Man as Plant: von Mises on Nihilism

In his magnum opusHuman Action, Ludwig von Mises analyzes the nihilism of “Indian philosophies, especially of Buddhism, and Schopenhaur,” in the following terms:

Some philosophies advise man to seek as the ultimate end of conduct the complete renunciation of any action. They look upon life as an absolute evil full of pain, suffering, and anguish, and apodictically deny that any purposeful human effort can render it tolerable. Happiness can be attained only by complete extinction of consciousness, volition, and life. The only way toward bliss and salvation is to become perfectly passive, indifferent, and inert like the plant. The sovereign good is the abandonment of thinking and acting.

Mises contrasts this nihilistic outlook with that of “praxeology,” or the study of human action, which

is not concerned with human beings who have succeeded in suppressing altogether everything that characterizes man as man: will, desire, thought, and the striving after ends. It deals with acting man, not with man transformed into a plant and reduced to a mere vegetative existence.

Acting man (homo agens) vs. “man as plant”–that’s an intriguing analysis of eastern and modern nihilism. In its exhortation to the renunciation of human will, the latter reduces man not so much to the level of an animal as it does to the level of a vegetable.

Which leads us to a somewhat unique biblical and historical perspective on nihilism. In Romans chapter one, the Apostle Paul famously criticizes the paganism of the ancient Gentiles in terms of God having “given them over” in their unbelief so that they “changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things…. Who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator…” Given this basic framework, secular nihilism, as a post-Christian phenomenon and, relative to pre-Christian paganism, even more radical form of spiritual decadence, represents a reversion or retrograde to an even earlier day of the creation week, exchanging the glory of man, made on the sixth day in the image of an acting, creating God, for an image of that which had been prepared for man on the third day as a means for his dominion, namely the “herb yielding seed” and “the tree yielding fruit” (Gen. 1). This reminds me, finally, of Conor Cunningham’s thesis (Genealogy of Nihilism) that there is an authentic form of nihilism (defined broadly as any philosophical attempt to have “nothing as something”) latent within the Christian faith, since it teaches that God literally created everything that exists from nothing. If so, there is something symbolic about secular nihilism’s attempt to reduce man to a plant: it is figuratively attempting to renounce God’s own acts of will throughout the creation week.

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