The Later Heidegger: Philosophy, Myth, and Revelation

Most scholars of Heidegger would agree that in the works he produced, from the middle of the 1930s on, not only is there an observable shift of orientation from Dasein to Sein, but also a shift of discursive register from the rigorous phenomenological and ontological method of Being and Time (1927) to an enigmatic and oracular manner of communication that seems to signify the recrudescence of myth.

The prolific Heidegger provides numerous examples of this shift of discursive register, but perhaps the posthumously published Beiträge (Contributions to Philosophy), presumed to be written between 1936 and 1938—and regarded in some quarters as the German philosopher’s second masterpiece, and Heidegger’s numerous commentaries on the poetry of the great German Romantic poet Friedrich Hölderlin—can stand as representative. But what does it mean to talk about the return of myth or the blending of myth and philosophy? How is it even possible to gain access to a strained idiosyncratic language that for the most part seems to suspend philosophical method, refuses to traffic in logic, proceeds mainly by commentary on other thinkers, for the most part, excludes explicit statements, or when they do appear, reduce them to enigmas? What to do when the discourse is so impenetrable, so indifferent to communication, so absorbed in its own evocation and its own resonances?

These difficulties are a prompt as well as a challenge. Here I would like to explicate and clarify the oft-made suggestion that the discourse of the later Heidegger has something to do with the return of myth and the way that the return is abetted by the generation of a form of meditative or contemplative thinking beyond reason, while made possible by it. I also want to reflect on the deleterious consequences for revelation in this later discourse that both squeezes it out and/or makes it redundant by integrating a number of its key elements.

Conspicuous Elements of the Shift to Myth

Concentrating for the most part on the above-mentioned textual sites, I believe it is possible to isolate the following five elements of Heidegger’s peculiar form of primordial discourse, at once, opaque and shimmering, heavy with apparent meaning while rarely yielding it, portending hard truths yet elusively will-o-wisp.

(i) The Limning of Myth

Heidegger’s self-consciously post-metaphysical investigations come to operate significantly in a mythic register with respect to which the “Fourfold” (das Geviert) serves as summary and synecdoche. The Fourfold, constituted by two dynamic and tensional pairs, earth-sky, divine-mortal, serves as the topos or place of orientation for human beings defined by openness to the call of Being—made even more mysterious by Being (as crossed out) or replaced by the more archaic Seyn.

Of course, what Heidegger seems to recall here is a world of the sacred whose flora and fauna are subsequently described in meticulous detail by a phenomenologist of religion such as Mircea Eliade. The world of the Fourfold is a world of differences, but unlike Platonism and in contrast to Judaism and Christianity, the Fourfold does not suppose a ground of the world that is not the world: there is nothing outside the world. The plain of the world is immanent and allows for variegated experiences, predominantly horizontal, but also, without rhyme or reason, marked by vertical bulges in the economy of appearances.

(ii) Mythic Thinking as Measure

As a text such as Introduction to Metaphysics (1935) intimates, both the pre-Socratic philosophers and Greek tragedy approximate to—while not necessarily being identical with—the modality of mythic or archaic thinking to which Heidegger alludes and which he also recommends as the measure by which to evaluate and ultimately condemn the history of philosophy as the history of metaphysics, that is, the history of the fatal confusion of Being with the highest being or the ground of beings.

Heidegger’s account of the history of philosophy is essentially reductive as it plies its more or less univocal story of fall—essentially human beings fall into reason—which, nonetheless, is divided into the premodern (classical and Christian) and modern (Descartes as point of origin) regional arcs and streams. Despite the monolithic nature of the decline narrative, Heidegger also draws attention to and memorializes figures and discourses and forms of thinking that lie either prior to or to the side of such a benighted history. For example, there is Greek tragedy and the gnomic wisdom of Heraclitus in the ancient world, mystics such as Meister Eckhart and Angelus Silesius in the Christian world—with Eckhart an alternative to Aquinas and Silesius an alternative to Leibniz—and nearer to our day the great German poet Hölderlin, who stands out as an exception in the defile of modern thinking which, for Heidegger, represents the apotheosis of the Cartesian and/or epistemological turn.

At one level, Heidegger wants to speak to a beginning of genuine thinking that is historically prior to Western philosophy as founded in Plato. At another level, he wants to speak—as the Black Notebooks intimate time and again—to a beginning that is not a historical beginning, but rather an immemorial principle of thought and existence that is always a possibility, always a lure and a promise for a meditative form of thinking that has renounced the violence of reason and its objectifications.

(iii) Elevation of Hölderlin

In the post-Enlightenment field in which human beings experience the ever more pervasive deepening of productionist modes of thinking and existing, for Heidegger, it is the German poet Hölderlin who stands out as the model for an alternative form of existence, at once ecstatic and open to the deliverances of Being as event (Ereignis) that expropriates human existence for a mission that is at a slant to the grain of intention of the modern world. If the construction of Hölderlin as prophet and his discourse as a cry for prophetic disposition in a flattened world is obvious, there is no dearth of apocalyptic insinuation in Heidegger’s echoing of the German poet’s call to a different mode of responding to reality and a different mode of seeing (non-objective) and a different mode of hearing that involve the disciplines of silence and deep listening.

Obviously, it helps Heidegger’s case enormously that Hölderlin is so fixated on ancient Greece and on Pindar and Greek tragedy in particular. Each represents a mode of thinking otherwise than the philosophical tradition that was inaugurated in classical philosophy and carried forward in an epistemological register via Descartes into the modern age.

If Hölderlin represents a repetition of both lauded Greek figures, Heidegger presents himself as being a repetition of a repetition. Of course, in the case of Hölderlin and Heidegger we are not talking about repetition being exact. Repetition is non-identical. In addition, there is no causative relation between these Greek forms of thinking and the thinking of Hölderlin and Heidegger, both of which enjoy the characteristic of pure event. Heidegger displays reserve with respect to the importance of his own discourse in the alternate history that he is writing. He is, however, not simply being coy. The reserve is a function rather of the dislocation of the subject of the discourse: Heidegger no more owns the flashings of the Beiträge than Hölderliin owns his great odes and hymns. Primordial language speaks through both: both are vehicles for what is more than them.

Two things in particular should be noted. First, Heidegger makes a preventive strike against any questioning of the adequacy of his readings of Hölderlin no less than our Greek authors. His favored rhetorical strategy against judgments that he plays fast and loose with texts is that he is in the business of supplying a deep rather than superficial reading of these authors that brings out what is implicit in what is said and what is left unsaid in what is said. Second, and related to this prophylactic strategy, in speaking to the excess in subjectivity required to meet the demands of speaking reality as event, Heidegger makes clear that he is not talking simply about the kind of subjectivity enhancement that is a cliché of Romanticism. Rather he implies that he—via Hölderlin and ancient Greek thinkers—has accessed or being accessed by a source of language and wisdom that are in equal parts instructive and riddling.

Worthy of note in this later phase of Heidegger’s literary production is how the German philosopher’s elevating of Hölderlin goes hand in hand with his diminishment of the philosophical claims of Nietzsche who—albeit with a little reserve and maybe prick of conscience—is written back into the history of metaphysics.

Heidegger’s taking down of Nietzsche, at the same time that he showers Hölderlin with compliments, seems at the very least to be nervous. Maybe more, if one considers Nietzsche’s prophetic intent, his apocalyptic style, his blurring of the lines between philosophy and art, his emphasis on event and the corresponding construction of the exceptional individual proceeding on a self-sacrificial mission, his contempt for Platonism, his distaste for Judaism, and above all his account of the “death of God” and nihilism as the indelible marks of the modern age.

(iv) Christianity Under Erasure

In Heidegger’s conjugation of myth and post-metaphysical thinking in the Beiträge and his elucidations of Hölderlin the reader can hardly fail to witness the erasure of revelation. What, perhaps, is not always clear is whether the erasure consists more nearly in a substitution for Christianity by a mythic form of thought, presumed to be deeper and more capacious than it, or whether to the extent to which in Heidegger’s articulation of the Holy seems to show features of revelation such as event, prophetic mission, and eschatological expectation revelation is elided with myth.

Whatever the case, when Heidegger elevates a thinking poet—a Dichter—such as Hölderlin above all modern philosophers, and when he retrieves Sophocles and Pindar to tutor us out of our metaphysical obsession, he is convinced that he has breached the rationalistic economy that has ruined the West and that he has provided a site of resistance, even if—nihilist that he is—he holds out little hope that such a doomed economy can be repaired. Considered thus, Hölderlin’s work then has nothing to do with the German Idealist and Romantic traditions with which he is obviously engaged, nor anything to do with Christianity, whose evident lack of purchase in the modern age seems to be what urges his work into being and consistently and continually agitates it. In Heidegger’s tendentious reading of the German poet—what the literary critic Harold Bloom would call a strong reading—the underlying Christian matrix of Hölderlin’s poetry vanishes.

Throughout his manifold commentaries, Heidegger simply passes over in silence the German poet’s evocations of biblical figures as resplendent as Christ and Mary, such Christian topics as the liturgy (Bread and Wine), and such Christian forms of discourse as apocalyptic (John of Patmos). The silence is steady and studied. Heidegger essentially dares the interpreter to ignore the tension in Hölderlin’s work between his Christian and Greek allegiances on the grounds that the Greek so obviously prevails. Christianity represents nothing more than the retreating mists that the more elemental thinking and form of discourse banishes. Moreover, the silence with respect to Christianity is not simply one silence among others. It speaks to a concerted strategy, one intended to make Christianity less potent by depriving it of a voice and the prospect of answering back.

This necessarily raises the question of what accounts for the refusal. On the one hand, there is some merit to thinking of Heidegger’s reading of Hölderlin’s poetry as a dare against the literary-critical establishment, which would situate his poetry in its historical context in which the dominant discourses are Romanticism and Idealism and a dominant theme the discovery or construction of an ethos and culture that might call forth a Germany that could take its place in the modern world as an alternative to its rampant fragmentation and deracination. Here poetry, ethos, and politics are interwoven.

On the other hand, Heidegger can rely on two strategies that enable one to handle signs of the presence of Christianity that might pop up from time to time in Hölderlin’s epoch-making poetry. The first of these two strategies is determining beforehand that should signs of Christianity appear in Hölderlin’s poetry they should be read as symptoms, that is, as signs of Christianity’s blighted history that provide an incentive to “remember” (Andenken) an alternate life-giving beginning that makes possible the kind of non-calculative, non-grasping human that amounts—to use a Confucian phrase—to manhood at its best. The second and related strategy is that any evidence of the return of the repressed in Hölderlin is rightly deprived of any historical rights: Christianity, like Judaism, is an anachronism, thus ghostly or ghastly.

(v) Philosophy or Myth

The fifth and final feature of Heidegger’s recollection of myth and his conjugation of myth and philosophy in the works of the 1930s and 1940s concerns the ambiguity of the relative status of the myth and philosophy. It would be easy to think of Heidegger’s work in this period as simply involving a regression to myth. This was the judgment of Löwith and Adorno among others. Yet, this does not quite grasp the relative formality of myth as it functions in Heidegger’s texts in which a finely etched hierogramy finds a match in or is translated by a sibylline philosophical discourse that dispenses with logical reasoning.

For Heidegger in the years after Being and Time, it is a compliment to call Heraclitus’ thinking “obscure” (akinetos): it is its very obscurity that suggests its authenticity and its superiority to the philosophical in tradition in which correctness of language is elevated and in a sense reified. Crucially, there is a lack of clarity in the Beiträge and Heidegger’s commentaries on Hölderlin’s poems as to whether Heidegger is essentially saying that genuine thinking is reducible to myth or alternatively whether myth can be translated into thinking provided thinking is self-consciously post-metaphysical.

Still, no matter the line or vector of interpretation, inevitably interpretation veers in the opposite direction. Throughout the texts of the 1930s and 1940s, and especially in the Beiträge and his commentaries on his favorite German poet, we see the constant shifting: in those texts that have the look of repristination, Heidegger can also be seen to translate myth into a post-metaphysical idiom. Similarly, just when Heidegger seems to be comfortable with his newly minted post-metaphysical language of crossed-out Sein, archaic Seyn, and Ereignis, he drops hints that all these terms presuppose more archaic forms of language that are out of sight and beyond our hearing.

Looked at in terms of the movement from myth to authentic thinking of a meditative kind—the contrary to the violence of metaphysical thought—if we ignore the default destination of the process of translation, that is, a kind of discourse that does not contradict scientific rationality, we could almost talk of demythologization. This is a prospect that is supported by the close relationship between Heidegger and Bultmann in Heidegger’s Marburg (pre-Being and Time) years that Gadamer in particular has highlighted. But, of course, “almost” intimates a condition that is not met.

First, one cannot ignore the fact that, for Heidegger, scientific discourse fails to illuminate reality and deepen human existence. It is a film that obscures both reality and ourselves and is the major avenue for the violence of the objectification of ourselves (as resources) as well as the natural world. Second, and crucially, to assimilate Heidegger to the enterprise of demythologizaton would make the mistake of thinking that interpretation moves only in an ascending direction and in particular fail to give the descending movement of thinking toward mythic forms of thought and symbolization its proper due.

Now, it is against the backdrop of this double movement of quasi-demythologization and remythologization in Heidegger’s later works that we spy the precarity of Christian thought and revelation when brought within Heidegger’s autotelic circuit of discourse or discourses. In Being and Time, Heidegger’s interpretive maneuvers against Christianity are on the surface and thus more vulnerable to critique. With regard to the so-called “analytic of Dasein,” as defined by being-in-the-world, care, angst, and being-towards-death, Heidegger insists on the absolute prerogatives of his phenomenological philosophy, even as he records analogues in the Chrisitan tradition, especially from Augustine and Kierkegaard, only to dismiss them as both superficial (ontic rather than ontological) and insufficiently universal (regional).

Concomitantly, in his famous essay “Phenomenology and Theology” (1927), Heidegger at once gives hope that Christian discourse might be considered to be an independent species of authentic language only to proceed to dash these hopes when he claims that what might pass in Christian discourse as disclosure needs to be authenticated by precisely the ontologically specified form of phenomenology he has tasked us with in Being and Time. Compared with what we find in Being and Time and other texts of the same period, Heidegger’s interpretively strategy in his later work is at once more recondite and subtle. It is also more devastating. In his opening to mythopoetic forms of discourse, Heidegger not longer argues against theological discourse as a freezing of language that distorts original phenomena, while at the same time explicitly relativizing the incommensurability claim of biblical discourse.

Rather, what we glean from the Beiträge and Heidegger’s interpretations of Hölderlin’s poems is the unnecessity of theological discourse and the redundancy of revelation, the former because at best it would be secondary, at worst corrupting, the latter because what now counts as revelation occurs in the phenomenal matrix for which a mythopoetic meditation that constantly shifts between the unreflective thickness of myth and a contemplative form of thinking is the preferred—albeit fundamentally baffling and dizzying—response to a reality that exceeds conceptualization but not insight. The enigmatic reality that beckons us can only be half-heard, and hardly even that if our mode of existence has been deepened by silence and waiting, and above all listening, a practice that was always exceptional and in modernity even more so since it has to flow against the current of the modern age consumed with communication and the transfer of information.

Diagnosing the Form of Myth In Heidegger

Having spoken about the return of myth in Heidegger’s thinking in the 1930s and 1940s, the obvious question concerning its basic form arises. Since Heidegger neither explicitly admits to such a return, nor provides a language of analysis, one is forced to have recourse to the vocabularies of analysis supplied by other thinkers in the twentieth century with whom Heidegger would profoundly disagree, plausibly even to the point of disputing the category of “myth” itself. I am thinking among others of Bultmann, Cassirer, and Jaspers, whom Heidegger engages and others such Voegelin and Ricoeur who respond to Heidegger in indirect and direct ways on the topic.

In any event, in these thinkers there exist a variety of vocabularies of analysis coupled with contrasts between types of myth: non-broken and broken myth (die gebrochene Myte) (Bultmann, Tillich), compact and differentiated myth (Voegelin); organic and artificial myth; non-speculative and speculative myth (Ricoeur). Given their particular origins and the different interests served by each, at best these vocabularies are approximate to each other and not fully substitutable. When it comes to the Beiträge and Heidegger’s wildly idiosyncratic interpretations of the poems of Hölderlin, pragmatically speaking, we probably have most to gain by prioritizing the first pair.

In an expressly philosophical work such as Introduction to Metaphysics, as well as his interpretive work on Nietzsche, Heidegger harps continually on the ruptural quality of the emergence of classical philosophy in Plato and Aristotle and laments it somewhat after the manner of a Greek chorus. What the likes of major German classical scholars such as Werner Jaeger or a Paul Friedländer hallowed as one of humanity’s greatest achievements, according to Heidegger, sets human beings fatally on the wrong path.

Indeed, the wrong path is nothing less than fate: a trajectory that is destined and irreversible, despite the manifest appearance of human freedom and purposeful agency that we might be seduced into calling on to reverse what appears to have the signs in the beginning or at the beginning of a contingent human decision. Reason is the “wound” that leaves human beings divorced from themselves, their surroundings, and each other. In contrast to Hegel, the wound of reason is not a wound that will heal itself. It is also a wound that throughout Western history grows larger and more septic and eventually will come to regulate all cultures—East and West—and ensure their demise.

If the works of Plato and Aristotle both represent the fall in its inception, surprisingly Heidegger is more generous with the belated Aristotle who, though further removed from the unitive form of being and thinking intimated—if not entirely adequately—in Greek tragedy and the pre-Socratic philosophers, manages intermittently to be in closer contact with the primordial sources of thought in which thinking and being do not admit of the separation that is the glory and the burden of philosophy as metaphysics.

No principled reason is given for this preference, one that seems all the more necessary since it is Aristotle who provides the historiography of the rise of Greek philosophy in his Metaphysics which, though it honors the contributions provided by the pre-Socratics, also shoehorns them as anticipations that in themselves did not quite rise to the level of philosophical thinking and whom are redeemed only as they can in varying degrees be translated into a conceptual idiom. Heidegger leaves us guessing.

In any event, with Plato, reason has come upon the scene. From here there is a direct line to Descartes and onward to Hegel and/or Nietzsche who at the philosophical level conclude the misprisoning of reality. That Heidegger is calling on a Nietzschean-style narrative of decline, while consistently disguising this fact, becomes apparent throughout both in his commentaries on Hölderlin’s poems and in a text such as Introduction to Metaphysics. In the latter it is noticeable that Euripides is never mentioned, Euripides having been nominated by Nietzsche as a site of emergence of irony and thus critical reason. In the former, to the extent to which Greek tragedies come into play, as is the case with Hegel and Hölderlin, for Heidegger also, Sophocles is the commanding presence. For Heidegger, of course, this is not simply a fact of literary history. Rather it is a testimony to the appearance in modernity of a form of essential discourse that repeats at a distance the connection—but possibly also the relative disconnection—of Greek tragedy and a Greek mythic world plausibly more integrated and intact.

Heidegger would not deny then that both Greek tragedy and the elemental poetry of Hölderlin that recalls what is best in it represent forms of “broken” myth, nor would Heidegger deny that both fuel the kind of remythologization of thinking that we most clearly see in the Beiträge and which in principle extends “beyond” Greek origins. What I am drawing attention to here is that Heidegger is deliberately ambiguous in his works of the 1930s and thereafter as to whether the pre-Socratic Greek tradition is absolutely unique in its display of the “belonging together” of thinking and being or whether it is merely exemplary insofar as this jointure can be variously illustrated at particular kairotic moments throughout Western history. Indeed, there are moments in the later works of Heidegger in which he suggests that such belonging together is illustrated also in non-Western forms of discourse. Thus, Heidegger’s fascination with Buddhism and Taoism.

Arguably, two questions clarify the nature and limits of myth in the “later” Heidegger. First, does Heidegger in the Beiträge and in other texts from the 1930s and 1940s instantiate in his discourse the unbroken or undifferentiated myth that is merely intimated in and by pre-Socratic thought and Hölderlin? Contrariwise, does he also repeat the broken nature of the myth that does not fully enact what it intimates? Second, does Heidegger’s use of the Fourfold, as well as his readings of Hölderlin and the Presocratics, rule out the prospect—however terrible for him—that in his case myth is not simply broken, but speculative and/or pedagogic?

Of the two questions, the first is easier to answer. The most plausible answer regarding the first question is that though Heidegger repeats “broken” myths that either invoke or evoke unbroken myth, he does so in a more reflective measure than that in evidence in Greek tragedy and possibly even in the poetry of Hölderlin. His form of repetition at once gives him an advantage over them in terms of filling out and developing the myth and disadvantages him in that the level of reflection increases the level of distance between his discourse and the discourse that he excavates and recommends and even more the “unbroken” myth that is signaled but never appears.

With regard to the second question, perhaps it might prove useful to move towards an answer by triangulating Heidegger’s view of the relation of post-metaphysical thinking and myth, on the one hand, with Cassirer’s understanding and, on the other, with that of Ricoeur. As is well-known, Cassirer and Heidegger have a checkered history with their notorious meeting at Davos (1929) serving both as the crystalizing point of prior disagreements concerning the nature of philosophy and its relation to symbol and myth, as well as a catalyzing point towards suspending dialogue, given the fundamental nature of the differences.

Neo-Kantian as he was, Cassirer showed himself comfortable in his three-volume Philosophy of Symbolic Forms with the history of symbolic or mythic representations of reality and felt inclined to give testimony to their value as anticipations of reflective consciousness. As might be expected of a neo-Kantian thinker, Cassirer posits a sharp divide between representation and thinking, or myth and philosophy. Clearly, this does not match up with Heidegger’s ruminations on—or better, performances of—the relation between myth and his new form of philosophy. Though the comparison might suggest that these thinkers have nothing in common, the contrast is complicated by the fact that while Heidegger does not segregate myth from his post-metaphysical thinking, he allows for a measure of translation of the mythemes such as the Fourfold and hierogamy into a philosophical discourse as long as this is still philosophical discourse.

Permitting translation is accompanied by the condition that the language into which myth is translated is not the language of reason. In his later work, Heidegger protects against such an invidious takeover—and thus spoliation of myth—by having recourse to the language of Ereignis and more archaic forms of Sein, that is, Seyn, in addition to the crossing out Being, all three of which suggest that at best the language of Being is inadequate. Crucially, this idiosyncratic post-metaphysical language is presumed to both contain and surpass the broken myth or myths that were its presupposition. Arguably, this brings Heidegger closer to Cassirer’s position in that myth might reasonably be supposed to move towards the condition of pedagogy, that is, of being illustrative of a form of thinking that goes beyond it even as it also redresses the debilitating rationalism of the history of philosophy.

Still, the gap between Heidegger and Cassirer cannot finally be closed. The reason is simple: the thinking acclaimed by Heidegger is not reason disconnected from myth and symbolic discourse, but rather the form of reason that has been basted in them. Unsurprisingly, it is this connection that protects Heidegger from the accusation of justifying a straightforward regression to atavism, made in fact by Adorno in The Jargon of Authenticity, but implied in Cassirer’s neo-Kantian framework. On this account, Heidegger can be considered to foment or ferment regression and a retrogressive form of politics only if, first, he conceives myth and thinking to be separate and, second, agrees that myth is a closed system of symbols and thinking nothing more than critical reason. In fact, Heidegger accepts neither of these conditions, which is not to deny that in the 1930s Heidegger did not dally with the blood and soil ideology of Jünger and Nietzsche, even if he came to despise the use that Nationalist Socialism made of them.

If Cassirer represents a fundamentally different option to understanding the relation between genuine philosophical thought and myth that antecedes Heidegger’s mythopoetic soundings, Paul Ricoeur’s thinking of the relation between myth and thinking, which is consequent as well as subsequent to Heidegger’s divagations, represents another. On the one hand, Ricoeur argues for a break with “unbroken myth” both in the case of biblical religion and philosophy. On the other hand, precisely because the symbols of the biblical text, even in their surpassing of myth, continue to evince a connection to it and in any event are characterized by excess, they do not admit of exhaustive translation. Put in Ricoeur’s terms, biblical symbols and narrative encourage “demythization” rather than admit of demythologization: interpretation of biblical symbols and narratives are necessarily endless because of their intrinsic excess.

This is summed up in the statement that became Ricoeur’s calling card: the symbol gives rise to thought. In any event, the contrasts with Heidegger are fairly stark. Against Heidegger, Ricoeur insists on the boundaries between philosophy and myth, and refuses to think of them as absolutely porous. In addition, he provides no support for the later Heidegger’s thinking that “revelation” is rendered unnecessary by myth or post-metaphysical philosophy or the dizzying shuttle from one to the other. Revelation is both irreducible to either or both and irreducibly explosive.

Augustinian Critique of Heidegger’s Mythopoetics

On the model of Hölderlin’s odes and hymns, especially as these recall ancient Greek forms of discourse, Heidegger’s mythopoetic discourse is a discourse of integration, belonging, heroic ethos, and in a quite definite sense a discourse of worship. Indeed, it was precisely the insistence on such values and Heidegger’s nonchalance with respect to its insinuations of atavism and reactionary politics that alarmed students of Heidegger such as Hans Jonas and Karl Löwith and encouraged both of them to look for alternatives in the classical traditions of the West. Even as both recognized that Heidegger trafficked only in “broken” myth, such trafficking was itself baleful and made possible—if not necessary—Heidegger’s infamous Rectorship speech (1933) and his dalliance with National Socialism.

Questions for both include what might have prevented the fatal oscillation between myth and philosophical reason and what resources there were in the philosophical and religious traditions of the West to counter it. If Jonas’s general answer is the classical philosophical tradition in general in that, even if the emergence of critical reason is understood to break with myth, nonetheless, reason should not be understood as a free radical in the way the Enlightenment conceives it.

Rather, it is best understood as a form of mindfulness and attention that seeks the good of the other in a community. Kantian notes are struck here and there in Jonas’s work, dominated equally by the themes of vulnerability and responsibility. Ultimately, however, it is Aristotle who provides the major key. The register of Löwith’s reply is more vehement, but also more genealogical: notwithstanding Heidegger’s exhausting attempts to separate himself from Nietzsche, including his anointing of Hölderlin as his precursor, Heidegger never escapes the gravitational pull of Nietzsche’s nihilism.

Interestingly, albeit more intuitively than comprehensively, both of Heidegger’s errant children suggest that Augustine represents an alternative. In Jonas’s case, he simply did not buy Heidegger’s dismissal of Augustine on the grounds of his dualistic anthropology. It was not only that Augustinian restlessness was ensconced in Heidegger’s own phenomenological account of Dasein in Being and Time, but that unlike Plato’s dualism, which that ontological and thus absolute, Augustine spoke more nearly to Pauline tension between flesh and spirit. Augustine’s dualism was existential and in consequence relative.

In Löwith’s case, Augustine demonstrated an acute sense of being in the midst of history, of ever-vigilant finitude, and a view towards political reality which though attentive to it, did not ultimately valorize it. History was the scene of individual and communal drama that involved human freedom and responsibility. Both, he judged, tend to be equally eclipsed by mythic and philosophical notions of fate and utopia.

Of Heidegger’s two dissenting ex-students, perhaps it is Löwith who helps us most in this particular case. since he takes us out of the orbit of Heidegger’s selection of Augustine’s texts that favor the Confessions and De Trinitate and invites us to look at Augustine’s most political text, that is, The City of God, that show us how both myth and philosophy and their entanglements are underdone by the revelation of God in history. It is this sovereign and good God who provides their critical measure.

As is well-known, books 11–22 of Augustine’s magisterial text present us with an entire systematic theology based on the narrative of God’s enactment in the creation of the world, the incarnation, passion, death, and resurrection of Christ, the vicissitudes of the Church of Christ, and the eschaton, which is to say that the regulating category is that of revelation. Before the theological heavy lifting, however, we are treated in books 1–10 to an extraordinarily copious account of the fall of Rome that happens as a consequence of the hollowness of the religions that marked it (which Rome politically policed) and the ineffectual nature of regnant philosophies because of their own entanglements with power, as well as their collusion with myth.

In the first ten books of The City of God Augustine provides a comprehensive critique of pagan religions as futile both with regard to their aim for truth (Books 1–5), for beatitude that is eternal rather than ephemeral (Books 6–7), and right relation with God (Books 9). If pagan religions can only be unveiled from the point of view of revelation, when brought into the light their narratives and forms of worship are disclosed to be forms of self-legitimation of groups and individuals.

In other words, not only in the obvious sense do they fail to worship the one true God, but also in the sense that their stories and forms of worship substitute what is less than God for God. These religions, many of which are of quite ancient pedigree, are in the business of creating idols. Augustine does not address the question of whether these narratives and forms of worship are entirely integral, though given Rome’s penchant for analogizing the religions and dismissing the absolute claims of Judaism and Christianity, there is some reason to suppose that the religions of the empire operate within the domain of broken rather than unbroken myth.

While we know from Augustine’s early texts that he thinks Platonic philosophy to be a good that can be embraced by Christians, we also know from the Confessions that even the best philosophy has a tendency towards pride (superbia) that blinds it to revelation in general and the humility of the kenotic Christ in particular. In the early books of The City of God Augustine is dealing with the place philosophies in general have come to occupy in the Roman empire and the way in which they either collude with or accommodate their form of reason with worldly power. He suggests that forms of philosophical reason collude with power when they directly or indirectly sanction it; forms of philosophical reason accommodate themselves to power when they imagine that they can find a private space in which reason is untouched and uncorrupted.

While, for the most part, Augustine keeps separate his discussion of the apparatuses of pagan religions and philosophies, in Book 8 he brings them together in his reflections on natural theology. What is of interest here bears incisively on the relation between Heidegger and Augustine and Augustine’s potential status as a diagnostician and critic of Heideggerian mythopoetics. There Augustine underscores the human nature of the enterprise of philosophy and the inherent worldliness of its interests. Yet, he also points to examples of the ways in which philosophy and pagan religions mutually support each other and serve the interest of constructing a kingdom of purely human flourishing and this-worldly glory.

In the main, the direction of interpretation moves from pagan religions to philosophy as providing a privileged form of interpretation of its rites and myths. Yet, philosophy also is judged to gain something from a relationship that Augustine diagnoses to be transactional: as philosophy allegorizes forms of myth and worship, it is able to bake in a community reference and relevance that otherwise it might appear to lack. Thus, philosophy shows itself to be opportunistic and power-interested at once, as it invests itself with a property that its exceptionalism seems to deny. The comparison with the profile of the later Heidegger is remarkable.

Of course, when Augustine is talking about pagan religions and Hellenistic philosophies he is talking of forms of discourse, practices, and forms of life that as a matter of fact have yielded to revelation, here interpreted as an inbreaking of the tri-personal God into the world and history. At the same time, he is also talking about a matrix in which myth and philosophy have set a ceiling both on what might be disclosed and what might be transformed. Together, they seemed to function as a sealant against the transcendence of a truly sovereign God and God’s self-dispossession in Christ. In these early books of The City of God, Augustine can be seen to provide Christian believers with some of the diagnostic tools whereby to see what is going in Heidegger’s mythopoetic divagations in the 1930s and 1940s and, thereby allow us to get some purchase on the question posed at the outset of the essay: does Heidegger’s mythopoetics substitute for Christianity or does it make Christianity a function of mythopoetics?

Of course, the answer need not be univocal. There is considerable evidence of whole-scale substitution for Christianity in the Beiträge and Heidegger’s commentaries on Hölderlin, even as aficionados of Heidegger continue to claim that Heidegger’s philosophy is methodologically neutral. Yet, there is also significant repetition of Christianity, since despite his best efforts to forget, Heidegger seems unable to cast his philosophical recovery of myth without recalling Christian topoi of holiness, advent, mission, eschaton, and spirit. Heidegger then both substitutes myth for revelation and makes revelation a function of myth.

Perhaps this is precisely what we should have expected had we paid attention to the early chapters of the City of God that appear to be tediously historical. The complex of myth and philosophy that Augustine recalled was what the event of Christianity made previous. In contrast, in line with his great Idealist precursors, as Heidegger tries to construct an alternative to the degenerate history of the West, he has before him Christianity’s checkered history of unworldliness as well as worldliness, individual aspiration as well as community orientation, its conniving with reason as well as awkward rejections.

Like Hegel with whom he is in contest for discursive authority, as he is with Nietzsche—thus proving himself to be doubly Oedipal—Heidegger has a functional literacy with regard to aspects of Christianity and its history that make it difficult for him to forget entirely, even as he searched and in riddles and runes protested that he had found an alternative—one just as comprehensive as it, but without its fetishizing of transcendence, divine agency, and without those perfidious axiological constraints that would dare imply that reality is any less beautifully careless than in fact it is.

To read the first ten chapters of the City of God is to be enabled to see clearly what the later Heidegger is about. His is a discourse of redress, a toppling of the authority of revelation, the articulation of the horizon of thinking in which the rites and myths of the religions as sponsored and explicated by a philosophy replace revelation and the explication and probing that it induced. Heidegger will advance his view of the Holy and his memorial thinking of it as a novum—albeit one made possible by an exceptional German poet—and thus truly not just another discourse, but the apocalyptic discourse that is the discourse of the true beginning.

In the middle chapters of the Beiträge one hears the unmistakable echoes of the book of Revelation. Together with the notes of discursive finality, we have evocations of alpha and omega, but now they have syphoned off the Paschal Lamb who is the savior of the world and history. Heidegger claims precisely the kind of discursive authority that crept into German philosophy in Hegel and achieved its apogee in Nietzsche. For him, they are pretenders to the eschatological throne that belongs to him: only he has successfully retrieved the Greeks to replace a moribund Christianity; only he has successfully linked myth and rite with philosophy and provided a fortress against the invasion of Christianity which has been the West’s unhappy fate.

The City of God allows us to unveil Heidegger’s proposal of the unholy relation between myth and philosophy, to see the rags through the glorious raiment and to get a whiff of its staleness beneath its claims for absolute freshness and novelty. The purpose of Heidegger’s later discourse is to dispense with revelation. As Augustine tells it, a world in which myth and philosophy prevail is in the end a catastrophe: its attainment will always fall short of its aspirations for truth, wholeness, and even happiness,

The dangerous liaison between myth and philosophy will inevitably associate with power, will always produce frustration, will always invite struggle and war into our midst. It will do so, because either the good and loving God of the universe has not yet been fully recognized—as was the case when Augustine wrote his monumental text—or has been fully recognized and is now refused and replaced by a mythopoetic final discourse that attempts to seal off revelation, even if it has to suffer from time gleanings of what it would repress. Augustine tells us that the consortium of myth and philosophy did not prevail then. This gives us hope that it will not prevail now or in the future.

Featured Image: York Minster - Fall of Babylon, (Rev 14:8), 1405; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.  


Cyril O'Regan

Cyril O'Regan is the Catherine F. Huisking Chair in Theology at the University of Notre Dame. His latest book is the first installment of a multi-volume intellectual history of Gnosticism in modernity, The Anatomy of Misremembering, Volume 1: Hegel.

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