This is the first post in a multi-part series, Redeeming the Philosophical Blacklist.
Twentieth century German philosopher Martin Heidegger once said, “What was Aristotle’s life? Well, the answer lies in a single sentence: He was born, he thought, he died. And all the rest is pure anecdote.”
At first glance, this shocking and nihilistic statement perfectly illustrates why many Christians have placed Heidegger on the philosophical blacklist. But at second glance, it may begin to take on the tune of something more familiar:
Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun? A generation goes and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. (Ecc. 1:1-4)
Christians have roundly dismissed Heidegger’s voice. But maybe they have dismissed him too quickly. Perhaps he is not saying something all that different from the writer of Ecclesiastes.
Heidegger describes mankind as beings-toward-death. We tend to assume statements like this belittle the meaning of human life and reduce it to a purposeless biological process. Let’s resist the urge to jump to conclusions and, instead, dig into what he means by this definition.
1. Being-toward-death means knowing ourselves by knowing our limits.
Human beings are finite, contingent creatures. Whether we like it or not, both our lives and our knowledge are limited. This is a fact that irritates our fallen nature to its core. After all, wasn’t the temptation in the Garden of Eden to “be like God,” overcoming our limitations and having access to all knowledge? Isn’t this desire reflected in humanity’s endless quest for the fountain of youth, fortune telling, technological advancements or scientific discoveries? We don’t like limits and we do everything we can to overcome them.
But Heidegger claims that death is a limit that can never be overcome or outwitted no matter how hard we try. The more we look that limit in the face and embrace it, the more we will understand ourselves for who we are and the more fruitful life we will live.
From the very beginning, Ecclesiastes decenters man as the focal point of the universe and establishes him as a contingent, finite being. The writer of Ecclesiastes writes:
Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all. For man does not know his time. (9:11)
The writer of Ecclesiastes is not saying that pursuing these things is wrong, but he corrects the belief that they somehow last. Our determination to build castles on this earth that will withstand centuries and grant a sense of permanence is based on a serious delusion of who we are. In fact, in his attempt to draw man out of this delusion, the writer compares his death to animals saying,
For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. All go to one place. All are from dust, and to dust all return. (3:19-20)
Death causes man to see himself rightly by humbling his human pride, power, and ideals, reminding him that he is not the Creator but part of the creation. This is what the book of Proverbs refers to as the fear of the Lord, which is the beginning of wisdom. A proper understanding of God’s infinite greatness and man’s finite dependency allows man to walk through life without delusional expectations of himself, his power, his ability, and his knowledge. To be wise, man must first learn to number his days: this is exactly what Heidegger says beings-toward-death do.
Death causes man to see himself rightly by humbling his human pride, power, and ideals.
2. Being-toward-death means facing death.
What does it mean to number our days? How do we face death? According to Heidegger we should neither naturalize nor domesticate it. We cannot simply view death as a biological event that will eventually happen to us. Instead, we should consider death “before-standing,” which means it is a reality that constantly confronts us as something personal and certain rather than abstract and forgotten.
Today, we have worked hard to domesticate death as much as possible. The services of hospitals, funeral parlors and embalmers serve to tame death, taking care of the un-pleasantries so the family is only exposed to an embalmed body that is laid in an elaborate silk-lined casket surrounded by floral displays. Family and friends are led through directed ritual in a safe, intimate environment. We shield ourselves from the sight or smell of death, but in so doing we further our determination not to face its reality in a personal way.
Heidegger says that a person who naturalizes or domesticates death lives an inauthentic life. We block out the reality of our own limits and finite nature by doing our best to forget about death. After all, death that is naturalized or domesticated has nothing to do with our eating, drinking, and being merry other than interrupting it. Heidegger argues that this perspective is a mistake that will have consequences for the way we live our lives on this earth.
3. Being-toward-death leads to a more fruitful life.
When the writer of Ecclesiastes continually draws man back down to a realistic picture of who he is and the limitations of his life, he does so not to destroy life but to make it possible. He by no means suggests that man should retreat into nihilistic despair or eternal lament over the worthlessness of life but encourages man to engage in and pursue life without making it an idol.
Heidegger calls this kind of living “anxiety.” Though the English word carries the negative connotation of fear and worry, Heidegger uses it to mean embracing our finitude and the surety of death as a reminder to think of ourselves and the work of our hands rightly. For both Heidegger and the writer of Ecclesiastes, this perspective does not cause us to extract ourselves from life but actually leads to a happier and more fruitful life.
As one scholar points out, “Disgust overcomes only those who hoped for too much from life and power, who gave it their heart, their strength, and their life.” The writer of Ecclesiastes confesses a time when he viewed his work with the expectation that it would endure through the ages. He writes,
I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. (2:18)
He later says,
So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun. (2:20)
Having the expectation for permanency and control is what led the writer of Ecclesiastes to nihilistic despair and a hatred for life. Once he reoriented himself in light of his own finitude, he was able to conclude,
Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot. (5:18)
He came to the realization that life is but a few days and a gift from God, not earned or caused by man. As such, man has the responsibility to steward and enjoy it. Being able to chase after life and yet hold it loosely is an art all those who are “under the sun” should learn.
Being able to chase after life & yet hold it loosely is an art all those who are “under the sun” should learn
What was Aristotle’s life? He was born, he died, and the rest is pure anecdote. Though crude and perhaps overly simplistic, this statement carries much truth when considered beyond face value. Heidegger paints a realistic portrait of human life that has many points of agreement with biblical teaching.
But it seems the writer of Ecclesiastes has the final word in this discussion. Though man’s flesh fades like grass and his beauty like the flower of the field, he concludes,
I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him. (3:14)
Life under the sun is vanity of vanities, but His counsel stands, His purposes are fulfilled, His redemption is true, and His kingdom is forever. The wisest and most fruitful life is spent not building our own castles but seeking His kingdom as weak, limited vessels who glory in the King.
The wisest and most fruitful life is spent not building our own castles but seeking His kingdom
 Excerpts from Derrida’s remarks can be seen in the film Derrida by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering Kofman (DVD available from Blaq Out editions, 2007).
 Jacques Ellul, Reason for Being, trans Joyce Main Hanks (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1990), 181.