Being Towards Death

Although Heidegger seldom if ever mentions Thomas Aquinas in Being and Time, the opening section often brings to mind Thomas’s doctrine of analogy and the philosophical problems that come up when philosophy abandons the analogical character of Being.  For Thomas, there are certain realities, most of them divine, that do not participate in the same order of being with mortals.  Therefore the words we use to talk about them and the concepts that we develop to make sense of them must stand analogous to the realities rather than simply pointing unmediated to them.  So when we call God just, there is a genuine relationship between the justice of a good king and God’s ordering Creation, but one is not simply the other writ small (or large).  And when we talk about the consummation of the Resurrection, there is a genuine relationship between that reality and the sowing of a seed, but there aren’t processes that translate literally.

In Being and Time, Heidegger analyzes the character of death, noting that one’s own death is impossible to conceive precisely because all of our tools for existence, language included, are suited primarily to everyday life and only later, with a change in orientation, become modes of speculation.  So death, for Dasein (which, remember, translates most readily as “there-being” in the sense of “there is a person named Gilmour” rather than “there is the road, and here is the sidewalk”), can only be a negation and an utter negation, a not-existing for a being who can only conceive of existing.

Several objections immediately pop up, and Heidegger does address some of them.  One might object that, at a funeral, a group of people (sometimes quite large) experiences death together.  Heidegger notes that the actual body of phenomena that we call experience only apply to the people still living; the departed is still with us, but there’s no good reason to say that we’re still with the departed.  We can “be alongside” them, but that’s still our being, not the departed’s (282).  Likewise, one might object that there might be life after death, but Heidegger replies to this by saying that even if there is something that lies beyond, it lies beyond the phenomenon called Death, which remains a negation (292), and although he does not make the next move, a responsible Christian thinker could, I think, appeal to the doctrine of analogy and say that any teaching on whatever does come after must, like 1 Corinthians 15, engage in the speculative and often frustrating activity of comparison on analogous but not univocal planes of being.

The ethical implications of this human ontology have to do with ordering one’s life as a being that will cease.  Heidegger grants that everybody (or almost everybody) “knows” that she or he is going to die, but he notes that popular consciousness (which he signifies with the German “das Man“, a rough analogy to “one” in the phrases “every-one knows that people die” and “one should not dwell on that”) treats death as a disease that one “catches” at a discrete moment in time, untroubled by it at other times.  Heidegger prefers to imagine authentic Dasein as Being-towards-death, a life that is ordered not as if life and death have nothing to do with one another but in a way that resolutely faces the always-present possibility of non-existence.

I will say, before I get to what a good life as being-towards-death entails, that Heidegger does not seem to be advocating a black-T-shirt-and-beret kind of “dwelling on death” that existentialists sometimes get pegged with.  In fact, he notes at one point that an existence always out to get itself finalized denies the potential character of death (305-306), its character of simultaneously lurking around the next corner and deferring itself for another thirty years.  As a Christian, I have to think about the way that our Scriptures talk to each other about such things, on one hand confronting the hearer with parables about a man whose life will be demanded of him “this day” (that has to be in Luke, no?) on one hand and detailed instructions about how the old men (presbyteroi/elders) are to teach and guide the young for the sake of perpetuating the apostles’ teaching on the other.  Once again, I find Heidegger to be the honest sort of atheist, one who really does table questions that are best left to theolgians and sticking to the contours of human existence as human reason can apprehend it.  If we Christians can (with a suitably critical eye) appropriate the best of these thoughts, I can’t but think that we’ll have good opportunities to rethink (and certainly re-pray) our own stances towards thanatos, the demise of life as we know it, before we start speculating on the order of things afterwards.


So the nature of Dasein, that order of being that can say “there is a person called me,” is Being-towards-death, which can inauthentically pretend that one’s demise is simply an event among other events that doesn’t affect what happens until then; or can live authentically, ordering everyday life in the face of the not-being that might lie around the corner or might come after a hundred years of everyday life.

So what?

Heidegger’s answer begins with the roots of the self.  Always focusing on the real everyday experience of real human life, Heidegger notes that, before anyone can take a stand on one’s being, to take responsibility for who and what one becomes, there is necessarily a span of years and a history of influences upon which one must stand.  Whether one was raised Christian or agnostic, liberal or traditionalist, there is a body of intelligible but sometimes invisible expectations that das Man (the “one,” as in “one should not wear short pants to teach college English”) that one must decide, moment by moment, how to appropriate or reject, and the ongoing whole of one’s appropriations or rejections of the same always becomes that person’s self (312).  That accumulated experience, of course, includes but does not include only those moments when, pre-reflectively or un-reflectively, stood with or against or aside the expectations of das Man.  When one encounters one’s own possibility for authentic life, in other words, there’s always life prior to that moment, and one always lives authentically or inauthentically as someone coming from somewhere, some time.  (To pretend for a moment that Heidegger would have cared about a small-time Christian blogger, he might agree that nobody has clean hands.)

Here Heidegger develops his own articulation of conscience.  For Heidegger, conscience is the empty space that lies before every Dasein, the moment when any person must choose what to do and thus what sort of existence to develop.  The path that most people take is the das Man route, a less-reflective set of rules that “apply” to every situation and whose super-personal character stands as a safety valve to prevent the risks of authentic living.  If the “rule” is always to strive for politeness, das Man can always beg off if telling a hard truth would be impolite.  And if the “rule” is deference to official authority, das Man can always say “one should listen to those in charge” no matter what those in charge say.  Or, in a different sort of moment, if “tradition” becomes a dirty word, das Man could just as easily say, “One should think for one’s self.”  These rules, pretending a universality that extends beyond a human being’s span of life and knowledge, are for Heidegger only the pretense of people trying to hold death at bay and to deny the contingency and particularity of any given person’s existence.  Conscience, then, is that moment when the self is called beyond das Man to act according to the real particulars of the moment rather than the general rule (319).  Heidegger’s translator, Macquarrie, is unusually lucid on this point:

Indeed the call is precisely something which we ourselves have neither planned nor prepared for nor voluntarily performed, nor have we ever done so.  ’It’ calls, against our expectations and even against our will. ?On the other hand, the call undoubtedly does not come from someone else who is with me in the world.  The call comes from me and yet from beyond me and over me. (320)

So for Heidegger Conscience is not a human voice, much less a cricket, so much as something arising from the very structure of the moment of decision.  It does not remind us of universal truths that we already know and can, without complication, “apply” to the moment (326) but makes the self responsible for living in this moment, surrounded by these people, with this possibility for good and for bad standing before.  For Heidegger, rules are not the stuff of conscience (328) but often stand in the way of a real disclosure of uncomfortable reality.

Heidegger does not offer much ethical content at all precisely because of the nature of conscience: to offer rules in a book would negate the responsibility for each person to see truthfully the world before.  But he does offer some kind of structure for an ethical life, one much scarier than rule-following conventional life.  He also warns that the authentic person will rightly earn the censure of the das Man-shaped people all around.  And just to put the cherry on the depressing sundae, he notes that this sort of resolute life, a life which resolutely sees every particular in its disclosedness and never wavers in its resolution upon those particulars, will never end until being itself ends.

As a Christian thinker, I have to nod just a bit, given that we Christians hold that, in the saeculum, that age between the ascension of Christ and the final return of Christ, the Church is by definition a Church Militant.  I can see this sort of dynamic operative (thought with obvious divine additions) in the transitions that define some of my favorite books of the Bible like Exodus, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Luke, Acts, and Revelation.  In all of those cases, a reader on this side of all that great history can see that eras were changing, but for those writers and characters, the moment and the lifetime must have been the limits of knowledge, and a good reading of those prophets and gospels ought, I think, to consider both their place in our tradition and their own placements on the limits of their own traditions.

And by analogy, Christians in succeeding epochs must, if we take our contingency seriously, take responsibility for our own appropriations of and engagements with our own traditions, sometimes holding that our forebears remember good things that our contemporaries have forgotten, sometimes pointing to our ancestors’ moves and calling them sin.  History will ultimately turn around and judge us, but we don’t have that perspective now, only the call of conscience to be resolute (and faithful) in our own moment.

So Heidegger’s Being and Time ain’t Christianity, but I still think it gives us Christians some good tools to use when we think about our own Scriptures, our own lives, and our own possibilities for ethical action.

One thought on “Heidegger for Christian Thinkers 3: Death and Resoluteness”
  1. This was a very interesting series and I really am excited to get back into Kierkegaard now (though I have a lot on my reading list right now: but still I enjoyed this and have started to do an archive binge of the blog post for more like this. 
    On a more general note I was wondering to request if you could do a review of James Baldwin’s novel Go Tell It On The Mountain. I would be very curious what you would have to say about it.

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