The 19th century was a dynamic and transformative time for Europe. It was a century of great progress in politics, science, literature and philosophy. Not only did the new epoch transform people’s lives, but it also changed the way they thought. While new technology paved the way for the new mode of liberal capitalist production, revolutionaries all over western Europe constantly worked towards deconstructing feudalism and installing liberal democracies.
Meanwhile, improving living conditions allowed more people to read and discover the new marvels of the 19th century science, literature and philosophy. The newly emerging field of existentialism in philosophy and Darwin’s theory of evolution in life science hit the dominant Christian faith as many among the educated ones turned towards atheism. Observing this growing trend, Fredrick Nietzsche, a German philosopher proclaimed that “God is dead”, in the sense that people are losing faith in him.
Søren Kierkegaard, a Danish philosopher and theologian was interested in the relation of man and God. His work laid the foundation of existentialism, the philosophy of existence. Existentialist philosophers ask questions which are concerned with the meaning of life. According to Kierkegaard and many others, God is what makes life worth living, or in other words, God gives life a meaning. No matter what one is going through, the idea of an eternal heaven, God’s pleasure and so on keep him going.
However, in the absence of a creator, many struggled to find a meaning, and with this began nihilism. From the Latin word nihil (lit nothing), nihilism proposes that there is no meaning to life and all efforts are futile. Many among the educated atheist masses subscribed to this philosophy while others preached against it. The obvious danger of nihilism is the hopelessness, dreadfulness and meaninglessness it brings.
Even Nietzsche, an atheist, wasn't an advocate of nihilism and preached against it. According to Kierkegaard, the father of existentialism, although God is logically unprovable, one must take a “leap of faith” and believe in him to escape from nihilism. Whatever the case might be, nihilism continues and continues to influence people.
While all these developments took place in western Europe, eastern Europe (dominated by Russia) hadn’t even had its industrial revolution yet. Most Russians were still Christian and respected the authority of the Church and the monarchy. In the developed cities like Moscow and Saint Petersburg however, the youth were learning from the west.
They studied western science and philosophy, and many formed their own version of nihilism, beginning the Russian nihilist movement. According to Peter Kropotkin, a Russian anarchist, nihilism is “the symbol of struggle against all forms of tyranny, hypocrisy, and artificiality and for individual freedom”. This definition of nihilism clearly deviates from its original existential definition, so for the sake of clarity we shall refer to it as Russian nihilism.
19th century nihilism, predominantly Russian nihilism was utilitarian and emphasized scientific rationalism, while advocating against all forms of aesthetics. The Russian nihilists despised the old and wished to create the new. They were atheists and hated the church and the monarchy. Their elders however, still respected the Church and the monarchy and had no time for matters such as nihilism.
They realized its dangers and advocated against it. This generational gap led to some conflict and the boom on the late 19th century Russian literature. Novels such as “Fathers and Sons” by Ivan Turgenev, “Crime and Punishment” by Fyodor Dostoevsky and so on preached about the dangers of nihilism.
Despite the resistance of the older generations to nihilism and their support of the monarchy, Russia would become a socialist republic by 1917. The Russian monarchy was abolished, and the church’s authority was taken from them. The only remnant of that generational conflict is the literature that was penned down.
Although many won’t fully agree with Dostoevsky today, his writing is still considered to be the best of the Russian literature and millions around the globe continue to appreciate him. Although his conservatism may have died, the Karamazov brothers form his novel “the brothers Karamazov” continue to live and influence people. The generational gap between the 19th century Russian parents and children is a phenomenon that repeats itself.
With the advent of the internet, some among the youth have turned towards trends that some may call idiotic, while others have realized the power of infinite access to information. It's not uncommon to see parents and children fighting over the pettiest of issues. The parents often blame the internet while the children blame their old-fashioned thinking. Whatever the case may be, the generational gap
In the late 19th century Russia proved that access to new information gives rise to increased generational gap and conflict. What is needed is not blaming each other, but rather free and open-minded discussions about new ideas and sensitive topics.
To summarize, the industrial revolution in western Europe gave rise to new ideas in philosophy and science. One of these ideas called nihilism proposed that life in essence is meaningless. The nihilists promoted utilitarianism and rational thinking, while demoting all forms of aesthetics.
In Russia, the youth subscribed to the nihilist philosophy while the older generations preached against it. The access to the new western science and philosophy led to a conflict between the two generations. In the modern age of the internet, this generational conflict is repeating itself. What is needed are clear and open-minded discussions between the parents and their children.
BY Farhan Sami Rather