Presented at the Northeastern Political Science Association Meeting in Boston, MA on 11/3/23. Add @northeastpsa on X.
Hi everyone. I'm Ashok. I teach at Odessa College, a junior college in West Texas surrounded by oil fields. I count myself lucky to have even submitted a paper to this conference. I started my new job in August and I have had plenty of packed days. I am learning to assert my research focus with more conviction: How does political philosophy work for us? I hope you'll see these remarks as an extension of that project.
Why should we care about Heidegger's reading of Antigone's "Ode to Man?" Not only was Heidegger a Nazi, but the publication of the Black Notebooks shows he believed the Nazis were not brutal enough. He saw the very notion of culture, alongside that of technology, as threats to a more authentic way of life. (1) To say these are dangerous, warped ideas of his is to understate what is at stake. Moreover, the reading of the "Ode to Man" in his 1935 Introduction to Metaphysics is authoritarian propaganda. If one doubts that, one can ask Martin Heidegger about it, because he offers another interpretation of Antigone later.
I can tell you this. Heidegger's initial reading, the one my paper examines, glorifies violence and makes claims about historical greatness which are absurd. While it does both these things, it merges existentialist ideas with classical thought in ways that are profound and unnerving. I don't say that to romanticize Heidegger, but to underline that illiberal ideas and a contempt for other people cannot be fought through thoughtfulness alone.
There is more. As Heidegger's interpretation of the "Ode to Man" unfolds, we see him build a fascist myth which indulges a notion of innocence. Hence, the title of my paper, "Heidegger and the Failure of Innocence." He's painting humans as destined for historical greatness if they respond with an honest but brutal violence to a world itself replete with violence. I have not seen anything in the literature which speaks of a notion of innocence. My argument is that Heidegger advances it in dark ways: humans engage situations prior to moral comprehension; it is suggested those who brutally react are capable of great empathy; since the tradition is corrupt, any response is permitted. This creation of fascist victimization should be seen as complementary to Roger Griffin's definition of "palingenetic ultranationalism," especially as Heidegger seeks to return to the origins. It should also be seen as destructive of Heidegger's ability to understand his own thought. There were moments which could have been more.
The "Ode to Man" is justly an artistic triumph. It is spoken by the Chorus of Theban elders who will say both Antigone, a girl who illegally buried her brother, wrote her own fate, and also that Creon grievously erred in sentencing her to death. Here is how this Chorus sees humanity:
There are many strange and wonderful things, but nothing more strangely wonderful than man. He moves across the white-capped ocean seas blasted by winter storms, carving his way under the surging waves engulfing him. With his teams of horses he wears down the unwearied and immortal earth, the oldest of the gods, harassing her, as year by year his ploughs move back and forth. He snares the light-winged flocks of birds, herds of wild beasts, creatures from deep seas, trapped in the fine mesh of his hunting nets. O resourceful man, whose skill can overcome ferocious beasts roaming mountain heights. He curbs the rough-haired horses with his bit and tames the inexhaustible mountain bulls, setting their savage necks beneath his yoke. He’s taught himself speech and wind-swift thought, trained his feelings for communal civic life, learning to escape the icy shafts of frost, volleys of pelting rain in winter storms, the harsh life lived under the open sky. That’s man—so resourceful in all he does. There’s no event his skill cannot confront— other than death—that alone he cannot shun, although for many baffling sicknesses he has discovered his own remedies. The qualities of his inventive skills bring arts beyond his dreams and lead him on, sometimes to evil and sometimes to good. If he treats his country’s laws with due respect and honours justice by swearing on the gods, he wins high honours in his city. But when he grows bold and turns to evil, then he has no city. A man like that— let him not share my home or know my mind. (Translation: Ian Johnston)
That's Sophocles' "Ode to Man." You can see why this is a big deal. Humans are "strange"--as Heidegger points out, really deinon, "terrible" and "clever." Endlessly inventive and cruel, to be sure. The Chorus can't figure out what humans are. They can't really reconcile the fact that individual humans could take over everything with the existence of the city or justice. So they plainly assert that yeah, people are violent and clever, and if people actually act that way, well, they're evil.
Heidegger is not being faithless to the ode in his reading. He's taking the problem the Chorus doesn't resolve and pushing it to an extreme. Humans are all-conquering. That's a brute fact. To expect them to be something entirely different–tamed by culture or enhanced by technology--is a loss. Humans are violent because the seas, the mountains, the birds, the animals will overwhelm them otherwise.
Hence, there's an innocence in the Ode for Heidegger. He's highlighting how humanity could be prior to moral comprehension. This goes hand-in-hand with how he believes the Ode helps us understand Parmenides, who is commonly thought to assert that being is thinking. You can see overtones of how being human could be a result of a primal reaction to survive and prosper.
Heidegger ultimately believes that the Greeks, prior to things like "culture" and "technology," achieved a lasting legacy because of their authentic violence. They dared to create in the face of the "overwhelming sway," which Heidegger holds the "Ode to Man" illustrates.
You'll have to read the paper to hear a little more about that. For now, I want to focus on how Heidegger hints that violent creators are truly empathetic. You know, as opposed to us who give to food banks or orphanages.
What we have to do is really think about how rich a suggestion is given in the idea that all of us, at any time, face the "overwhelming sway." The ancients confronted it, struggled, and won historical greatness. That last part is not quite as profound as Heidegger thinks it is. However, the idea that we face what the ancients faced goes deeper. The terror which animated ancient piety still exists in modern life, but we've covered it up. If we can recognize that, it is possible to build a number of bridges to lives of the past. There are griefs and joys we can relate to because we are dealing with an original disposition of beings as opposed to anything mediated (2).
This can be considered a merger of existentialist ideas and classical thought. Talk about whether life has meaning or not is brought into contact with questioning about Being with a capital B, which otherwise might go the direction of science or morality. Here, the question is that of experience. How profound, exactly, are our authentic experiences? How deeply do they reach?
Heidegger has something really affecting here. Unfortunately, instead of developing it, he wants to talk of "greatness." Those who achieve true greatness are not only innocent in their reactions but can seen as deserving of empathy. Not only do they fail to avoid struggle, they themselves are capable of greater empathy: the suggestion is they reach through their experience to the experiences of others.
Fascism has brought about many tragedies in the name of national rebirth. I like the term "palingenetic ultranationalism," because it hones in on the need for a myth about a pure people which must be reborn. But the term alone doesn't describe all the behavior we see from fascists. While reading Heidegger's portrait of humanity, what struck me was how essential innocence was to his story. An innocence which could even exclusively claim empathy. I don't know that more thoughtfulness will end fascism, but I know that it is helpful to remember what words mean and not ignore obvious inferences. It can be tricky to do this when a fascist has allowed us a glimpse of a greater emotional range, and not as tricky when he extols violence for the sake of a supposed historical worthiness.
(1) Alexander Duff, "Heidegger's Post-Western Politics." Political Research Quarterly 76, no. 2 (2022): 802. https://doi.org/10.1177/10659129221113771.
(2) Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics. Translation Gregory Fried and Richard Polt. New Haven: Yale, 2000. 2.