Such is modern man’s depth of despair, that relating to the thought of individuals who led lives in the pre-Enlightenment is almost impossible.
Unlike the modern individual, traditional man felt no compulsion to flee to the crowd, to Das Man, but rather underwent submersion in the deeper vein of his will, which related to the very mystery of his own existential being. This was a self-understanding of being that emerged against a foil of socio-political and religious certainties, caste certainties. Being was revealed as truth to the individual who remained open and alert to the emergence of being. Open, because not distracted. Not distracted, because the certainties and environment of the individual’s caste provided the milieu in which the individual could be true to being. The inherited social function was of secondary importance. No object or function could be considered superior or inferior to another. No-one was led by a sense of injustice or ambition to better themselves, or seek to be distinguished through recognition or social approval. ‘True difference’, wrote Evola, ‘was rather given by the way in which the object or function was lived out. The earthly way, inspired by utilitarianism or greed (sakama-Kama), was contrasted with the heavenly way of the one who acts without concern for the consequences and for the sake of the action itself (niskama-kama), and who transforms every action into a rite and into an “offering”’ (94).
Life lived as a rite and offering was life led for another world, not this world. Traditional man’s freedom from this world is to be contrasted with modern meritocracies, where the striving of the individual to be materially different, whether for honour, reward or survival, has led toa world of increasing sameness, uniformity and conformity. The individualism of modernity has led to moral relativism, in which all judgements are from the perspective of the individual. Where there is no reality other than the individual’s, society loses contact with being and, by default, with truth.
So blinkered down a path of worldly achievement is modern man that it is often not until the very point of death that all the distractions, ambitions, aspirations and flight to Das Man cease to have there analgesic effect and man wakes to the truth of being. Martin Heidegger wrote of this very moment in his History and the Concept of Time, the dread of death - the point of death when the individual, Dasein, is exposed as what it really is. Heidegger writes, ‘there is thus the possibility, in the very moment of departing from the world, so to speak, when the world has nothing more to say to us and every other has nothing more to say, that the world and our being-in-it show themselves purely and simply.’ The flight of Dasein from itself has to end. At the point of death Dasein has no choice but to confront itself. Dasein sees itself in all its nakedness. In this we are reminded of the words from Job 1:21, "Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked I will depart. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised." At the point of death, flight is no longer an option. The difference between modern and traditional man is that the latter never thought it was in the first place.
At the end of the History of the Concept of Time, Heidegger moved into an exploration of death. With regard to death, Dasein achieves a type of wholeness. When a tool is finished, it becomes available for use. When a Dasein is finished, it ceases to be in the world. Heidegger believed that each individual Dasein had to come to terms with this fact of the annihilation of being by itself.
Das Man, the crowd, tries, during the lifetime of Dasein, to steal authenticity away by covering up death with platitudes such as, ‘well everyone dies’. ‘Everyone dies’, in this context, is about offering the delusion that no one dies. In giving in to that way of thinking, das Man covers up the authenticity of death.
The idea of not being in the world, Heidegger argues, is something that Dasein has to wrestle with before arriving at the realisation that death is always an imminent possibility, always there before Dasein, the ever-present fact that never goes away. It constitutes the totality of Dasein right from the start. It shows to Dasein its being-in-the-world purely and simply. Out of the struggle with this realisation can come the the drive for the creation of an authentic life that will truly differentiate Dasein from das Man, the one from the everyone.
So death is the single most important thing that motivates Dasein, just as it has been the underlying motivating factor of all the higher cultures throughout history and pre-history. Most of the archaeological remains of the earliest cultures are associated with death. Be it the Egyptians with their cult of mummification, or the Hindus with their ceremonial burning of the dead, each civilisation centres on an agreed ceremonial mode of the disposal of the dead. Looking back to the Paleolithic era, it is the burial site that is associated with the very beginnings of human culture. One is tempted to say in the light of Heidegger’s work that the life led by Stone Age man was a much more authentic one than the life led by das Man.
Despite the utter futility of striving to be materially different in a world that ruthlessly imposes commiditisation,uniformity and conformity, a self-perception of individuality often survives to the end of life. I am reminded of a most hideous manifestation of this in crematoria up and down the land, where families and friends celebrate the defiant departed’s individualism by playing a trashy pop song favourite of the loved one as the curtain closes on the coffin. This is the pitiful defiance of a Don Giovani, foisted upon the dead by the ignorant and fearful survivors. It is the continued flight to Das Man of those who remain, and Das Man’s pursuit of the dead beyond the grave to an eternal inauthenticity, analogous with Hell.
Any celebration of meritocratic achievement in reality masks a terror born of the shifting sands of moral relativism, in which all judgements are from the individual’s perspective. The individual is alone in the immensity of the cosmos without a moral compass. Being is literally crowded out of consciousness and the very being in human is lost as a result. Authenticity is lost; truth is lost.
© John Dunn.