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Existentialism vs. Nihilism – Who Wins? 

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    There is one question that humans spend eternities trying to definitely answer, and that question is the meaning of life. Humans need to have an answer for everything, and this one philosophical questions makes people wrack their brains to try to find an answer that can encompass everyone and everything. And what if humans cannot find the answer? Is the meaning of life to find the answer to that question? There is ambiguity with that question; ambiguity is not something humans deal with well. Grendel, in the book Grendel – who is regarded as a monster -, defines the meaning of life as searching for different philosophies to see which fits best for him. Two major philosophies he ponders over are nihilism and existentialism. John Gardner, author of Grendel, illustrates the clash between two major philosophies, nihilism and existentialism, eventually leading to that philosophies are for the mind of the reader, and can never be right or wrong.

    Nihilism is a philosophy that Grendel embodies, puts his own spin on it and defines his life through conservative measures of nihilism. Grendel first encounters nihilism through the Dragon, and the Dragon becomes his mentor. The Dragon precedes to say, “Seek out gold and sit on it” (114). This is the last thing that the Dragon directly says to him in chapter 5, and throughout the rest of book. Although this is the end, the Dragon continues to persist in Grendel’s life, and many of Grendel’s decisions are based of off what the Dragon said to him. One major lesson that Grendel learned is the true nature of time – all of time stretching from beginning to end – to see that it is all meaningless. These lines are the final exchange between Grendel and the dragon at the end of Chapter 5. Though this is the end of the direct encounter between Grendel and the dragon, the dragon continues loom over Grendel’s life throughout the rest of the novel.

    The dragon provides Grendel with a glimpse of the true nature of time, which the dragon is able to see stretching out toward both its beginning and its end. The Dragon essentially says that if nothing matters, why not acquire all the goods in the world? Why not want a life of luxury instead of a pitiful one? But, Grendel puts his own twist on the philosophy, and chooses to live conservatively when he spares the Queens life, admitting, “Killing her would be just as meaningless as letting her live” (155). Grendel lives his life as if nothing matters, but does not kill anyone.. However, the Dragon taught him to be selfish and always want for the best, but Grendel refrains from doing something that would be the “ultimate act of nihilism”. He did this because he is taking the philosophy, nihilism, and twisting it to his liking- thinking that nothing matters so killing does not matter- to define it in his terms.

    Existentialism is another philosophy that Grendel struggles with, and later defines himself as an existentialist. Later in the book, he starts to feel as if he is needed and he does have a role in society. His role, according to him is, “[Grendel] had become something, as if born again. I had hung between possibilities before, between the cold truths I knew and the heart-sucking conjuring tricks of the Shaper; now that was passed: I was Grendel, Ruiner of Meadhalls, Wrecker of Kings!” (133). This passage goes on in Chapter 6, right after Grendel starts the twelve year war with the Danes. Starting the war makes him feel as if he is needed and wanted, like he has a place in the world. He also views this decisive step, as he is recreating his identity, as a liberating event in which he empowers himself by.It is existentialist because he finally believes he matters and that he has a meaning in this life.

    While Grendel goes through this, Hrothulf – a relative of Hrothgar’s – is also learning the ways of existentialism. Hrothulf learns from someone dubbed Red Horse the ways of existentialism and what it truly is.. The Red Horse emphasizes how important Hrothulf is to the uprising, and that every decision he makes will matter (169). Hrothulf’s development parallels Grendel’s development to the letter. Both characters are sad in their ways, lonely in their lives and frustrated with the world around them. Both characters also have a mentor relationship that they base their lives’ of off. They both look to find different theories in order to understand and fix the problems they face. The only way they both could have done this is if they were exposed to existentialism, and started to live through that philosophy.

    Both philosophies define Grendel to an equal extent, and both philosophies are apparent in the book, leading to no philosophy truly being the better one. Grendel goes to socialize with the humans in the mead hall, but he did not count on Beowulf being there. They start to fight, and Beowulf ends up winning the fight due to a mistake on Grendel’s part and the last line Grendel says of the book, is “Poor Grendel’s had an accident, so may you all” (188). These words appear to be a warning directed at all the animals that came to watch him die. It can be interpreted as a curse, saying that all the animals will have an accident and die, without happiness.

    On the other hand, it can be interpreted as a blessing in disguise because Grendel is choosing to die by jumping in the chasm, he is not waiting for time to take him. Grendel could also be hoping that all the animals have the choice to choose when they die, and to do it freely. Grendel dies freely because he is finally free from all thought and all the bad things the Danes have thought and said about him. Grendel hopes that all animals can choose when they die, and when they do, it is freely. Since this quote can be interpreted in a nihilistic way and an existentialist way, it shows that there really is no better philosophy, it is all up to the readers.

    John Gardner, author of Grendel, illustrates the clash between two major philosophies, nihilism and existentialism, eventually leading to that philosophies are for the mind of the reader, and can never be right or wrong. Nihilism is a philosophy that Grendel embodies, and puts his own spin on it. Existentialism is another philosophy that Grendel struggles with, and later defines himself as an existentialist. Both philosophies define Grendel to an extent, and both philosophies are apparent in the book. Humans have a hard time categorizing what the meaning of life is, and that is because the meaning of life cannot be categorized. It cannot be one universal thing that everyone knows. The meaning of life is to study the philosophies and see which one bests fits the person reading them.

    Existentialism vs. Nihilism – Who Wins? . (2021, Aug 28). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/existentialism-vs-nihilism-who-wins/

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