as meaning but only decision. Despite differences of personal intention, existentialism of this kind, which contains a misunderstanding of the essence of freedom and of the ultimate nature of being, does not seem capable of checking the progress of nihilism.

If we look at it from the aspect of transcendental philosophy, which taken as a whole has constituted the ontology of the moderns, we find it contains many things worthy of respect but not being. One finds things and men, onta and human subjects, and certainly the "anthropological difference" between the inanimate onta and living, thinking men. In fact subjectivity is raised so high that modern transcendental doctrine could hardly have been born outside the all-embracing doctrine of anthropocentrism, in which - according to Barth - man is the universal subject and Christ at best the predicate. Such a philosophy could have been a philosophy of consciousness and of freedom, and it was both of these things together. Yet it failed to produce that openness of the soul to the whole, without which it is impossible to break out of nihilism. The openness of the soul, expressed in the ancient adage anima est quodammodo omnia, here signifies openness to being and to experience, in the possible acceptance of that infinite openness produced in us by the Revelation. Nietzsche had profound reasons for seeking with unflagging energy to abolish the soul as ontological and theological sensorium. Oblivion of being and of the soul and dissolution of ethics go hand in hand.

Two great and vital currents seem available to help us to break out of nihilism: the philosophy of being and the biblical tradition. Without mixing itself with questions which are left to discussion among different philosophical currents, the encyclical suggests that one of the major limits of modern philosophy lies in having put being in brackets, in not having been able to present itself as philosophy of being (9). Consequently it has encountered greater difficulties in rediscovering the proper wisdom that is peculiar to philosophical thought, going toward the fragmentation of knowledge (cf. Nos. 83 and 97, the latter a pivot of the whole discussion). With reference to metaphysics, we are justified in evoking by contrast that area of contemporary philosophy that defines itself as post-Metaphysical, in allusion to the irreversible devaluation of the foundations of the true and valid which it sees in Western culture.

Concluding words

Among the several concluding remarks that could be presented, I'll retain only a few matters:

1) The Western secularized culture is rather deeply affected by nihilism: this culture spreads and circulates a new "common sense" according to which the universe is deprived of any sense and, if God exists, he remains totally hidden to our mind. As very seldom contemporary philosophy goes beyond the border of the finite, an anguish, correlated to man's closing in the finiteness, affects the subjects living in the postmodern spiritual climate. In the realm of culture and of philosophical quest, the main challenge arising from nihilism concerns the very continuation of philosophy. With nihilism could occur not only a transformation of philosophy as provoked by linguistic and hermeneutic turn, but the very end of philosophy as an enterprise aimed at the knowledge of truth and at a form of wisdom. In fact with the advent of nihilism the sapiential dimension inherent to philosophy is progressively dissolved, while disappears the perspective according to which philosophy is seen as a vocation and an existential practice with deep resonances in personal life.

At the end of this dialectics, starting from the removal of knowledge of being, reason becomes more and more a prisoner to itself : some Kantian ideas concerning the "trascendental illusion" of reason could have prepared this attitude. Nihilism seems to be an internal parasite of reason and metaphysics, especially strong at the end of this century, when "one of our greatest threats is the temptation to despair" ( 91).

2) Breaking free from nihilism could be a kind of rebirth for philosophy; and for theology a resumption of its sapiential, contemplative, dogmatic function, now less deeply felt because of the weight of various factors, including: the still onerous influence of Heideggerianism in theology; a certain exegetical-philological positivism in the approach to the Bible, which beyond all its good intentions produces fragmentation in the understanding of God's plan. For this breakout to take place, a resumption of the dialogue between philosophy and Revelation is desirable.

But it is unclear whether in the West, the land of broken symbols (P. Tillich's words) the two will ever communicate intensely again, as many hope, including Jaspers, who declared: "The Bible and biblical tradition are one of the bases of our philosophy... The philosophical enquiry in the West - whether it is acknowledged or not - is always conducted with the Bible, even when it is directed against the Bible" (10). Here it is possible to suggest the fundamental meaning of open philosophy which is the matrix of the encyclical: open philosophy is that which, conscious of its limits verified through a rational and controllable process, remains on the watch for a possible Revelation, a word spoken by the Transcendent in history; and which does not preclude the possibility that a new impulse might come from it, a contribution enabling it to better attain its end. It seems that two legitimate processes go hand in hand: the process, commonly conceded, that it is reason which questions the Revelation; and that one which questions reason on behalf of the Revelation, verifying whether it cannot provide a contribution to restart the philosophical quest and reveal new horizons.

3) An open philosophy of this kind would be presented neither as a philosophical religion, whose grave limits are well known, nor yet as a generically religious philosophy. A name that would not be inappropriate, through historically charged with multiple meanings, might be "Christian philosophy", since it would be open not only to the religious phenomenon but specifically to the Revelation of Christianity. It would then be possible to resume the labour of the concept in philosophy and in theology. By recreating a virtuous circle between philosophy and Revelation we would make progress towards overcoming a state of reciprocal extraneousness that has been notable: whether because theology has sought to summarize into itself the vertex and totality of knowledge; or because the same has happened to the advantage of philosophy, which especially in the case of idealism is charged with theological purposes captured in the system.

The absorption of one discipline into another or, by contrast, their reciprocal indifference, has led to the exiguous dialogue of culture and philosophy with the Bible which, while not exhausting the totality of the Revelation, remains the great code of the European East and West. It is a solemn river that gathers the waters of a thousand streams: voices, doubts, praises, lamentations, protests, questions, answers. It is the book of the dialogue between man and God, the acta of God's intiative towards man. We read Hesiod, Plato, Sophocles, Cicero, Virgil, not Genesis, Luke, Paul, Clement. Why Homer and not John? Here what is called for is a far-reaching revolution in the model of education that has existed for many centuries now in Europe, and which was based first of all on the Greek and Latin humanities, with a subsequent broadening of the curriculum to science and technology, while still leaving the biblical code at a distance (11).

The integration of the paradigm presupposes the construction of a different relationship with Scripture and Revelation, a frequentation of them not limited to historico-critical method, which is certainly important but in some instances unproductive and problematic. So it is possible to glimpse the need for a concern with and use of the Bible in philosophy, rather along the method followed by some Jewish thinkers, at least in the sense that the Bible should not be understood as a document enclosed in the past.

4) The very essence of Christianity is threatened by nihilism, and the struggle against it could be a founding dimension of the present situation of Christianity. On a theologal (not simply theological) level the inner and concealed meaning of nihilism could be the man's limitation to this world, with the cutting of his desires directed toward the infinite, toward God. This is a strong challenge for Christianity and Revelation, because their ultimate meaning is not merely salvation, which implies liberation from sin, but mainly and firstly to become similar to God, i. e. deification (deificatio in Latin, theiosis in Greek). With nihilism Chistianity is no longer understood as a faith which is centered around the deification of man as a gift of God.


NOTES

(1) E. Jünger, Oltre la linea, in E. Jünger-M. Heidegger, Oltre la linea, Adelphi, Milan 1989, p. 57.

Retracing the dense and uneven debate on nihilism, to which Italian philosophy has contributed on various occasions, it is difficult to escape the assumption that the term 'nihilism' is undergoing an increasing semantic extenuation: if many, all too many, phenomena of the spirit are branded as nihilism, it becomes a catch-all term, like an elastic that can be pulled in any direction. Its growing extension is matched by a large vagueness of comprehension and definition.

A first step in avoiding this situation suggests that we should consider nihilism as an event with several faces, which postulates a hermeneutics on several levels and which suggests to the philosopher an attitude which excludes all attempts at being exhaustive and all-inclusive. There are notable presences of nihilism in art, in the life of the spirit, in religion, and even perhaps in mysticism, if it is true that for certain mystics the Nothing is taken as the purest and highest name of God. These few references already reveal the evocative charge and also the semantic equivocalness of the term.

(2) For an analysis of the nature and the widespread presence of nihilism, cf. V. Possenti, Terza navigazione, Nichilismo e metafisica, Armando, Rome 1998. In the understanding of the nature of nihilism we should recognize the inescapable propaedeutic step to be taken before we can begin to cure its illness: clearly it is impossible to free oneself from an event of whose nature one is ignorant.

(3) As anticipated, some other hints to nihilism are integrated in Fides et ratio in 81 and 91. In the latter reference is made to a few postmodern currents, according to which " the time of certainties is irrevocably past, and the human being must now learn to live in a horizon of total absence of meaning, where everything is provisional and ephemeral. In their destructive critique of every certitude, several authors have failed to make a crucial distinction and have called into question the certitudes of faith".

(4) If the doctrine that overcomes the opposition between thought and object is anti-nihilistic, this comes about by very different paths in idealism and realism. The latter maintains the intentional identity of intellect and object, in the wake of Aristotle's teaching, and the ontico-real primacy of the object (all the light comes from the object), instead of the primacy of the transcendental productivity of the Self which posits the non-Self.

A notable nihilism of the object as external and extra-psychic is present in Freud, especially in the interpretation of dreams, understood as an absolutely and integrally inner fact, an exclusive production of the individual: "The dream is an absolutely asocial psychic product... having arisen inside a person as a compromise between the psychic forces in conflict, it remains incomprehensible even to this person himself". The psychoanalytic interpretation of dreams as wholly inner products risks having been one of the most tenacious myths of the 20th century.

An aspect of the anti-nihilism is its value as a metaphysic of exteriority and hence of the real density of the object, not however presenting itself as the negation of the subject, since the highest form of existence is personal existence, in which the philosophy of being recognizes a maximum of ontological profundity and mystery.

(5) Opere di F. Nietzsche. Frammenti postumi, Adelphi, Milano, vol. VIII, t. II, p. 12. In the same fragment Nietzsche develops the idea that the height of nihilism consists in the inexistence of truth.

(6) M. Weber, Il metodo delle scienze storico-sociali, Mondadori, Milan 1980, p. 96.

(7) According to Nietzsche, resentment (ressentiment) serves as the unconfessable motive that underlies the morality of love, mercy, forgiveness. He claims that these feelings connote the "revolt of slaves in morality", which begins "when ressentiment itself becomes a creator and generates values; the ressentiment of such creatures [the weak] to whom the true reaction, that of action, is denied and who console themselves only with an imaginary revenge", Genealogia della morale, Adelphi, Milan 1988, p. 251. If the force of resentment is strong in several modern ethics, as Max Scheler pointed out in his well known studies, the "consentment" (consentement) to being and life should be a basic, existential position of man, and one of the highlights of the Christian trascendental faith.

(8) Seminare, in Gesamtausgabe, vol. 15, Klostermann, Frankfurt a. M., p. 437. On these aspects cf. V. Possenti, Approssimazioni all'essere, Il Poligrafo, Padua 1995, pp. 99-106.

(9) On philosophy of being see in Fides et ratio the paragraphs 44, 66, 76, 97. The boldness of reason (cf. 48) is at its best when it dares to rise to the truth of being (cf. 5). The high importance recognized to this philosophy in itself and as an indispensable, essential aid in developping theology represents one of the more impressive innovations in the papal Letter: the matter is discussed in my book Filosofia e Rivelazione, Città Nuova, Roma 1999, pp. 32-38.

(10) K. Jaspers, La foi philosophique, Plon, Paris 1952, p. 129.

(11) In Le poète et la Bible (Gallimard, Paris 1999), which contains Claudel's writings on the Bible, we find the following: "Isn't it monstrous, in purely cultural terms, that the Bible has no place in our university education when we wear out our poor young people with the insipidities of Horace and force them to admire, however unwillingly, Plutarch's great men, who for the most part are nothing but indecent puppets?", in Avvenire, January 24, 1999.