Only God Can Save Us, But Who Wants to Be Saved?

Simone de Beauvoir
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In the comments for my Heidegger post, Dylan writes:

I’m operating on a semester-old reading of B&T here, but even authentic Dasein are indebted to Das Man inasmuch as their authenticity is a result of untethering oneself from Das Man. Viewed collectively, this is pretty unsatisfying. Wouldn’t one be thrown into possibilities even if all those already in the world are authentic? They’d just be different possibilities. This seems like a case where, at a more radical level, only a God can save us. This is me and not Heidegger talking, of course, but I do think there are serious religious possibilities in his account of being-toward-death.

Which is to say this is another edition of “Kierkegaard and Tillich got it right”.

I’m not so sure about that, although that could in part be because I’m misreading Dylan’s objection. But it seems to me that he’s saying he objects to the lack of a natural endpoint in Heidegger’s philosophy. Kierkegaard thinks that we are in despair until we achieve a relation between the opposing forces within ourself; Heidegger, like most of the later existentialists, seems to think that we will always have some sort of struggle, and nothing can save us from it. We will always have anxiety, and we will always feel despair.

Personally, I don’t find that as unsatisfying as Dylan seems to. In fact, if “saved” means what I think it means in this case, I’m not so sure I want to be saved. Noted frumpy philosopher Simone de Beauvoir does, I think, the best job of explaining why.

Beauvoir thinks humans are fundamentally free, that freedom consisting of the ability to assign meaning to things within the world. We exercise this freedom through the goals we project ourselves towards. That means that if one does reach a natural endpoint and accomplishes all of his goals, he needs to find some others or else he is no longer willing his own freedom into existence. If you don’t have a goal to project towards, then you are not assigning anything meaning; and if you are not bringing meaning into the world, then your life itself has no real meaning.

You can bet I’ll be expanding on this idea, and its implications, in the future. Especially because I’m currently reading The Ethics of Ambiguity, Beauvoir’s great work of existentialist ethics, which so far is the most personally resonant and convincing metaethical work I’ve read. Since Freddie is the clubhouse’s resident Beauvoir expert, maybe we can persuade him to offer some insights.

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One Response

  1. I’m not saying that this is a contradiction at all of what you wrote– I would just add that there is no place you can occupy where you have accomplished your goals or reached the endpoint of your freedom and yet are not engaging in mauvaise foi. Because there are no conclusions in life except for the conclusion of death, the responsibility to undertake the ethical project of recognizing your own freedom is endlessly recurring.

    I won’t comment on Heidegger because frankly, I don’t understand Heidegger. Orientation-towards-death is important on a number of levels. The first is that it demonstrates a real commitment to the atheistic enterprise; the elimination of God and the afterlife from the level of the ideal is challenging both because of the death of the idea of that-thing-I-must-do (the essentialized character of your individual existence) but also because of the simple terror of your finite being. (And I think honesty compels us to point out that, for most of us, terror is a big part of the consideration of death.) It is also, as you say, an important element of the ethical purpose because the acknowledgment of death as the conclusion of all of life’s work creates the insistence on the inevitability of a continually self-refreshing ethical project.

    Many atheists like to say that religion is ultimately about the denial of the harsh reality of death, but I actually find, among my fellow atheists, very many people who (like Kevin Drum) are deeply committed to the functional denial of death in their own minds.

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