Heideggerian Clarifications: A Response to Ben Mordecai

In the dead time between semesters, the podcast received a very thoughtful email from listener Ben Mordecai, one asking for more information about our Heidegger episode (one of our best, in my opinion):

I’m wondering if you could clarify some of the things you said when it came to Heidegger’s view of death, and his attitude about the afterlife, especially in how it relates to Christians who are influenced by his thinking. From what I gather, Heidegger’s big idea was that it is willful ignorance and a foolish attitude to go on as if death is not imminent and unknown. That death is the end and that we should live with the personal understanding that we will die and that this death will be the end. How are we to address this view in light the Christian views of the intermediate state for those “absent from the body” and eventually the resurrection of the dead and life everlasting. Or maybe to put it more simply, how are Christians to engage Heidegger if we believe in eternal life – even as humans with bodies (albeit glorified bodies)?

Secondly, how do you think Heidegger’s philosophical ideas interact with his support of Nazi fascism? It would be an anachronism to act like Heidegger’s ideas bear any responsibility in bringing about Nazism, but like you said, Nazism is not about a crazed villain named Hitler twirling his mustache. There are some ideological origins to Nazism, and I am wondering how these ideas relate to Heidegger’s philosophy.

Well, I’ll give it a shot, anyway, with the understanding that Nathan will correct me if I go too far off course. As I think I mentioned on the show itself, I’m not sure that anyone can ever say definitely that he understands Heidegger–but as I engage more and more with his ideas, I feel like fogs are lifting and I’m at least seeing the direction he’s pointing.

Let’s start with Ben’s first question. Christianity, as he rightly points out, makes certain assertions about death and about the afterlife–these assertions appear quite clearly in the New Testament and continue throughout the entire Christian tradition (with notable lapses by some groups and individuals, of course). Death, we are told, is not the end of the Christian life; as St. Paul rhetorically asks, “Where is thy sting?” The Christian can face the grave in confidence because she knows that existence continues on the other side of it–not just continues, in fact, but continues in utter perfection, better than the life we live in the here and now.

Heidegger, it goes without saying, cannot accept this proposition. For him, it’s just another of the myriad ways in which we try to deny the certainty of our own deaths, and as he says in his characteristically obtuse way, “the certainty which belongs to such a covering-up of Being-towards-death must be an inappropriate way of holding-for-true.” Death is the great problem of human existence, and not merely because it marks the (potential) end of Dasein*–if, as Kierkegaard tells us, life must be lived forward and understood backward, death keeps us from having a whole view of our lives. And yet, at the same time, death is inextricably part of life, which means that we must analyze our deaths as part of Dasein. Thus, any authentic vision of life–and Heidegger is always looking for an authentic vision of life–must be lived in the direction of a death that is a real end to life.

As Ben rightly points out, this conception of death comes across as rather inconsistent with the faith of the New Testament writers in the continued existence of the self. But the value of Heideggerian being-towards-death, as I see it, is as a stage we must take account of and go through before we can really have any hope in the afterlife. Before St. Paul can remove the stinger from Death, we must first recognize it as a stinger; we must utterly lose hope in the afterlife before we can really embrace hope. After all, Heidegger’s primary assault on illusions of eternal life is not really on the Christian conception of the afterlife; it’s on a non-sectarian avoidance of the question. He scoffs at those who see others die but never really take it into their being that they, too, will die. This is the difference between the statements “Everyone dies” and “I am going to die.” I’d like to suggest that until the Christian has taken “I am going to die” as an absolute and true statement, there is no hope of the afterlife. We must move beyond Heidegger, but first we must agree with him that death is a black hole that confronts us all.

As for Heidegger’s Nazism: I’m by no means an expert on National Socialism, but I have a few ideas about why Heidegger was attracted to it. We must, first of all, take his German-ness into account; like many other thinkers of the era, he believed (to some extent, at least) the national mythos of Germany, recovered by Goethe and the other romantics: a heroic past of chivalry, freedom fighters, and pagan gods. (Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen is a pretty good expression of this mythology, though he mixes some Norse myths in there, as well.) This national mythos is apt to seem ridiculous and dangerous to us today, especially once we’ve seen what Bismarck and Hitler did with it–but then, we have our own national mythos that keeps us from viewing the world as it really is.

Heidegger’s conservatism must be emphasized here, as well. Like many other existentialists, he was supremely suspicious of the so-called advances of the modern world, particularly of technology and the mechanization and scientism that it led to at the beginning of the last century. (It’s worth noting that Heidegger’s antipathy toward Cartesian anthropology, with its mind/body split, led him to identify to some extent with blue-collar workers; as we noted on the podcast, the one object lesson in Being and Time involves physical labor: a hammer.) Nazism was sometimes framed as a return to the pre-modern glory days of Germany, so it makes sense that Heidegger would have seen in the movement a via tertium between Western Capitalism and Eastern Communism, both of which disgusted him.

Heidegger’s turning to Nazism as a solution to modern technocracy will, of course, go down in history as one of the all-time most misguided philosophical positions–right up there with Dostoevsky’s belief that Russia would be the last remaining country once everyone else became communist. The extent to which Heidegger was himself an anti-Semite is up for debate, as is the extent of his knowledge of what the Nazis were really up to. Some scholars argue that Being and Time contains in its pages the roots of an anti-Semitic fascism; I must confess that I don’t find it there.

More likely, the Nazis and Heidegger were influenced by some of the same sources, Germanic and otherwise. The most obvious place to look is the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, whom both Hitler and Heidegger revered. However, even a cursory reading of Nietzsche reveals that he would never have approved of the Holocaust–in fact, in Ecce Homo, he states explicitly that Jews are superior to Germans. Hitler’s concept of the über-mensch is based on a misreading of Nietzsche’s work; Heidegger, clearly intellectually superior to Hitler, would not have made this mistake. (Full disclosure: I’ve not read Heidegger’s book on Nietzsche.)

That’s my take on things, anyway; as I said, I don’t really know that much about Nazi ideology beyond what any educated person picks up along the way, and I’m no expert on Heidegger, either. I hope these loose thoughts explain things a little further to Ben–and I hope he’ll forgive me for taking three months to answer his email. And I’m open to correction from Nathan Gilmour or anyone else who knows Heidegger better than I do.

* Dasein (German for “being-there”) is the word Heidegger uses instead of the more customary self, a substitution that emphasizes the individual’s position in the world; in other words, Heidegger says Dasein at least in part to avoid creating a Cartesian mind/world split. There is no cogito, ergo sum for Heidegger; I am always already in the world. It should be understood that if I use the words self or individual in this post, I use them to mean Dasein and not Enlightenment concepts of selfhood.

3 thoughts on “Heideggerian Clarifications: A Response to Ben Mordecai

  1. Thanks for the post. This sentence: “if, as Kierkegaard tells us, life must be lived forward and understood backward, death keeps us from having a whole view of our lives” is one of the clearest statements of the problem posed by being situated in time and having knowledge of death that I’ve seen. It’s a concept I’ve been wrestling with recently reading the work of Paul Ricoeur who is, of course, approaching the question through Heidegger. Sometimes it feels like trying to look through a dark glass in order to see through another glass darkly:)

  2. It is my observation that Christians who have moved from fundamentalism to a more progressive faith actually have more of an understanding of the resurrected life being the “NOW” and find themselves less anxious about death being dark, even an unknown.

    Fundamentalism seems to want to interpret our “citizenship in heaven” and the Bible as a clear view and brochure as to what waits on the other side. Whereas, the resurrected now views being and the nothing as with God.

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