Nihilism in the Iliad and Pantheon


By John Flaxman

It seems that our time is the most cynical and intensely pessimistic era ever in recorded history. Nihilistic themes, more than ever, has served as a wellspring for artists, writers, and academics. The ubiquity of nihilism that characterizes the current age is in part, due to a radically altered understanding of how we as human beings experience reality. In the beginning of western philosophy, metaphysicians were beholden to the assumption that everything was out there and part of the eternal and unchanging order of things. Ever since then in the subsequent centuries, “out there” was exposed to be merely from within, thoroughly interpretive and wholly human. This inexorable process of deconstruction and demythologization has discredited the idea of truth and the notion that reality was a complete and ordered system. Instead of truth or order, the process revealed the sepulchral abyss beneath human experience, that nothing leaves the uncomfortable impression that human existence is itself nothing, an utterly meaningless business. This specter of nothing is nihilism.
Battle over Patroclus’ body, by John Flaxman

Interestingly, it is the Iliad, circa 800 BC, the first work of the Western canon, that defines the prototypical nihilistic stance. Homer begins the poem about 9 years into the Trojan War, and reveals a nightmarish and desolate world, knee-deep in violence largely instigated at the whims of the fickle gods of Olympus. Trapped, the insignificant mortals develop a Heroic Code, an existential paradigm conceived to superimpose a tolerable form upon chaos, to give meaning to life by celebrating the contest and carnage of war. The code demands that the only way to seize meaning from what is otherwise a meaningless existence is to achieve aristeia, the moment of highest excellence – the moment heroic warriors could achieve by death in battle at their physical and intellectual peak. By encouraging warriors to exchange their life for a glorious but brief memory, the Heroic Code advocates a nihilistic repudiation of existence.

The world Homer depicts in both the Iliad and the Odyssey is dominated by cruelty, “a tigerish lust to annihilate.” The atrocious carnage, of men running amok, bloody and insatiable. Repeatedly in Iliad, readers find Homer’s vivid image of fecund cruelty, of writhing bodies, mutilated, dying. Beneath the slaughter is an earthly existence dominated by the reality of death, a disgust of existence, & the perception of life as an uninterrupted struggle with meaninglessness; it is a world of conflict with a nihilist’s response.


Pantheon, by Awet Moges
Pantheon, by Awet Moges

In Pantheon, there never have been nor will there ever be any moral or existential guidelines for existence. There are gods, but without supernatural sanctions ordering affairs, no cosmic truth, and their histories demonstrate conclusively that the search for Truth has been an absolutely hopeless endeavor from the beginning. Regardless of the mounting evidence of history and logic, however, the gods of Pantheon refuse to acknowledge that thought is bankrupt and continue a passionate, pathetic and Quixotic crusade for Truth.

The quest for certitude continues because to admit to what is, to look into oneself deeply, persistently, and honestly is altogether impossible to sustain for more than a brief glimpse of nothing. The resulting epiphany – the revelation of one’s true total worthlessness – is the equivalent of existential evisceration. Self-knowledge reveals more: that no matter what is done, the gods of Pantheon will be recipients of routine grief and deprivation, that gratuitous suffering is a part of the very fabric of existence, that life in short an “euphemism for Evil.” (p. 121, A Short History of Decay, Cioran)

There are two responses to cope with this indecent existence: hope or resignation. The wretched goddess Kaeli who continues to hope, who has faith that evil will be ameliorated, must be followed diligently; she is the source of insanity and extreme violence. The gods who choose resignation will give up and flounder in apathy. Apathy, however, contains the danger of ennui, simply the most unnerving experience of all. Better to cultivate pain and suffering, better, even, to find a safe space in the excruciating torments of the existence than to experience the colossal stupidity of this rotten universe with crystal and horrifying clarity.

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...a philosophisticator who utters heresies, thinks theothanatologically and draws like Kirby on steroids.

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