Existence and Being

Follow-up to a lecture given by Henrik Schøneberg ‘Awakening of Consciousness’. He described Sartre’s theory of existentialism – that existence precedes essence. That is, that it is only by acting, by making choices, that we give meaning to our lives. But if we bumble along without making conscious choices, then we do not realise our purpose and we do not become.

It’s a point of view. I can see how Sartre might see himself as exhorting people to wake up and realise that they must make themselves, not follow the web of established thinking. But does he accept that he too might be wrong, that the truth might lie outside his own thinking?


Schøneberg talked about Heidegger as being the most analytic of the existentialists, but that he ‘went too far’ when he joined the nazi party. As the song goes in Springtime For Hitler, in Mel Brooks’ The Producers, the way to get ahead is to get smart. In the words of the song: ‘Don’t be stupid, be a smarty/Come and join the Nazi Party’.

The philosopher, Heidegger says, is resolved ‘to understand time in terms of time,’ and not time in relation to eternity. He does not want to be involved with the Divine. Religion is an agent of modernity, and Heidegger hated modernity.


Modernity is, he says, the process by which powerful movements based on illusion rather than reality, seek to make a paradise on Earth by running people’s lives. I cannot understand at all how Heidegger does not see the nazi party as a prime example, but he sees nazism as going back to the roots of German Being, with a capital B. It is the cure for his existential homesickness.

I kind of get it, it’s visceral and basic and beast-like, and powerful. It’s before all the ‘fancy ideas’, all the fancy rational thinking that screws us up because we think we are rational when in reality we exist before that. It gets your blood up and it makes you feel good, so it must be real.

Well, yes, maybe. That’s the appeal, but in reality the nazi were all scared witless of the guys higher up on the ladder. You can tell from the cut of their uniforms and the swagger. Humility will take you anywhere, but swagger will only get you so far.


Moving on, I came across an article that compared and contrasted Heidegger and Eric Voegelin. Voegelin says it is ‘ridiculous to pretend that there was nothing to consciousness but the consciousness of objects of the external world.’

Well that is either self deception, metaphysics that take one further from Being as Being as meant by Heidegger and Sartre, or else Voegelin is right. Maybe.

On the one hand we have Heidegger’s ‘Being without concepts’. On the other hand we have Voegelin and humility and a sense of awe at the mere existence of existence. And why wouldn’t one want to enquire as to the ‘why’ of existence? Why is it only right to start from existence and work forward? Why wouldn’t one want to search for meaning outside of desires and passions? Voegelin asks whether man can perfect the world without God, and he answers that it is not possible and one shouldn’t try. And that is kind of like Heidegger’s opinion of modernity, so to that extent they can agree.

Man’s Search For Meaning

Does man become divorced from himself by searching for meaning? Is that it? I can see that, too, because we humans are pattern makers above all. We detect patterns, sometimes even where there are none. So we can lead ourselves up the garden path and lose ourselves in metaphysics and lose the simple truth of setting ourselves free to Become. Maybe.

I looked up Heidegger’s personal life. His Wikipedia entry describes he personal life this way:

Heidegger married Elfride Petri in 1917. Their first son, Jörg, was born in 1919. Elfride then gave birth to Hermann in 1920. Heidegger knew that he was not Hermann’s biological father but raised him as his son. Hermann’s biological father, who became godfather to his son, was family friend and doctor Friedel Caesar.

Heidegger had a long romantic relationship with Hannah Arendt and a steamy affair (over many decades) with Elisabeth Blochmann, both students of his. Arendt was Jewish, and Blochmann had one Jewish parent, making them subject to severe persecution by the Nazi authorities. He helped Blochmann emigrate from Germany before the start of World War II and resumed contact with both of them after the war.Heidegger’s letters to his wife contain information about several other affairs of his.

Voegelin, on the other hand, married and as far as I can see, had neither affairs nor divorces. I can cut all this philosophising down to size and say that Heidegger was drawn to go downwards to the brute essence, looking outward like an animal because that is what he was attracted to. Voegelin had a different temperament and looked for the Divine in the everyday. Maybe it was just a difference of temperament.

Existence and Being What?

Thinking back about Sartre, I guess what he does is make the break between existence and being. He thinks it is not automatic that one thinks and chooses and becomes because one exists. He does not say ‘I am and therefore I think. He says I exist and I had better get my skates on and start understanding my situation before it is too late. OK, but where to go from there? To follow one’s passions? To follow one’s desires? On what are those passions founded? What happens when the passion dries up? Is passion enough?

What happens when one’s passions run up against the opposing passions of others? It all seems very lone wolf, like Hesse’s Steppenwolf.


Freud would say that ego is made whole and balanced and sane when expressed in the community of people. It cannot be made alone. If that is right, then it stands opposed to existentialism, which in Freud’s view would simply be narcissism. That is unless of course through a happy coincidence of passions, the existential person chooses to join the community of people and gain expression there. In the view of Sartre, Heidegger, and Freud it would work just as long as the community of people steer clear of metaphysics and ideologies.

That leaves me with a question. Is there even the beginning of a scale by which to measure the value of such a community? Or is the notion of ‘value’ a descent already into metaphysics and the loss of Being?


In Euripides’ The Bacchae, the characters identified as ‘some maidens’ ask and answer the question of what is wisdom:

What else is wisdom? To stand from fear set free: To stand and wait.

In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground, the narrator asks and answers what the normal state is for a man who is conscious enough to question the nature of things:

After all, the direct, legitimate, immediate fruit of consciousness is inertia.

I am going to pull back a bit. I am not convinced that the next step from existence is anything active at all. Perhaps it is simply to react. It’s a thought I have had before. I have been down this road. What determines how one puts one foot in front of the other?

If it is habit then it is a terrible thing. If it is curiosity and wonder, then that’s the antithesis of boredom. Perhaps that is enough. Then there is no grand enquiry into ‘Who am I?’ There is instead an appreciation of the rhythm of the day.

In Camus’ The Outsider’, when the principal character shoots the man on the beach he says of himself:

’I knew in that moment that I had broken the balance of the day.’

Is that enough, simply to appreciate? Must we accept that we are discontented with that state, that it is not enough, or that it simply does not apply to us? Are we so deep into metaphysics that we cannot regain that Eden? It’s a problem, and not one I am going to solve today.