As the money-based rule of quantity took hold, being was shrunk to what was present, and the present was made dependent on the mind’s ideas. Ideologies founded on transcendent values, originating in a higher external authority, were marginalised by Cartesian science until, under liberalism, everything became subordinated to the human subject. Such was the dominance of totalitarian humanism by the twentieth century, when Martin Heidegger launched his counter-revolution against human-centred thinking.
In his philosophy, Heidegger left the still-unexploded time bomb to turn against modernity and its liberalism.As far as he was concerned all former philosophical thought was to be understood as anthropocentric. He also believed that humanism had now run its course.
Power was at the heart of Western thought’s approach to being, according to Heidegger. Humanism was the tendency to understand being through and something about us, not being itself, and thereby gain a kind of conceptual control over being. Experience, reality or objectivity must always conform to the individual’s concepts,not the other way around. It has been noted above how this undercurrent of thinking emerged to dominate our understanding of time and space, as well as the disciplines of science, politics, economics and art. It led to the evolutionism and progressivism of current times.
In modern science and technology, being is made subject to human creation. Being is thought of as something over which individuals have control; as something that’s strained through some feature of the individual’s understanding.
Heidegger believed that this human-centric worldview was at the root of what Nietzsche called our will to power. Western philosophy’s development had been an expression of the human will to power, by which we seek to dominate being rather than understand it. It is the polar opposite of the way that being was experienced before the onset of modernity. Here man did not stand back from the world and observe it, he was totally engaged and immersed in a hyper-realism. The experience of the world was immediate, often demanding symbolical representation.
With the culmination of the Nietzshean will to power in the twentieth century, man had become separated from the world. The resultant subjectivist pathos and angst that were the characteristics of the disorder lived as order, or humanism, became the central concerns of existentialism.
In the 1947 paper, Letter on Humanism, Heidegger repudiated Satre’s explicit identification of existentialism with humanism. In Satrian existentialism, there was no God, nature, no society to guide or tell me what to do. Satre had a Promethean, heroic notion of the human subject.We must make choices as individuals and that is what gives human beings their dignity.
So existentialism, by negating God, in Satre’s version, left us with ourselves. Nature in Satre does not matter. Being is all-important, not consciousness, which is an entirely different thing. Thus for Satre, humanism and existentialism became the same thing.
This conflation of humanism and existentialism was exactly what Heidegger criticised. All humanism did was provide man with a warrant to dictate a conceptual scheme to being. Humanism is traditionally connected to idealism and subjectivity, the notion that the human subject is the centre of things or is the most valuable of things, that through which we find a reflection of true being. Satre’s humanism was just an extenuation of the history of western metaphysics, the inner meaning of which was made most explicit in Nietzsche’s ‘will to power’. This final empowerment of man is probably what made Satre’s existentialism so compatible with Marxism.
Heidegger radically opposed the view that man should not be the lord of being, but rather the shepherd of being. A true humanism that recognised the truth of being, would know that the essence of the human is simply an openness to being.
What Heidegger was trying to recover here was an experience of the world that was immediate; a pre-Socratic experience in Heidegger’s opinion, but in many ways too, a pre-Reformation experience.
In his Letter on Humanism, he concluded that the thinking that is to come is no longer philosophy, because it thinks more originally than metaphysics, a name identical to philosophy. Philosophy itself, like metaphysics, has placed humanity in the centre rather than being itself. That must come to an end, he stressed, if we are to think in a new and meaningful way.
In the 1953 essay, The Question Concerning Technology, Hiedegger wrote that technology enframes beings as standing reserve. By standing reserve he meant technology treats being as material to be manipulated. His metaphor for standing reserve was inventory, i.e. all the ‘materials’ waiting to be used. He believed that technology enframed all beings in that way. The use of modern technological devices along with the scientific theories that underpin them, justify them and are used in operating them, impose a framework, or a structure though which we understand the world. This treats all being as resource or inventory, a status which covers over the being that is disclosed. All being is understood as resource to be exploited,and this includes the ubiquitously named human resources.
We, in the modern world, no longer experience being as it disclosed itself to earlier generations. For practically the whole of history, being disclosed itself and also concealed itself. Our ancestors understood some things and not others.
But in our age, there is a threat to any understanding of being. Science and technology are themselves the completion of the metaphysics that were asserted during the Renaissance and Reformation, which treated being through presence or the present, one mode of time, and projected onto this presence the ideas or concepts that were once the creation of the philosophical imagination. Being was shrunk to what was present, and the present was made dependent on the mind’s ideas.
And the mind’s ideas are subject to education, entertainment and misinformation - in short, indoctrination. And what is the result? Ignorance, not merely of the money-dominated foundation to the current disorder lived as order, but of being itself. Man has been left to lead a life that is completely antithetical to the order of being, the cosmic order, and is wholly ignorant of the fact.
Where there is blindness to the cosmic order, the vertical order, the non-discriminative ‘principles’ of the corporate human resources department apply. All are equal in the 1=1 prison, where diversity is destroyed and rights ends up being the right to nothing. And yet under liberalism, this right to nothing occurs in a culture of human rights and the apparent freedom of the individual. Soren Kierkegaard recognised different forms of despair in the way that individuals lived with such a paradox. He called despair a sickness: it was not inherent in original man. He associated it with the ‘inability to die’, to accept the truth.
Instead man busies himself. By striving for a different state of the self—which is a different self—a person rejects his self. He might find ‘it much easier and safer to be like all the others, to become a repetition, a number along with the crowd’. In weakness, he might simply want ‘to be someone else.’ In defiance and bravado, he might recognise no power other than his own. Yet this Nietzschean self ‘works its way into the exact opposite; it really becomes no self, and thus despairs. As it acts, there is nothing eternally firm on which it stands. Yes, the defiant self is its own master, absolutely (as one says) its own master, and yet exactly this is despair’.*
Pushing liberalism to the extreme, in the way that Marx advocated, would lead to the piling up of even more despair. This is not surprising when one recalls that Marx’s theory of history was formulated at the time of his intellectual duelling with Max Stirner. In response to Stirner’s defiant individualism, Marx postulated that theeconomic conditions must be right before man can become fully human, i.e. free of economic and social constraints in the way he chooses to live. Freedom was not simply an act of will in the way that Stirner thought. So when the economic conditions have been satisfied by day one of communism, then what? Man might become his own master, and yet he will remain locked in the despair of defiance that Kierkegaard elaborated.
Kierkegaard stated that ‘in relating itself to itself and in willing to be oneself, the self rests transparently in the power that established it’.** The self ultimately can rest only in the One who made it. It is man (society) that seeks to herd men. It is God who calls each man individually. Despairing sin denies or sinfully asserts the self. God establishes the true self.
For Kierkegaard then, sin and faith were opposites. There was nothing speculative about sin at all. Since a person is an individual ‘before God’, either he dwells in despair (sin) or he approaches God through faith to receive the forgiveness of sins. In short, he posited faith as the response to despair brought about by the paradox of existence in a horizontalised world.
This is counter-intuitive to the modern mind, which has associated its objective, or scientific, outlook with the rise of speculation and the rejection of faith. In the case of sin, we have come to think about it in a subjective way and have completely lost sight of the objectivity with which it was once understood. It was once considered to be a disruption of the objective nature of things and a blindness to the truth. Original justice was defined as order and original sin as disorder, or a rebellion against the cosmic hierarchy.
If there is to be a restoration of the qualitative differences that make up our diverse natures; if liberalism’s right to nothing is to be overcome in favour of the right of all to everything - a vertical order that is a reflection of the cosmic order will have to be restored. Kierkegaard’s point was that this could not happen until despair, or sin, was rejected and its opposite, faith, asserted. In other words, alternatives to liberalism must have a transcendent dimension.
*Quotes taken from Provocations, Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard, compiled and edited by Charles E. Moore, Plough Publishing, Copyright 2002
**Simon D Podmore, Kierkegaard and the Self Before God: Anatomy of the Abyss, 2011, Indiana University Press, p.23.