In his preface to the Philosophy of Right, Hegel famously remarks that the owl of Minerva takes flight only as dusk is falling, which is to say that philosophy comes only at the end of an age, far too late in the day to tell us how the world ought to be; it can at most merely ponder what already has come to pass and so begun to pass away. An epoch yields its secrets to rational reflection grudgingly, only after its profoundest possibilities already have been exhausted in the actuality of history: “When philosophy paints its gray on gray, a form of life has grown old, and cannot be rejuvenated . . . but only understood.”
It is a winsomely tragic picture of philosophy, but not really a humble one. It may seem to reduce philosophy to an essentially reconstructive, rather than creative, labor; and certainly it implies that philosophers like Kant, who see themselves as harbingers of one or another new dawn, are deluded about their proper roles. But it is also a picture that exquisitely captures philosophy’s deep and perilous ambition to be recognized not simply as an intellectual discipline but as wisdom itself; for true wisdom, as we know, belongs properly to the very old.
It also suggests that the greatest philosopher of all would be the one who could plausibly claim to have come most belatedly of all: to have witnessed the very last crepuscular gleam of the dying day and to have learned, as no one else now can, how the story truly ends. The highest aim of philosophy, then, would be to achieve a kind of transcendent belatedness, an unsurpassable finality lying always further beyond all merely local or episodic philosophies. (Needless to say, Hegel entertained few doubts regarding just who that greatest philosopher might turn out to be.)
It is in the context of this Hegelian mystique of belatedness, I think, that one can best make sense of the later writings of Martin Heidegger (1889–1976), and especially of their sonorously oracular impenetrability, by turns so mesmerizing and so infuriating. In a sense, Hegel’s philosophy summoned Heidegger’s out of the realm of future possibility. By attempting to devise a grand philosophical narrative that would enclose all other philosophical narratives within its inescapable dialectical logic, Hegel challenged his successors to overcome him—to elude the intricate capaciousness of his logic and thereby enclose his “final” story in one yet more final.
From the period of the “Letter on Humanism” (1947) onward, that is arguably what Heidegger set out to accomplish. Over the last three decades of his life, he sought to go beyond Hegel’s heroic feat of “metaphysical closure” by further enclosing the whole history of Western metaphysics (of which Hegel’s system is merely the most imposing synthetic expression) within the still larger story of “being” as such, and to tell that story in a language so purged of all inherited conceptual terms and grammars that it could never be enfolded within the language of metaphysics again. Thus, for instance, he even stopped speaking of himself as a philosopher by the end, preferring the seemingly homely title of “thinker.” That this postphilosophical language would prove difficult to write was inevitable; that it would prove quite so difficult to read probably was not.
Whatever the case, though, and whatever Heidegger’s other motives may have been, his determination to think through what he called “the history of being”—from its remotest origins to its uttermost ending—led him to produce what, for all its eccentricities and deficiencies, remains one of the profoundest meditations on modernity and on the nature and history of modern nihilism written in the last century. It may not achieve seamless finality in the Hegelian sense, but, then again, finality of that sort is one of the metaphysical illusions that Heidegger claims to have left behind. What it does achieve is a vision of Western philosophy and its ambiguously intimate relation to Western cultural history that, if once understood, cannot easily or confidently be dismissed.
Of course, I should add, a more proximate antagonist for Heidegger than Hegel might have been Heidegger himself. We know all too well that his dalliance with the Nazis in the 1930s, while it may have been something less than a marriage, was certainly more than a flirtation. Emmanuel Faye has even tried to argue that somehow the ethos of Nazism subtly pervades all of Heidegger’s work. But, in fact, the most mystifying and annoying truth about Heidegger is that just the opposite happens to be the case. His late thought lays out a vision of reality that might be accused of a kind of quietistic fatalism, perhaps, or of moral passivity; but it also describes and denounces the intellectual pathologies that led to the rise of the Nazis with an often haunting power.
Whether this indicates some measure of self-knowledge on Heidegger’s part no one can say. In his later days he was so anxious to deny his early complicity with the Nazi regime that it is impossible to tell whether his shame involved any element of contrition. But it may also be the case, perversely enough, that it was in part the inexpungible stain of his involvement in such absolute evil that forced him to contemplate the nihilism of his age with such untiring persistence. After all, if he could show nihilism to be a destiny woven into the very fabric of the West by a long history of intellectual error, as Heidegger came to believe it was, then perhaps he could convince himself and others that he was not so much a moral idiot as a victim of fate.
Who knows, though? And who cares? In the end it does not really matter whether Heidegger’s late philosophy was a mad labor of craven self-exculpation, or the fruit of genuine moral awakening, or a bit of both. It remains an often brilliant exploration of the ways in which Western humanity has succeeded in creating a world in which all values have become subordinate to the demands of the human will, and in which knowledge and human creativity have become almost entirely confused, conceptually and practically, with the exercise of instrumental reason’s mastery over all of reality.
Modernity, for Heidegger, is simply the time of realized nihilism, the age in which the will to power has become the ground of all our values; as a consequence it is all but impossible for humanity to dwell in the world as anything other than its master. As a cultural reality it is the perilous situation of a people that has thoroughly—one might even say systematically—forgotten the mystery of being, or forgotten (as Heidegger would have it) the mystery of the difference between beings and being as such. Nihilism is a way of seeing the world that acknowledges no truth other than what the human intellect can impose on things, according to an excruciatingly limited calculus of utility, or of the barest mechanical laws of cause and effect. It is a “rationality” of the narrowest kind, so obsessed with what things are and how they might be used that it is no longer seized by wonder when it stands in the light of the dazzling truth that things are. It is a rationality that no longer knows how to hesitate before this greater mystery, or even to see that it is there, and thus is a rationality that cannot truly think.
This much Heidegger took to be obvious. The question to which he continually returned in his late work was not whether this was an accurate portrait of the modern situation but, rather, what the history had been that had led Western humanity to this point. Parts of his answer were really somewhat conventional, and similar arguments had already been advanced by various Christian thinkers. Whatever its material causes (about which Heidegger really had nothing to say), the founding ideology of the modern vision of reality was, he believed, easily defined: the triumph of subjectivity in philosophy and of mechanism in science; egoism and technology.
A crucial boundary had been explicitly crossed, he believed, in the thought of Descartes, who entirely inverted what hitherto had been regarded as the proper relation between the thinker and the being of the world. Whereas almost all earlier philosophers had assumed that the ground of truth lay outside themselves, and so had believed philosophy to be the art of making their concepts and words conform to the many ways in which being bore witness to itself, Descartes’ method gave priority to a moment of radical doubt about everything outside the self. Earlier philosophy had generally treated epistemological skepticism as a frivolity to be rejected; Descartes saw it as a problem to be solved.
Hence, rather than beginning from wonder before the mystery of being (the origin of all philosophy), Descartes began by trying to certify the reality of his perceptions and on the foundation of his own irreducible subjectivity as a “thinking substance.” To do this, Descartes actually was first obliged temporarily to blind himself to the witness of being: “I will close my eyes,” he says in the third Meditation, “. . . stop up my ears . . . avert my senses from their objects . . . erase from my consciousness all images. . . .” Only then could he rationally reconstruct the world for himself, on the fundamentum inconcussum of his own certainty of himself.
Thus, in a way that Heidegger regarded as genuinely “impious,” modern philosophy makes the human being—the self—the first principle of reason and then determines what does or does not count as truth on the basis of what the self is capable of establishing by itself. The certitude that Descartes achieved was really of a rather trivial kind and a poor substitute for the wonder that he had forsaken. Moreover, the world he saw when at last he opened his eyes again and graciously granted it its license to be was no longer the world on which he had refused to look. It was a fabrication and brute assertion of the human will, an inert thing lying wholly within the power of the reductive intellect. The thinker was no longer answerable to being; being was now subject to him.
Under the intellectual and cultural regime announced in Descartes’ writings, the mystery of being has simply become invisible to thought. Even the mystery of God is forgotten, says Heidegger; the God of Descartes is a deduction of the ego, serving as a secondary certification of the verity of experience and defined as a causa sui precisely because even divine being must now be certified by modern reason’s understanding of causality. God thus is just another kind of thing, the chief function of which is to provide ontological and epistemic surety for all other things. (Heidegger himself, it should be noted, even though he had once insisted that philosophy must be a “methodological atheism,” nonetheless refused to foreclose the question of God. In his essay of 1957 “The Onto-Theological Constitution of Metaphysics,” he even argued that his own refusal to think of God in received philosophical terms perhaps made room for the truly “divine God”—the God before whom one could sing and dance, to whom one could make offerings and pray—to show himself anew, outside the determinations to which Cartesian rationalism would confine him.)
Anyway, all this said, Descartes is not in any sense the villain of Heidegger’s tale. For Heidegger—and here is his truly challenging contention—what becomes explicit in Descartes has been implicit in all of Western philosophy since at least the days of Plato. Like Nietzsche, Heidegger traced the philosophical origins of nihilism back to ancient Athens; but unlike Nietzsche, he did so—or so he believed—without rancor, any impulse to pass judgment, or any lingering trace of metaphysical thinking. For Heidegger the history of being is, in a sense, the story that being has told of itself down the centuries, over which philosophers have had only small control; and so they cannot be given full credit even for their errors.
Heidegger believed that Western philosophy was that uniquely privileged tradition in which being, by some strange dispensation, had delivered itself over to human thought rather than continue to conceal itself behind enticing and forbidding veils of myth. With so great a privilege, though, came great danger as well, because being is not a thing that can be thought about; indeed, to mistake it for any sort of thing that can be found among other things is already to have lost sight of its truest mystery. And yet thought, by its nature, finds it all but impossible not to think in terms of discrete things—discrete beings and substances and principles. Thus, in opening itself to thought, being inevitably also became a source of error.
Nevertheless, for Heidegger, there had been a sort of blessed, Edenic moment when the thought of being had not yet gone too far astray. In the pearl-pale dawn of philosophy, in the writings of the pre-Socratics, the mystery of being showed itself with rare immediacy. Hegel had largely dismissed pre-Socratic thought as inchoate and primitive, but Heidegger insisted that just the opposite was true: It was at the beginning, in the first awakening of philosophy, that the Western thought of being was at its uncanniest and mightiest. Precisely because the experience of being had not yet hardened into a system of rigid concepts, reason had not yet attempted to master being as just another finite object of reflection and will.
In this essentially prephilosophical philosophy, being revealed itself as the silent, mostly ineffable process by which all things emerge out of the hiddenness of nonbeing, waver for a time in the openness of being, and then pass away into hiddenness again. Or, phrased differently, being was experienced as the passage of all things from future possibility into the nothingness of the past through the narrow juncture of the always disappearing present; and so the thought of being had not yet been separated into a stark opposition between temporality and eternity.
The pre-Socratic response to this experience was essentially poetic: not an attempt to devise a hierarchy of categories by which to capture the event in a cage of human concepts but, rather, an attempt to name the event of being in its mystery, with an almost childlike innocence, in a language of purest immediacy. For this reason, Heidegger believed, the words those earliest thinkers used, in their original meanings, were still inseparable from the event of being’s self-disclosure; for a time, being really manifested itself—which is also to say, retained its impenetrable mystery—in the names that it evoked from those whom it addressed.
Heidegger was fascinated by those names and liked to descend again and again into their etymological depths to show that, when they first were uttered, they were not the drearily lifeless principles that later philosophy often made them. Physis, for instance, before it was reduced to the narrower, largely taxonomic concept of “nature,” referred to being as the mysterious upwelling source from which beings inexhaustibly arise and to which they return; it meant something wholly unlike the “physical” forces with which modern reason is acquainted.
Logos, before it was reduced merely to a “word” conveying facts, or to “reason” in the philosophical sense, or to “principle,” or to the ground of “logic,” referred to being as that power of gathering that brings all things forth into the light of being, holding them together in the unity of the world while also allowing them to shine forth in their separateness. Aletheia, before it became “truth” in the limited sense of a correspondence between a proposition and an object of cognition, named being as the primordial movement of “unhiddenness,” being unveiling itself in beings, the darkness of possibility ever anew pouring forth its secret riches in the fleeting sparks of transient beings.
The problem with such names, however, is that they cannot be reduced to stable concepts and so cannot be mastered; and the human intellect craves concepts, and the human will craves mastery. Thought could not dwell forever in the innocent immediacy of being’s first advent, and so, inevitably, the almost childlike genius of that primordial apprehension faded away and the mere philosopher replaced the poetic thinker. This is not to say that philosophy would ever completely forget that first awareness of the difference between being and beings; it could not, as the very impulse to philosophy is nothing other than the “forgetful memory” of that difference. But it is to say that philosophy was condemned ever thereafter to a language that was less than a shadow of the language that the first thinkers of being had spoken.
Plato was the first great philosopher in this second phase in being’s history; it was he who committed the vital apostasy that would lead Western thought down its path of fruitful error. He turned his eyes away from the ungovernable, essentially inconceivable flow of time, and so away from the very process by which being shows itself, and looked instead toward a fabulous eternity of changeless essences, the timeless “ideas” or (more literally) “looks” of things; and it was to this latter realm that he accorded the authority of “truth” while consigning everything proper to time to the subphilosophical category of “unlikeness.”
This, for Heidegger, was the first obvious stirring of the will to power in Western thought, the moment when philosophy first tried to assert its power over the mystery of being by freezing that mystery in a collection of lifeless, invisible, immutable “principles” perfectly obedient to the philosopher’s conceptual powers. Of its nature, such a way of thinking is supremely jealous: It resents the coyness of being in withholding itself from clear and precise ideas, and it resents any form of novelty that might upset its invariable order of essences, anything new—any way of thinking or speaking of being—that might try to come forth into the open.
This is metaphysics in the fullest and, for Heidegger, most problematic sense. It knows no truth that is not immune to the particularities of time. It sees the truth of any sort of object (say an apple) not as that object itself, in its strange and lovely transience, passing through its various moments of existence (seed, tree, ripened fruit hanging on the bough, fruit eaten or moldering away) but as the unchanging form on which it is modeled (the apple that never shines forth in the beauty of its own color, that has no flavor or fragrance, that has never lived).
This understanding of truth is for Heidegger already nihilistic. It is already an expression of the will to power, though still in a restrained and even self-deluding form. It is at least still pious; it still feels wonder before the mystery of being even if it has largely forgotten how to name that mystery. But it also inaugurates an entire history of philosophical epochs, one succeeding another—pagan, Christian, secular, it makes no difference—crystallizing into one or another system of abstractions and then dissolving again.
This is inevitable because no system born of the fateful Platonic error can entirely recover any adequate sense of the difference between being and beings. It will always approach being as another kind of thing, another substance or principle. Yet the suppressed awareness of this difference continues always to drive thought from one inadequate formulation to another. In a sense it is by their downfall that these systems remind us most poignantly of the mystery that silently abides behind them; but by their failure they also progressively reveal more and more of the will to power that animates them, and more and more they consciously yield to it.
At the end of this story, we arrive at a nihilism that no longer hides itself from itself. Having failed to find that ultimate and changeless principle or system of principles that no doubt can corrupt, Western rationality begins to exult ever more in the power it has gained over physical reality during its long pilgrimage through the inconclusiveness of history. For Heidegger, the last metaphysician was Nietzsche because in Nietzsche’s thought the will to power was elevated to a position of ultimate truth; it became the principle of principles. In that moment, metaphysics became somehow perfectly self-aware. It had discovered its deepest essence by having achieved its nihilistic destiny.
It is not entirely clear, I should note, whether Heidegger actually believed that the history of Western philosophy had created the history of Western culture, or whether he held some more vaguely dialectical notion of the relation between the two. What is clear is that he saw his philosophical genealogy of nihilism as also an account of how Western humanity as a whole has arrived at an essentially nihilistic way of living on the earth. To his mind, our age is simply the age of technology, which is to say that our reasoning is simply a narrow and calculative rationalism that sees the world about us not as the home in which we dwell, where we might keep ourselves near to being’s mystery and respond to it; rather, the world for us now is mere mechanism, as well as a “standing reserve” of material resources awaiting exploitation in the projects of the human will.
Now the world cannot speak to us, or we cannot hear it. Being, in its difference from all beings, no longer wakens wonder in us; as it is not a thing we can manipulate, we have forgotten it. Not only do we not try to answer the question of being; we cannot even understand what the question is. The world is now what we can “enframe,” whose meaning we alone establish, according to the degree of usefulness we find in it. The regime of subjectivity has confined all reality within the limits of our power to propose and dispose. More and more, our culture has become incapable of reverence before the mystery of being, and therefore incapable of reverent hesitation. And it is this pervasive, largely unthinking impiety that underlies most of the special barbarisms of our time.
One could go on indefinitely. There is a sort of morose, doom-fraught grandeur about it all that at times becomes positively enthralling. We live, according to Heidegger, in a very deep twilight indeed; ours is the time of the “darkening of the world and the flight of the gods.” We are homeless in the world, standing over against it, and it is doubtful we ever will find ourselves at home again, at least if we are forced to rely on our own meager resources. Now, as Heidegger remarked in a posthumously published interview with Der Spiegel, “only a god can save us.”
To some this darkly prophetic bathos is the most insufferable aspect of Heidegger’s later writings. To others it is simply a quaint reminder of the period in which he wrote. In either case, it seems at times painfully absurd when one considers the evils to which he himself had earlier, and for several years, allied himself. And yet it would be foolish to dismiss his message simply on account of the messenger. It simply cannot be denied that the horrors of the last century were both conceptually and historically inseparable from some of the deepest principles of modernity’s founding ideologies. The “final solution” was a kind of consummation of all the evils of European history, perhaps, but it was possible as a conscious project only in an age in which humanity itself had first been reduced to a technology (the technology of race). Knowledge of how to split the atom was the inevitable consequence of advances in physics, perhaps, but nuclear weapons were also the product of cultures that had reduced all of nature to a morally neutral technology.
Quite apart from the most acute expressions of modern nihilism, moreover, there is for Heidegger the more chronic reality of a culture in precipitous decline: the degeneration of the arts, the hideousness of our public works, crass consumerism, scabrous popular culture. For Heidegger, these were perhaps the most telling proofs that all of modernity is a condition of alienation. Humanity’s only greatness, he repeatedly insisted, has arisen from an ability to dwell in the world as part of it, at peace with it, nourished and sheltered by its mystery as much as by its bounty. All true art, everything worthy among the works of our hands, comes into being in the space that our intimate closeness to the mystery of being opens before us; our art (especially poetry) is the highest way in which being gives itself to us in any age, showing itself in the creative response it evokes from us, both by its generosity and by its elusiveness. If we are no longer conscious of that mystery, nothing we make will shine with the splendor of the world about us, or draw us nearer to its wonder.
Perhaps the most beguiling moments in Heidegger’s late writings are those in which he tries to describe what it means to dwell in the world in a truly human way. They are almost entirely devoid of conceptual content, at least of the sort philosophers tend to like, and at times their language is perhaps overly saturated in a melancholy and somewhat ornamental paganism; but Heidegger had become convinced in his later years that the search for conceptual content is not really the search for truth. So he presented his vision in a series of evocative pictures whose meaning was inexhaustible precisely because they could not be translated into philosophical categories.
The pagan temple, for instance, was one of his favored images (although he also sometimes used the image of a lonely Christian church). The temple, as the center of a people’s attention and piety, was the way in which human existence was oriented in space and time and gathered into a unity. It demarcated a boundary between the sacred and the profane and thereby created a sheltered place in which the encounter between human beings and the divine (which is the mystery of being in its most eminent and compelling splendor) could occur. In so doing, it called forth each age’s special artistry and ethos. In itself, it was a central expression of the sometimes antagonistic, sometimes peaceful, but ultimately nuptial union of two realities that Heidegger simply called “earth” and “world.” That is, in the elements from which it was made, illuminated under the open sky, it showed forth the hidden riches of the earth, while through the pious craftsmanship of its makers, it made manifest the highest powers of a human world.
The most entrancing and obscure of Heidegger’s images was that of the Geviert—one of Heidegger’s many neologisms, usually translated as the “fourfold”—the “ring dance” of earth and heavens, mortals and gods. This was Heidegger’s attempt to provide something like a nonmetaphysical alternative to Aristotle’s order of causes, at least in understanding the creations of human culture. It is these four together, he says, in their inseparable but distinct inherence in one another, that create a way of dwelling on the earth that creates a space that allows human beings to be at home upon the earth, and that allows being to unveil itself in a particular way, at a particular moment.
This “dance of the four” has, in every age, caused human beings genuinely to create, and to allow being’s mystery to shine out from what they create. An object such as, for instance, a silver votive vessel comes into being not only by the interplay between the dark hiddenness of the earth and the radiant openness of the heavens—hidden ores brought up to shine in the light of day—but by the reverently poetic approach of mortals toward the gods and by the lordly approach of the gods toward mortals, out of the hidden realm of the divine, announcing themselves in the powers of nature.
In any event, as I say, this is all only imagery—achingly nostalgic and suggestive imagery—meant only to depict a way of inhabiting the world that Heidegger believed was constitutive of our humanity but that late modern humanity has forgotten. Beyond that, he had little in the way of recommendations for how we might, as a culture, recover what we have lost. He did, however, suggest that now that we have reached the end of the metaphysical history of being, we can at least look back over that history and attempt a kind of Wiederholung, or “retrieval” of the past, which might allow us to understand nihilism, and perhaps even some day overcome it.
Here is where the twilit Hegelian mystique of belatedness becomes most apparent in Heidegger’s thought. It is very late in the day indeed, Heidegger believed, and we are very near the night of total nihilism; but in this, the time of highest risk, the possibility of healing has opened up as well. Having seen the nihilistic destiny to which our ways of thinking have led, perhaps we can now reflect on them, before it is too late, and learn to put aside the appetite for power, and to cultivate in ourselves instead an attitude that does not repeat the primordial error. This attitude he calls—borrowing the word from Meister Eckhart— Gelassenheit: release, letting be, learning not to coerce reality but rather patiently to wait upon it. Simply let the world be the world. If we should ever achieve this attitude, then perhaps the mystery of being might open itself anew to us, God or the gods might return in the glory of true divinity, poets might arise again to speak the names of being . . .
For now, though, this remains a very remote possibility, and the night is rapidly descending.
What, in the end, should we think of Heidegger’s genealogy of nihilism? It seems clear to me that we should neither embrace it nor reject it as a whole. The most unfortunately Hegelian element in Heidegger’s thought is its drive toward total synopsis. His account of the history of metaphysics is simply too uniform and comprehensive in its claims, and as a result it misrepresents or fails to account for other realities about the history of Western thought that cannot intelligibly be treated as part of a larger history of nihilism.
Of course, Heidegger was willing to grant that Western philosophy had never been nihilistic through and through. But he rarely demonstrated any very keen awareness of the ways in which, for instance, Plato’s understanding of the Form of the Good, or certain Christian understandings of the analogy between transcendent and created being (and so on), open up paths that certainly cannot terminate in nihilism. And he certainly never considered the possibility that the only way to preserve being’s self-disclosure against the human longing for conceptual mastery of reality might be a fully developed metaphysics of transcendent being. That, though, is an argument for another time.
What should be said here is that Heidegger’s renunciation of metaphysics did not, in the end, allow him to produce a coherent ontology of his own. His efforts to describe the relation of being to beings in purely immanent terms ultimately added up to very little; certainly they did not provide any convincing answers to such perennial questions as why there are beings at all. At most, all he could do was point to temporality, the ceaseless flow of beings out of nothingness and into nothingness again, and then—in a gesture that often seems as much one of hopelessness as of “piety”—point away toward the mysterious Ereignis, the “appropriating event,” that somehow brings this about.
Because he had left himself no room for any kind of language of analogy, which might have allowed him to say how transcendent being shows itself in immanent existence while still preserving its transcendence, and because, moreover, he had decided in advance that one cannot speak of being in other than temporal terms, he really could not escape lapsing into a certain fatalism regarding the history he described. Even he had to admit that, if there is no metaphysically “correct” way for being to show itself, perhaps the age of technology really is the next “proper” moment in being’s dispensation. If so, all he could do was hope that there might still be a truly human way of inhabiting the world that is coming to pass.
In any event, we are not obliged to make Heidegger’s problems our own, and we certainly do not have to accept his story in its entirety to appreciate what is true and troubling in it. It is enough to acknowledge that the possibility of nihilism is indeed part of the entire history of metaphysics, even while insisting that countless ways of avoiding nihilism (even thoroughly metaphysical ways) have also opened up within that history. After all, we could not have arrived where we are purely by chance. And we would be foolish not to take seriously his diagnosis of the special pathologies of modernity. It is good to understand something of the history—and so the historical contingency—of many of our dominant forms of thought and to see what their more terrible consequences have been and may yet be.
And I think we also can appreciate the simple pathos of Heidegger’s disenchantment with philosophy. At times, of course, it is little more than the protest of a weary man, perhaps aware of his own moral and intellectual failures, imploring the voices of philosophy and ideology to cease their babbling. Western humanity has talked its way right to the edge of the abyss—so, please, be silent now. Wait. Listen. Let being speak, let the world be a world again, let the divine show itself to us if it will. But stop talking for a while.
It is almost tempting to see Heidegger’s history of being as a sort of epic transposition of the private story of a long and disappointing life. It has an air of spiritual fatigue about it—a deep longing for a return to innocence, to immediacy, to childlike wonder and to the child’s delight in speaking the names of things: a wise simplicity not yet corrupted by those empty concepts that distance us from the world. It is almost as if he wanted to find a way back again to the experience of the child’s first amazement before the mystery of the world and to linger there forever, speaking a language of pure naming, pure invocation—the language of Adam or of the natural poet.
For the good of his soul, of course, it would have been good had he understood that the only real return to innocence comes by way of repentance. But, if he ever did, he gave no evidence to that effect apart from a few phantom hints at the margins of a few enigmatic essays.
We can also grant, I think, that Heidegger did indeed surpass Hegel as a philosopher of the twilight, and in two senses. In his later years he liked to speak of the true thinker as a wanderer in the forest, seeking out hidden or forgotten paths, uncertain of his course but looking for that clearing among the trees where truth might show itself. I do not believe he ever found that clearing, but when I am feeling charitable I am willing to believe he really did seek it.
In those moments I am willing even to indulge his somewhat romanticized view of himself: a figure in the twilight, at the end of a long journey through a large valley and into wooded hills, perhaps pausing on a low ridge that affords him a last narrow glimpse of the paths he has followed, watching the evening descending over the mountains and down toward darkening lakes and fields, trying to fix in memory the shape of a world soon to be lost in night. If nothing else, he certainly did come later in the day than Hegel, and he told a story that contained more of evening’s wisdom than Hegel’s had.
And Heidegger was a philosopher of twilight in a more crucial sense, too. That is, he understood the vocation of every true thinker to be much the same as the vocation of the true poet, or of any true artist: to bear witness to that haunting and penumbral interval that marks the difference between being and beings, and to attempt to keep it open in our thoughts and our words and our works. He was himself in no sense a morally credible witness, admittedly, but he was an often perceptive one. And he knew that being’s mystery, while it is the source of our humanity, never shows itself to us with the undeniable clarity of a distinct thing among other things, but reveals itself only as a kind of intangible shadow at the edges of the things that are. Shadows, however, disappear as darkness falls, so those who can must continue to testify to that difference, to that mystery—because, if it is wholly forgotten, no one can imagine how deep and long the night may be.
David Bentley Hart’s most recent book is Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies.