Part 2 of 4
6. Modernity and the Oblivion of Being
Heidegger describes this “oblivion of being” as “the spiritual fate of the West” and offers the following striking description of our present predicament:
When the farthest corner of the globe has been conquered technologically and can be exploited economically; when any incident you like, at any time you like, becomes accessible as fast as you like; when you can simultaneously “experience” an assassination attempt against a king in France and a symphony concert in Tokyo; when time is nothing but speed, instantaneity, and simultaneity, and time as history has vanished from all Dasein of all peoples; when a boxer counts as the great man of a people; when the tallies of millions at mass meetings are a triumph; then, yes then, there still looms like a specter over all this uproar the question: what for? – where to? – and what then?
These words call to mind René Guénon’s thesis of “the reign of quantity.” The technology Heidegger is referring to, obliquely, is the airplane, telegraph, radio, and motion picture. But it is impossible to read these words today without thinking for a moment that Heidegger is referring to satellite television, supersonic jets, and the internet. His words read like an uncanny prophecy of today’s world. Heidegger is identifying trends which are not recent, but woven into the fabric of modernity itself. What we live with today appear to be the most extreme outcomes of those trends (though it is always dangerous to make such claims: things may get far worse!). Heidegger writes, further:
The spiritual decline of the earth has progressed so far that peoples are in danger of losing their last spiritual strength, the strength that makes it possible even to see the decline [which is meant in relation to the fate of “Being”] and to appraise it as such. This simple observation has nothing to do with cultural pessimism – nor with any optimism either, of course; for the darkening of the world, the flight of the gods, the destruction of the earth, the reduction of human beings to a mass, the hatred and mistrust of everything creative and free has already reached such proportions throughout the whole earth that such childish categories as pessimism and optimism have long become laughable.
Though Heidegger refers here, tantalizingly, to “the flight of the gods,” he is no neo-pagan. But there is something about Heidegger’s ideas that definitely resonates not only with what we know of traditional pagan thought, but also with the theology of the modern (or post-modern) neo-pagan movement. The “flight of the gods” refers to an old idea that the gods have withdrawn themselves from the land, due to people’s non-belief (i.e., their conversion to Christianity). One of the key elements in Heidegger’s understanding of modernity is the idea of the “self-withdrawal of Being.” Something has changed about Dasein, and as a result Being has concealed itself from us – just as the gods have departed on account of men no longer being true to them. (It is interesting that Heidegger draws on the language of paganism, rather than Christianity, as a poetic way to express this idea.) His reference to “the destruction of the earth” suggests the ways in which Heidegger’s critique of modernity intersects with deep ecology. (This is especially apparent in later essays like “The Question Concerning Technology.”)
Although in these passages Heidegger refers to the modern “decline of the earth,” he sees this mainly as a Western phenomenon, and his concern is with the fate of Europe. He sees Europe as caught between the two great juggernauts of American capitalism and Soviet communism, both of which offer mere variants of the exact same modern forms of decadence described earlier:
This Europe, in its unholy blindness always on the point of cutting its own throat, lies today in the great pincers between Russia on the one side and America on the other. Russia and America, seen metaphysically, are both the same: the same hopeless frenzy of unchained technology and of the rootless organization of the average man.
This is what has come to be known as Heidegger’s assertion of the “metaphysical identity” of capitalism and communism. The words “seen metaphysically” are crucial here. There are (or were), of course, many differences between the U.S. and U.S.S.R., but seen metaphysically Heidegger claims that they are identical. Both rest upon a materialistic metaphysics which sees the generation of material prosperity as the key to human happiness. Both, in one way or another, treat all things (including people) as manipulable commodities. Both are irreligious, in the broadest sense of that term (the U.S. implicitly, the U.S.S.R. explicitly), preoccupied with beings and closed to the mystery of Being. (Heidegger’s thesis of the metaphysical identity of capitalism and communism is one of the keys to understanding why he embraced National Socialism, a point to which I will return later.)
Like Guénon (whom Heidegger almost certainly never read), he adds later that in modernity (as exemplified by American capitalism and Soviet communism) “the prevailing dimension became that of extension and number.” And, further:
In America and Russia, then, this all intensified until it turned into the measureless so-on and so-forth of the ever-identical and the indifferent, until finally this quantitative temper became a quality of its own. By now in those countries the predominance of a cross-section of the indifferent is no longer something inconsequential and merely barren but is the onslaught of that which aggressively destroys all rank and all that is world-spiritual, and portrays these as a lie. This is the onslaught of what we call the demonic [in the sense of the destructively evil].
Unsurprisingly, while Heidegger is concerned with the threat of American capitalism and Soviet communism to European civilization, more narrowly he is concerned with the fate of Germany. Though he is cagey about this. He writes: “We live in the pincers. Our people, as standing in the center, suffers the most intense pressure – our people, the people richest in neighbors and hence the most endangered people, and for all that, the metaphysical people.” Though this is said in the context of a discussion of Europe, it is apparent that Heidegger means that the German people are the metaphysical people. What this means is not entirely clear, but Heidegger seems to see the German people (or Germanic peoples?) as having the potential to play the world-historical role of restoring to us an authentic orientation toward Being.
We are sure of this vocation [as the metaphysical people]; but this people will gain a fate from its vocation only when it creates in itself a resonance, a possibility of resonance for this vocation, and grasps its tradition creatively. All this implies that this people, as a historical people, must transpose itself – and with it the history of the West – from the center of their future happening into the originary realm of the powers of Being. Precisely if the great decision regarding Europe is not to go down the path of annihilation –precisely then can this decision come about only through the development of new, historically spiritual forces from the center.
But how is Germany (and, by extension, Europe) to be spiritually awakened? By asking the question of Being. To repeat: wie steht es um das Sein? What about Being? What is required is a spiritual shift away from preoccupation with beings – and the analysis, quantification, and commodification of beings – toward Being itself, toward the emerging-abiding sway; the mystery from which beings come forth, and from which flow art, poetry, drama, and all else that makes us truly human.
Asking about beings as such and as a whole, asking the question of Being, is then one of the essential fundamental conditions for awakening the spirit, and thus for an originary world of historical Dasein, and thus for subduing the danger of the darkening of the world, and thus for taking over the historical mission of our people, the people of the center of the West. Only in these broad strokes can we make plain here to what extent asking the question of Being is in itself historical through and through, and that accordingly our question, whether Being is to remain a mere vapor [i.e., empty idea] for us or whether it is to become the fate of the West, is anything but an exaggeration and a figure of speech.
7. The Grammar and Etymology of the Word “Being”
I hope the foregoing has helped readers get a clearer idea of the nature of Heidegger’s philosophical project, and how it involves a critique of the modern situation. However, much else is probably still unclear. The chief problems readers will likely have are with Heidegger’s understanding of Being as phusis, and with his idea that a recovery of this understanding of Being will somehow spiritually renew the West.
Fortunately, the second chapter of Introduction to Metaphysics is devoted to a further elucidation of the meaning of Being by way of a discussion of its grammar and etymology. This approach to things is uniquely Heideggerean. Frequently in his work, Heidegger sheds light on a philosophical issue through a discussion of the origins of certain terms.
The most famous example of this is his analysis of the Greek word for truth, aletheia. Heidegger argues that the word is derived from Lethe, which was one of the five rivers in Hades and also the name of a daimonic being mentioned by Hesiod. The name is variously translated as “oblivion,” “concealment,” or “forgetfulness.” Heidegger understands the “a” at the beginning of aletheia to be an alpha privative, which negates what comes after it. Thus, aletheia means “unconcealment,” “cancellation of oblivion,” etc. And, accordingly, Heidegger understands the ancient Greek conception of truth as meaning bringing something out of concealment or oblivion and, so to speak, into the light. (Many linguists, incidentally, have supported Heidegger’s etymology of aletheia.)
In Introduction to Metaphysics, Heidegger applies the same approach to our words for Being, in order to recover the “originary sense” of these words: what our ancestors were thinking of when they coined them. Note that I said words for Being, as we have a number of them and they are quite different. In English, the most basic one, of course, is “be” as in the infinitive “to be.” But note that none of the different conjugated forms of the verb employ “be”:
He, she, it is
All of this changes in the past tense, of course, the forms of which are “was” (first and third person singular) and “were” (all the rest). Forms of “be” show up in the past participle: e.g., “I have been.” And in the present participle: “being.”
In German things are, if anything, more complicated. The present tense conjugation of the infinitive sein is:
Er, sie, es ist
The past tense forms are all variations on war. The past participle is very curious: gewesen, from which was derived the noun Wesen, which can mean “being” (as in a being) or “essence.” The present participle is seiend (from which Heidegger gets das Seiend).
Now, needless to say we could consider other Indo-European languages. But an examination of English and German actually suffice to give us the basic “word forms” used to express Being (again, in Indo-European languages): the “is/ist form” (think also, for example, of Spanish es or French est), the be/bin/bist form, and the was/gewesen/Wesen form. Heidegger (relying on very sound etymologies) traces these to three Proto-Indo-European stems (which, following standard German practice, he refers to as Indo-Germanisch):
1. The oldest stem word is es, from which is derived Saskrit asus which means life or the living. To this stem also belong the Sanskrit verb forms esmi, esi, esti – and we can clearly see that this too is the origin of “is,” es, ist, etc.
2. Another Indo-European root is bhú or bheu. Out of this we get “be,” “been,” bin, and bist. Significantly, from this root also comes the Greek phuein (to grow, emerge) and phusis. The Greek term phainesthai is also derived from this root. This word means “show” or “display,” and “phenomenon” is derived from it.
3. Finally we have the root wes, from which come “was,” gewesen, and Wesen. This root may have originally connoted “to live” or “to abide.”
Heidegger says “From the three stems we derive three initial and vividly definite meanings: living, emerging, abiding.” And, of course, this is the sense that Heidegger derives from phusis, which “emerges from itself,” “unfolds,” “comes-into-appearance,” and “abides.”
Another classical Greek “being” word was ousia, which can mean “a being” or “thing” but was used by Aristotle to mean “being in the truest sense,” and was applied to God. Heidegger notes that in addition to Being as phusis – as the “emerging-abiding away” – the Greeks also thought of Being as ousia, as constancy or enduringness. (All the different attempts by the Ancients to determine “what is” in the truest sense identify it with something that lasts.) But Heidegger actually links phusis and ousia, pointing out that ousia is derived from parousia, meaning “presence.” Heidegger points out that there is a precise German equivalent of this: Anwesen – translated by him as “coming to presence.” Observe that this word contains Wesen, “a being.”
What all this means, Heidegger tells us, is that Being is linked to “presence,” and it is very commonly asserted that for Heidegger “Being is presentation.” “Presence” is obviously concomitant with “absence.” Being/phusis is the coming to presence of things out of absence or inchoateness: their emergence, genesis, growth – and their abiding and enduring. This is what we mean when we talk about Being and “what is.” This understanding of Being has many implications. For one thing, if Being is what emerges or comes to presence out of absence then doesn’t this make Being equivalent to truth as aletheia? (Recall that aletheia for Heidegger literally means “unconcealment.”)
1. Introduction to Metaphysics, 40.
2. Bracketed phrase added by Heidegger for the 1953 edition.
3. Introduction to Metaphysics, 40–41. In a later passage (p. 47) he reiterates much of this emphatically: “We said: on the earth, all over it, a darkening of the world is happening. The essential happenings in this darkening are: the flight of the gods, the destruction of the earth, the reduction of human beings to a mass, the preeminence of the mediocre.” “The preeminence of the mediocre” sounds like a Nietzschean point, and Heidegger was strongly influenced by Nietzsche. Here he refers to the “leveling effect” of modernity’s reign of quantity.
4. See Collin Cleary, Summoning the Gods: Essays on Paganism in a God-Forsaken World, ed. Greg Johnson (San Francisco: Counter-Currents Publishing, 2011), 4.
5. Introduction to Metaphysics, 40. See also pp. 47–48.
6. Introduction to Metaphysics, pp. 48–49; bracketed phrase added by Heidegger in 1953.
7. Introduction to Metaphysics, 41. Bracketed portion is my interpolation.
8. Introduction to Metaphysics, 52–53. Michael Zimmerman writes “In Heidegger’s opinion, a linguistic and spiritual revolution is needed to renew German history and to save the Volk from modern decadence” (Zimmerman,187).
9. My purpose here is to summarize, in a rather simplified form, Heidegger’s claims about our “being” words. Whatever errors there may be here in the etymologies are in Heidegger’s original.
10. Introduction to Metaphysics, 76.