Haunted by Nothingness: Emanuele Severino’s ‘The Essence of Nihilism’

Ask anyone whether something can be born of nothing, and the reply will be decisive: No! Yet we think, speak and act “as if” this were not the case.

If no one talks about metaphysics anymore, contemporary Italian philosopher Emanuele Severino would argue that this is not because scientism or modernity has rendered it obsolete; in fact, quite the opposite. Science and technology are not a refutation of metaphysics, but the products of it. No one talks about metaphysics, he says, because it has triumphed and reigns ubiquitous. Or at least a particular Western metaphysical point of view has triumphed. Like gravity it is everywhere, and everywhere it is invisible.

The name of this metaphysical point of view is Nihilism, which he argues is the reification of Nothing, and no western thinkers since Plato, not even Martin Heidegger and Friedrich Nietzsche, have entirely broken free of its influence, according to Severino.

Nihilism is the essence of European civilization, since the fundamental meaning of nihilism is the nihilation of things, i.e., the belief that being is a Nothing: nihilism is the action guided and shaped by this conviction. Greek metaphysics is the original and decisive expression of nihilism. The will that the thing be being is the will that the thing be nothing. It is within nihilism that the most irremediable conflicts of Western civilization have developed: Christianity and anti-Christianity, theism and atheism, lordship and bondage, spiritualism and materialism, philosophic realism and philosophic idealism, metaphysics and anti-metaphysics, contemplatism and pragmatism, philosophy and anti-philosophy, faith and reason, bourgeois economics and socialistic economics, democracy and absolutism, traditionalism and the global challenge to society. All these inexorable antagonists clash within a substantial agreement, they express antithetically the same dominant thought. They share the decisive and fundamental spirit that guides the West. Nihilism is the ethos, the dwelling-place of the West. It is the West’s structure.

Ask anyone whether something can be born of nothing, Severino challenges, and the reply will be decisive: No! Yet we think, speak and act “as if” this were not true. Even the great existentialists have come to believe that human life comes from nothingness and returns to nothingness. We have forgotten the lessons of Parmenides, that “Being is and may not not-be […] and not-Being shall never be forced to be.”

According to Severino, Western thinking is driven by the illusion that things can be created out of nothing, and ultimately be reduced to nothing. Keywords in what is by far the most engaging chapter of the book, “The Structure of Western History”, are production, domination, and destruction. These are terms frequently associated with Capitalism and neo-Liberalism. Yet, this “technological meaning of Being is in no way questioned by communism. Marxism and neo-Marxism do not reject industry and technology, but only their capitalistic organization.” Metaphysically, Capitalism and Marxism have the same point of view. Which is to say that “a thing is nothing other than an absolute availability to be produced and destroyed; a thing not available in this way is unreal.”

Technology and scientism, the will to power and most of our doxastic beliefs are all the result of this spurious metaphysical view. What is needed, Severino says, is for the truth of Being to awaken: “it must be said of every thing that, precisely because it is not nothing, it cannot become a Nothing (nor can it ever have been a Nothing), and therefore it is and reigns eternal.”

Mere acknowledgement of our flawed metaphysics will not be enough, however, to correct our nihilistic thinking. “If nihilism is to set the works of nihilism must set,” he says poetically, suggesting the sun’s sinking in the evening sky. It is an affirmation he will repeat; Severino is well aware that his book and its methodical refutation of our flawed metaphysics will not be enough to bring about significant change. But it is an important first step, he believes.

Disappointingly, most of the book remains mired in that first step, a series of iterations decrying the alienation of Western thought. At times, the reader feels as though she is running in place: exhausted, but without having gone forward at all. Which is not to say that the exercise is never stimulating, as Severino’s discussion of Being traverses topics such as appearance and becoming, disappearance, necessity, subjectivity, freedom, and the law of contradiction.

In terms of style and content, Severino is closest to Heidegger, whose name comes up frequently. Both see technology and what Heidegger calls “calculative thinking” as preeminent threats. Critics have long pointed out that, at least semantically, Heidegger’s notion of Being is consistent with what philosophers have traditionally termed God, and Severino explicitly states as much about his own use of the word Being (albeit some 80 pages into the book). Yet, Severino’s text is an implicit challenge to Heidegger regarding, for instance, anxiety, which for Severino would be an emotional response to a spurious metaphysics founded on the belief that beings are nothing. Being, and therefore being-there, is eternal. “The body’s disintegration is not its annihilation, but is the way in which it stably leaves the horizon of the appearing of Being.”

The Essence of Nihilism is not an easy read, despite the superb translation of Giacomo Donis, who has done for Severino what John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson did for Heidegger, and what Hazel Barnes did for Jean-Paul Sartre. Severino’s Nihilism will appeal less to general readers than to scholars, but those who have been inspired by the likes of Heidegger, Sartre or Paul Tillich will want to peruse this first offering of a philosopher who, though well established in his homeland, is unknown by most Anglo-Americans.

One would be remiss not to mention that the octogenarian Severino was investigated by the Vatican during the ’60s, and that his ideas were found to be heretical. Severino was removed from his position as Professor of Philosophy at the Catholic University of Milan, and this book, The Essence of Nihilism (originally published in 1972), was essentially his reply to Vatican inquisitors, though this edition published by Verso does not include his “Reply to the Critics” and “Reply to the Church”.

RATING 6 / 10