The Greek historian Herodotus tells the legendary story of a great Persian king who in 480 BC had amassed a huge army — too big to transport across the Aegean Sea by trireme — to conquer the world of the Hellenes. Xerxes had sworn to finish what his father King Darius I had started around ten years prior. The Greeks would be defeated and finally forced to bow to the despot-son just like all the other peoples his great empire had subdued. So great an army had Xerxes behind him that he was compelled to cross the mile-wide Hellespont strait and march into Greece from the northeast and take on their comparatively tiny armies. But first, he would have to find a way to pass over the treacherous waters.
Xerxes had ships roped together with flax and papyrus cables connected to windlasses on the shore to create a makeshift bridge that would carry waves of Persian soldiers safely to the other side. Unfortunately for the king, however, the sea had waves of its own that came suddenly in a violent storm, ripping apart the king's newly formed passageway. A furious Xerxes has his engineers executed and whipped the waters of the Hellespont 300 times with a chain to signify its servitude and obeisance. He had a new bridge constructed, and, as if to confirm the king's newly arrogated power, no more storms would hinder the passage of the Persian army.
We may marvel that a despot of the antique world would presume to take charge of the sea — that unruly spirit! — with a whipping. Yet, if modern humanity differs much from the ancient king, it does so only in its having convinced itself of the superiority of its methods. The intent is the same: the wild powers of nature will be brought to heel under our command and made to support our projects. Not only the mighty powers of the sea but the mysteries of the human genome, the immense potential of algorithmic computation, the intricate machinations of economic realities, the hidden impetuses of organisms, the motivations of collective agencies — all must be laid bare before the eye of reason which sees all and is all in all. Still, as Nietzsche in his characteristic lucidity divined over a century ago, reason raised to the power of an ascetic ideal overthrows even the first principles of its own origin, chief among them its commitment to the very idea of truth itself.
Nietzsche understood modernity, at least the rationalist form of modernity at the heart of the liberal ideal of self-legislating humanity, to be but a disguised form of the nihilism that had gripped western thought. The ideal of reason had in Nietzsche's colourful language unchained the earth from the sun, wiped away the horizon, drunk up the entire sea; it had loosed the skeptical powers that turned it upon itself. No god could stand in its way, least of all the old Platonic idea of a universal and unifying good. This was not, in Nietzsche's estimate, to deny the existence of the good; it was, rather, to turn and acknowledge the ultimacy of different embodiments of it, as though the good itself were shed abroad in the world through the eclipse of its claim to finality. Every will looks to its own good as to an absolute. Zarathustra withdraws himself to the heights of the mountains, not only to escape the stench of mediocrity, but also to breath in the clearest air of solitude. The herd animal of humanity is but a form that is passing away or metamorphosing into something different from what it has been hitherto. Erstwhile man, he who clings to gods and absolutes, is hidden to himself, incomprehensible, because he fails to recognize in his own agency, not the mysterious workings of a god or intelligible nature, but only those of the abyss. Yet, the solitudinous one does not react in disgust to his superfluity and purposelessness; with joy, he treasures these limits of his being, and in so doing, overcomes humanity's ritual self-imposition of the paltry, the mean, the base, and the stupid.
For all his genius, Nietzsche himself embodies a kind of modern Xerxes; for, what, after all, was the old monarch's will to overcome the waves than ultimately the will to overcome even himself? Nietzsche's Übermensch is a lonely despot. He supposedly reacts to nothing, even in the presence of his equals, whom he is somehow given to acknowledge as fellow stars sharing the same night of the abyss. Yet, what is there to unite these stars? If each will is alone sufficient, not even their competition can do so. Nietzsche's ideal is not far off that of the lonely contemplator of old, as one might find in the work of Aristotle. He is a law unto himself. (Nietzsche himself acknowledged this fact in the third essay of his later work On the Genealogy of Morals). What remains of what we might term "western" rationality, however, is but the ascetic, asketikos, the one who labours. This, too, is a morality, perhaps even one of a reactive sort. The strong, too, run up against their own limits, their own weaknesses — and stupidities — which they must endlessly overcome. And they must remain ever-vigilant for the ruses of the weak. The Nietzschean man of honour and great strength is perhaps more self-flagellating in his standard of perfection than any of the ascetics of old.
Indeed, Heidegger would come to recognize in the machinations of modern man — including the Nietzschean Übermensch — a certain forgottenness of being (Seinsvergessenheit). Modern humanity forgets that it forgets. That is to say, it can no longer acknowledge the mystery being, i.e. that profound hiddenness at the heart of all unity, identity, and relationality. These aspects of being, i.e. of the being of things, manifest themselves in the context of a world. The world is the manifestation of things; things open us to the world, that is, meaningfulness and intelligibility. Things are not, therefore, fundamentally the means by which we accomplish our aims as self-directed agents. Rather, they are the occasions that signal the profound mystery of their manifestation and, indeed, of all manifestation as such. We are thereby given to ask: why are there things at all instead of nothing? How is it that there is a unity of meaning and intelligibility in which we all share? The essence of all manifestation cannot be nothingness, yet neither is it something that can be named. Like the Tao, the being of beings is the most hidden in its manifestness, and the most distant in its nearness. It is the very medium of meaning. It can no more be mastered in thought or by the will than a causal origin could originate from what it constitutes.
It is not only hubris that impels modern humanity to take itself to be the source of whatever can be wrested from being as intelligible form; it is a profound thoughtlessness (Denklosigkeit). For, it belongs to the very idea of intelligibility that there be some order in which we ourselves are comprehended. And every order is a sending, a granting, a mission. Xerxes's foolishness is to forget that he himself belongs to the order of being and can no more cause its unfolding than command the heavenly bodies to avert their courses. More to the point: though the being of things is clearly intelligible to us, the essence of this intelligibility remains hidden. It is of the nature of humanity, not to uncover this essence, for that is forever impossible, but to marvel at it through its contemplative approach to that whose signs and traces are beings in their manifestation.
Because modern humanity forgets that it forgets — covers over the mystery of being in thoughtless hubris — it has been given over to a dispensation of technology, which is itself a peculiar manifestation of being. According to Heidegger, technology in our modern age is the incarnation of western rationality, its truth and highest aim. That is to say, of course, that modernity ultimately has no truth besides its own will, i.e. its need to render all as the object and aim of the aimless void of pure power. It is not that we humans — all too human! — whip nature into shape and direct it to our ends. It is that we find ourselves to be the subjects of a scourging that has come upon us as if from nowhere. Humanity and all nature with it have been reduced to unending waters, whipped and thrashed by the violent waves of its own chaotic will rising and falling upon itself. The Nietzschean Übermensch soon learns of its profound powerlessness in the face of a peculiar "sending" of being which takes the only form it can now grasp and understand — as a kind of self-imposed dissolution of reality into pure will devoid of personality and humanity. The 20th and 21st centuries have disclosed this sending of being under the auspices of technological dominance, consumerism, calculative rationality and the hollowing out of all institutional references to an enchanted order or spirituality not subservient to the individual or collective will. Heidegger proclaimed in his 1966 Der Speigel interview that only a god can save us - that is, humanity will find wholeness only in a granting of being that it has not first willed. How could humanity ever receive such a god?
One can share in Heidegger's melancholic longing for the return to an understanding of being imbued with the wistful memory of some mysterious granting or sending whose meaning is somehow the promise of an eventual return. The world of things can quite often take us by surprise, attune us to the marvel of their presence, thrust us into the mood of a profound questioning. Yet, one might also wonder whether Heidegger himself is a sort of King Canute figure sitting by the seashore of being, demonstrating to his courtiers that no man, however great, has the power to command the mighty waters. There is much piety in Heidegger's thinking, but one is given to pondering whether it is ultimately as profoundly powerless as the word of the king. There is no telos, no aim or final cause to guide it. The thinker may discern in the manifestation of things certain hints of the divine, promises of meaningfulness that may take hold of humanity, directing its intelligence in wonder to the mystery of the manifestation of being itself. Yet, what name can be given to this manifestation that is hidden even from divine intelligence?
As is the case with, I would argue, Schelling's conception of God, there is a trace of arbitrariness or sheer negative freedom in Heidegger's notion of the sending of being. What is manifest in being may indeed be intelligible according to a shared idea of the good, yet being itself — manifestation — is an unintelligible sheer difference, not only the difference of beings from being, but that of being (that is, intelligibility) from itself, as Derrida observes and celebrates in De l'esprit: Heidegger et la question. Nothing ultimately good is thereby manifested in being, which is, if not sheer will, then endless dissimulation and differentiation.
Yet, if nothing of an ultimate good is disclosed in being, then Heidegger's longing for an epoch where humanity finally dwells with the natural rhythms of the earth and sky and in full view of its own mortality and need of the gods rings hollow. Who, after all, is to say that being is a gift rather than a terror? We would hope for the former, but hope, too, requires some view to the goodness of being in itself. The "open" of humanity's Da-sein, its spatialized and temporalized orientation to things in the context of the world, is the radical freedom of existence. Heidegger was careful to distinguish this freedom - a kind of gift or sending of being — from the merely subjective freedom he discerned in the Sartrean existentialist project. Da-sein is the freedom to acknowledge meaningfulness and intelligibility — albeit in the romantic sense derived from J.G. Hamann of a creative unfolding in language — rather than ultimately to generate it. Heidegger adopts elements of Hamann's genuinely radical response to Kantian rationalism, especially his turning of the critical project back upon itself and subsequent disclosure of the creative, improvised and interpretive nature of its conclusions. However, instead of calling for the reorientation of reason back to its telos, Heidegger, reiterates the Kantian critical project in a different key by emptying reason of all claim to any knowledge of being. All that remains is radical freedom, which is to say, arbitrariness, and Heidegger's version is the more terrifying because it is the most painstakingly consistent ultimate denial of the Platonic good of the Western philosophical tradition.
At the risk of having massively oversimplified these philosophical geniuses and prophets of the modern age — Nietzsche and Heidegger — I conclude that they failed to overcome the nihilism that they themselves diagnosed so insightfully and presciently. They failed because they found no ontological ground for the integration of humanity's capacity for free, creative existence with its need to discover in this existence the mystery of its own boundedness to and co-operation with the universal good. In a way, these two thinkers exemplify the radical freedom of modern rationality itself in its oscillation between the poles of assertion and renunciation, Xerxes and Canute.
Is there a way to envision a collective embodying of the good amidst our unhappy 21st-century situation where consumerist self-assertion combines with an increasingly fascist surveillance state? It is unclear what if any transformation Heidegger's heroic act of thinking in the face of techno-fascist annihilation could ever bring about. The thinker's central contention, however, rings true: there has never been so urgent a time as now for humanity to return to itself and to think upon that which grants us our shared being.
The importance of the question of the essence of both nature and humanity has never truly faded away. The idea of the eventual fading away or overcoming of metaphysics is a now-outmoded idiom of the 20th century that is making way for a renewed philosophical debate between what I would call sacramental and materialist interpretations of being, between the idea, broadly shared by Neoplatonism as well as forms of Western mysticism, that humanity ritualistically participates in the divine activity of the healing or reparation of the wholly good order of nature or being, on the one hand, and the idea that the order of being is nothing besides sheer materiality, on the other.
If "being" is ultimately nothing besides matter (or the dynamic interplay of matter and energy), then the nominalist picture of universals holds true: the ideas by which we grant some form of articulation to nature as we implicitly understand it are but useful fictions, a net cast over deep ontological waters. The emergent notion of a "singularity" that blends our biological reality with artificial intelligence does not alter this picture. What may appear on the surface to be the final merging of nature with our rational processes into a sort of self-conscious unity turns out on further reflection merely to construe all of nature as Cartesian subjectivity or pure act of self-comprehension. In both cases, a nominalist rejection of ontological mediation between the dualities of matter/form, body/soul, thing/language means that either the latter terms are completely swallowed up in the former in each respective pair or the former are mere iterations of the latter. This is the reason, I think, why so much of the history of modern metaphysics oscillates between the rational annihilation of being, on the one hand, and the assertion of some irrational or chaotic power — bare self-assertion (Sichdurchsetzen) in Heidegger's language — on the other, as theologian John Milbank has argued. Perhaps this is also one reason why in our contemporary world culture is confusedly understood to be simultaneously the product of underlying natural or biological impulses and the cumulative effect of creative and deliberative actions on the part of free rational agents.
An alternative, sacramental ontology takes for granted that our thinking about reality resolves itself into irreducible dualities. To unpack this notion we might return briefly to Heidegger, who articulated something of an understanding of things as signs of the deep mystery of being.
Heidegger was instrumental in bringing into the light of phenomenological analysis the incorrigible difference between beings in their manifestation as this or that particular thing and being as the world-horizon of their intelligibility. To catch of glimpse of this horizon, i.e. the very ground or condition of intelligibility itself, is to find oneself caught up in within an event. It is to find oneself overcome by the irresistible pull of a fundamental question by which all things are held open — as though dangling over an abyss — to a perspective that lets them be more fully what they truly are and have been all along. Heidegger distinguishes his own philosophical questioning from that of Hegel by insisting on the fact the force of this fundamental questioning is not speculatively resolved in the concept. At least thinking cannot, in the final analysis, pronounce judgment as to whether or not this is the case: it remains undecidable as to whether reflection absolutely coincides with its object in the self-conscious return of the concept to itself. To say otherwise is to commit the error of foreclosing the very ontological difference that remains the condition of the possibility of conceptual knowing. Being and beings cannot be resolved into the universal One through the mediation of the concept.
The event of being in Heidegger's analysis is a set of different instantiations, each of which "repeats" the meaning of the whole in a non-identical way, i.e. without thereby ruling out other, different possibilities. Every event of being is, in other words, both utterly unique as an event and is the meaning of the whole. The event is not a Platonic form, however, in that its essence is radically temporal and historical: it is nothing besides the opening of the world, which is why it is always the comprehension of prior epochs in the "history of being" whose inner logic it comprehends and brings to fruition, albeit in a radically different form. On this logic, there is no "original" event as much as there is in each case a thinking or questioning realization that something has already befallen one, i.e. that the world of things having somehow already been "granted" means that the origin is precisely nowhere to be found. Its trace has only ever been the thinking anticipation of a beginning. And if we examine the history of philosophical thought, at least in the West, we discern the trace of being, not in some concept or other, but in the failure of all metaphysics to come to terms with itself as a project. The point is that no concept, no logos, mediates being in its eventuality. Poets are for this reason better placed than metaphysicians to bring the traces of being into language. Thinking plays its part in searching out the limits of philosophical thought, thereby humbling reason and bringing it back into contemplation of the poetic oracles.
Yet, for all of his insistence on the ontological priority of the difference of the event of being from every intelligible response emerging from it, Heidegger redoubles the Hegelian problem of mediation. Mediation remains in Hegelian logic in the form of the concept's reconciliation of itself to its object through self-reflection. The inner logic and meaning of things in their contextual reality turns out to be the historical unfolding of reflection. Hegel thereby responds to the old philosophical quandary concerning the ontological nature of the relationship of the world of fleeting appearances to the universality that shows itself in their aspect (eidos). The full duality of the material and formal "sides" of things remains in its conceptual mediation. Yet, as Heidegger rightly contends conceptual mediation elevated to the level of the absolute resolves itself into nothing. It is the foreclosure of all relationality, the ultimate philosophical claim to have fully comprehended its meaning, albeit always after the fact, like the Owl of Minerva announcing the onset of the twilight. This is to nullify in advance the sending of being and the irreducible difference (and relationality?) that entails between beings and their essence. Of course, as I have already argued, Heidegger cannot resolve the problem of mediation on the terms of his own thinking. Is there nothing besides radical difference, which is indifference, or can another term be said to mediate beings and their manifestation?
The latter would entail a notion of transcendence Heidegger was not prepared to admit. But this notion is precisely what is required if we are to return to a robust, "sacramental" idea of mediation beyond modern nihilism. Here, Plato is much more radical than Heidegger. In Plato, the transcendent Good mediates the relationship of form to matter. The Good is itself form, though only analogously so, as it is beyond being. Following Plato, we might conceive of a "diagonal" relationship between the one thing (a blossoming tree, for example) and all other similar things, mediating their similarity and difference. This is precisely the sort of relationality we find in the notion of the Good, the ultimate "form" of things, which is not strictly a form at all. Because the Good transcends the distinction of form and matter, the "good" of something ultimately accounts for both the intelligible reality it happens to instantiate (answering the question, what is good about it?) and its delightful material particularities that ultimately escape comprehension (showing us a good beyond all questioning). The Good makes every other form what it is: the tree is good, not just because it manifests an ideal, but because this particular tree in all its idiosyncratic wonder happens to manifest perfectly the goodness of what it means to be a tree in the first place. That there is universal Goodness means that the tree in its blossoming is both fully a tree, i.e. not merely the representation of a prior reality, and one particular instantiation among others. Both the "form" and "matter" of the tree belong together in their irreducible manifestation of the Good.
Heidegger contended that the ancient duality of form and matter betrayed a secret technologizing impulse of metaphysics which was fully realized and developed in the thought of Descartes. While ancient and medieval thinkers certainly did not conceive of form in Cartesian terms, i.e. as a purely mathematical objective correlate to the idea under the aspect of the knowing subject, their thinking of being in terms of the participation of the world of appearances in unchangeable essences or in the emanations of the divine mind betrays, according to Heidegger, a "technological" interpretation of being that construes things in terms either of their original or of the author who conceived them. While I would agree that there is a kernel of truth to Heidegger's analysis, i.e. that Western metaphysics has always borne the seeds of its own destruction, I would also argue that metaphysics lapses precisely where it fails to think through the full implications of mediation as transcendence. Hegel was on to something important, even if mediation is not ultimately intelligible or explicable in panlogist terms as the return of the concept to itself.
Without mediation, the quite rational human longing for a suprarational origin - what Kierkegaard termed the eternal consciousness - turns itself upon the dangerously irrational, whether in the form of fascism, as with Heidegger, or in the 21st-century liberal-positivist idiom of choice or self-definition. Quite terrifyingly, we are seeing that the rationalist technocracy Heidegger so presciently warned about is but the reverse side of a kind of atavism of the individual or nation. Devoid of a medium that is also their telos, the rational and passionate sides of human existence collapse. Reason becomes a mere technique in the fulfillment of aimless desires, while the desirous aspect of our nature becomes ever more limited by the "choices" algorithmically imposed upon it. We bear witness, then, to the phenomenon of individuals who are supposedly "free" to determine their own identities for themselves, but only within the framework of an engineered digital world characterized by endless behavioural nudges.
We might turn instead to the Neoplatonic philosopher Iamblichus, according to whom the One mediates the Many in virtue of its hiddenness in the dyad One-Many. Iamblichus corrects the Plotinian insistence that the transcendence of the One necessitates its ultimate unapproachability, an idea that entails, in the end, the denial of full mediation and participation through an insistence on the evil and non-being of matter. A more consistent understanding of transcendence, argues Iamblichus, insists on its descent into the fullest reaches even of material being, elevating things through theurgic ritual into participation in the divine life. The genuine ritual offering implicitly acknowledges the initiatory divine activity in which it participates. The theurgic rite is neither some rapture of the passions nor is it an intellectual (dianoetic) activity of philosophical reasoning; instead, it is understood to be the very occasion whereby the transcendent breaks into the immanence of our embodied reality, taking up into itself both the passionate and intellectual aspects of our nature. Humanity finds in the ritual elements the occasion for an ascendent return to the divine life.
Iamblichus retrieves Plato's insistence that the transcendent, properly speaking, is beyond being in that its oneness can be said to "be" only insofar as it is the mediation of the universal "One" of form to its "Many" particular instantiations. Every instantiation of the theurgic ritual "repeats" this origin (in the Kierkegaardian sense of a non-identical repetition) in the sense that it alone constitutes the singular moment of "summing up" the entire cosmos, much in the way a festive event repeated each year is in every case an entirely unique, non-identical expression of the whole of a community's ethos and shared history.
Of course, the narratives of the Biblical canons also awaken us to the idea of a cosmos suspended upon transcendence as though cast upon an unfathomable depth and, indeed, awash in its splendor. The story of the exodus of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt and its reiteration in St. Luke's gospel as the deification of humanity or in St. Paul's epistles as the rescue of the entirety of nature itself from its "slavery" to death and meaninglessness, confronts us with the idea of a journey through the chaotic waters. Of course, this idea finds its echoes in the pagan epics of antiquity. But in the Biblical narratives, there is, in the end, no sacrifice at all presented for the preservation either of the city or natural order, as Kierkegaard masterfully argues in Fear and Trembling. There is no raging force of nature against which the hero must struggle or in the face of which the city finally and tragically resigns itself. There are no gods to appease and there is no chaos to stave off. There is a risk of the unknown, to be sure, but it is the risk of faith, i.e. a kind of decision that assumes the habits of charity or the tendency to discover in both nature and human culture signs of an entirely peaceful divine order. To habitually discover these signs is also oneself to become transfigured by the divine life.
To be sure, according to the Biblical narrative, the manifestation of the divine in this world is also to be found in suffering, not least in the suffering of the God-Man himself, and in one's recognition of God in the suffering of others. However, unlike certain modern tendencies to make personal suffering for the sake of the other an end-in-itself (the inverse of liberal autonomy), the Biblical narratives indicate that all suffering belongs to the process of the formation of a genuinely ethical community of personal and relational beings participating in the medium of the divine life, already relational in essence.
Amid our 21st-century social and cultural realities we can, with the materialists, continue to misunderstand nature and resign ourselves to our despairing attempts at conquering its mysteries, all the while emptying it of all meaning, or we can reassert, not powerlessness in the face of the void, but a return to transcendence. Historically and culturally in the western world, this has taken the form of a sacramental ontology that distinguishes and elevates the dignity of persons whilst insisting on their full belonging to the cosmos in its entirety as the singular expression of divinity.