Heidegger, Mulla Sadra and the Path to Home

Published 15.08.2014 02:23

Martin Heidegger, the great German philosopher of the 20th century, had a rather dark view of modern civilization. He saw modernity as an aberration, and criticized it for being too materialistic, pragmatic and profit-driven. In his famous "Letter on Humanism," he spoke of alienation as a malaise produced by modern machines. Technology, he noted, has enabled humans to produce things and establish sophisticated systems. But the same humans who take pride in producing them lost control over them. Frankenstein has overgrown its master and turned against him.

In essence, every great thinker has one big thought. Heidegger's big thought was his insight that without answering the question of 'what is,' we cannot make sense of the world, and decide what we should become. The real question is not what sorts of things exist, but rather what it means to exist in the first place. The reason why a chair exists is the more fundamental question than what physical properties, shape, color, weight, et cetera. it has.

Heidegger's intellectual task was to bring this question of Being back to the center of philosophical thinking. For him, the Western thought had lived in an illusion ever since Plato when it forgot the question of Being (Dasein), and sought to substitute it with false questions. Once the foundation was set wrong, everything else became crooked.

Heidegger himself had his own share of the 'crooked timber of humanity,' to use Kant's phrase, when he flirted with Nazism in the 1930s. He supported the Nazis with the belief that they would overcome both Soviet communism and American capitalism, and initiate a third path for the German nation. He saw Europe squeezed between Russia and America, both of which were based on "the same dreary technological frenzy, the same unrestricted organization of the average man."

Germany was supposed to offer something new. But things did not turn out as Heidegger had hoped. The Holocaust shocked the world. Instead of empowering the German nation, the Nazis came close to destroying it. Heidegger rejected the idea of treating Being as a "thing," and turning it into an "entity." Such a view leads to the commodification of Being, and reduces the reality of things to their use-value. We have to accept things as they are before we put them to use.

For instance, the carpenter has to work on the wood, his basic material, with the kind of knowledge, competence and care that is needed to carve something with shape, beauty and function. The painter has to give color, light, paper, brush, et cetera their "due" in order to paint something meaningful and beautiful. We have to treat Being with a similar attitude. Enslaving Being for our own wishes is a ticket to destroying both Being and ourselves. This requires putting Being before utility, use-value, mechanization, profitability and instrumentalization. Otherwise, we degrade existence, and turn ourselves into homeless subjects set against a rootless world.

In his Der Spiegel interview published posthumously, Heidegger said, "Everything essential and great has only emerged when human beings had a home, and were rooted in a tradition."

This is an important call in a world in which we have lost the sense of both home and tradition. To better appreciate it, we can go a few centuries back and look at what the great Muslim philosopher Mulla Sadra (d. 1640), a contemporary of Descartes, had to say about it.

Like Heidegger, Sadra establishes Being as the principal reality that precedes and constitutes all things. But unlike the German philosopher, he does not define Being as self-referential. Being, which encompasses all things, is a reflection of still a higher reality, and it can be discovered through different epistemic means. Sadra's "Transcendent Wisdom" thus seeks to dovetail three kinds of knowledge: revealed knowledge (Qur'an), demonstrative knowledge (burhan) and mystical or realized knowledge ('irfan). Each of these types of knowledge corresponds to a particular level of reality in the ontological hierarchy of things. Therefore there is no contradiction between them.

Unveiling the meaning of Being is key to the proper task of philosophy. But this entails more than just conceptual knowledge. It requires an existential transformation of our own being. It invites us to connect with a higher reality that gives meaning and truth to all things. It elevates philosophy to the level of wisdom as a path to attaining the truth. It combines knowledge and love. It dovetails logical precision with intuitive and personal knowledge.

Heidegger spoke of the 'path' without saying much about the destination. He spoke of Being as man's home, but fell short of overcoming the tautological homo-centrism it involves. Mulla Sadra, too, spoke of the journey, but underlined that all paths lead to an end. He saw the path as having a 'beginning' (mabda') and an 'end' (ma'ad). Walking on the path alone cannot be an end itself, he said. One always walks towards a destination. That destination cannot be our own making. Otherwise everything becomes a self-centered construction. One needs to connect with a higher reality that cannot be monopolized by a self-deceiving ego.

For Sadra, home is where we prepare ourselves for an existential and spiritual transformation. It is where we reach fullness, integrity and repose.

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