Martin Heidegger was born in Germany in 1889. He grew up to become one of the most influential philosophers of existentialism: the sphere of philosophy that questions human existence and our responsibilities as free and independent beings in the world.
In his most famous book, Being and Time, Martin Heidegger makes the claim that we are all running away from the idea of our own death, denying our own mortality, and pretending that we will live forever, even though we are all going to die.
To live a meaningful life, the existentialist believed, we must confront the fact that we will one day no longer be around. In other words, we must begin at the end, for the end is the beginning.
This is the world according to Martin Heidegger.
In the Western world, there is a cultural proclivity to hide death as soon as it happens. Bodies are whisked away into caskets or crematoriums. Funerals dress up bodies as if they are still alive – and we try to grieve quickly and move on to other facets of life. Religion makes us believe that life doesn’t end at all – but continues on – in another realm, a heaven or hell or some derivation thereof.
But this denial of death, Heidegger suggests, is the biggest mistake we can make as human beings.
One of the things that make us human is the way we can understand our -being- and thus make decisions about our lives. This makes us different to rocks and plants and other objects – that do not understand their being, nor can they do anything about it. Part of our being in the world is the fact that our being will end, and that we know of this end ahead of time.
Death is not something foreign to us, but our “own-most possibility,” as Heidegger puts it. The one thing that is bound to happen. It seems impossible to imagine: because we can only experience the events leading up to it, but not experience the aftermath. However, if we can overcome this impossibility of thought – we can attain true free will, authenticity and independence.
When we realize that each moment could be our last, and that we won’t live forever, each moment gains greater significance. Time is seen as our own, a treasure which we must spend carefully.
In modern terms, the phrase YOLO (You Only Live Once) has much the same sentiment. And indeed, the fact that this and other phrases are so widespread in our culture today shows how deeply existential philosophy has embedded itself into our way of life. The West is brimming with self-help books and literature advising people to follow their own path, live the life they want to live and ignore the pull of social conformity. These are no longer fresh ideas.
But when we run away from the idea of death, we cannot accomplish these goals. When we pretend, by omission, that we are immortal – we begin to live by social obligation and hide from our true selves.
One way of avoiding thinking about death is to adopt a new belief system or to conform. To find a way of living in the world where you don’t have to think too hard. This often involves picking people we think have discovered the “right” way to live life: be it by their beliefs, their religion, their philosophies or their actions. And then adopting those beliefs.
Heidegger compels us to realize that there is no right way to live life. The only right way is being true and authentic to yourself. When we live by considering others all the time, we become conformists or outcasts; either accepting what they say, or rejecting what they say. But in either case, we are making decisions based solely on others, rather than our own true authentic self.
By contemplating death, we become individual. How? Because we can quickly realize that no way of living, no social customs, no culture, no religion, and so on, will help us live forever. Nor will those who are telling us how to live die at the same time as us or live the exact same life as us. We are each on our own timeline, and we must make our own decisions with unique consequences within that space of time.
Death teaches us that the end is inevitable, and that every choice could be our last; that we have responsibility for the choices we make; and that our choices should be our own, rather than made by other people.
“If I take death into my life, acknowledge it, and face it squarely, I will free myself from the anxiety of death and the pettiness of life – and only then will I be free to become myself.”
If this all sounds too easy, it probably is.
There are various psychological reasons why we avoid thinking about death, and there are various social reasons why our lives are constrained in the way that they currently are. Laws and social norms are not always voluntarily followed; they are frequently enforced upon us. Furthermore, despite a philosophical position of individualistic freedom, Heidegger and other advocates of existentialism ended up being swept up in the ideologies of their time – in his case, the rise of the Nazi regime.
Heidegger became a Nazi in the 1930s and wanted to become the main philosopher of the party, using abstract theories to align with the party’s political beliefs. His personal beliefs were shocking and there is a renewed question about whether he should be erased from philosophy courses entirely. In 2014, the first in a series of ‘black notebooks’ of his were released to the public, which revealed a degree of antisemitism that was previously only conjectured.
Even if Heidegger is taken out of philosophy courses, it is very likely that his contribution to existentialism will survive. The philosophy of existentialism was prominent on both sides of World War 2, and in fact, the other famous existentialist, Jean Paul Sartre, was a meteorologist for the French army during the war and was captured in a German prison camp.
It is likely that existentialism is not itself a path to authoritarianism, but a means of individual freedom in decision-making. The problem comes in that people can still make bad decisions, even if they are free. And in fact, the premise of various laws and government structures is the belief that people will make bad decisions with their freedom.
What Heidegger and other existentialists do place an emphasis on however, is the importance of individual authentic experience in the world. The idea that each of us has a unique role to play, within the limited time we have. And that is not so much a controversial idea, as a mere statement of fact.
Fill in your email address to subscribe to future posts on New Intrigue.
Follow me on Twitter: @JoshKrook