Translating Heidegger is a dubious venture, and it is best to read the German. The present volume attempts to overcome the difficulties of translation with only varying success. Even Professor Krell’s glossary of key terms, while useful, is no substitute for the original text.
At the beginning of his analysis, Professor Krell cites Hölderlin’s Hyperion (I:1) to indicate the problem of communicating Nietzsche’s atheism or nihilism:
O you hapless creatures, who feel it but who are loath to speak of what defines man; you who are transfixed with the nothing that governs us; you who thoroughly comprehend that we are born for nothing, that we love a nothing, believe in the nothing, toil away for nothing, in order gradually to pass over into the nothing – what can I do to prevent you from collapsing when you contemplate it in earnest?. . . When I gaze into life what is the end of it all? Nothing! When my spirit ascends what is the highest height of all? Nothing! (pp. 253-54)
Nothing better illustrates the difficulty, indeed the impossibility, of community or communication, created by Nietzsche’s realization that God is dead, that reality is nothing.
I have already elaborated on this impossibility elsewhere (“Nietzsche,” Ultimate Reality and Meaning, December, 1982, pp. 280-95), but I will summarize that earlier analysis for the purposes of this review. Heidegger rightly interprets Nietzsche’s atheism or nihilism: Nothing—and only nothing—exists to endow anything with a nonarbitrary being, a being not subject to radical change into anything else, or into nothing, at any moment: God is dead! This arbitrary, meaningless change can be spontaneous as in Kafka’s Metamorphosis, or induced either technologically through the sciences, or creatively through the humanities. In any case, atheist life is much—or little—ado about nothing.
Sharing the desperation expressed in the Hölderlin quotation above, Nietzsche could not leave it at nothing. Like most men, he was unable or unwilling to accept reality for what it unfortunately is. His determination to give life a value was frustrated by its inherent nothingness. He was thus compelled to invent a notion of reality, an unconscious noble lie, capable of conquering that void: The superman’s will to power is the will to overpower reality’s nothingness. It wills the eternal return of its will to overcome reality, to conquer nature in the way of the modern science of Bacon and Descartes. Heidegger interprets this willing as the culmination, not only of modern science, but of Platonic metaphysics. The history of metaphysics or science since Plato is the history of the nihilist consequences of Being’s abandonment of thought. Being itself compels thought to forget Being, and thus to think nihilistically. The culmination of this abandonment and forgetfulness is Nietzsche’s affirmation of aimless will—of the will to will, which, in reality, is nothing desperately willing to be more-than-nothing.
The superman’s willing eternal aimlessness (“homelessness as such,” p. 287) is the real meaning of Plato’s Good. Plato’s Good, or rather, idea of the good, makes human life matter, preserving it from chaos or nonbeing. Nietzsche rightly viewed it as Plato’s “god,” his illusory refuge from reality’s inherent emptiness. What was still naively accepted illusion in Plato becomes for Nietzsche conscious, fanatic will to overcome reality’s nihilism, however impossible the enterprise. Nietzsche’s and Hölderlin’s desperation, their cry from the abyss, seems insane on the naive horizon of classical-medieval thought, which buttresses its commonsense faith by recourse to the Good or to God. This faith convinced its adherents that their selves and the world (that is, all the beings) had a rational, nonarbitrary being. Their faith was sparked by the same desperate divination of reality’s nothingness that lies beneath Nietzsche’s nihilist will to overcome nihilism.
The increasing awareness of man’s desperate condition is the historical experience of Being’s abandonment of man. Being has turned away from the thought of the great thinkers from Plato to Nietzsche. It is the history of the ever more desperate resolve to secure justice, man’s moral-political life, in the face of what is experienced as reality’s nothingness. With history’s Nietzschean fulfillment, all ideas and ideals, the heart of moral-political life, are experienced as empty representations or concepts, cowardly efforts to hide life’s emptiness from oneself. All willing, as Schopenhauer and his student, Wagner, had noted, is futile. Will shrinks “from not willing. . . . This horror (Schrecken) at the emptiness of not willing—this horror vacui—is the fundamental fact of the human will” (p. 31). The result, after the Nietzschean culmination has been frantic will to will or, in more trivial or academic terms, fanatic commitment to technology (sciences) and creativity (humanities).
The fear of reality’s nothingness is responsible for this frantic contemporary plunge into technology and creativity. Heidegger believes that it prevents Nietzsche, the culmination of that desperation, from even raising the question of Being seriously. Heidegger sees his own job as the struggle to raise this question. He insists that nobody else has understood this struggle or has participated in it meaningfully since the clarion call of Being and Time (1927). He attributes this lack to the forgetting of Being induced by Being itself. This forgetting creates the necessity to experience Being as Nothing.
Unlike Plato’s good or the Biblical God or Nietzsche’s superman, Heidegger’s Being is no attempt to secure human life and thought against nihilism. Being is no help or comfort in guiding ordinary, commonsense, moral-political life. Being’s lack of “anthropological” or “psychological” concern is repellent to most men, especially those who have at least divined the grounds of Nietzsche’s radically atheist will to will at any cost. Heidegger’s Being, especially in its contemporary historical estrangement from thought, offers no more hope or consolation than the nihilist reality dreaded by Nietzsche and Hölderlin. Nietzsche’s desperate hope for a superman springs from the drive to deny reality’s nihilism, to conquer nature, whatever the consequences. Incidentally this desperation links Nietzsche and Heidegger far more closely to fanatic Nazis and Communists than Professors Krell or Kaufmann realize (pp. 264-76). I have explored this link in “Politics or Nothing! Nazism’s Origin in Scientific Contempt for Politics” (to be published in The Journal of Value Inquiry).
In a fragment from the time of the Zarathustra, Nietzsche notes the consequences of rejecting his desperate salvation from reality’s nothing: “My teaching is mild against those without faith in it; it has no hell or threats. Those without faith are left with an empty, flighty life in their own consciousness” (Kritische Gesamtausgabe, V.2, p. 401). In a nihilist reality, this flighty emptiness is all there is. Consequently Heidegger’s Being, however repellent or unwelcome, is no less illusory than the fascination with technology or creativity inspired by Platonic-Nietzschean nihilism.
Heidegger’s Being is an unwelcome disruption of ordinary decent moral-political life whose hallmark is unwillingness to face the Nothing which, for Heidegger, obfuscates Being. I do not know why Heidegger insists on a Being behind the Nothing. Like Nietzsche, if for different reasons, he is unwilling to acknowledge the nihilist truth promulgated by Schopenhauer and by Wagner who set Schopenhauer’s radical atheism to music. The need for a Being, however ugly or repellent, blinds Heidegger, as it blinded Plato and Nietzsche, to reality’s nothingness. To be sure, Heidegger’s Gelassenheit is no easy “letting being be”; it is an act of will, the iron determination to overpower the all-too-human need responsible for Platonic-Nietzschean “anthropology.” My quarrel with Heidegger is not with the desperation of his Gelassenheit. My sole difference is with his interpretation of the experience of the Nothing as an experience of the abandonment of thought by Being in the history of metaphysics. I see no grounds for positing any being at all!
In a nihilist universe, nothing—and only nothing!—gives anything a nonarbitrary being or identity. The insight into reality’s nihilism was as obvious to intelligent cave men as it is to intelligent men today. This insight defines intelligence, if to be intelligent means to see reality for what it is. There is no history of being because there is no being! The historicism of Nietzsche’s willed eternal return and of Heidegger’s history of Being, no less than Plato’s a-historical Good, rest upon inability to perceive that nothing exists but empty thoughts, perceptions, or experiences or, as Hume called them, impressions. This realization of reality’s emptiness generally sparks the desperation shared by Nietzsche, Heidegger, and the radical modern politics of Nazism and Communism. It is no accident that Heidegger never officially resigned from the Nazi party and, in 1953, still spoke of “the inner truth and greatness of this movement (namely, the confrontation of global technology and modern man)” (Einführung in die Metaphysik, p. 152). Radical Nazis and Communists are driven by the horror of this confrontation with nihilism (cf. “Politics or Nothing!” cited above).
Karl Löwith (Gesammelte Abhandlungen, pp. 122-23) catches this horror in his discussion of Heidegger’s Nazism:
The spirit of National Socialism was not so much concerned with the national and the social but much more with that radically private resoluteness which rejects any discussion or mutual understanding because it relies wholly and only on itself. . . . At bottom all its concepts and words are the expression of the bitter and hard resoluteness of a will asserting itself in the face of its own nothingness, a will proud of its loathing for happiness, reason and compassion.
The will to will is fanatic because it is impossible. This nothing desperately resolved to be more-than-nothing whatever the cost, and is also responsible for the trivial contemporary fascination with technology (sciences) and creativity (humanities). Nietzsche was nauseated by this global hegemony of nihilist triviality, the rule of his “Last Man.” Nietzsche and his only student, Heidegger, were thus driven to their desperate, ultimately impossible, final solutions. However opposed these solutions
are, they share the desperation inspired by the confrontation of man’s moral-political passions with nihilism, the realization that those passions are as meaningless as everything else in reality’s void. In this crucial sense, Krell (pp. 293-94) rightly
notes the appropriateness of the design of the original German volumes which “printed merely the two names heidegger and nietzsche on the spine of the books . . . no one could tell which was the author and which the title.”*
*The research for this review was assisted by a grant from the John Brown Cook Association for Freedom.