Nihilism is painless

So the story of Mitchell Heisman’s suicide is bizarre in a way that most suicides are not in that it was premeditated for several years before it was finally undertaken. Heisman took his life, it appears, as part of a semi-scholarly examination into the meaningless of life – ‘an experiment in nihilism’ he called it. The suicide note Heisman penned is a little lengthier than your typical note – running a total of 1,905 pages with “1,433 footnotes, a 20-page bibliography, and more than 1,700 references to God and 200 references to the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche”.

“Every word, every thought, and every emotion come back to one core problem: life is meaningless,’’ he wrote. “The experiment in nihilism is to seek out and expose every illusion and every myth, wherever it may lead, no matter what, even if it kills us.”


“If life is truly meaningless and there is no rational basis for choosing among fundamental alternatives, then all choices are equal and there is no fundamental ground for choosing life over death,’’ he concluded.

So, on Yom Kippur, he donned a white tuxedo, walked up the top step of Memorial Church in Harvard Yard, and shot himself in the right temple. His treatise on nihilism was emailed to friends and family.

I suppose I simply can’t wrap my mind around the concept of nihilism, any more than I can wrap my mind around the act of suicide. To create an entire of philosophy of suicide – and Heisman goes so far as to coin a term, ‘viviocentrism’, to explain how the living have a prejudice against the dead – strikes me as more than a little absurd, and even a bit contradictory.

I certainly can’t reconcile the competing strands of this philosophy – that someone could care so much about proving the meaningless of life, that they could find purpose in this, and yet believe that life was nonetheless meaningless, seems to disprove itself. To write it down, to make it a labor of love, to live even one second beyond the point at which one decides that there is no difference, really, between life and death, makes the theory seem somehow insincere, or logically juvenile – more an experiment in narcissism than one in nihilism.

John Derbyshire writes:

[F]or all the shallowness and muddle of his suicide note, Heisman was at least tackling a real and deep problem to the best of his ability. How exactly do you demonstrate that being alive is better than being dead? Most of life is pretty boring, and parts of it are perfectly awful. Why bother?

Yes and no. It’s an old question after all. That Heisman decided to answer it with such a long treatise and such a gory footnote does not really change the nature of the question, does not really help us answer it either. Meaning is a process. It’s different for everyone. There may be very little point to living, but that’s still beside the point. Heisman’s choice is a false one: we don’t choose between life and death. Life is outside of our realm of choice. It’s something we’re given – either by a creator or by the biological decisions of our parents (or both, depending on how you look at it). Life simply is. Death is a choice, but not life. They are not really equivalents. The latter is simply the word we use when we describe the former ending.

I suppose I’m biased. I’m no nihilist. Not even a ‘Blithe Nihilist’ as Derbyshire describes himself, though I have certainly had my moments of doubt. But somewhere in most of our lives there is a purpose. For Heisman it was his book. That he did not see a need for a sequel does not really change the fact: there was purpose there. Meaning even. Heisman’s final act, far from adding substance to his treatise, only adds color to its futility, and pain to those in his life who will suffer far more from his death than he ever will.

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9 thoughts on “Nihilism is painless

  1. So many questions raised by this, both sarcastic and serious. And is it wrong of me to be intensely interested in reading the book? In particular, is it strange that I’m dying to know whether he took on Camus or if he ignored the existential argument against suicide completely?

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  2. Not everyone enjoys being alive. Just like not everyone likes item A or item B. Just because you like being alive, and it certainly seems a reasonable assumption that living beings might preference being alive, that isn’t always the case.

    Although I would have to say that I can’t help but feel long term dysthymia, depression, or some other mood disorder would be involved somehow or other.

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  3. Having not read the book, but being very interested, it seems worthwhile to note from your excerpt, ” If life is truly meaningless and there is no rational basis for choosing among fundamental alternatives,” that It’s a compound statement with two propositions (that may or may not be linked according to his reasoning). The first is that life is meaningless, the second, that there is no rational basis for choosing.

    Even if the first is debatable, the second seems on pretty strong grounds, and that seems to have been the trouble for him.

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