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Woody Allen, Nihilist

Over at the Week, Damon Linker argues that Woody Allen's bleak vision of the world would have given him no reason not to commit the terrible crime he's been accused of. Linker claims that Allen's films, as well as certain things Allen has said over the years, indicate that he is a nihilist, which leaves him without a warrant for morality. Nihilists, Linker writes, believe that "there is no justice." 

From Plato's sociopathic sophists to Friedrich Nietzsche's ambition to "sail right over our morality," this has been the conviction and the insight of the nihilist. These are Woody Allen's philosophical compatriots.

I should note...that this doesn't mean he's a sexual predator. Nothing in the outlook of a nihilist necessarily implies that he will engage in immoral actions.

All that nihilism implies is the absence of a compelling reason not to do so.

Rod Dreher of the American Conservative agrees:

What is useful about Allen’s nihilism is that he really does see the implications of that worldview more clearly than many, many others who profess a softer form of nihilism. That is, many people would believe that there’s no ultimate truth, that whatever you think is true is true for you. That the universe is meaningless; whatever meaning exists is meaning we give it. If that’s your view, says Woody Allen, then you must agree that the murderer has understood the reality of things better than the moralist. Of course most people would recoil from that conclusion, but I don’t see how any other conclusion is sensible, given the nihilist’s basic premise (that moral truth does not exist).

Both Linker and Dreher quote an interview with Allen that appeared in Commonweal a few years ago. There Allen curtly declined our interviewer's invitation to acknowledge a religious dimension in his films. He made it clear that he regards religion as a form of self-deception. In fact, he regards most things as forms of self-deception. As he put it:

Everybody knows how awful the world is and what a terrible situation it is and each person distorts it in a certain way that enables him to get through. Some people distort it with religious things. Some people distort it with sports, with money, with love, with art, and they all have their own nonsense about what makes it meaningful, and all but nothing makes it meaningful. These things definitely serve a certain function, but in the end they all fail to give life meaning and everyone goes to his grave in a meaningless way.

In the end, nothing matters. Until then, all that matters is finding something that will help you "get through." To this, Allen's "philosophical compatriots" would add: There is no right or wrong, no Last Judgment, no karma. There's only power, desire, and luck. Rational deliberation involves just two questions: What do I really want? And can I get away with it?

I agree with Linker and Dreher that "nihilistic" is not too strong a word for Allen's views and for much of his art. Crimes and Misdemeanors, which Linker and Dreher both consider Allen's best film, shrugs off Dostoevsky's existential anxiety. The film's moral—or rather its lesson—is: Yes, without God, everything is permitted, and what of it? Grownups will not pretend that the moral chaos visible to anyone willing to look is a good reason to believe in God.

Linker makes it clear that he isn't offering a theoretical argument against nihilism, which he describes as a "viable, albeit false and ultimately chilling, philosophical and existential position." And he points out, more than once, that Allen's nihilism doesn't give us any reason to assume he's guilty of child abuse. Nihilists, too, should enjoy the presumption of innocence. 

Still, I think both Linker and Dreher do end up suggesting that we should at least be suspicious of self-aware nihilists like Woody Allen, the kind of nihilists who understand the chilling implications of their worldview. If such nihilism really has no practical importance, then why even mention it in connection to Dylan Farrow's accusations against Allen? Doesn't Crimes and Misdemeanors itself suggest that nihilism does have a practical importance? Nihilism may not "necessarily" imply a willingness to engage in immoral action, as Linker puts it, but he and Dreher seem to agree that, in general, those who believe there's no reason to act morally are more likely to act immorally. At the very least, the nihilist who consistently avoids evil is being inconsistent. Either he doesn't really believe what he says he does, or he lacks the courage of his convictions.

In a recent column titled "Ideas from a Manger," Ross Douthat of the New York Times pursued a similar line of argument.

The secular picture...seems to have the rigor of the scientific method behind it. But it actually suffers from a deeper intellectual incoherence than...its rivals, because its cosmology does not harmonize at all with its moral picture.

In essence, it proposes a purely physical and purposeless universe, inhabited by evolutionary accidents whose sense of self is probably illusory. And yet it then continues to insist on moral and political absolutes with all the vigor of a 17th-century New England preacher. And the rope bridges flung across this chasm — the scientific-sounding logic of utilitarianism, the Darwinian justifications for altruism—tend to waft, gently, into a logical abyss.

Again, it isn't that those who believe in "a purely physical and purposeless universe" are all nihilists. Most of them aren't. It's just that their fundamental view of reality leaves them without a good way to get past nihilism; their "rope bridges" are too short. Hard materialism may turn out to imply nihilism in just the same way that nihilism implies amoralism.

There are important differences between Douthat's argument and Linker's. The most obvious difference is that Douthat is talking about the tension between two sets of beliefs commonly held by the same people, while Linker is talking about the tension between a certain set of beliefs (nihilism) and a certain kind of action (the dependably good kind). What Douthat and Linker seem to have in common is the conviction, shared by Nietzsche, that one's metaphysics, or lack thereof, ought to make a difference to one's ethics.

I'm sympathetic to this kind of critique, but I don't think it's likely to get much traction in a culture as pragmatic as ours. For pragmatists—including default pragmatists who would never use the word—the only important rule is "whatever works" (the title of another Woody Allen film). If you can be good without a a coherent theory of goodness, what's the problem? What matters isn't your theory's coherence but its effect. And if you can be good without even believing in goodness, more power to you. 

The kind of secularists Douthat describes in his column—who, unlike pragmatists, do believe in objective truth, as long as it's properly scientific—would point out that nihilism's alarming moral implications do not by themselves provide us with a reason to believe either in God or in objective moral values. That is, they provide no evidence for such belief; at most, they provide a motivation for it.  Whether the absence of such belief will actually make people more likely to do things that nearly everyone (now) considers evil is an empirical question: only time will tell, as fewer and fewer people believe in the old metaphysical myths. But so far, at least, Douthat's scientistic secularists aren't too worried.

Non-pragmatists, including Christians, won't be satified with the pragmatist's reduction of truth to "whatever works." And moral realists of all kinds, including most Christians, will find it strange that Douthat's secularists don't expect a radical change in our metaphysics to have an important effect on our behavior. Too easy to say time will tell; it may be too late for us once it has.

But, while many Americans are essentially pragmatists and an increasing number of them believe in a purely physical universe, few Americans can be described as nihilists. Nihilism involves a kind of pessimism, and Americans are supposed to be optimists. As Dreher writes, the nihilist believes that human experience has no meaning except the meanings we impose on it. These are, at most, temporary stays against the lucid recognition of our mortality. They cannot fully compensate for the universe's indifference to us. Mostly, they just mask it. And these makeshift meanings are all dwarfed, finally, by suffering and death.

A clever Christian may win an argument with a nihilist about the "chilling" moral implications of his worldview, but the nihilist is unlikely to change his mind until he can see, or imagine, his own experience in an entirely new light—see it backlit by something like Providence, imagine it casting a shadow beyond what is visible to him now. For nihilists, life is just one damn thing after another, from birth to death, and then nothing. Death gets the last word and speaks it in a language none of us understands. Christians (among others) believe that each life tells a story, one whose full significance only becomes clear beyond death, where all that is hidden will be revealed. It isn't just that without God everything is permitted; it's also that, with God, we have a reason for the hope that everything will finally be made clear. To the nihilist's "There is no justice," believers answer, "There will be." They shouldn't be surprised if many people find that too good to be true.

About the Author

Matthew Boudway is an associate editor of Commonweal.



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Are you putting together an identikit to ensure that Woody is doubly damned? It reminds me of St Jerome's remark, "there never was a heretic who was chaste." 

"I'm not saying the guy is a sexual predator..."

Then why bring it up? Right, because this is anti-Woody Allen week (for good or ill). But the idea that you can jump onto this trending topic and write about how Allen is a nihilst and that this informs his behavior while at the same time claiming, "I'm not saying he's a sexual predator", is not believable. At best, the authors are willing "hired guns" for the prosecution, pro bono.

And whatever planet Ross Douthat is talking about, maybe we should send him there. He'll probably appreciate the required astronaut chastity and no doubt transmit op-ed columns about it back to Earth. "Harmonize cosmology!" with moral actions? That would imperil the Roman Church more than any non-believers. 

His philoosophical nihilsm has nothing to do with his freaky perversions. Yes he's a predator and yes there is a double standard and yes life is not fair and not justice is not blind. Cultural capital covers a multitude of sins!!




Matthew: Woody Allen serves as the point of departure for your post. However, from the point in your post where you turn to Ross Douthat's column, onward to the end of your post, you do not mention Woody Allen. This seems like bait and switch. You bait us with Woody Allen -- as though you might have something to say about him in the current discussion involving Dylan Farrow's claims. But after batting around some points about Woody Allen, you switch off to discussing Ross Douthat's column -- without bothering to return to the situation of Woody Allen. 

Why would  being a nililist[believing that life has no meaning because there is no God, no trancendence]impact ones ethics? The prisons are filled with believers.[here i'm thinking of Ariel Castro who went to mass every Sunday and died with a bible at his side].Faith  itself is conducive to moral trangressions;I'm "humble" enough to know I'm a sinner, let God judge and forgive me.That's what God does. I'll atone later. Whether one believes that life is meaningless or not, has no automatic bearing on ones ethics. You can still have compassion and empathy for other people ,even though you believe life is meaningless.Either there is a God who is good and who made us in his image , or nililisn is true.Either belief  still has us here in the world compelled to make ethical choices vis a vis others. We're still capable of extending or witholding  empathy, compassion and  having a sense of justice.Was it not Neitszche who when he saw a man beating a horse put his arms around the hose and went mad with grief at it's suffeing ?


thanks for the reflection. You write:

"few Americans can be described as nihilists. Nihilism involves a kind of pessimism, and Americans aren't supposed to be pessimists. As Dreher writes, the nihilist believes that human experience has no meaning except the meanings we impose on it. These are, at most, temporary stays against the lucid recognition of our mortality. They cannot fully compensate for the universe's indifference to us. Mostly, they just mask it. And these makeshift meanings are all dwarfed, finally, by suffering and death."

I wonder whether the abundant literature regarding the "denial of death" – in the many forms it takes in American culture – may point to a more widely difused "pessimism" than we care to acknolwedge? There may well be a rather large ward in Pope Francis's "field hospital" reserved for crypto-nihilists.

But I agree that the "cure" is not "dialectical," but rather "experiential." As you say: "the nihilist is unlikely to change his mind until he can see, or imagine, his own experience in an entirely new light—see it backlit by something like Providence, imagine it casting a shadow beyond what is visible to him now."

I believe the biblical term is "metanoia."

I wonder whether nihilism isn't in some cases an instrumental way to excuse oneself for one's basest desires? If you cannot give up the desire you know to be evil, then better to believe that there is no ultimate meaning behind that desire, right?

That'll be 2 cents, thanks.

Chronic depression.  Some mix of tragic experiences and misbehaving neuropharmacology.  Nope.  Doesn't  present near the opportunity for grand illusions like a demon toting nilhilist.

Well, but the point of this kind of argument is precise to start a critique of pragmatism, by pointing out that what we think about reality matters, and that in fact pragmatism itself has an implicit metaphysics.


Nihilism, on its own terms, may not "necessarily" imply a willingness to engage in immoral action, but the nihisit's world is a self-deluded, God-denying construct. The nihilist, like it or not, lives in God's world, so if you combine the truth and reality of original sin with the lie and unreality of nihilism, then those who don't believe there's any reason to act morally are more likely to act immorally.

Allen, and others, claim that there is no value in this life except the value we make for ourselves.  That's patent nonsense.  A value is a good, and we find all sorts of goods in this world, so  many and such desirable ones that we fight constantly over them.  Some things are so very valuable that we wish sometimes they would lose their valu so we could stop wanting them (I'm think, for instance, sweets).  True, there is no one central value to be found in this world that gives meaning to the whole of a life, but that doesn't make life totally meaningless.  

Nihilism has no intrinsic bearing on a nihilists actions, or attitude towards others.Nihilism does not imply that there are no reasons to behave morally. The same reasons that a non nihilist has to behave morally, minus to get a reward in heaven, apply to a nihilist.Though nihilism is untrue, we of faith claim [though of course we don't KNOW that it is untrue] ,it is psychologically untrue to believe nihilists commit evil acts because they are nihilists.They commit evil acts for the same reasons non nihilists do;either they don't believe their acts are evil or they don't care[they deny empathy to others out of self centered[evil] choice on their part], or they are acting impulsively and give in to temptation.Morality is not uniform among believers and it is a misunderstanding of nihilsm to link nihilism with immorality.It's a cliche of the dominant christian culture and as atheists come out of the closet this unjust ,untrue cliche will be exposed as false.Nihilism is not a choice; it's a heartfelt belief. And in my opinion ,either there is a God who exists ,who is good and who created us in his image to share in his eternal goodness, or life IS meaningless and sad as we all suffer[and there is much suffering] and die.We can still enjoy moments of happiness and joy even, but there is an underlying anxiety and sadness to existence. That we can love, be loved and still have to die is sad.That's not clinical depression like  anger turned inward but a sober recognition that without a good God, life lacks trancendence.[We're all here stranded doing out best to deny it" as the Dylan song says].It does not follow that a nihilist can't laugh at all the jokes or relish a hamburder with french fries and everything on it.It does not follow that a nihilist  cannot love his neighbor as himself .The christian centered meme about nihilism is false. A christian, one could say, has more leeway to commit evil acts as it is part of our doctrine that we're sinners and that we are redeemed."God will forgive me and I'll pay for it later in purgatory", is a common attitude of christians.A nihilist has his/her conscience as the ultimate arbiter of morality.God's laws are written in our hearts -even of a non believer so they are not more likely to get it wrong then christians. Even christians now acknowledge that ,our conscience is our ultimate moral authority.

I recall reading this quote from Allen a few years back on my Facebook feed:

The best you can do to get through life is  distraction. Love works as a distraction. And work works as a  distraction. You can distract yourself a billion different ways. But the  key is to distract yourself.

At first reading it sounded frivolous, a bit comedic (why not, Allen is a comic, right?).  After thinking about it I recognized how dark this statement was. When, the recent news came out it was the first thing I recalled. How can someone who only believes in distractions to get you through the day even recognize the difference between what is wrong and what might get you in trouble?

Yet, we shouldn't take the implications too far, 'We' have our own similar issues and they have not generated out of nihilistic worldview. Sometimes pathology is pathology. But I would hope that in more cases than not a moral core can steer us away from morally reprehensible behavior.

Jonathan Vitale,

The quote that you cite reminds me of Eliot's lines from Burnt Norton -- 

Neither plenitude nor vacancy.  Only a flicker
Over the strained time-ridden faces
Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
Tumid apathy with no concentration

I wonder what Allen means by "life has no value".  Does he mean simply that there is no overarching story with a guaranteed happy ending?  As a movie-maker that could be it for him -- life as scriptless, as Ross Douthat might put it.  Does he simply mean that there is no ultimate happiness in life?  

Sounds like a question for a Hollywood Court of the Gentiles.

Child abuse or any abuse of another person requires that at least for the moment we do not regard the other as a person but as an object.  If we really related person to person we would not use or abuse the other.  That's the Christian message but also the secular humanitarian message: We are more than a collection of physical particles indistinguishable from each other on a microscopic level.  There is more to us than that. We have a culture with mores, laws, consequences for our actions.  Of course we can forget or ignore this and mistreat persons as objects.  And we have come up with various reasons or philosophies or isms to justify our doing so. One thing our species does well is rationalization.

Martin Buber is relevant here.  The human reality is I and Thou rather than I and It.  But all of us, at times, stray from this reality.  And we may not like being reminded of this. 

It's not easy being a Mensch.

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