Existentialism & Nihilism: What’s the Difference?

What is the purpose of life? Well, is there a purpose? Existentialism and Nihilism both tackle these questions head-on with differing perspectives.

May 22, 2022By Nicole Becker, BA Anthropology and Sociology

existentialism mind illustration


Since the beginning of time, humans have come up with various philosophies and ideologies concerning the true purpose of our existence. Although we won’t know the blatant truth until our time has come, it’s still enjoyable to ponder all of the theories in the meantime. Two philosophies that stand out amongst the others are Existentialism and Nihilism. From afar they might appear similar, but you’ll soon realize how different they really are.


Before moving forward I’d like to address that there are many different branches of both Existentialism and Nihilism. In this article, I will be discussing Jean-Paul Sartre’s take on Existentialism and Existential Nihilism.


What Is Existentialism?

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Jean-Paul Satre with Simone de Beauvoir in Beijing, via Delo.si


Existentialism is a philosophy that originated in Europe and became extremely popular after the devastating events of WWII. One of the first people to describe themselves as an existentialist was a man by the name of Jean-Paul Sartre. The basis of his thought can be summed up as follows: “What all existentialists have in common is the fundamental doctrine that existence precedes essence.” To put this in simpler terms– we as human beings have no predefined box that we must fit into.


We create meaning for our lives by the decisions we make and the paths we decide to go down. This does not mean we can do whatever we want without consequence, as the actions we take define who we are. So, if you say “I am a kind person”– but then proceed to viciously insult people, an existentialist will look at you and determine that you are in fact very mean, despite what you claim to be. This is because you are being judged based on the actions you take, and not by what you think you are. You are held fully accountable for your behavior and this shapes your reality moving forward.

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expulsion adam eve paradise west
The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise by Benjamin West, 1791, via National Gallery of Art


According to Sartre, one day a student of his walked up and asked for advice about a moral dilemma he was facing. The boy could either join the military and become a small part of a large movement, or he could stay home and take care of his mother– making him the focal point of her entire life as she could barely take care of herself. Sartre told him that there was no right answer. It was up to the boy to decide what he deemed to be more important, thus giving him free will to decide his path. Existentialism tells us that we are the artists of our lives, and we are free to create our own destinies– we have no ineluctable fate. There are millions of different paths to choose from and we are not bound to a singular timeline. What a freeing thought indeed!


Having an Existential Crisis? 

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The Scream by Edvard Munch, 1893, via the National Gallery of Norway


Alas, on the downside of such freedom, many people may face something called existential dread. This means that they are overwhelmed by the amount of uncertainties life has to offer. For example– imagine being alive in the olden days, completely fine with following your religion because that is all you have ever known, until one afternoon a philosopher announces: “Actually… we come from nothing! Nevermind about that whole worshiping God ordeal!”. You would likely be taken on a roller coaster of emotions, as you begin to have an existential crisis. Without religion or a set of rules to follow, one might become anxious at the idea of “not knowing”. Not knowing what’s next, not knowing why we’re here, and not knowing what the grand purpose is to life.


Ironically, that is the beauty of existentialism – we create our grand purpose in life without any preconceived ideas getting in the way. Life does not give us meaning, but we give meaning to life.


What Is Nihilism?

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Portrait of Friedrich Nietzsche by Edvard Munch, 1906, via Thielska Galleriet


“If we believe in nothing, if nothing has any meaning, and if we can affirm no values whatsoever, then everything is possible and nothing has any importance.”
Albert Camus


Nihilism is another European philosophy that arose during the 19th century when people started to become tired of the local governments and wondered what made people in power more important than your average joe. The masses also started to question religion, after philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche claimed that “God is dead”. Well, if God is dead… what has been the point of all the worship and dedication to serving said “God”? The rise of this thought process alone led many people to question the purpose of everything if we came from nothing.


The word itself comes from the Latin term, nihil, which means “nothing”. What makes someone a better candidate to rule a nation, if everyone was born from nothingness? If there was no real point to anything, why do some people get to be treated better than others? These are a few questions that a Nihilist would ask you.


To get into the mind of the Nihilist and fully understand the theories of Nihilism better, ask yourself why you believe what you believe. Where did the idea come from and why was it presented to you? Who created your belief system and why? If you keep digging deeper, you will get to a point where there is no longer a definitive answer. Regardless of religion or science, the question “why” or “what is the point” will never have a direct answer. This is where Nihilism comes into play. The conclusion to them is that there is no purpose or answer. We are here merely to just survive and someday die. Nothing we do truly matters, as we do not know the tangible source of where we were before life and where we will go after.


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Wanderer above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich, 1817, via Hamburg Kunsthalle.


Nihilists quite literally believe in nothingness. They do not believe there is good in the world, nor do they believe there is bad. It is the idea that our world simply exists, as it did before humans came around. Our planet did not give us a tangible list of rules to follow, therefore humans created the ideology of morality themselves. A nihilist would ask– “well, what human was deemed important enough to create such morality laws?”. No answer could possibly satisfy the nihilist mind.


Nihilism claims that there is no grand idea or purpose, so therefore there is no meaning to life. Life is what you make it, but don’t become too attached, because we all have the same fate: death. How uplifting! Although, it can feel liberating to accept this mindset. If nothing matters, why not have fun and do whatever you please?


The Difference Between Existentialism and Nihilism

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Illustration by Jake Foreman, Via The Atlantic


Why do we argue? Life’s so fragile, a successful virus clinging to a speck of mud, suspended in endless nothing.”
Alan Moore


The questions that arise with Nihilism are answered with the ideologies of Existentialism. Nihilism says nothing matters because we came from nothingness, so do whatever you want because who cares about anything! They claim there is no objective meaning to life, therefore there is no purpose.


Existentialism comes in and says that you give meaning to your life. Regardless if we came from nothing– you are here now and that is what matters. As long as you are alive at this very moment, you can decide your fate and nobody can take that power away from you. Your grand purpose is to create a life you believe is worth living. Live as your most authentic self, without the opinions of others swaying you in different directions. When we take away the restrictions of religion or the limitations of social structures, we are only left with ourselves. Who are you when nobody’s looking? Who are you if you were born into a white box, hidden far away from the teachings of others– it’s just you and your own ideas, who are you then?


A Nihilist would answer that question and say you are “nothing” and “it wouldn’t matter”. An Existentialist would say you are “anything you’d like to be” as you create your reality. And that is the grand difference between the two– one decides that if there’s no God or source, there’s no point. The other says perhaps you are a God, as your life’s destiny is in your own hands based on the choices you make.


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Via Unsplash by Zac Durant


Of course, there is no right or wrong answer here– it’s all a matter of preference on how you would like to view your life. That’s the beauty of philosophy, you won’t be condemned to an eternity of hellfire if you decide that this mindset is not for you. The key takeaway from both of these philosophies is to do what makes you happy in the short time we are alive on this planet.

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By Nicole BeckerBA Anthropology and Sociology Nicole is a writer and artist based out of the United States. She also specializes in holistic healing and metaphysics. Aside from philosophical research, she enjoys writing descriptive poetry and fantasy literature. In her free time, you can find Nicole reading, playing games, or meditating with her cat Miso.