The human is something that will be overcome. Man is like a rope, stretched between the animal and a superior form of human—a rope over an abyss. What is great in the human is that it is a bridge and not an end.
—Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra1
In his “Letter on Humanism,” a letter written in December 1946 to the French philosopher Jean Beaufret in response to his questions, Heidegger formulated a searing critique of Western humanism. Although the critique is justified, it ignores how this humanism encouraged the flourishing of the arts and the sciences and laid the groundwork for the social and political progress represented by the Enlightenment. Heidegger ventures his critique in the name of, and for the sake of, another humanism. Although this other humanism can for the most part be gleaned only by carefully considering the substance of the critique and its far-reaching implications, I submit that, in at least one crucial respect, it takes over and reaffirms the humanism it inherited, making us take responsibility for the world we have created.
Formulated in a preliminary way for the purposes of this introductory chapter, I think it is fair to say that, for Heidegger, we of the Western world are enthralled and captivated by our enormous powers, above all, our technological powers. The humanism that Heidegger fears, criticizes, and warns against is an ideology that justifies and encourages us, we human beings, especially those belonging to the Western world, to make ourselves—and our happiness, a happiness he regards as tragically corrupted—the absolute measure of all things. It is a humanism that, as Heidegger represents it, glorifies human power—a Nietzschean will to power—that today is primarily technological and technocratic. With this unprecedented power, we rule over earth and sky. But we are not willing to acknowledge the responsibilities that this rule makes imperative.
The Lacandon Mayans, a tribe struggling to survive the loss of its forest and all the life it sustained, used to regard the gigantic ancient trees of their forest as the “lords of the earth.” In that attitude, which we dismiss as childlike, there is awe, wonder, humility, reverence, and respect. They did not destroy the forest to exploit its lumber for commerce and profit. Their religion kept them in harmony with the exigencies of their environment, the earth, the waters, the sky. They made use of nature to serve their fundamental needs; they did not destroy it in greed; and they, in turn, served nature as its guardians. We, however, are making ourselves the lords of the earth, leaving nothing untouched by our avarice, our endless lust for material pleasures, our arrogant authority, imposing our will, our measure, on all things:
What the people of the city do not realize . . . is that the roots of all living things are tied together. When a mighty tree is felled, a star falls from the sky. . . . I know that soon we must all die. There is too much coldness in the world now; it has worked its way into the hearts of all living creatures, and down into the roots of the grass and the trees.2
As we are incapable of infinite extension, infinite power, we reduce the immeasurable to something within our limited powers to measure. In that way, we lose for moral guidance the perspective of the immeasurable. Our hands are no longer guided, as Heidegger says, by gestures “befitting the measure”: “Gebärden die dem Maß entsprechen.” Can we learn how to “dwell poetically”: on the earth and under the sky? Thinking of Hölderlin’s verse, “dichterisch wohnet der Mensch,” that is Heidegger’s question (GA 7: 202/ PLT 223).
The humanism that emerged in the Renaissance was a revolution revolting against the God-centered world of the medieval age and joyously affirming celebrating the importance and merit of this human, earth-bound world. Instead of submitting every nook and cranny of this jumbled world to God’s omnipotent, all-encompassing, all-seeing gaze and judgment, Renaissance humanism recognized that its world could be seen from many different points of view: although acknowledging a vanishing point, a point beyond which the power of the human eye cannot venture, it ordered the world according to the geometric law of perspective. This was a rationalizing order imposed on a disorderly world; but it was also an order that expressed a new self-confidence, a new faith in our capacity, as human beings, to create a world for ourselves worthy of our moral aspirations. However, according to the narrative Heidegger wants to tell, in the centuries that followed the Renaissance, this measured humanism, still earth-bound, still conscious of its limits, its finitude, became increasingly arrogant, increasingly narcissistic, increasingly drunk on its power. Humanism became a doctrine encouraging and justifying a will to power that knows no limits. And in order to defend and maintain this power, it reduced the immeasurable to what human power could measure and reduced the ontology of being to an ontology that can only recognize beings.
In “The Age of the World Picture,” Heidegger claims that “humanism first arises when the world becomes picture” (GA 5: 92–93/QCT 133). He leaves more indeterminate than one might wish the factual history defining this momentous event. Nevertheless, it would be reasonable to hold that the connection between humanism and the worldview that enframed the world as a picture first arose in the European Renaissance, when there were great ventures in maritime commerce and navigation, significant projects mapping the oceans and continents, and, in the art of painting, not only the first depictions of perspective but also a revolutionary paradigm reversal of the power-relation between God and human beings, such that, instead of God beholding us, we could now for the first time claim the power to behold God. In any case, whatever historical date we assign to the emergence of humanism and its worldview, Heidegger wants to argue that the historically prevailing form of humanism is “nothing but a moral-aesthetic anthropology,” in the sense that it is “the philosophical interpretation of being human that explains and evaluates whatever is, in its entirety, from the standpoint of man and in relation to man” (GA 5: 93/QCT 133). It is a worldview (Weltanschauung) in which, for the first time, “man brought his life as subjectum into precedence over other centres of relationship. This means whatever is, is considered to be in being only to the degree and to the extent that it is taken into and referred back to this life [Dies bedeutet: Das Seiende gilt erst als seiend, sofern es und soweit es in dieses Leben ein- und zurückbezogen, d.h. er-lebt und Erlebnis wird].” Thus, he argues: “The fundamental event of the modern age [Grundvorgang der Neuzeit] is the conquest of the world as picture” (GA 5: 94/QCT 134). To represent the world as a picture is to enframe it, suggesting a mastery of the whole as a totality. And that transformation of the world into picture, into objecthood, was inseparable from the emergence of man into the philosophical position of subject—a position that reflected the emergence of individualism in the economic and political life of the Western world. (GA 5: 92–94/132–33) In Being and Truth, containing lectures delivered during the Winter Semester 1933–1934, Heidegger comments that philosophical thought “is a fundamental happening [Grundgeschehen] in the history of humanity . . . , which has the character [Charakter] of a quite distinctive questioning, a questioning in which and through which it is possible for the essence of humanity to transform itself [sich verwandelt]” (GA 36/37: 208/BaT:159). He continues, declaring, without his customary restraint, that “the question of man must be revolutionized [revolutioniert]. Historicity is a fundamental dimension of our being. This revolution demands of us a completely new relationship to history and to the question of the being of the human being” (GA 36/37: 215/BaT 163). Similar thought also appears in many other texts—The History of Beyng, for instance, written during the years 1938–1940, in which Heidegger describes his philosophical project as calling for “eine wesentliche Verwandlung des Menschen”: “an essential transformation of the human”—“an other humankind” (GA 69: 90, 139/HB 76, 119–20).3 This is not sufficient as a description of what he thinks is needed; but it is, much more, a summons, an impassioned calling to thought. The philosopher here is not merely a neutral observer. But his summons is without the serenity we ascribe to the philosopher. On the contrary, in these years of political tumult, that summons is sometimes followed by words of a prophetic nature, bearing an apocalyptic tone: “Possible,” he says next, “only after the most extreme and extensive shatterings”: “Nur möglich nach den äußersten und längsten Erschütterungen.” This thought also figures in his Contributions to Philosophy (Of the Event): We should expect that the transformation bringing about a new ontological epoch, a new paradigm of knowledge, truth, and reality could take place “only by way of great breakdowns and upheavals in beings” (GA 65: 241/CP 190). Like Nietzsche’s idea of the Übermensch, which obviously inspired him, even though he never entirely agreed with it, Heidegger’s projection in thought of a great transformation in our humanity, our being human, provides little detail, hardly enough even for a sketch—although perhaps we might attempt to imagine it, drawing out some implications—conjectures and speculations—from the details in his critique of our postindus-trial, technologized world, with its imposition of a reifying totality. But would it be a total transformation all the way down to our very essence? Would it involve a total change in the very essence, the very structure of our existence, our being? It is conceivable that it is just such a transformation that Nietzsche, and perhaps for a while—say, during the 1930s and early 1940s—Heidegger too had in mind. Both invoked the idea of an originary “leap” (GA 11: 48–49/ID 39).4 But even our fulfillment as human beings, recognizing and understanding ourselves, and comporting ourselves accordingly, would not necessarily involve the most radical change we can imagine, namely, a total transformation in our very essence, our fundamental nature—but only perhaps a mindfulness that retrieves and maintains what, in “Recollection in Metaphysics,” Heidegger described as “the essential structure of human being in relation to being [die Fügung des Menschenwesens in den Bezug zum Sein]” (GA 6.2: 485/EP 78–79). It would already be a great accomplishment for us to be appropriated by that given essence, enownin...