The Meaning of Life02-24-2012
Three weeks into my seminar on Martin Heidegger's "Letter on Humanism," I am once again at that moment when the students are simultaneously exasperated and thrilled by the audacity of Heidegger's thinking. There is the confusion caused by Heidegger's re-fashioning of words and his insistence that basic concepts like "person" and "essence" are the products of a stale metaphysical language that hide more than they conceal. One senses as well, the joyful anticipation in the first glimpses of the power of sentences like: Being "is" not, and the being (Sein) of beings (Seiendes) is not itself a being (Seiende.).
Heidegger focuses relentlessly on human being, the being who can ask the question: "Who am I?" At our most vigorous, we human beings are characterized by our ability to think about ourselves in relation to the meaningfulness of our truth, to the truth understood not as one particular truth, but as that which gathers and calls us to be whom we most properly are. He does not tell us what we most properly are. Rather, he shows us that we are the beings who can live meaningfully in the world. We can give our existence and our world meaning.
Nietzsche had said that all human suffering is bearable if we can believe it has meaning. Religion gives suffering meaning by claiming that suffering faithfully in this world will bring us to heaven. Science gives suffering meaning, in its insistence that there is nothing that happens without a reason—so that all things, even the most awful—are part of the reason of the cosmos (secularly speaking). Mankind can endure all sufferings, so long as he believes it has meaning. The great danger of nihilism—the loss of belief in the highest values—is that we lose faith in either religion or science as guarantors of the meaningfulness of human suffering.
The political danger of nihilism is that human life loses its meaning. All sorts of killings, suicide bombings, and genocides are thereby justifiable in the service of any political project. Without a living sense of meaning, life is cheap, and human destruction can be sought in the name of any and every political or economic goal.
As the dominant contemporary response to the dangers of nihilism, human rights holds that human beings have dignity as living beings. Above all, we must be kept alive. But what is more, we must be treated with a certain basic dignity. Just like chickens, we should neither be killed nor penned up and force-fed. Like dogs we deserve basic health and love. And like dolphins and whales, we should not be indiscriminately killed.
Heidegger, like his student Hannah Arendt, insists that the response to nihilism that insists on the rights of human beings to live well with a certain basic dignity makes the tragic mistake of blurring the difference between humans and animals. The human rights community focuses on the right to life and the right to be fed and be clothed. It sometimes even insists on the right to housing and the right to a job. But all of these human rights are directed at our animality, the fact that the human being is a kind of living animal. This is of course true. And yet, human rights are the rights of man as animals. These rights do not name or protect human beings. The fight for human rights can, therefore, turn our attention towards preserving humans in their animality even as it covers over what is most meaningful about human being itself.
So what is the meaningfulness of human life? Heidegger develops his answer over his writing life, but his first effort to do so is in Being and Time, the most influential and important book of philosophy written during the 20th century. Being and Time is a difficult book. It is also unfinished. And Heidegger abandoned its ultimate project shortly after it was published. And yet, it remains one of the greatest works in the history of thinking.
Many commentaries have sought to help students through Being and Time. But Simon Critchley has done something no one else even thought possible. He has given a clear and simple account of the impact of Being and Time in five short columns for the British newspaper, The Guardian. While these columns are necessarily pithy, they are in my mind the best introduction to Being and Time.
In his first column, Critchley writes:
That said, the basic idea of Being and Time is extremely simple: being is time. That is, what it means for a human being to be is to exist temporally in the stretch between birth and death. Being is time and time is finite, it comes to an end with our death. Therefore, if we want to understand what it means to be an authentic human being, then it is essential that we constantly project our lives onto the horizon of our death, what Heidegger calls "being-towards-death".
Such brevity will lead, no doubt to compromises. In this quote, for example, Being is used in multiple senses, but what is really at issue in Being and Time is the being of human being. In Heidegger's later work, that focus on the being of human being will come eventually to turn human beings away from human beings and towards being itself. That strikes many as anti-human. But as Heidegger insists, it is not inhuman, and it is driven by a profound humanity.
For one seeking a way into Heidegger's greatest book, Critchley's five-part introduction is a great place to start. You can read the first part of Critchley's account here.