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Jünger, Heidegger, & Nihilism

Alain de Benoist

3,840 words

Translated by Greg Johnson

Ernst Jünger and Martin Heidegger engaged in a dialogue on nihilism in two texts published five years apart in the 1950s on the occasions of their respective sixtieth birthdays.[1] The study and comparison of these texts is particularly interesting because they allow us to appreciate what, on this fundamental subject, separates two authors who are frequently compared to each other and who maintained a powerful intellectual relationship for several decades. What follows is a brief overview.

In his approach, which he carefully presented as “medical” (it includes “diagnosis” and “therapeutics”), Jünger initially asserts that to remedy nihilism, one must give a “good definition” of it. Taking up Nietzsche’s opinion that nihilism is the process in and by which “the highest values debase themselves” (The Will to Power), he affirms that this is essentially characterized by the devaluation then the disappearance of traditional values, first and foremost the Christian values.

Then he reacts against the idea that nihilism is primarily a chaotic phenomenon:

One realized, with the help of time, that nihilism can agree with vast systems of order, and that it is even generally the case, when it takes on its active form and deploys its power. It finds in order a favorable substrate; it reorganizes it towards its ends. . . . Order not only yields to the requirements of nihilism, but is a component of its style. (pp. 48–52)

In this sense, nihilism is not decadence. It still does not go hand in hand with slackening, but “rather produced men who march straight ahead like iron machines, insensitive even at the moment catastrophe shatters them” (p. 57). Likewise, nihilism is not a disease. There is nothing morbid about it. On the contrary, one finds it “linked to physical health—above all, where one sets vigorously to work” (p. 54). Nihilism is in on the other hand essentially reductive: its most constant tendency is to “reduce the world, with its multiple and complex antagonisms, to a common denominator” (p. 65). Transforming society from “a moral community to a mechanical conglomeration” (p. 63), it marries fanaticism, the complete absence of moral sentiment, and the “perfection” of technical organization.

These observations are characteristic. They show that, whenever Jünger mentions nihilism, he refers first of all to the model of the totalitarian state, and most particularly to National Socialism. Indeed, the Third Reich exemplifies the social state where men are subject to an absolute order, an “automatic” organization, in which the devaluation of all traditional morals went along with an undeniable exaltation of “health.”

But one might ask if what Jünger describes is really nihilism. Is he not, rather, simply describing totalitarianism—the totalitarian Leviathan that has put technology at its bidding and turned nature into an industrial wasteland?

Martin Heidegger, 1889 - 1976

Jünger, moreover, professes a certain optimism already apparent in the title of his text: “Crossing the Line.” Evoking Nietzsche and Dostoevsky, he notes that their critiques of nihilism did not prevent them from showing themselves to be relatively optimistic, given that nihilism can be surpassed “sometime to come” (Nietzsche), given that it constitutes a kind of “necessary phase in a movement toward precise ends” (Dostoevsky). Here Jünger takes up an idea that is familiar to him: after the worst, it can only get better. Or more exactly: a tendency pushed to its extreme must go in the opposite direction. Thus he said, in the 1930s, they had “to lose the war to gain the nation.” It is in this spirit that he quotes Bernanos: “The light bursts forth only if darkness has overrun everything. The absolute superiority of the enemy is precisely what turns against him” (pp. 37–38). However, Jünger’s feeling is that the worst has passed, that “the head has crossed the line,” i.e., man has started to leave nihilism behind. This assertion also results from his assimilation of nihilism to totalitarianism. As Julien Hervier writes, “if Jünger believes in going beyond the absolute zero, then the collapse of Hitlerism, the triumphant incarnation of moral nihilism, was not for nothing” (Preface, p. 13).[2]

In his essay, Jünger thus tries primarily to describe the state of the world as it is, in order to assess the possibility that has one already passed to the other side of the “line.” His conclusion, moreover, might appear modest. Against nihilism, he proposes to resort to the poets and love (“Eros”). He calls for individual dissidence, for “authentic anarchy.” (In 1950, he had not yet invented the Figure of the Anarch.) “Above all,” he writes, “it is necessary to find safety in one’s own heart. Then, the world will change.”

Heidegger’s approach is quite different. His text, written in answer Jünger’s, is above all a critique—a friendly one, of course, which stresses the regard he has for his interlocutor, but nonetheless one that aims at replacing his analysis with a completely different point of view.

The modification of the title is already revealing. Whereas Jünger’s title Über die Linie means “Over the Line” in the sense of “beyond the line,” Heidegger’s title “Über ‘die Linie’” means “regarding ‘the line,’” indicating his conviction that the line has not been crossed and his desire to raise the question of why it cannot be crossed yet. Thus to Jünger’s trans lineam topography, Heidegger explicitly states that he wants to add (and in many respects oppose) a topology de linea: “You examine and you go beyond the line; I am satisfied initially to consider this line you have represented. One helps the other, and vice-versa” (p. 203).

Heidegger starts by disputing that one can, as Jünger seeks attempts, give a good “definition” of nihilism. Heidegger writes:

While keeping to the image of the line, we discover that it traverses a space that is itself given by a site. The site gathers. The gathering shelters the gathered in its essence. It is the site of the line that gives the source of the essence of nihilism and its realization. (p. 200)

Thus to inquire about the realization of nihilism, for which the entire world has become the theater—such that nihilism is henceforth the “normal state” of humanity—requires that we locate this “site of the line,” which points towards the essence of nihilism. For Heidegger, to pose the question of the situation of man in relation to the movement of nihilism requires a “determination of essence.” To understand nihilism implies that thought must go back to a consideration of its essence.

The answer was quick in coming. It follows from Heidegger’s philosophy, the essential tenets of which I will assume here. Nihilism, in Heidegger’s eyes, represents the consequence and the accomplishment of a slow trend toward the oblivion of Being, which begins with Socrates and Plato, continues in Christianity and Western metaphysics, and triumphs in modern times. The essence of nihilism “rests in the oblivion of Being” (p. 247). Nihilism is the oblivion of Being in realized form. It is the reign of nothingness.

The oblivion of Being means that Being is veiled, that it is held in a veiled withdrawal that conceals it from the thought of man, but which is also a protective retreat, a postponement of disclosure: “Such veiling is the essence of oblivion.” Oblivion is the concealment of Being to the profit of beings. In Western metaphysics, God himself is nothing but the supreme being. Metaphysics knows only transcendence, i.e., the thought of being. This is why it is prohibited not only to rise to Being, but even to examine its proper essence.

Ernst Jünger, 1895 - 1998

Heidegger adds that the essence of nihilism is realized in the “reign of the will to will.” Here, of course, the target is Nietzsche. One knows that, for Heidegger, the philosophy of the author of Zarathustra is, in spite of its merits, only Platonism in reverse insofar as it does not manage to leave the realm of values. The will to power, analyzed by Heidegger as the “will to will,” i.e., a will that wants to be in an unconditioned manner, is only one mode of appearance of the being of beings, and in this sense another form of the oblivion of Being. “It belongs to the essence of the will to power,” writes Heidegger, “not to allow the reality on which it establishes its power appear in this reality that it itself essentially is” (p. 205). Nietzsche states in vain that “God is dead”; he remains in the shadow of this God whose death he proclaims.

However, insofar as Jünger himself remains under the horizon of Nietzsche’s thought, Heidegger’s critique of Nietzsche is also aimed at him.

Here Heidegger goes back to Jünger’s famous book The Worker, published in 1932.[3] He emphasizes that the Figure (or Form, Gestalt) of the Worker corresponds quite precisely to the Figure of Zarathustra within the metaphysics of the will to power. His advent manifests power as a will to enthrall the world, as a “total mobilization.” In The Worker, Jünger observes: “Technology is the means by which the Figure of the Worker mobilizes the world.” Work is deployed on a planetary scale under the direction of the will to power.

Of course, Heidegger is not unaware that Jünger’s view of technology had evolved. Jünger first had a revelation of the importance of technology through a concrete experience: the technological battles of the First World War. He then explored, not without reason, the sentiment that the reign of technology would inaugurate a new age of humanity. He assimilated this reign to the domination of the Figure of the Worker, thinking that only such a Figure could be opposed on a worldwide scale to that of the Bourgeois. On this point, Jünger was mistaken, and he later recognized his error. Lastly, his opinion on technology itself changed—perhaps under the influence of his brother, Friedrich Georg, author of The Perfection of Technique, 1946.[4] After 1945, Jünger clearly related nihilism to the “titanism” of a technology that, as a will to dominate the world, man, and nature, follows its own course without anything being able to stop it.[5] Technology obeys only its own rules, its most intimate law consisting in the equivalence of the possible and the desirable: all that is technologically feasible will be realized in deed.

Heidegger praises without reserve the way Jünger, in Total Mobilization (1931),[6] then in The Worker, described what he found “in the light of the Nietzschean project of being as will to power.” Heidegger gives him credit for having finally realized that the reign of technical work belongs to an “active nihilism” that is henceforth deployed on a planetary scale. At the same time, however, Heidegger reproaches Jünger for not having grasped how the “Nietzschean project” continues to prohibit thought about Being, and stresses that The Worker “remains a work whose metaphysics is the fatherland” (p. 212).

Heidegger reproaches Jünger for remaining, throughout his development, in the world of the Figure and of values. The Figure, defined by Jünger as this “calm being” that becomes apparent by giving the world form as a seal leaves its imprint, is indeed nothing but a “metaphysical power.” As Heidegger emphasizes:

The Figure rests on the essential traits of a humanity which, as a subjectum, is at the foundation of all being. . . . It is the presence of a human type (typus) that constitutes the ultimate subjectivity of which the achievement of modern metaphysics marks the appearance and who offers himself in the thought of this metaphysics. (pp. 212–13).

No longer taking part in nihilism still does not mean holding oneself apart from nihilism. The manner in which Jünger proposes “to exit” nihilism—“to listen to the earth,” to try to know “what the earth wants,” while at the same time denouncing the telluric and titanic character of technology—is in this respect revealing.

Jünger writes: “The moment when the line will be crossed will reveal to us a new turning of Being; then what really is will start to shine.” Heidegger answers: “To speak about a ‘turning of Being’ remains a makeshift solution, and thoroughly problematic, because Being resides within the turning, so that this can never first come to ‘Being’ from outside” (p. 229).

Heidegger by no means believes that the “zero line” is from now on behind us. In his eyes, the “consummation” of nihilism does not absolutely represent the end of it:

With the consummation of nihilism begins only the final stage of nihilism, whose zone will be probably of an unaccustomed breadth because it will have been dominated completely by a “normal state” and by the consolidation of this state. This is why the zero line, where the consummation reaches its end, is not yet at all visible at the end. (pp. 209–10)

But he also adds that it is still an error to reason, as Jünger did, as if the “zero line” were a point external to man that man could “cross.” Man himself is the source of the oblivion of Being. He himself is the “zone of the line.” Heidegger adds: “In no case does the line, thought as the sign of the zone of consummated nihilism, lie in front of man as something that one can cross. Then, however, the possibilities of a trans lineam and such a crossing collapse” (p. 233).

But then, if any attempt “to cross the line” remains “condemned to a representation that itself supports the hegemony of the oblivion of Being” (p. 247), how can man hope to finish with nihilism? Heidegger answers: “Instead of wanting to go beyond nihilism, we must finally try to enter in meditation on its essence. This is the first step that will enable us to leave nihilism behind” (p. 247).

Heidegger shares Jünger’s opinion that nihilism is not comparable to evil or a disease. But he gives another significance to this observation. When he asserts that “the essence of nihilism is not nihilistic” (p. 207), he means that the zone of the most extreme danger is also that which saves. The disease can also point towards the cure.

“To enter in meditation” on the essence of nihilism means gives oneself the possibility of an appropriation (Verwindung) of metaphysics. The appropriation of metaphysics is indeed also appropriation of the oblivion of Being—and consequently the possibility of a non-concealment, of a revealing of the truth (aletheia). Jünger wrote that “the difficulty in defining nihilism means that the spirit is unable to represent nothing” (p. 47). Heidegger quotes this sentence to stress the proximity of Being and the essence of nothingness. From this he argues that it is by a meditation on nothing that we will understand what nihilism is, and that it is when we understand what nihilism is that we will be able to overcome the oblivion of Being. Heidegger writes:

Nothing, even if we understand it only in the sense of the total lack of being, belongs, as absence, to Presence as one of its possibilities. So consequently it is nothingness that reigns in the essence of nihilism and that the essence of nothingness belongs to Being, if in addition Being is the destiny of transcendence, it is then the essence of metaphysics that is shown as the place of the essence of nihilism. (p. 236)

The place of the essence of consummate nihilism is thus to be sought “where the essence of metaphysics deploys its extreme possibilities and gathers itself in them” (p. 236). Finally, Heidegger writes, “going beyond nihilism requires that one enter its essence, which, when entered, nullifies the will to go beyond. The appropriation of metaphysics calls thought to a more fundamental recall” (p. 250).

However, to jump the “barrier” that prevents us from entering meditatively into essence of nihilism, it is still necessary to have a word likely to give access to the thought of Being. It is necessary, in other words, to give up the language of metaphysics—which is still that of the will to power, value, and the Figure—because this language, precisely, prohibits access. Heidegger is emphatic:

The only way in which we can reflect upon the essence of nihilism is initially to take the path that leads to the location of the residence of Being. It is only on this path that the question of nothingness can be located. But the question of the residence of Being withers if it does not abandon the language of metaphysics, because  metaphysical representation prohibits thinking the question of the residence of Being.

However, it is precisely there that Heidegger reproaches Jünger: he reproaches him for asking about nihilism in terms of thought and discourse that remain tributaries to the essence of metaphysics. Insofar as he continues to think and express himself in the language of metaphysics, which is the place of the essence of nihilism, Jünger makes it impossible for him to solve the problem he has posed. Heidegger asks:

In which language speaks the thought whose fundamental plan sketches a crossing of the line? Must the language of the metaphysics of the will to power, of the Figure, and of value be still preserved on the other side of the critical line? And is the language, precisely, of metaphysics, and this metaphysics itself (whether it is of the living God or the dead God) constituted as metaphysics, the barrier that prohibits the passage of the line, i.e., going beyond nihilism? (pp. 224–25)

Thus we cannot enter the essence of nihilism as long as we continue to express ourselves in its language. This is why Heidegger calls for a “change of saying,” for a “change in the relation to the essence of speech.” He calls for a saying that is necessary to overcome the oblivion of Being. Because this saying corresponds to the essence of Being, it can make Being’s essence accessible to thought. It invites Being “to say thought,” while specifying that “this saying is not the expression of thought, but is thought itself, its course and its song” (p. 249). It is necessary, he concludes, to make a “test of saying which is that of faithful thought.” It is necessary “to work on the path.”

How to conclude? I spoke of a “dialogue” between Jünger and Heidegger in connection with nihilism, but this term is not completely appropriate. Heidegger and Jünger often depart from analogous premises, but they arrive at partly opposed conclusions. They both agree that nihilism finds its most solid support in modern technology, but they do not have the same idea of it. For Jünger, technology is above all “titanic” in essence, whereas for Heidegger it is realized metaphysics. Jünger sees in nihilism the opposite of the values of Western and Christian metaphysics. Heidegger sees it as the ultimate consequence of these same values. Jünger is limited to knowing if man, in his relationship with nihilism, has “crossed the line.” Heidegger invites us to wonder about what “crossing” means. In fact, Heidegger presses Jünger’s work to go further and deeper, to enlarge the perspective of reflection, to invite thought to its own distinct transformation. Jünger suggested a “recourse to the forests” to the “rebels.” Heidegger invites us to take a forest path that leads to the clearing (Lichtung) where the truth (aletheia), unconcealment, finally leaves oblivion, i.e., this millennial erring that has governed the history of Europe, the planetary consummation of which enjoins us today to think of the way out.


[1] Ernst Jünger, “Über die Linie” [“Over the Line”], in Anteile: Martin Heidegger zum 60. Geburtstag [Parts: To Martin Heidegger on his 60th Birthday] (Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 1950), 245–83; Martin Heidegger, “Über ‘die Linie’” [“Regarding ‘The Line’”], in Armin Mohler, ed., Freundschaftliche Begegnungen: Festschrift für Ernst Jünger zum 60. Geburtstag [Friendly Encounters: Festschrift for Ernst Jünger on his 60th Birthday] (Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 1955). Jünger’s text was republished separately, by the same publisher, in a slightly enlarged version: Über die Linie (Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 1950). The French edition is: Sur l’homme et le temps, Essais [On Man and Time, Essays], vol. 3, Le nœud gordien. Passage de la ligne [The Gordian Knot. Crossing the Line], trad. Henri Plard (Monaco: Rocher, 1958); 2nd expanded edition, with a Foreword by Jünger and a Preface by Julien Hervier: Passage de la ligne (Nantes Passeur-Cecofop, 1993); 3rd edition (Paris: Christian Bourgois, 1997). There is no English edition of Jünger‘s text. Heidegger’s text has also been republished separately, without modification, but under a new title:  Zur Seinsfrage [On the Question of Being] (Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 1956). The French edition is: “Contribution à la question de l’Etre” [“Contribution to the Question of Being”], in Martin Heidegger, Questions I, trad. Gérard Granel (Paris: Gallimard, 1968), 195–252. The English editions are: The Question of Being, trans. William Kluback and Jean T. Wilde (New York: Twayne, 1958) and “On the Question of Being,” trans. William McNeill, in Martin Heidegger, Pathmarks, ed. William McNeil (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998). In Italy, the two texts were joined together in the same volume: Ernst Jünger and Martin Heidegger, Oltre la linea, trad. Franco Volpi and Alvise La Rocca (Milano Adelphi, 1989). The page numbers quoted here are those of the later French editions. [For the purposes of this translation, I have consulted the original German texts—Ed.]

[2] Later on, Jünger somewhat reconsidered this optimism: “After the defeat, I said in substance: the head of the snake already crossed the line of nihilism, and left it behind, and the whole body soon will follow, and we will soon enter a better spiritual climate, etc. In fact, we are far from it” (interview with Frédéric de Towarnicki, in Martin Heidegger [Paris: L’Herne, 1983], 149). More fundamentally, Jünger thinks that we are in a time of transition—an interregnum—and that this is why one should not despair: “For my part, I have a presentiment that the twenty-first century will be better than the twentieth” (Entretiens avec Julien Hervier [Interviews with Julien Hervier] [Paris: Gallimard, 1986], 156). English edition: Julien Hevier, The Details of Time: Conversation with Jünger, trans. Joachim Neugroschel (New York: Marsilio, 1995).

[3] Ernst Jünger, Der Arbeiter: Herrschaft und Gestalt [The Worker: Dominion and Figure] (Hamburg: Hanseatische Verlagsanstalt, 1932)—Ed.

[4] In English: Friedrich Georg Jünger, The Failure of Technology: Perfection without Purpose, trans. F. D. Wieck (Hinsdale, Ill.: Henry Regnery Co. 1949)—Ed.

[5] In fact, even with respect to this “titanic” character of technology, Jünger remains ambiguous. On the one hand, he readily opposes the Titans to the gods, and he worries about progress of Titanism (the “surge of energy”). But he also writes: “One would tend to fear that the Titans can bring only misfortune, but Hölderlin itself is not of this opinion. Prometheus is the messenger of the gods and the friend of men; in Hesiod, the age of the Titans is the golden age” (Foreword, p. 26). According to him, the twenty-first century will see at the same time an unprecedented rise of technology and a new “spiritualization.”

[6] Ernst Jünger, Die totale Mobilmachung (Berlin: Verlag der Zeitkritik, 1931); English translation: “Total Mobilization,” trans. Joel Golb and Richard Wolin, in Richard Wolin, ed., The Heidegger Controversy: A Critical Reader (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991)—Ed.


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One Comment

  1. Posted July 5, 2010 at 7:03 am | Permalink

    Many writers, all over the web, continue to find Junger to be a fascinating personage.

    I do not know much Nietzsche. I am tempted to reduce nihilism to G. K. Chesterton’s description of it, the notion that Nietzsche was living as an aristocrat of weak nerves, but that Nietzsche imagined himself to be an aristocrat of strong will.

    To flagrantly copy and paste some Chesterton:

    The complaint we commonly have to make of our neighbors is that they will not, as we express it, mind their own business. We do not really mean that they will not mind their own business. If our neighbors did not mind their own business they would be asked abruptly for their rent, and would rapidly cease to be our neighbors. What we really mean when we say that they cannot mind their own business is something… deeper. We do not dislike them because they have so little force and fire that they cannot be interested in themselves. We dislike them because they have so much force and fire that they can be interested in us as well. What we dread about our neighbors is not the narrowness of their horizon, but their superb tendency to broaden it. And all the aversions to ordinary humanity have this general character. They are not aversions to feebleness, but to its energy. the misanthropes pretend that they despise humanity for its weakness. As a matter of fact, they hate it for its strength.
    This shrinking from the brutal vivacity and … variety of common men is a perfectly reasonable and excusable thing as long as it does not pretend to any point of superiority. It is when it calls itself aristocracy or aestheticism or a superiority to the bourgeoisie that its inherent weakness has in justice to be pointed out. Fastidiousness is the most pardonable of vices; but it is the most unpardonable of virtues. Nietzsche, who represents most prominently this pretentious claim of the fastidious, has a description somewhere – a very powerful description in the purely literary sense – of the disgust and disdain which consume him at the sight of the common people with their common faces, their common voices, and their common minds. As I have said, this attitude is most beautiful if we may regard it as pathetic. Nietzsche’s aristocracy has about it all the sacredness that belongs to the weak. When he makes us feel that he cannot endure the innumerable faces, the incessant voices, the overpowering omnipresence of the mob, he will have the sympathy of anybody who has ever been sick on a steamer or tired in a crowded omnibus. Every man has hated mankind when he was less than a man… But when Nietzsche has the incredible lack of humor and lack of imagination to ask us to believe that his aristocracy is an aristocracy of strong muscles or an aristocracy of strong wills, it is necessary to point out the truth. It is an aristocracy of weak nerves.

    I admire Chesterton’s wit, but I fear he was not being entirely fair to Nietzsche. He was attacking the weakest point of popular nihilism; I suspect that Chesterton neither completely read nor completely understood Nietzsche’s books. (I have read several of Nietzsche’s books, and I am positive that I don’t understand them.)

    However, I suspect Heidegger has missed out on a great deal of the Western mystical tradition.

    Nihilism, in Heidegger’s eyes, represents the consequence and the accomplishment of a slow trend toward the oblivion of Being, which begins with Socrates and Plato, continues in Christianity and Western metaphysics, and triumphs in modern times. The essence of nihilism “rests in the oblivion of Being” (p. 247). Nihilism is the oblivion of Being in realized form. It is the reign of nothingness.

    If the notion of Being in Western metaphysics is derived only from intellectual calculations, then every intellectual contributor, from Kant to Newton to Descartes to Quine, must be fairly examined and considered. That is a monumental task that would keep any number of philosophy departments staffed and busily publishing.

    If, on the other hand, the notion of Being is an intellectual expression of a non-discursive insight gained in certain mystical states, then the task is more feasible. A solitary mystic can master asceticism, gain mystical insights, and fit his private insights into the framework of the Western tradition. Perhaps he will omit some thinkers, but he will not be limited to intellectualism.

    From the standpoint of the mystic, then, Being is not necessarily something that gets obliviated, by Nietzsche or anyone else. Perhaps this is what Heidegger meant by a “clearing” in the “forest.” Students of Heidegger are welcome to support or refute this speculation.

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