On the Ancient Maxim, “Know Thyself”
What Is Existentialism?
There are two ways in which we can increase our knowledge. Scholastic philosophers including St. Thomas described these two ways as increase either by extension or by intension [spelled with an “s”], or, as we might more commonly say, by intensification. An increase of knowledge by extension consists of learning things that we didn’t know before. So, for example, our knowledge extends further every time we do a new proposition in Euclid. An increase by intension, by contrast, occurs when we see more deeply into something which we already knew. For example, two people might recognize the definition of man as “rational animal,” but one of the two might come to see better than another what this means, or might come to see this definition fulfilled in experience better than another.
There is, of course, a connection between these two ways of qantifying knowledge, since the more deeply one grasps an object the more one is able to discover new things about it. And the reverse is true also: learning the properties of a triangle, for example, results in a deeper grasp of what a triangle is. But in spite of this connection, we can still recognize that intension and extension are different things.
This twofold quantification of knowledge also corresponds to a twofold manner in which knowledge can be used or exercised. After you learn the Pythagorean Theorem, for instance, you may choose to recollect it merely in passing, and say to yourself, “I know that,” and then go on to other things and say to yourself, “I know those things too.” Or you may pause and more closely examine and savor what you know; you may live with it, so to speak, let it sink into your soul, and let it become fully an object of contemplation. When we do the latter instead of the former, what we usually find is that we learn far more and far better. This only stands to reason, of course, because learning is ordered to contemplation and not to the mere collection of propositions.
In the classroom, we should remember these things. If we fail to be mindful of them, we may unwittingly begin to conceive of intellectual growth and activity as if it were nothing but the acquisition of new propositions, like collecting stamps; and if that happens, we may never really have the experience of looking at things with all the depth, the distinction, and the savoring that we should habituate ourselves to.
All of this is relevant to what I am going to discuss tonight, because my main goal will not be to propose propositions which are new to you; rather, it will be to consider something of which we all are aware more or less, but to consider it with a view to grasping it more fully. What I want mainly to consider could be summed up in this simple proposition: Our existence is a very great gift. I think we all know, or at any rate believe this already; but by the end of this lecture, I hope that you will be able to grasp the meaning of it a little bit more deeply, and also behold its truth with a greater sense of awe. Further, I hope that we will have a glimpse of how this proposition is, in a very special way, a fulfillment of the ancient exhortation, “Know thyself.”
1. Two Views Concerning the Meaning of Being
I am going to start by considering some suggestions of a modern philosopher about the proposition just enunciated. Heidegger is the philosopher I have in mind. You may wonder why I have chosen to discuss Heidegger, since he is not in the TAC curriculum, and since besides I in no way wish to pretend to being a Heidegger scholar. But I will tell you briefly why I think it will be useful for us to consider just a few of the things Heidegger says. Although there is dispute about it in some circles, I think that finally there can be no doubt but that Heidegger’s philosophy is essentially an atheist philosophy. The TAC curriculum contains the works of several atheist authors. But I remember that when I was a student, I was struck by the fact that some authors saw the implications of atheism better than others. As a student I found Neitzche most remarkable in this regard. When I first read Nietzche, I thought, here is a man who really understands the implications of denying God’s existence. And because of that I think you can learn a great deal from Neitzche. He shows you, better than many other thinkers do, what is really at stake when you either affirm or deny God’s existence. And I think that Heidegger is another author about whom this is true, in other ways. Although you may soon be convinced that a good deal of what Heidegger says is false, I think you will still see why he deserves our attention. For one thing, he is not wrong about everything; indeed he looks deeply into things, and he is deeply right about many things. He is also profoundly wrong about many things; but there is a real sense in which it is impossible to be profoundly wrong without looking deeply into things. As with Nietzche, therefore, you will see better the implications of either affirming or denying certain propositions by examining what Heidegger proposes. And a final reason why he deserves our attention is because his opinions, whether right or wrong, have a very great influence on the world we live in.
In his famous work Being and Time, Heidegger proposes an important development of the concept of “anxiety” which had preoccupied Kierkegaard. Heidegger writes this about anxiety: “That in the face of which one has anxiety is being-in-the-world as such.” This assertion naturally arouses curiosity. We may in the first place wonder why anxiety became such a philosophical preoccupation at all; and then we must furthermore wonder what Heidegger’s proposed explanation of it means exactly. Even on the superficial level of the words themselves, Heidegger’s claim seems strange. For to begin with, how is “being-in-the-world” different from just being or existing; or is it different at all? And then, why would mere being, of all things, be a source of anxiety? Doesn’t anxiety usually have some more determinate object than that?
Heidegger is well known for expressions related to this expression “being-in-the-world.” He habitually refers to man as “Dasein,” which literally means “being there.” He also describes man as being “thrown forth.” What do these expressions mean? Are they simply poetic expressions used to indicate the challenges of human existence, or something to that effect? Is the gist of the thought simply that we can expect to be anxious when we encounter the challenges of our existence?
In an essay entitled What is Metaphysics, which Heidegger gave as his inaugural lecture at the University of Frieburg shortly after the publication of Being and Time, he reveals that the meaning of these expressions involves something much deeper than this. Heidegger asserts that the root of being is nothingness. He tries to make a case that being grows out of nothingness, apparently by the only route which is even sophistically available: namely, by the fact that being is not nothing. Heidegger concludes the lecture What is Metaphysics with the assertion that the fundamental question of metaphysics is this one: “Why is there something and not nothing?” A corollary to his claim that nothingness is the source of all being is that nothingness remains at the heart of being, even while being continues to be not nothing. And this is why Heidegger refers to man as being “thrown forth:” being, for Heidegger refers to something like being projected out of nothingness, and therefore having nothingness as ones ultimate first principle for the explanation of all that is, including ourselves.
As if these assertions were not remarkable enough, Heidegger goes still further. He asserts that the we can find a sign of the truth of the aforesaid claims in the experience of such moods as boredom and anxiety. Boredom and anxiety are not, therefore, the consequence of an occasional lack of vision or of unfortunate temporary circumstances. They are the very opposite; they are signs of the ultimate metaphysical truth, which is that nothingness lies at the root of being.
Judged through the eyes of an untroubled faith, all of this is may sound silly to some of you. Yet whether this is so or not is not what I want to consider right now. Rather I would like to consider the intellectual perspective which could lead Heidegger to say these things, and further how this perspective relates either by sameness or by contrast with what is true. We shall see that while Heidegger’s views are in some ways quite radically false, there is something in them which is true. In fact the falsehood is built upon a rather profound examination of what is true. I think that a very good way to see this is to turn to Aquinas’s third argument for the existence of God. For as we shall see, there is a very close connection between Heidegger’s theory of man as “Dasein” and St. Thomas’ third argument for the existence of God.
In very brief summary, Aquinas’ third argument for God’s existence is based on the contingency of created things. It begins with realizing that the things of our experience are contingent, that is, able to not be. It then argues that if the sum total of all that is were contingent, nothing would exist. In other words, contingent being is not self-explanatory; it requires a non-contingent being to explain it. Consequently, God must exist, and He must exist as a being wholly devoid of contingency, that is, as a being whose very essence is to exist.
It is important to understand that here Aquinas is using “contingency” in the most universal sense possible. It does not merely mean “corruptible” in the ordinary sense of that word. Material things are corruptible since they are composed of form and matter, and able therefore to decompose, that is, lose their composition. But the sense in which Aquinas is using the word “contingent” applies even to things which are not composed in this way: to angels, for instance, which are pure form so to speak. Although they are not made “out of” anything, angels are still contingent, and the reason is that they do not have their existence from themselves, from what they are. In other words, even for an angel, “to be” is not the same as what it is.
We can note two corollaries to this argument. The first is that contingency, although not necessarily the consequence of composition in any more familiar sense of the word, is the result of composition at least in the sense that in all creatures the “to be” and the “what it is” are distinguishable, so that the creature can be said in some sense to be composed of these.
The second is that this composition of being and essence, which is universal among all creatures, is tied up with the fact that the what it is, or the essence, of creatures involves a kind of limitation of its being. In other words, for all created things, to be what it is involves not being something as well. This is illustrated by how we define things, and indeed by the etymology of the very word “definition.” For the word itself, define, seems to mean to delimit or demarcate or cut off, by setting a limit or boundary. And when we define things, we do this. For example, when we define a triangle, we say that it is a three-sided figure, which we understand by distinction from what it would mean to have four, or some other number, of sides.
The essence of all created beings therefore apparently involves not-being something, as well as being something. In God, on the contrary, we find the only being whose essence involves no demarcation or delimitation whatsoever, which is why we say He is infinite. For God, in other words, the essence is purely and simply to be. And it is because His essence is to be that God is not contingent, not able to not be. This is why he says of Himself, “I am,” or “I am Who am,” or “I am that I am.”
In summary, therefore, Aquinas’s Third Way says that in order for me or any other contingent creature to exist, there must be a being who can say of himself, “I am Who am.”
Heidegger, in speaking of man as Dasein, and speaking of the nothing as lying at the root of being, is evidently preoccupied with the very same contingency of being which lies at the basis of Aquinas’s third way. This is already a very deep and important similarity between Aquinas and Heidegger. Heidegger recognizes, as does Aquinas, that non-being is inextricably involved in the nature of the things of our experience, and this non-being is the source of contingency, or, to use Heidegger’s more poetic language, of being “thrown forth.”
But alongside this similarity, the dissimilarity between Heidegger and Aquinas is very striking. For whereas Heidegger allows himself to draw the conclusion that “the nothing” is, indeed, the very root of being itself, Aquinas draws precisely the opposite conclusion; he argues in effect that if the nothing were without qualification at the root of being, there would be nothing. In other words, if there were no being whose existence is entirely uncircumscribed by non-being, nothing at all would exist.
2. Understanding God
Perhaps you will want me to stop right now, because you think it obvious that Aquinas, and not Heidegger, says what is true about this. Nevertheless, it will be worth our while to go further to see what could lead Heidegger to think the way he does. Given these two alternatives, namely to say either that the root of being is nothingness or that there is a God whose essence is simply and precisely to be, why might one choose the former and not the latter? There is another important way in which we might wonder about this as well, which as we shall see is very much present in Heidegger’s mind. We can wonder not only about the truth about what is, but also about meaning, or what is meant by what is. The things of our experience have not only existence, but also intelligibility or meaning. And therefore we can and should ask this also: What could induce one to think, as Heidegger does, that nothingness, rather than a God Who is pure actuality, is the root not only of all being, but also of all meaning or intelligibility?
In seeking an answer, the first thing that deserves noting and emphasizing is that we do already have before us the only alternatives. Either pure, infinite, non-demarcated being is at the source of all things, or contingency is the very heart of reality. At the deepest level, this is what Heidegger and Aquinas both understand and agree about. Either it is possible for a being to exist which is pure, uncircumscribed being or it is impossible. If it is impossible, then indeed Heidegger will be right, and nothingness will find itself somehow at the very heart not only of the truth about being, but also of what being means.
So, then, which alternative is really the one which is intelligible? Certainly it seems hard to find intelligibility in the claim that not-being is the source of being. But observe that we face challenges on the other side also. What are we saying when we say that a pure, uncircumscribed being exists? Let us examine this a little. In the first place, we might notice right away that the way we have put the alternatives to ourselves is a little bit odd. We said that it is either possible or impossible for an uncircumscribed being to exist. But clearly, if an uncircumscribed being exists, calling it “possible” is apt to be misleading, since there will be nothing about it to warrant a distinction between its being possible and its simply being.
Moreover, how is it not redundant to say that an uncircumscribed being exists? What does “being exists” mean? The very possibility of making propositions – not just saying them but thinking them – seems to require that we be able to distinguish a subject and a predicate. If the subject and the predicate are in no way distinguishable, how can we be saying anything, or expressing what is?
Alternately, if we affirm that in this case the subject and predicate are exactly identical nevertheless, so that saying that “God exists” is a way of saying “A is A,” then it appears that “God exists” will have to be taken as self-evident; for it is self-evident that everything is what it is. Historically there have indeed been those who thought that this was in fact the right way for us to reason about God. The famous “ontological argument” of St. Anselm attempts to reason to God’s existence from nothing at all except the mere idea of what God is. But to do this is indeed tantamount to saying that His existence is self-evident, in which case it may seem that should have required no argument or discussion in the first place.
Yet this is still not the end of our difficulties either. We may say that it is logically self-evident, a tautology, that anything is what it is, and that this neither requires nor even seems to admit of proof. But in affirming that God exists we shall, it seems, have to be going even further. Our language, which is a reflection of what we know, seems to give us no choice but to use different verbal formulations when we wish to express what a thing is from those we use when we want to say that it is. Whenever we say something of the form, “A is A,” we seem to be talking about what something is, rather than that it is; for example, “A dog is a dog,” “A dinosaur is a dinosaur,” “Non-being is non-being,” and so forth. But how should we even begin to speak when what we want to express is not the self-identity of what a thing is, but rather the identity of a what it is and that it is? The fact is that there is nothing in our sensible experience which seems to immediately support that way of speaking.
If we examine all this carefully and patiently, we must begin to see something which is truly amazing. Aquinas’s third argument for God’s existence draws a true conclusion, and the conclusion is drawn in order to explain the realities of our experience. But what it effectively proposes as the explanation of our experience could well be described as the most spectacular discovery that we can ever draw from experience. We may disagree with Heidegger; but nevertheless we may recognize a debt to him for having helped us to see, by way of opposition, how marvelous this conclusion really is. For in spite of Heidegger’s having looked deeply into the contingency of created being, just as Aquinas did, he found it simply too much to explain that contingency through a pure, uncircumscribed being, preferring instead to hold that contingency has no explanation, but is instead the explanation of everything else.
I shall suggest one final way in which we might see how marvelous the conclusion is that God exists. Ordinarily one does not think of questions as being true or false; rather it is the answers which we think are true or false, because it is the answers and not the questions which either affirm or deny. But there is a sense in which we can be true or false in other ways than by a statement or an answer. One’s manner of dress, for example, can be “untrue,” so to speak, to one’s character or person, and consequently deceptive. Questions, likewise, can be true or untrue to reality. A thief, for example, might deceive a policeman who is looking for him by asking him, “Did you catch the thief yet?” The thief knows full well that the answer is “no” because he is the thief, but he uses the question to feign ignorance. So the question that the thief asks is unsuited to the real circumstances, and consequently serves as a means of deception.
There can also be questions which are not asked out of a desire to deceive, but which still apparently fail, in some sense, to suit the reality which is the subject of inquiry. I will give you an interesting example which really happened. When my oldest son was about three or four years old, we had a man come and do major construction repairs on our house. This contractor was a very impressive man: he was big and strong, had a very deep voice, he knew how to fix just about anything, and on top of all that he was also very kind to my children. His name was John. I know that John made quite an impression on my little son, because my son always wanted to watch John work, and work with him. One day, my son asked me a very peculiar question. He said, “Daddy, why is that man John?” On first hearing this question, I thought that my son had failed to ask the question he really had in mind. I said to him in response, “Do you mean, “Why is he named John?” But my son responded, “No, I mean why is he John.” My son didn’t want to know why he was named John. He wanted to know why he was John. Needless to say, I was a little bit baffled. How was I supposed to answer a nonsensical question like that?! Being who you are is not the sort of thing normal people try to explain! Still, my son was so impressed with John that he even apparently went so far as to wonder why he was John!!
So this is an example of a question which doesn’t seem to make sense, because it doesn’t, apparently, suit the subject which is in question. We don’t ordinarily look for reasons for being who we are. And I maintain that something similar to this happens when we set out to prove the existence of God. We do so because we ask a question, namely, “Does God exist?”. We think that the subject of the question, God, is a suitable subject for such a question. And indeed it could not be otherwise, because the fact is that to us, God’s existence is not self-evident. But as it turns out – as indeed we may discover through the proof itself – in itself God’s existence is even more self-evident than the fact that John must be John. It turns out, in other words, that even though the question, “Does God exist?” seems to be and is an eminently reasonable one for us to pose, the answer itself reveals that in a sense the question does not suit the subject of the question; for in retrospect we must conclude that there was never the slightest conceivable possibility in the first place that the subject, God, might not exist. So, we might say, what we prove when we answer the question, “Does God exist?” is that in reality, so to speak, there is no question, no matter how legitimate the question is for us.
[So, in the end, we may say that coming to the knowledge of God is a little like finding a mathematical limit. The mathematical concept of a limit often proves difficult to grasp, because in fact it is not even a mathematical operation in the ordinary sense. In ordinary mathematical operations, we actually use quantities which we already have to make out of them a new quantity which we don’t yet have. For example, we can take two lines and add them together to quite literally make a third quantity which is their sum. And often people speak in mathematics of “taking the limit,” as if that too were a similar sort of mathematical operation in which we make something new out of what we already have. But it really isn’t that at all. “Taking the limit” really means not producing, but rather finding the first quantity which falls beyond a given series of quantities.
In reasoning about God’s existence, we do something in a way comparable to this, but still more radical in character. What corresponds to the mathematical series is the order of created things, and God is like the limit whose existence we infer from the order of created things. So we might say that we discover God by, so to speak, “taking the limit” of created things. But in mathematics we look at the series of quantities, and we also look at, and see, the limit as the first thing which stands outside the series. In proving God’s existence, on the other hand, we find God as standing outside, as the limit as it were, not just of something else which we look at, but of our very power of looking itself. It is as if we say to ourselves that we could not observe the order of created things without saying that God exists and knowing that what we say is true; yet the statement that God exists is one which we can but barely begin to grasp.
My purpose in saying all of this is not merely to impress on you the difficulty we have in knowing about God, and it is certainly not in order that you should have any doubt about what your faith tells you. Rather it is so that you can see that the proposition, “God exists,” expresses an absolutely spectacular truth. If we have faith but fail to be vigorous in our exercise of it, we may fail to see this. We may grow accustomed to thinking of God as if He were just another contingent person like ourselves. We can be thankful that it is possible to apprehend God, the One Who says “I am Who Am,” not only through faith but even through reason. But what we apprehend thereby is so spectacular that our reason is scarcely up to the task at all. “As high as the heavens are above the earth,” God Himself tells us, “so high are my thoughts above your thoughts.”
3. Understanding Ourselves
At this point, I am sure some of you are wondering what all this has to do with what I said I was going to discuss at the beginning of the lecture. Perhaps you are saying to yourselves, “He has wandered off on a tangent, and he doesn’t even notice. He said he was going to talk about our existence, about how it’s a great gift. Instead he has spent this entire time talking about God’s existence.” So now I will conclude this talk by showing how thinking about our own existence, and fulfilling the ancient maxim, “Know thyself,” actually depends quite entirely on the things we just have been discussing.
To begin with, you may have already noticed that what Heidegger suggests about this is deeply instructive. The description of man as Dasein, as “thrown forth” into the world, is manifestly a close correlative to the view that being itself is thoroughly and radically contingent, which is another way of saying that God is not the author of our being. And so evidently what one says about God, particularly about whether He exists or not, has the deepest implications for what we say about ourselves.
There is another thread in Heidegger’s discussion of man which will show us these implications more fully. Heidegger at certain moments is struck with the fact that men are capable of living in a manner which he describes as anonymous. Heidegger speaks of “the anonymous one” as if it were a natural or even a metaphysical category. And there is a great deal of truth to what he says about this. It is true that men are remarkably capable of living what I will call extroverted lives. By “extroverted” here I don’t mean exactly what is usually meant. I mean that we have the ability to give ourselves over in a radically uncontemplative way to public and ordinary customs and habits, so that we end up making no judgments – so that we even become incapable of making judgments – about who we are and why we do what we do, beyond letting the environment dictate our actions to us in a quasi-mechanical way. It is this kind of person whom Heidegger refers to as “the anonymous one,” as if to say that such a one has no name, no identity, and no self-determination. And Heidegger is undoubtedly right that many people live their lives this way.
But consider, for a moment, why Heidegger might think of this phenomenon of anonymity as having deeply metaphysical roots and implications. The connection with what we have just been discussing is not so difficult to see. Heidegger says that man is “thrown forth,” hurled as it were into the vacant environment of mostly nothing, because he thinks that nothingness rather than God’s perfect being is the very basis of being. Evidently then, as a corollary, the question, “Who am I?” would have to be answered by first of all saying that I am of no account, and so are you. This is what Heidegger thinks, and he thinks that the remedy for this unhappy state of affairs is to make something of ourselves, to create ourselves so to speak by activity boldly undertaken in the face of the overwhelming nothingness. This is the very heart of what is often called existentialism, which has recently been threatening to engulf the world.
But if we see the reason why Heidegger thinks of anonymity as a metaphysical category, then we can also see why the alternative view has spectacularly different implications concerning what the world “I” means. In Aquinas, the question about what the root of created beings is is answered by saying that it is God, Who is pure being itself. But this perfect being which is God also has the character of a person — or rather, as the faith teaches us, three persons. That is to say that it makes sense to ask, concerning the very source of all being, not just what it is, but also who it is. And this makes a spectacular difference to who we are, and who each one of us is.
In other words this word “who” itself must, from a metaphysical perspective, mean something utterly different in the view of Heidegger than it does to a Christian. For in fact Heidegger is right: if there is no God, and if the root of being is nothing, then the who of all beings is indeed anonymity itself in the most radical sense conceivable. Or to put it more bluntly, “Who?” no longer makes sense as a question, whether asked about God or about us. But if, on the contrary, a God exists who can and does answer for us the question, “Who is God,” then there will also be an answer to this other question, namely “Who am I?” The answer will consist in seeing who we are, who each of us is, as somehow a reflection, distant at least, of Who God is.
When I was a little child, I had for the first time a particular experience of wonder which I have never forgotten, and which occasionally recurs and provokes the same amazement over again. Perhaps you have had a similar experience. The experience is reminiscent of Descartes’ doubt as to whether he really exists, yet it is different as well. Descartes’ desire to prove he exists seems rather unnatural, for it hardly seems natural to doubt one’s existence. But it should not be thought unnatural to be surprised at one’s existence, and to be baffled about what that existence means. This is the experience which I am speaking of. Actually, the word “surprised” is rather too weak a word to use; what I mean to say is something more like “thoroughly astonished and baffled.”
I have often asked myself how I might best describe this moment of astonishment, and just as often I have felt a little unsure about it. Most often the question seems to me to present itself in some such form as, “What in the world am I doing here??!” Perhaps you will not think that this is such an important question when all is said and done. It will seem less important if we do what we normally do with questions, which is to take the subject as given, and take the question itself to be about whether the predicate belongs to the subject. So here, I might take the “I” which is the subject of the question as simply understood, and think that what I mean to be asking is just, “How did I get here?” — the emphasis being not on “I” but on “get here.” And then, of course, we can answer the question by remembering our catechism: I got here because God made me, and He made me because He loves me.
Of course it is hardly a mere trifle to be able to say this. But finally the question, and its answer if there is to be one, really means much more than one is apt to see at first; in fact undoubtedly more than we shall ever be able to fathom in this life. At the bottom of the question there really lurks the mysterious question about what “I” means. How does it come about that each of us can say, “I”? And what does it mean when we say, “I”? I do not think that we can fathom the answers to these questions very deeply in this life. But it is no small thing to be able to make a start at least, by seeing that the questions themselves are real ones, which means that they have real answers as well.
What the “I” by which each of us refers to ourselves means, first of all, is that that spectacular answer to the question, “Who is God?”, namely, “I am Who Am,” is also the source of what “I” means for you and me. The “I” which we say of ourselves is in other words a reflection, however distant it may be, of the I whose name is “Who Am.” For we must continue to remind ourselves that there are only two alternatives before us when we set out to understand what “I” means. The other alternative to the one just proposed is to say that “I” means nothing, that “I” refers to a meaningless and anonymous standing out in the void.
But in the true alternative, we may go still further. If we see that the “I” which each of us is is a reflection of that first and greatest “I”, then we can also see that the “I” by which we refer to ourselves is also a kind of image and representation of that first and greatest “I”. This is a spectacular dignity which has been given to us simply through the fact that we are rational creatures of God.
There are two levels on which we can think about this. The first level is that on which we can understand ourselves to be simply asking about what it means for man to exist, that is man taken as a species. But the second level is that on which we ask not about man merely, but about this man, the one whom I call “I,” or “you,” or “he” or “she.” We must see that not only man as such, but even this man as such, is somehow nameable only in consequence of the fact that God, too, is nameable, for He is the One Who says of Himself, “I am.”
Though it is difficult to see very far into these things, it is good for us to meditate on them. In the last part of my lecture, I will offer some concrete aids to such meditation.
The first ones are from the Old Testament. The Old Testament is full of stories of which one of the primary purposes seems to be to reveal that the human individual is endowed with an enormous dignity just by existing as a person, but a dignity nevertheless which we do not give ourselves; for our person, so far as it has goodness in it, is the work of God and not of ourselves. Saul becomes melancholic because he fails to understand this until it is rather too late. From failing to understand the sovereignty of the One Who says “I am,” he fails also to understand and live up to who he himself is and is called to be. We might say that he tries to be autonomous in an existentialist sense. David, by contrast, lives up to his vocation as the child of God; he understands that that is who he is. Another example is Pharaoh, who learns the hard way that his agency in the world is not, as he thinks at first, due to his own radical autonomy. We are, rather, chosen to be sons of God, which is the same as to have God as our Father, as Abba.
By way of still another remarkable contrast, we can see something similar in Dante’s Inferno. One of the many unforgettable scenes in Dante’s Divine Comedy is the description of Capaneus in Canto 14 of the Inferno. Here we see Capaneus lying on his back on the very hot ground, remorselessly hurling insults up to God, while God in turn shows His willingness to be obliging by sending an eternal rain of fire back down onto Capaneus. The picture is shockingly clear – at least on the level of imagination. On the level of reason there is still ample room for us to pose the question, “What in the world is going on here?” Why does Capaneus insist on continuing to hurl insults at God even after he is dead and tormented in hell, and Why does God respond by raining fire down on Capaneus for all eternity?
A complete answer to these questions might take a long while to elaborate. But the beginning of an answer is perhaps fairly plain. Capaneus’s anger against God is a sure sign that he is not content with his own place in the order of things. By “his place in the order of things,” I don’t just mean the place he’s in now, called hell. I mean, rather, the place which God intended him to have, which is not hell. In other words, Capaneus is not content with who he is, which is the same as Who God intended Him to be. But there is just one impediment to Capaneus being someone other than who he is, and the name of that impediment is God. We can say this in another way: Capaneus is eternally involved in the frightfully unhappy enterprise of rejecting his own dignity, and preferring something else in its place. In a sense we might say that God obliges him. But in another, truer sense, God refuses to oblige him. Even in Hell, surprisingly, it is impossible to divest oneself entirely of one’s own dignity. The reason for this is because God is love, not hate, and even if some creatures may hate God, God does not reciprocate.
I think we can also think about these things with the help of pagan literature. In the Rome described by Tacitus, Tiberius is intriguing in more than one way. Tacitus says Tiberius had a habit of hiding himself, both by the obscurity and unpredictability of his speech and also by plain physical absence. Although Tacitus exercises a historian’s discretion, we cannot help sensing that there is a deep connection between Tiberius’s tendency to hide and be obscure, on the one hand, and the bizarre, irrational, and brutal excesses which members of the Roman aristocracy begin to engage in on the other. This illustrates the deep connection which exists between how we act and how we understand our very being as persons. If people identify themselves with their leader, as is certainly natural and as the Roman senators certainly did with Tiberius, while the leader on the other hand makes himself thoroughly obscure, the effect is that the people cease in a very real way to know themselves, to know who they are. The grossly excessive attempts of the Roman senators to assert themselves by legislating against one another was really a bizarre attempt to perform acts by which they hoped to be able to sense and be reassured of their own dignity. Here, therefore, we have a very good example of how genuine freedom is rooted in a grasp or knowledge of one’s own dignity, while that dignity in turn comes (at least in part) from one’s leader or ruler, and ultimately from God.
A very different illustration of these same things can be discovered in the poetic images in Homer’s Odyssey. The Odyssey taken as whole is an extraordinary poetic reflection on man’s mysterious and contingent presence in the cosmos — man, that is, both in his species and as individuals. What is the Homeric description of Odysseus’s passage between Scylla and Charybdis, for example, if not a metaphor for the contingency of man’s existence in the world?
Why it is, moreover, that the Greeks held the virtue of hospitality in such high regard, as we see that Homer does in the Odyssey? Or by contrast, why is it that we feel such disgust at the abuse of hospitality which the suitors in the Odyssey show to Penelope and Telemachus, or to Odysseus himself when he returns home? And what is the meaning of the fact that Odysseus frequently presents himself to others in disguise? Yet again, why do we find ourselves moved in sympathy with Odysseus when he is lonely, notwithstanding his rather amazing voyage and encounters?
I think that we can say that the answer to all these questions is the same in its root. The Greeks saw that man’s appearance against the background of the world is truly a just cause for both wonder and respect. Again, this is true about man taken universally, but it is also about individual men, even as individuals. Perhaps the excessively artificial environment in which we often live nowadays is one of the causes which obscures this fact, because the artificiality which surrounds us can obscure the brightness of the reality which is the background, so to speak, of our existence. It is right, nevertheless, for us to try to recall the freshness of vision in which our own appearance, and the appearance of others, against the background of home or the world at large is cause for both wonder and rejoicing. It is right that the stranger, the xenoV , should arouse both wonder and respect whenever we encounter him, partly because he is another self, both strange and yet not strange. It is right that we should desire to share with others our sense of being at home in the world which has been given to us, especially when he, the stranger, momentarily feels himself to be not at home. And it is right that we should show hospitality, because this virtue is a distant but real reflection of God’s own invitation to us to partake in the beauty and goodness of reality.
All of these attitudes are right not for mere utilitarian or practical reasons, but for reasons which are rooted in our ability and inclination to contemplate, that is, to find meaning in the world, in ourselves, and both in and with other persons who share the world with us.
One of the strangest encounters in the Odyssey is that which Odysseus and his companions have with the Cyclops. The Cyclops is a giant, and he is powerful. We are inclined to say that he can take care of himself frightfully well, for example by swallowing Odysseus’s helpless companions whole whenever hunger seizes him. But he also is born with only a single eye. If you will allow me to speak in metaphors, I will say that he sees the world in a very centered way. But this is not just a peculiar perspective; more accurately, it is no perspective at all. The world and the persons in it are, for the Cyclops, nothing but objects for tyrannical use, because he is unable to see them in a reflective and contemplative manner. Therefore it is only fitting that upon departure from the Cyclops’ cave, Odysseus, by way another pun, tells the Cyclops that he, Odysseus, is “oudeis,” which means “nobody.” For the Cyclops’ world is that false world we have been examining, in which anonymity is the rule. In it, admiration and respect towards persons are non-existent, submerged under self-centered and efficient management of one’s own affairs. For the Cyclops the world and its inhabitants are only something to control, to use, and to consume.
I told you earlier about my son being impressed with John, our visitor, and consequently asking me the baffling question, “Why is that man John?” I could not then answer this question in any very adequate way, nor can I now. Yet perhaps we can now see that the question is not, after all, exactly nonsense. I would like to give you a final example from the Old and New Testaments by way of which we might meditate on this. In the book of Genesis we read the story of Joseph, the one rejected by his brothers. But despite being nobody to his brothers, he is not nobody to God. In the wonderful design of God, both he and his brothers finally come to understand this. It may, perhaps, be all too easy for us to scorn what Joseph’s brothers do as mere foolishness, and to want to distance ourselves from that sort of small mindedness. But we know, of course, that Joseph was a prophetic image of our Divine Savior, who also was and is rejected by his brothers.
To begin to understand what this means, I think we must be deeply conscious of the contemplative nature of man, and of how our contemplative nature informs all of our actions. In particular, we should understand the perversely contemplative aspect of the form of execution which the Romans invented for certain of their brothers, among whom was Christ. We speak today of the “sign of the cross.” But we should realize that the cross was a sign long before Christ endured it. Those who suffered that form of execution before, and even after, Christ, probably numbered in the thousands. What did their execution, in the particular form which it took, signify? What did it mean that He who called Himself the “Son of Man,” should suffer the humiliation of that sign? What was it a sign of? The very form of the cross gives us part of the answer. The cross was man’s way of saying to himself, even before Christ came, Ecce homo. But what man thought to behold while looking at himself was not what God’s own Wisdom desires us to behold. What Christ did, we may say, is make stunningly clear that the humanly invented sign, which we refer to as the cross, signified something false before Christ reformed it. The choice which lies before us is whether we will acknowledged this error or not.
On the last day, we shall fully know who we are and why we are who we are, and that knowledge will be rooted in awareness of the fact that we have been given the most spectacular honor imaginable, which is to exist, that is to live alongside and with Him who says, “I am who am.” Even now, we should meditate on this, on our having been called forth out of nothingness to participate in the world of being which is from God. All of our philosophical pursuits ought to take place against the background of this awareness. Such awareness is a cause for joy and for celebration in the truest and deepest sense of the word. It should also be for us a source of gratitude, love, and hope in the fulfillment of our lives in final blessedness. Although you may argue that there are still greater signs of God’s love, it is still important to see that those greater signs rest on this first blessing as upon a foundation.
As for the alternative view of things which is apparently being proposed by Heidegger and other atheist existentialists, you can now judge it for yourselves. By now you can no doubt see that “existentialism” is not a suitable name for a philosophical attitude which denies the meaning of existence. It is not true that to be man means to be thrown forth into the night of a dark empty space. This is not what man is, nor is it who man is. To be man means in fact the very opposite, namely to be invited to share in the light of an eternal and ineffable day. It is true that it is only on the last day that we shall finally be able to understand this in the fullest way possible. Yet we should understand that there is reason to rejoice even now, for in the words of Scripture, “This is the day which the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad.” This day is the foundation of every blessing we shall ever receive. To recognize it as such is, in no small measure, to truly begin to fulfill the ancient maxim, “Know thyself.”