The Flannery O’Connor story “Good Country People,” the starting point for Tony’s previous post, depicts, in addition to a gripping portrayal of the collision between the poseur-nihilism of the over-educated and the genuine, barbaric article, not to mention one of the most disturbingly-comic would-be seduction scenes in all of literature, also a colorful mother-daughter conflict between the dull and simple Mrs. Hopewell and her brainy, bookish, ill-tempered, one-legged, philosophy-Ph.D.-daughter Joy/Hulga, a conflict that, if Flannery’s own letters are a good guide, takes at least some humorous inspiration from the author’s relationship with her own somewhat less-than-bookish mother. Consider the following from a letter to Sally Fitzgerald, dated 2/1/1953:
My mamma and I have interesting literary discussions like the following which took place over some Modern Library books that I had just ordered:
SHE: ‘Mobby Dick’. I’ve always heard about that.
ME: MOW-by Dick.
SHE: Mow-by Dick. ‘The Idiot.’ You would get something called ‘Idiot.’ What’s it about?
ME: An idiot.
Worthy of CSPAN’s Booknotes at its best, for sure.
In “Good Country People”, O’Connor lets the reader gaze with Mrs. Hopewell’s uncomprehending maternal eyes upon the academic-philosophical world that her daughter Joy/Hulga has come to inhabit, dramatized in the following passage:
One day Mrs. Hopewell had picked up one of the books the girl had just put down and opening it at random, she read, “Science, on the other hand, has to assert its soberness and seriousness afresh and declare that it is concerned solely with what-is. Nothing—how can it be for science anything but a horror and a phantasm? If science is right, then one thing stands firm: science wishes to know nothing of Nothing.” These words had been underlined with a blue pencil and they worked on Mrs. Hopewell like some evil incantation in gibberish. She shut the book quickly and went out of the room as if she were having a chill.
If the pseudo-Delphic tone of this blue-underlined passage sounds too chilling to be a parody, even one constructed by an artist as skilled and philosophically well-read as O’Connor, then your ears are rightly recognizing the authenticity of its authorship: it is actually an excerpt from the German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s 1929 lecture What is Metaphysics?, in the earlier English translation by Ralph Mannheim. Heidegger (1889-1976) is probably the most important/influential philosopher of the entire 20th century—his collected works from an almost-60-year career fill 80 fat volumes in the German, and his 1927 Being and Time has been resolutely canonized by academics as one of the fundamental treatises of Western thought, in spite of—or, rather, probably BECAUSE OF its difficult, tenebrous, and almost-oracular style of incantatory prose that frequently defies translation. Indeed, because of Heidegger’s influence, a number of his original coinages or technical German terms have been adopted into English without translation, just as Plato gave us the word “idea” and Aristotle “energy”. Heidegger’s contributions to English are less commonplace, but then again they are less than a century old: words like Dasein, “facticity”, the distinction between existential and existentiell, the “ready-to-hand” and “present-at-hand”, and Being with a capital-B and other such contortions that attempt to render the technical differences between the different German participles and verbal infinitives and even deliberately archaic spellings that Heidegger employs to mean “being.”
It was meant as a compliment when Hegel once declared that “Kant taught philosophy to speak German”, but one could just as naturally lament old Kant’s influence as a preceptor: thanks in no small part to his tapeworm sentences and thick, technical vocabulary, all of subsequent German academic philosophy has wrapped whatever profundity and insight it has to offer in jargon and sentences that seem to call for color-coding of their numerous components; and since the appearance of profundity in technicality can conceal emptiness in a way that simple clarity cannot, the world has been weighted down over the last 200 years with a great many 700-page tomes and “Systems” that are useful today only as props capable of holding open even the heaviest gothic doors with black iron hardware.
And for the last 200 years, German thought has succeeded in awing the rest of the world with at least its reputation for penetration and profundity, and sometimes even with actual insights: whether our thought has been schooled by left-wing socialism, psychoanalysis and its descendents, by free-market or libertarian economics, or right-wingish worldviews of civilizational and national decline, we are consciously or unconsciously following our German teachers Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, Hayek and von Mises, Nietzsche and Spengler. No matter what our mother tongue, our socio-political thoughts all speak German now.
Faithfully fruitful thinking in the Catholic world similarly speaks with a strong German accent: the poetic personalism of a Karol Wojtyła is a direct descendent of the work of the German Max Scheler and the Austrian Edmund Husserl; the monumental sublimity of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s work is important in the 21st century as never before; the living giant Ratzinger still sits upon the Chair of Peter (and long may he remain seated!); and even the still-vigorous neo-Thomist revival is at least a joint Franco-German initiative, with Josef Pieper’s contributions still in print and being read.
But back to Martin Heidegger.
I must confess to finding his work very interesting and fruitfully challenging to read—his seemingly-limitless ability to extract 70-pages of questions and commentary from a single Greek sentence, his creative and often-impish wordplay, his love of poetry, his relentless philosophical will and drive to penetrate back to the origins of all Western thought, and especially his critique of the sterility of Kantian philosophy: if Kantianism is essentially a rigorously-systematized philosophical Puritanism, then the enemy of my enemy is at least my ally, if not my friend.
I am not one of those who are particularly disturbed by Heidegger’s enthusiastic commitment to the Nazi Party in the 1930s, or by his mendacious attempts to portray himself as a victim of Nazi persecution after the war. Plenty of brilliant people acted unheroically or even despicably in the Third Reich, but that doesn’t make them guilty of gassing millions of Jews.
I am more bothered by the well-documented facts of Heidegger’s break with the Catholic Church, and by his consistent-if-veiled polemics against theology and faith in the 1920s and ’30s. Heidegger, the scion of a long line of village sextons (or what we might call “parish managers” today), was educated by Jesuits and was training for the priesthood when he began to incline towards mathematics and philosophy; as a youngish professor in the Protestant city of Marburg, he is reported to have heard Mass only on rare occasions when a major public event was being observed in the city’s main Lutheran church and he wanted to avoid it; he later sent his pregnant Protestant wife to tell his parish priest that they had decided together they would not seek a Catholic baptism for their child, and within a year his break with the Church was complete. “Apostate” is a strong and inflammatory word, but it is necessary to describe drastic and dangerous actions.
His early lecture “Phenomenology and Theology”, dating from the time of his apostasy, was his first public repudiation of Christianity, in which he called Christian philosophy holzernes Eisen, “a wooden iron” or oxymoron. In 1935’s Introduction to Metaphysics he repeats the claim while early on the lectures giving only cursory treatment to Christianity as a manifestation of what he called Seinsvergessenheit, the “forgetting-of-being,” a blindness to the hidden nature of reality, a willful oblivion that fabricates and plays with ideas and constructs like “God” and “creation” instead of engaging in what he claimed to be the authentic questioning and thinking of philosophy:
..anyone for whom the Bible is divine revelation and truth already has the answer to the question ‘Why are there beings at all instead of nothing?’ [the question with which Heidegger opens the lectures] before it is even asked: beings, with the exception of God Himself, are created by Him. God Himself ‘is’ as the uncreated Creator. One who holds on to such faith as a basis can, perhaps, emulate and participate in the asking of our question in a certain way, but he cannot authentically question without giving himself up as a believer, with all the consequences of this step…we are not saying that the words of the Bible, ‘In the beginning God created heaven and earth, etc.’ represents an answer to our question. Quite aside from whether or not this sentence of the Bible is true or untrue for faith, it can represent no answer at all to our question, because it has no relation to this question… A “Christian philosophy” is a round square and a misunderstanding. (Introduction to Metaphysics, trans. G. Fried and R. Polt, pp. 7-8).
In Heidegger’s view, theology and faith are essentially sterile, prophylactic, thought-preventing activities of convenience, “an agreement with oneself to adhere in the future to a doctrine as something that has somehow been handed down” (ibid.). This unfortunate caricature of the Christian intellectual life may in fact have been the young Heidegger’s sterile experience of faith and reason at the hands of turn-of-the-century German Jesuits, but to understand all does not necessarily require one to forgive all.
A consistent diagnosis in Heidegger’s writings about the “forgetting-of-being” from the 1930s through his late writings on technology is his claim that the entire history of Western metaphysics from Plato and Aristotle to Nietzsche is in fact the history of a decline into nihilism, that Plato’s and Aristotle’s views of truth were the doubly-fatal cause of it all. By making the utilitarian criterion of “correctness” central to their understanding of truth, so Heidegger asserts, they passed on to all subsequent thinkers an impoverished view of truth bound to end in empty, nihilistic willing; the original and “primordial” Greek vocabulary of the Presocratics, which Heidegger held to be an almost-magical source of wisdom, was, after being distorted into utilitarian categories by Plato and Aristotle, subsequently layered over in Latin mistranslations. Thus, according to Heidegger, for centuries we in the West have been accustomed to thinking of the Greek words alētheia and phusis as “truth” and “nature”, equivalent to the Latin veritas and natura; but, he argues, these Latin words, and the words all the major Western languages employ as their equivalents, really mean just “correctness” and “that-which-is-to-be-born”. The REAL meanings of the original Greek words, so maintained Heidegger, were the much-more authentic “un-concealedness” and “holding-sway”.
If, for example, we suppose that truth is the simple agreement or concord between our mind and a thing, the “right” or “correct” gaze of the mind upon an object of knowledge, then we are actually taking for granted something that the Presocratic Greeks (allegedly) did not: their word alētheia connotes instead an “un-hiddenness” or “un-concealedness” of being, with man approaching it as he would a veiled mystery, patiently asking it to reveal itself to him. To think of truth as alētheia, as did the Greeks before Socrates, is to approach Being with humility, wonder, and even a kind of piety, like one seeking answers from Apollo’s prophet at Delphi, answers that are themselves likely to be even more baffling than the perplexity out of which the questions had arisen.
But to think of truth as (mere) correctness is, so says Heidegger, to close ourselves off to the possibility of real discovery, to presume that being is something obvious and easily accessible to our powers of intellect, that the nature of reality can be found out through the right mode of questioning, through deductive or inductive reasoning, a dialectical system, or the proper scientific experiments. According to Heidegger, this is the characteristic view of the Western mind, not uncoincidentally also the view of modern technological man, who views reality as a collection of particular things easily systematized, manipulated, and exploited for his own purposes.
(While it is fascinating on one level, I suspect it may be a kind of philothaumaturgy or Gnostic inclination towards magic that makes Heidegger claim that the ordinary philosophical vocabulary of the West is copy of a copy of a mistake, and to insist that the original Greek is an oracular source of such mysterious-sounding and long-forgotten secrets of Being. German words like Dasein and Seinsvergessenheit, and German philosophy in general, can exert a similar alluring power upon the English-speaking mind, tempting us to think that Germans are being magically profound.)
Everybody since Parmenides (and until me) gets it wrong, Heidegger seems to say, and it is a long but nonetheless direct road that leads from Plato’s Cave to Nietzsche’s “Will-to-Power”. Such a radical and total critique of the entire Western philosophical tradition of 2200 years as Heidegger mounts is certainly fascinating, and would no doubt be especially attractive to hearts and minds of a restless and critical bent—what if EVERYONE does in fact have it all wrong except for Heidegger? What if all of Western philosophy needs to be clear-cut in a massive spiritual slash-and-burn? Or destroyed in the conflagration of an intellectual Götterdämmerung like the one that consumes heaven and earth at the end of Wagner’s Ring?
It was the contention of one of his most accomplished (and critical) students Karl Löwith (1897-1973) that, while attempting to offer a deep linguistic and philosophical critique of Western nihilism and its origins, Heidegger was in fact participating in a specifically German form of it: as Arminius and the ancient Germans had made ceaseless war against the Rome of Augustus, as the medieval Holy Roman Emperors had constantly struggled with the papacy for mastery of Christendom, as the German monk Luther had led the revolt of the individual against the Church, as the 19th-century “Iron Chancellor” Bismarck had made the dismantling of the European order (and the construction of the German Reich) his life’s work, and as first the Kaiser and then Hitler undertook war against the entire Western world, so too was Heidegger’s sustained critique of the Western philosophical tradition a total revolt against it. In an essay he wrote and published while in exile in Japan during the second world war (the ethnically-Jewish Löwith finding a curious safe harbor from Nazi Germany and a university teaching position under the wing of Germany’s imperial ally), Löwith places Heidegger squarely in this protesting/-ant tradition of the German Volk, a tradition that antecedes Luther himself by a millennium and a half. Citing several personal letters to himself, Löwith calls Heidegger a “transposed preacher”, and attributes to him the view that
Instead of giving oneself over to the universal enterprise of education, as if one had been given the mission of ‘saving the culture,’ [according to Heidegger] one must, in a radical dismantling or rebuilding’ or a ‘destruction,’ acquire for oneself a firm conviction regarding ‘the one thing that is needful,’ without concerning oneself with the idle talk and the bustle of those sensible and enterprising people who reckon time with clocks… ‘At the least I want something different—but nothing much: viz., what I actively perceive to be “necessary” in the current factical state of revolutionary change, without any peripheral consideration of whether from out of this there will result a “culture” or an acceleration of decline.’
…Only later did it become clear to us that this one thing was really nothing, a pure resoluteness whose object was not definite. ‘I am resolved, I just do not know upon what’ was the fitting joke that a student once devised. The inner nihilism of this naked resoluteness in the face of the Nothing was concealed first of all by characteristics which allowed one to think of a religious concern…
(From the essay published in English as “European Nihilism: Reflections on the European War,” in Martin Heidegger and European Nihilism, edited by Richard Wolin, Columbia University Press, 1995.)
Löwith’s critique of Heidegger is particularly vehement, and it is admittedly in part personally motivated: Löwith openly declares in his posthumously-published memoir My Life in Germany that his former teacher’s enthusiastic embrace of and membership in the Nazi Party was difficult to swallow, as was Heidegger’s refusal to speak of it at their last personal encounter in Rome in 1936, where Löwith and his wife had already fled from the legal persecution of the early years of the Third Reich.
In that same memoir, Löwith discusses the almost-magical power that the young Professor Heidegger displayed as a lecturer at the University of Marburg in the 1920s, a power that seemed to derive from that same relentless will to deconstruct:
He was a small dark man who knew how to perform conjuring tricks by making disappear what he had just presented to the listener. His lecturing method consisted in constructing an edifice of ideas, which he himself then dismantled again so as to baffle listeners, only to leave them up in the air. This art of enchantment sometimes had the most disturbing effects in that it attracted more or less psychopathic personalities, and one female student committed suicide three years after such guessing games. (Karl Löwith, My Life in Germany before and after 1933, trans. by E. King, p. 45.)
No doubt Löwith here is also thinking of the nickname bestowed by students and colleagues upon Heidegger, paying tribute both to his slight physical stature and to his provincial hometown: der kleine Zauberer von Messkirch, “the little magician from Messkirch”.
A few days before his death in the summer of 1976 at the age of 85, Heidegger, who had announced his departure from the Catholic Church more than 50 years earlier, had a meeting with a Catholic priest in his home, the substance of which was never spoken about by either man. Was it a formal reconciliation? One can hope: Heidegger was given a Catholic requiem Mass and burial at the Martinskirche in Messkirch, where he had served Mass as a boy, and where his father and grandfather before him had served as sextons. Did he die as a returned prodigal? Or an unrepentant magician?
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