St. Augustine and Heidegger

Written by Scott Maxwell : August 4, 2008

St. Augustine once wrote that he was a mystery even to himself. He goes on to say, that we exist in a fluctuation of concealment and unconcealment. As humans we understand our selves or Dasein only in moments of clarity. This moment of clarity is for Augustine the idea of God. We can turn away or towards this idea in a Kerkegaardian ‘leap of faith’. Even in Heidegger we see this idea secularized with the taint of his theology training. Man is constantly in turmoil in his existence. Existence is this idea of how we self interpret ourselves. Only through self interpretation do we exist as we find ourselves, and often described in facticity, such as I am male, white, American. Can dasein find itself without negating itself?

Our self-interpretation is who we decide or even pretend to be. As Shakespeare said quite poetically “The world is a stage, and we are merely players”. When our role becomes something different than we have prefigured for it, we begin to contemplate our existence which causes the existential angst depicted so well in the now famous painting by Edward Munch (Scream). Martin Heidegger coined the term life in historical facticity which I find absolutely fascinating because it explains that we can only decide to be something that historically makes sense in our throwness in this particular epoch.

For instance, Christ could only be the Christ in the particular epoch in which he became incarnated, or we could say he would have only been recognized as Christ (the anointed). In any other historical time, Christ could have been branded a witch (a practitioner of magik), a lunatic, and yes even a terrorist. To actually try to get into the ontology of Christ is not my intention in this short piece, but it seems this would be quite interesting.

Getting back to Augustine for a bit, and then heading back to Heidegger, we see in Augustine this idea that we must become face to face with ourselves. We need to go beyond our memories and our everydayness in order to come to the stark reality that we are not truly at home within ourselves. Augustine states “There was no way to flee from myself”. Heidegger states the same when he invokes us to begin thinking, to go beyond Plato and the Greek understanding of metaphysics, Heidegger states “we are not yet thinking”. He states this, because we are only thinking on a cursory or superficial level. We need to think of ourselves thinking or off the map of our minds in a regress of sorts in order to get beyond the factical self. The map is proverbial, but only because I have not gotten into the topological aspect of some kind of Badiouian Set Theory.

Heidegger moves on from there, and relates the entire problem with death. The true problem is our relation with death. Our struggle is an existential struggle which is always a reminder that as finite creatures we will perish. This is why in Tibetan Buddhism, they have such an intimacy with death. To meditate on death is to defeat it, and to welcome it as a new journey. (Helps that they believe in the returning of conscious experience in another form).

Even in Augustine, his entire Confessions is a literary journey of the will. The will chases after everything it desires, but in Augustine and even in Lacan the will is nothing but a symptom. To chase after desire is an exercise in futility, because nothing on earth will satisfy the lack.

(title pic courtesy of Simon Grossi)

Author Bio:: Scott Maxwell is a writer who focuses on Marx, Religion, Ontology, to describe the reality that is no longer visible to a species that has separated itself.

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Viewing 7 Comments

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    I'm pretty sure I understood each individual sentence, but I'm not sure I grasp what the overall intent of the article is. Sorry, Scott, can you help?
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    Thanks for this. I fear this post will get overlooked in the (admittedly sexier and more accessible) discussion on "The Style of Subversion", but I think the two posts are more related than might meet the eye, since both deal with the contradictions of identity construction.

    Your penultimate paragraph raises a couple of questions: One, have you read any Ernest Becker (particularly Denial of Death)? His work as an anthropologist took something like Heidegger's speculation on death as a starting point for assessing human behavior, particularly human violence. Dan Liechty's Reflecting on Faith in a Post-Christian Time connects Becker's work with the idea of the fetish for an interesting perspective on Christian origins.

    Two, you mention the Tibetan Buddhist expectation of ongoing consciousness, but what about conventional Christian understandings of the afterlife? Or St. Benedict's reminder to his monks to contemplate their own death? I bring these up not to scold you for leaving them out, but to ponder: what are the similarities? Or the differences? Do you ever wonder why the Tibetan Book of the Dead is so full of explicit detail of the postmortem experience of consciousness (if indeed that's what it is about) while the Bible has very little arcane information on such things (depending, I suppose, on how you read it)?

    Those, at least, are questions that come to mind.

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    The fear, or lack of fear, of death does speak volumes. Having grown up influenced by 'goth' culture, and having dealt directly with death on a few occasions, I am ok with it for the most part. But for many people, my wife included, any frank discussion of death or mortality comes across as uncomfortable and morbid.

    I think that may be a cultural artifact, but it has personal implications.

    Thanks for the expansion Ted...Scott, it just took a couple reads, sorry about the confusion yesterday.
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    I'm not sure how much I expanded -- I mostly riffed on something that was probably not the main point. Scott is way ahead of me in continental philosophy.
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    But you gave me the hook to connect to Scott's piece. So for that I thank you.
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    In fact, Jesus was branded as witch, lunatic, and even terrorist.

    Very interesting article. I hope to start reading Heidegger in a not so long time
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    Sorry it took me so long to respond to some of the comments made on this article. I actually didn't even think about the response aspect of adding content to the web. Ted, thank you so much for adding a reference to Becker's very interesting book The Denial of Death. I read that quite some time ago, but it fits so well with what I wrote here. Also a book written by Stephen Mulhall titled Philosophical Myths of the Fall.
    Sorry it took me so long to respond to some of the comments made on this article. I actually didn't even think about the response aspect of adding content to the web. Ted, thank you so much for adding a reference to Becker's very interesting book The Denial of Death. I read that quite some time ago, but it fits so well with what I wrote here. Also a book written by Stephen Mulhall titled Philosophical Myths of the Fall.

    The Denial of Death is interesting and related because in my article I tried to show the similarities between Heidegger's thought and Augustine's in relation to the existential being toward death that finite creatures must struggle with. In this struggle, the self must self reference itself to ask the great questions of life: "Who am I?", "What do I want to be, or become?" The Christian response articulated by Augustine, is of course, I am a Christian, a follower of Christ. (Nicene Creed) I choose my identity, not because this is my nature, but because I must make that 'leap of faith' in the Danish philosopher's words Soren Kerkegaard. Once I choose to be a Christian then I choose a kenotic transformation of sorts.

    The second point quickly, is the book by Mulhall. Mulhall basically takes the idea of the Fall in the Garden as a lens in order to understand what Wittgenstein and Heidegger were up to. They were up to no less than understanding this idea of 'Original sin' and how man sets out to over come this blemish on their ontological being. In essence man is tainted with only a cursory understanding of themselves because Adam and Eve's eyes were open to full ontological disclosure until they BOTH moved away from God by not following his words without complete self emptying (kenosis).


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