By Steven Haug
I suspect that nearly all contemporary philosophers came to discover the discipline in their late teenage years, in their first year of college. Given the structure of a course of study at university, this almost always means that if someone decides to seriously study philosophy, they have to abruptly adjust the picture they have of their life. The philosophical life is something that most philosophers catch, it is not something we grow up wishing to pursue.
The first time I came across Nietzsche’s work, it was on the nightstand of someone I knew my freshman year at Texas A&M University. I’ve tried myself to trace the events that led me to eventually dedicating much of my adult life to studying philosophy, but if I am honest with myself, I recognize that any path would be more contrived than traced. Like most of the decisions I made around the time I first picked up Nietzsche’s work, the decision to major in philosophy was based on desire more than thought. There was no big story guiding my life to push me in one direction or another. Afterall, this is the mark of the current age and the death of God – it is as if we untethered the earth from the sun and now have no way of knowing where we are moving, or in which direction.
We have reached a time where it takes considerable effort to appreciate the profoundness of Nietzsche’s warning to the people in the marketplace when he pronounced the death of God. We have been without a sun for so long that we cannot but stumble our way through life. The difficulty, then, lies in knowing how to even look for the return of the big stories.
Philosophy itself has not been immune to the loss of the big stories that used to guide human life. Ancient and Medieval philosophy in general worked to identify and clarify these big stories. For many of the Greeks, this meant drawing out what it meant to be a Greek and identifying how they ought to live their lives because of this. Many of the Medieval philosophers worked through philosophy to align the human being with the word of God. Contemporary analytic philosophy, on the other hand, largely distinguishes itself from other branches of philosophy throughout history in that it approaches philosophy problem by problem, rather than focusing on the human being qua human being in the world.
We can find a similar turn in the history of art. Ancient Greek and Medieval art told the big stories that guided human existence. Over the last century and a half, art has stopped telling these big stories. Art turned in on itself and is often constructed to be evocative or force the question “what is art?”
While some people still live lives guided by big stories, whether that be faith in God, love of country, or a story they have created themselves (as many Existentialists argue we must), the majority of us do not. The age we live in is stained by this.
Martin Heidegger was born about a decade before Nietzsche’s death and changed his major to Philosophy at Freiburg University when he was in his early 20s. He approaches the question of the death of God in his later work, especially in his works dedicated to discussions about works of art. It is in these writings that we find Heidegger’s optimism for a return of the gods, or a big story. Interestingly, Heidegger adopts Hölderlin’s notion of the gods rather than developing his own. In doing so, he demonstrates the that task of the philosopher in a godless age is to teach his readers to attend to the artists, just as Heidegger does in his writings about art works. He helps his readers come to understand that it is the artist who has the uncanny ability to hear the distant gods.
Upon hearing the hints from the gods, the artist then creates, through their work, a catalyst for the people to come to understand who they are as a people. This understanding happens through the telling of the artist. But, this is only a telling. The artist hears who the people are via the hints from the gods and then brings that into the open through their work. At which point the people come to understand who they are.
We can look to Christianity for an instance of this. The Medieval Christians were guided by the story of Christianity, but without the stained-glass windows that adorned their churches, they would not have known their Christianity and could therefore not have actively been Christian.
The philosopher teaches us about the relationship between the artists and the gods so that we can be on the lookout for the return of the gods. If we misunderstand what artists are for, we may miss the return of the gods, which would be equivalent to the gods not returning at all. Even if the gods return, if the people are unaware of the return, we will continue life without understanding who we are. This is why the telling who of we are by the artist is so important.
Being so deep into a godless era, the concern is that we may forget what artists are for. So that we do not forget, the philosopher teaches and reminds us. The task of the philosopher in the age of nihilism is to remind us that we live in a time without a big story, and to teach us how to prepare for the return.
About the Author
Steven Haug is a Part-Time Faculty member at Merced College, where he writes and teaches Philosophy. He works primarily on 20th Century European Philosophy, especially the Philosophy of Art. He holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a Bachelors's degree from Texas A&M University, and has authored articles in Philosophy Today and International Philosophical Quarterly.