Heidegger’s Fear of Death
By Ljubodrag Duci Simonović
In his endeavors to confront man as a libertarian being and emancipated citizen, Heidegger imputes a fear of death to man as the basis for his tragic existence. If man’s relation to existence derives from his own immediate experience, then the basis for his authentic existence is not a fear of death, but his experience of life. Death is merely an abstraction for man as long as he is not directly faced with it. Man can only reflect on death; he cannot “live” it.
A fear of death does not derive from the experience of death, but from the experience of life. Since Heidegger does not postulate thinking, but rather experience, as the basis for determining authentic existence, the basis for authentic existence in Heidegger is also not a fear of death, but a fear of loss of life. Man, therefore, has no need of a Being that would enable him to conquer his fear of death through an illusion of “eternal life”; he has need of life and, thus, of people with whom he can fight for his life and for humanity’s survival.
In order for man to experience his mortality in a tragic way, he must have a need to live and a vision of the kind of life that can satisfy that need. Rather than death, the basis of a tragic existence is the kind of life that does not enable man to realize his humanness, which means to becaming a human being. Tragicality does not appear in the relation with an “eternal” heavenly life, but in relation to the actual possibilities of man becoming a human being in this earthly existence, which involves faith in a humane world and a fight for such a world.
Tragicality does not have a fatal character. Man can abolish his tragic existence if he changes the life he lives, which means, if he abolishes capitalism and creates a world that will be the expression of his authentic human powers as a social and visionary being. With respect to that, man is willing to risk his life to prevent global destruction and create a world where people will be safe and free.
Instead of being based on a fear of death, life should be based on a faith in life. Not a fear of death, but a joy of living should be the pivot of man’s entire existence. By his insistence on a lonely individual’s fear of death, Heidegger deprived man of the joy of life and human warmth. He reduced man to a walking corpse.
Interestingly, in spite of being a great “magician” with words, Heidegger calls man a “mortal”, but it does not occur to him that, presupposing man as a living being, he might call him a “living-being”. Indeed, man is a living being in his role as a life-creating being. Not only is he a living-being, he is also a life-creating being.
Death and man's relation to death have a historical nature. Fears faced by man, just as the very nature of fearing, are historically conditioned. Modern man's existence and his perception of this existence are essentially different from those of the Ancient Greeks, and, by the same token, death and modern man's perception of death are essentially different from those of Ancient man. Modern man experiences fear in an essentially different way from his Ancient counterpart, and, consequently, his response to fear is essentially different. Traditionally, man perceived and experienced the world as a divine givenness and all that befell him as the product of a divine will. Hence he did not have an atavistic-changing, but rather a passive-submissive relationship to the world. A confrontation with that fear was manifested in the form of a submissive relation to divinities.
Thanks to the development of his cognitive and creative capabilities, modern man perceives and experiences himself as the creator of the world and hence perceives and experiences the world as his own creation. This is what his fear of death is based on. Rather than kneeling before gods, man confronts death through his understanding of the concrete nature of fear and by eradicating the underlying causes thereof. Instead of a religious-submissive consciousness, the dominant consciousness is active and changing, and is shaped into a libertarian-changing practice based on man’s life-creating capabilities as an emancipated natural and social being.
Modern man, as a self-conscious historical being, can relate to the Ancient world and can understand his relation to the fear of death as a specific, historically conditioned relation. While for Ancient man there is no future, but only an idealised past, modern man perceives his existence and death relative to a future expressed in the idea of progress, meaning that he relates to death in the context of the emancipatory potential created in modern society, a possibility for the realization of a new world.
The abolishment of a speculative mediation between man and his existence abolishes the possibility of his critical-changing relation to the world, and reduces him to a non-human. The abolishment of thought as a mediator between man and his existence leads to man relating to his existence through a world that devalues him as a human being. “A need for God”, for suffering, a fear of death instead of a joy of life – these are all psychological responses of a man deprived by capitalism of his libertarian and creative dignity, of an authentic sociability and thus an authentic humanness.
The ruling order, which conditions the nature of the world, has objectified man, who is to experience his existence without posing the question of the true human beingness, which is the basic postulate for the evolvement of the critical and visionary consciousness that will enable the creation of a world where man will bring to life his humanness. The ruling order insists on the abolishment of man’s reflective relation to his existence and the creation of the ideal of human-beingness man should strive for, imposing at the same time a philosophy that becomes the basis for man’s self-perception and a mediator between man and his existence. This philosophy springs from a world where a human is reduced to a non-human.
A typical example can be found in Kierkegaard’s thought. His philosophy is that of a desperate man, doomed by capitalism to solitary hopelessness. As a victim of capitalism, Kierkegaard seeks the meaning of life in a spiritual sphere deriving from his solitary misery. His philosophy is not based on reason, but on unreasonableness. “A need for God” is the product of the spiritual desolation created by capitalism and not a reasonable response to man’s suffering. “God” is the product of a desparete man’s imagination, one who cannot bring his humanness to life in the existing world. Kierkegaard’s philosophy does not purport to abolish the world that produces a miserable man; it rather builds a stairway beyond the clouds. And when the clouds disperse, man faces utter emptiness ruled by absolute nothingness.
Heidegger bases his notion of the tragic on man having an existential fear. Instead of pointing out concrete social causes of this existential fear, Heidegger imputes to man a fear of death, which becomes a projected sublimation of the concrete existential fear experienced by man on a daily basis. The existential fear in the contemporary world, however, springs not from a fear of death, but from a fear of capitalism. With capitalism’s increasingly ruthless confrontation with people and nature, the fear of capitalism has an increasingly devastating effect on man and leads to disastrous forms of social pathology.
The fear of losing the basic means of survival is a “Sword of Damocles” hovering over the heads of people whose livelihoods depend on their work and is the most important instrument in guaranteeing people’s submission. In developed capitalist countries, a majority of people live in debt slavery and in fear that they will not be able to pay off their loan and that their family will end up in the street or in prison. Every year, hundreds of thousands of people commit suicide because they cannot repay their debts.
In contemporary capitalism, man has a concern with a specific historical character: a concern over the survival of life on the planet and thus a concern over the survival of humankind. This concern is a product of capitalism and, with the growing destruction of life, it acquires an increasingly dramatical character. If humankind does not stamp out capitalism in due course, if it does not establish a production aimed at satisfying genuine human needs and does not start treating nature in a more rational way, this concern will turn into an existential panic, which, after a possible nuclear devastation, will reduce the world to an ash heap.
Since death is inevitable, Heidegger placed the tragic into a sphere beyond man as a libertarian and creative being. Man has no other option but to resign to his tragic existence and resort to illusions which are meant to compensate for his tragic life. Hence the need for the metaphysical as an active mediator between man’s “temporary” earthly existence and the “eternal” heavenly world. When man’s life is reduced to meaningless suffering, then the fear of death turns into faith in “eternal life”, producing a religious imagination that breeds illusory worlds.
By abolishing man’s rational relation to his existence and by reducing man’s relation to his existence to its experience, Heidegger separated the existence of man from the existence of humankind, creating the possibility for man to perceive his existence regardless of what is befalling humankind – i.e., to become an abstract being and in an abstract manner. For man’s existence to be concrete, it must be viewed in terms of the concrete existential situation in which the world finds itself. In other words, man’s existence is inseparably bound up with the existence of the world. If man is to experience his concrete existence, he has to have an idea of the existential prospects of humankind.
A starting point for people’s mutual struggle against capitalism should not be a fear of death, but the growing destruction of life on the planet and the resulting concern for global survival. By becoming a totalitarian and global order of destruction, capitalism has placed all people on the planet in the same existential situation. We are all sailing on a ship heading for an abyss – regardless of our way of life and the way in which we relate to human and humankind’s existence. If man is not capable of reasonably assessing the increasingly dramatic existential situation brought about by capitalism, his relation to his existence will be based on a mental state leading to escapism and madness.
The euphory of consumerism is the most widespread and the most devastating form of escapism from humanity's concrete existential situation. This escapism actually comes down to man's cooperation in global destruction. It represents the most direct embodiment of the destructive spirit of capitalism. This escapism from destruction produces the destruction of man as a destructive being.
Death is not necessarily the source of tragicality. A fear of death is but one possible way in which man relates to death. The nature of one's relation to death is conditioned by the nature of one's life: the experience of death is conditioned by the experience of life. For a man who gambled away his life – death is the worst punishment; for a man who lives in hopeless misery – death is salvation; for a man who had a rich and creative life – death is a deserved
In Heidegger, man does not have a conscious relation to death. Actually, a conscious relation to death and man's sociability are the basic presuppositions of a fear of death. Tragicality is possible from the very moment man becomes aware of his mortality. A child is not aware that he/she will die, nor is an animal. They cannot have a tragic existence. On the other hand, man can have a fear of death only as a social being. Man cannot experience his death, he acquires an idea of his (human) mortality only through the death of another human being.
Heidegger abolishes man's emancipated (reasonable) relation to death because such a relation questions the idea of the tragicality of human existence on which his philosophy is based. Death is the basic presupposition of the totality of human activism. Without death, there can be no wish or will to live. If man were immortal, life would be absolutely meaningless. A happy life is possible precisely because of its finitude. An „eternal life“ is the greatest curse.
As did Christian theologists, Heidegger imputed to man a fear of death. Death, by itself, is not the source of the tragic; it becomes such only if it involves man’s vanishing. Although this is implied by Heidegger‘s thought, eternity is not assured through man’s creative practice as a social and historical being, but through co-existence with Being.
A fear of vanishing means that man fears he will fall into oblivion after death, which actually means that his life devalues him to such an extent that it is not worth mentioning. A worthless life makes man a worthless being. This devalued life wipes man from human memory by preventing him from leaving behind any legacy through which he might be remembered. He does not vanish as a human being, but as an individual who failed to become a human being. Death is tragical in so far as it finally deprives a man of the possibility of becoming human. By depriving him of life, death deprives man of the possibility to realize his humanness.
Those who are not capable of a great achievement in their lifetime will mark their lives by means of the grave. For a man who did not leave a trace behind him, the grave becomes the only proof of his previous existence. The grave is a life turned into stone. A destroyed man appears in the form of indestructible stone. The grave is not a trace of the joy of life. It is a stony misery
As long as we remember our ancestors and respect their legacy – theyare alive. As long as their creativeness permeates our life – they are alive. As long as their libertarian struggle inspires us to fight on – they are alive. As long as our noble ancestors can be discerned in our grandchildren – they are alive. As long as a tear appears in our eye when we look at a family photograph and see the caring look in the eyes of our dear parents – they are alive...
Not only does Heidegger not make a distinction between death and vanishing, he does not make a distinction between death and destruction, either. What faces modern man as a concrete, natural, historical and social being, is not just a fear of death, but a fear of the destruction of humanity and all life on the Earth. Man is scared of a possible nuclear war; he fears climate change; he fears viruses that might wipe out humanity; he fears fanatics ready to kill billions of people. Instead of imaginary fears based on religious illusions, he has real fears produced by capitalism.
With capitalism becoming a totalitarian destructive order, man's creative potential has turned into a destructive power in the form of science and technology. Instead of enabling man to provide for his existence and further develop his creative potential, science and technology, misused by capitalism, have become tools for global destruction and, as such, are a means for the production of an existential fear that is slowly becoming an existential panic.
By abolishing man as a social being, Heidegger overlooked the fact that what makes man human is his responsibility for the lives of others. An atomized man lacks the most vital life forces: love and respect. As a human being, he has nothing to lose as he is deprived of the very thing that makes him human. Man is not miserable because he is mortal, but because he is discarded as a human being and cannot realize his humanness as a social being. This moment is dominant in Kierkegaard: despair over being discarded. His tragic thought is the hopeless cry of a desperate man lost in the icy land of capitalist nothingness. It should be pointed out here that truth is not to be found in philosophy, science, art and religion, but in the eyes of a child begging for help.
By reducing man to an abstract being and by abolishing reason as a mediator between man and his existence, Heidegger abolishes man as a valuable being. Man’s tragicality in capitalism is based on his evaluating himself through a value model that depreciates him as a human being and on his attempts to provide for his existence through an existential sphere that calls into question the very survival of humanity and nature. If we consider the nature of man’s existence as a concrete historical (social) being, which is the concrete existence of man in capitalism, then man’s very existence has an anti-existential character.
Heidegger’s accounts of man’s tragic existence lead us to the conclusion that a “happy life” in a miserable world is but a fake existence, specifically, an existence based on lies. Only by way of experiencing the tragic existence can man set out to find a way out of everyday nothingness – instead of resorting to the destructive hedonism offered by capitalism in the form of “consumer society”. However, Heidegger deprives man of faith in a happy life and thus of any possibility of happiness. A fear of death is deeply set in man’s soul and prevents him from being happy. The anxiety created by the fear of death is a primary effect on how man experiences his existence. Instead of the joy of life, the fear of death becomes the basis of human self-recognition. Striving for a happy life leads to the oblivion of death and thus to the obliviation of Being.
For Heidegger, the true source of anxiety is death, rather than slavery, oppression, humiliation, increasingly threatened life, lack of love and respect, lack of possibility for man to realize himself as a creative and social being … Everything that shows the anti-libertarian, oppressive, exploitive and destructive nature of capitalism is removed from the scene. The reduction of man’s authentic existence to a fear of death and strivings for Being serves Heidegger by doing away with the peculiar human qualities that make man a libertarian and creative being.
The tragic existence based on a fear of death becomes a non-historical existence and as such an abolishment of history and man as a historical being. By declaring the fear of death the basis of human tragic existence, Heidegger reduces man’s tragicality to a non-historical givenness. The meaning of the tragic as a concrete historical phenomenon can be determined only relative to the concrete historical (social) possibilities of overcoming the tragic, which are based on the emancipatory legacy and life-creating potential of people as social beings.
If Heidegger’s notion of the tragic is viewed in the context of the ever more dramatic destruction of the world, it has an anti-existential character. Heidegger separates man’s existence from the tendency in the development of capitalism toward a destructive totalitarian order and, in that context, from the existence of humanity and nature in a life-creating totality. In view of the existential plight created by capitalism, the most important task before man is not to provide eternal life for the individual by way of an illusory heavenly realm, but to secure humanity’s survival by preserving the earthly life-reating sphere. The indisputable point of departure for the experience of human existence is not an abstract “Being”, but nature as a life-creating entirety. Nature as a life-creating entirety and man as an emancipated natural being and the organic part of nature as a life-creating entirety – this is the basis of human existence.
By becoming a destructive totalitarian order, capitalism compels man directly to confront the increasing threat of destruction. The capitalist tsunami has swept through all doors. The smell of death is all around. No longer does man need science or philosophy to be aware of his dramatic existential situation. Man relates to his existence by experiencing it immediately as a growing threat to life on this planet. By becoming a global order of destruction, capitalism has abolished the duality between individual and common interests – between the existential interest of an individual and the existential interest of humanity. By increasingly threatening life on the Earth, capitalism threatens the life of the individual and at the same time the life of the whole of humanity. This is potentially the most important integrative link enabling humanity to unite and become a force capable of destroying capitalism.
It is up to us to initiate this vital historical turn. Instead of a cult of death, we should build a cult of life. Similarly to religious fanatics, guided by the idea of apocalypse, the ideologists of capitalism are creating an existential defeatism and, through an increasingly aggressive production of illusions, offering virtual cosmic worlds as the spaces for humanity’s future existence. The idea of eternity must be brought back from the illusory “worlds” and the vastness of the universe and placed within the framework of our earthly life. People should become aware that the Earth is our only home and the only place in the universe that gives us a chance to survive. This awareness should be the impetus for a will to fight for survival and thereby secure the future of humanity
Translated from Serbian by Vesna Todorović (Petrović)
English translation supervisor Mick Collins
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