At our meeting last night, we discussed how one of us has observed that at a certain school, all the students who fall into depression, sometimes suicidal, are without fail marked by a nihilism in which anti-American, anti-Israel, atheistic sentiments are ubiquitous. Here - Escape from Nihilism - is a personal account from Dr. J. Budziszewski of how a highly intelligent and supposedly educated person rose to high position in the academy, while "believing", or willing, and teaching nihilism. It gives us insight into the mental processes involved - an account that in parts rings pretty true to my own experience - and how one might escape from this nihilism:
St. Paul said that the knowledge of God's law is "written on our hearts, our consciences also bearing witness." The way natural law thinkers put this is to say that they [the natural or anthropological laws] constitute the deep structure of our minds. That means that so long as we have minds, we can't not know them. Well, I was unusually determined not to know them; therefore I had to destroy my mind. I resisted the temptation to believe in good with as much energy as some saints resist the temptation to neglect good. For instance, I loved my wife and children, but I was determined to regard this love as merely a subjective preference with no real and objective value. Think what this did to my very capacity to love them. After all, love is a commitment of the will to the true good of another person, and how can one's will be committed to the true good of another person if he denies the reality of good, denies the reality of persons, and denies that his commitments are in his control?Interview with Budziszewski here. (Hat tip: Athos)
Visualize a man opening up the access panels of his mind and pulling out all the components that have God's image stamped on them. The problem is that they all have God's image stamped on them, so the man can never stop. No matter how much he pulls out, there's still more to pull. I was that man. Because I pulled out more and more, there was less and less that I could think about. But because there was less and less that I could think about, I thought I was becoming more and more focussed. Because I believed things that filled me with dread, I thought I was smarter and braver than the people who didn't believe them. I thought I saw an emptiness at the heart of the universe that was hidden from their foolish eyes. Of course I was the fool.
Escape Through Horror
How then did God bring me back? I came, over time, to feel a greater and greater horror about myself. [truepeers notes: this is the part the really rings true to my own experience of the horror.] Not exactly a feeling of guilt, not exactly a feeling of shame, just horror: an overpowering sense that my condition was terribly wrong. Finally it occurred to me to wonder why, if there were no difference between the wonderful and the horrible, I should feel horror. In letting that thought through, my mental censors blundered. You see, in order to take the sense of horror seriously--and by now I couldn't help doing so--I had to admit that there was a difference between the wonderful and the horrible after all. For once my philosophical training did me some good, because I knew that if there existed a horrible, there had to exist a wonderful of which the horrible was the absence. So my walls of self-deception collapsed all at once.
As an ethical an political theorist, what I do now is poles apart from what I did sixteen years ago. What I write about now is those very moral principles I used to deny the ones we can't not know because they are imprinted on our minds, inscribed upon our consciences, written on our hearts.
Some call these principles the "natural law." Such as it is, my own contribution to the theory of natural law is a little different than those of some other writers. One might say that I specialize in understanding the ways that we pretend we don't know what we really do--the ways we suppress our knowledge, the ways we hold it down, the ways we deceive ourselves and others. I do not try to "prove" the natural law as though one could prove that by which all else is proven; I do try to show that in order to get anywhere at all, the philosophies of denial must always at some point assume the very first principles they deny.
Many of my students tell me they struggle with the same dark influences that I once did. I hope that by telling the story of my own escape I may encourage them to seek the light.