The Young Heidegger’s Problematic Reading of Augustine’s Ontological Restlessness

A review of Martin Heidegger, Phänomenologie des Religiösen Lebens. Gesamtausgabe, Band 60. Frankfurt am Main, Vittorio Klostermann, 1995. (Available at at An English translation is in preparation at Indiana University Press by Jennifer Gosetti and Matthias Lutkehermolle under the title Phenomenology of Religious Life.

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Sean J. McGrath
University of Toronto

    It is a lamentable situation that Heidegger’s critique of Scholastic ontology is now better known in continental circles than Scholastic ontology itself. The Heideggerian critique of “onto-theology” has hardened into a dogma, an unreflectively repeated formula that has lost its moorings in its original sources. We all know that the Scholastics forgot being because they reduced ontology to God. By defining being in terms of that which never comes to be nor changes, that which excludes temporality, the Scholastics made it impossible to think the being that we are. Philosophical theology precludes phenomenological ontology.

  1. So the formula goes. However, with the publication of Heidegger’s early Freiburg lectures we are in a position to subject Heidegger’s onto-theological thesis to an immanent critique by tracing it back to his first investigations in the phenomenology of religion. In the 1921 lecture course, Augustinus und der Neuplatonismus, Heidegger discovers an essential disclosure of the being that we are in Augustine’s Confessions: the how of being a historical self is care, trouble, and self-problematization.1 In the Confessions the disclosure of the self is concomitant with the self’s discovery of its ontological directedness to God, the eternal and non-historical ground of being. Nothing in the text of Augustine suggests that this disclosure could happen in a non-theistic context. In his flight from God, the years of rebellion prior to his conversion, Augustine was deeply forgetful of the self. Faith in the non-historical ground of history illuminated the precarious being of his historical existence for the first time. Heidegger attempts to formalize Augustine’s restless heart, that is, to extract a transcendental pattern to restlessness, which has non-religious significance: the concept of angst in Being and Time.2 He argues that the restlessness of the heart is not primarily a religious phenomenon but a human phenomenon; it can be elaborated in purely phenomenological terms. In fact, the theological reference in Augustine ostensibly distorts the disclosure of the historical self. Augustine mitigates the experience of history with the balm of an eternal ground. Being and Time builds on the Augustine lecture by endeavouring to think Augustine’s troubled self without the God reference. It is my contention that it does not succeed. Heidegger has given us a portrait of the troubled self without that which troubles it. The angst examined in Being and Time is primarily religious and cannot be coherently explicated without a religious reference.

  2. The theme of the Augustine lecture is the tension between Augustine’s notion of restlessness, the directedness toward God as the relational-sense of the happy life (vita beata), and his neo-Platonic theorizing of this phenomenon into a being-toward-eternal-truth (veritas aeterna). The course examines book 10 of the Confessiones, Augustine’s epoch-making disclosure of the concrete historicity of human being, in particular, memoria and cura as primal figures of being-in-the-world. At the very moment of the breakthrough to historicity, Augustine smothers the historical self with neo-Platonic theology: being in its primary sense is the being of the worldless, eternal, uncaused cause. The unique attributes of human being disengaged in Augustine’s self-interpretation, restlessness (cor inquietum), care (cura), the being of the past in memory (memoria), and being toward the future (distentio anima), become shadows of being, half-real participated being -- not positive phenomena, but privations of the fullness of being that God alone enjoys. In its first moments Augustine’s religiousness is not the grasp of a what. It is not speculative knowledge of the highest possible object. Religiousness is defined primarily by its how; it is a way of being in the world. It has a relational-sense, even if its content-sense is veiled. The enactment of the relationship is concrete and brings about radical changes in the way we perceive the being that we are.3

  3. Heidegger begins the lecture course with a brief overview of Dilthey’s effort to trace descriptive psychology, “lived experience,” the foundations of the human sciences, back to early Christianity and Augustine.4 Driven to find a new language with which to articulate the kingdom of God not of this world, the inner world of the historical self, early Christianity gave expression to phenomena that were marginalised by the Greeks, the structures of personal, self-conscious existence. The inner life of the person is not static, but dramatic, being that enacts itself through time and only comes to know itself through the narrative recounting of its own history. Augustine’s polemic with ancient scepticism pivots on this heightened awareness of inner life. The historical situatedness of the Augustinian self distinguishes Augustine’s self-reflective argument against scepticism from Descartes’s cogito ergo sum. Augustine says that he cannot doubt that he lives because he is in fact living.5 Self-certainty for Augustine is not an immediate grasp of a worldless ego, but the knowledge and love of an en-worlded existence. Heidegger comments: “Self-certainty can only be interpreted from out of factical being, it is only possible in faith.”6

  4. For Augustine cura, takes one of two directions: it is either dispersed among the things of the world or recollected in a concentrated love for God; in both cases, we are what we desire.7 The burden of directing cura makes human existence a trial (tentatio), a state of being troubled over oneself (onerimea sum).8In cura the self occurs to itself as a question: “In your eyes I have become a problem to myself, and that is my sickness” (in cuius oculis mihi quaestio factus sum, et ipse est languor meus).9 To become a problem to oneself, to be troubled and to question oneself, is not a reflective relationship. Augustinian self-examination is not Cartesian or Husserlian introspection. Augustine’s self only comes to know itself in action; it is fundamentally opaque to itself and only has its self in the provisional and fragmentary revelations of itself that occur in living. As Heidegger puts it trouble (molestia) is the how of factical life.10 In the Augustinian God-relation, every detail of cura becomes significant. The self-knowledge acquired is not demonstrative and apodictic, something with public validity; rather, the self is always capable of deceit, even at the most interior levels of existence. The process of recollecting and properly directing cura must be surrendered in ‘fear and trembling’ to the grace of the God who alone sees into our hearts. The self is hidden from itself, but transparent to its Creator. Augustine writes: “I have great fear of my secrets which your eyes know but mine do not” (multum timeo occulta mea, quae norunt oculi tui, mei autem non).11

  5. Augustine’s search for God is a struggle to remember God, and on the strength of the memory to love God with his whole heart:Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new” (Sero te amavi, pulchritudo tam antiqua et tam nova).12 Augustine searches the caverns of memory for traces of the God who cannot be found among the things of nature. Memory does not contain an image of God. This presents Augustine with a decidedly Platonic problem: How can he look for God if God is not remembered? How can we look for that which we have never known? Augustine’s answer is un-Platonic: to seek God is to not seek that which we once had and have since lost. It is rather to be directed toward an end that makes out present state of existence intolerable. To seek God is to seek a happy life (vita beata). The search for God is not guided by the memory of an objective vision, but by a present distress and concern. The happy life is not a remembered content. Rather the happy life is formally indicated in the relational-sense of distress over one’s life.13 We see a recurring pattern in the phenomenology of the young Heidegger: relational and enactment senses assume primacy over content-sense; language becomes necessarily indirect.14 Theodore Kisiel puts it well: “How the happy life in the search for it is alive in us will expose what is thereby intended. And so Augustine does not get around to defining the vita beata contentwise, as he had originally intended. Instead, the question abruptly changes and he confronts the problem of how he can come to the happy life.”15 Because the happy life is formally indicated, indirectly intended, it can be present to the soul in its absence, in sadness.16 As primarily a relational-sense, the happy life is “only genuinely there in a context of enactment. It must be existentially manifest . . . in a determinate articulated factical historical context of enactment.”17

  6. The significance of this point for the phenomenology of religion is profound: God is never available for detached theoretical inspection. God is only present in absence. The divine shows itself by not showing itself. We desire beatitude because we never had it. To substitute an objective content, a highest being, or a highest good for the desire for God is to destroy the primary referent of religious language. God does not name a thing but a possibility for being, the directedness of a particular form of life.

  7. According to Heidegger the substitution of an ontic intention, an object, for a purely relational intention is precisely what happens when the disclosures of historicity in Augustine are subsumed into neo-Platonic metaphysics. The restlessness of human existence resolves itself in the tranquillitas of the visio beatifica, the timeless vision of God. Augustine writes “What else is it to live happily and blessedly but to possess an eternal object through knowing it?”18 The happy life becomes joy in the truth, the truth becomes the highest good (summumbonum) transferred to a realm beyond history. Augustine holds that the highest good is enjoyed (frui) never used (uti); in this way it is distinguished as higher than all earthly goods. An earthly good is a means to happiness. The highest good is never a means, it is always the end. In Heidegger’s reading this argument reduces the primal Christian relational-sense of anxious expectation to the neo-Platonic relational-sense of intuitive possession. Enjoyment of that which does not change, a fundamentally aesthetic and non-temporal comportment, becomes the basic orientation of life. To live a holy life, one must have an order of preferences among goods: things to be used are not to be enjoyed for their own sake, things to be enjoyed are not to be used. Heidegger calls this process “neo-Platonic axiologization,” the imposition of a hierarchy of values onto the factic, a gradation of goods ascending to the summum bonum.19 According to Heidegger, that which is experienced in delight is not initially hierarchically ordered. Just as theorizing reifies understanding into knowledge of essences, so axiologization reifies the acts of the will. 

  8. The axiologization of the factic is the volitional / value side of onto-theology. As the temporal meaning of being is eclipsed when beings are causally traced back to an infinite ground, the historicity of values disclosed in average everydayness is forgotten when all goods are traced back to a highest good.20 The historicity of being a self, so vividly enacted in the Confessions, is lost; facticity is resolved into eternal truth: “Thus was the turn to metaphysics brought about: the eternal truths are the ideas in the absolute consciousness of God. A parallel analysis is applied to the experience of will. Knowledge takes on the character of the essence of substance. The human soul is changeable, yet it extends to an unchangeable ground, the inner experience of the existence of God.”21 For Heidegger, this is the decisive interjection of Greek metaphysics into Augustine’s thinking, which blossoms into Scholasticism, the substitution of contemplatio for the expectatio of Christian faith.22 Augustine replaces the temporalizing being-toward-an-absent-God with the aesthetic enjoyment of an eternal principle and thus initiates both the forgetfulness of history in the Middle Ages and the reign of theory in Western philosophy. 

  9. Heidegger does not take up the God-relation in Augustine’s understanding of selfhood, nor does he comment on its intimate connection to the experience of cura and molestia. Elsewhere Heidegger insists on the necessity for theological brackets in phenomenology: the question of God cannot be decided phenomenologically because it is not a factical question. Theology draws thinking way from the factic.23 Augustine would passionately disagree: “Because I am not full of you [God], I am a burden to myself” (emphasis mine – quoniam tui plenus non sum, oneri mihi sum).24 In other words, I know I am a burden to myself only because I know that I am not full of you. If I did not know you, God, I could not know the depths of the burden of life. Existence becomes an issue for Augustine only in the horizon of his longing for God. The thought of God in Augustine does not cover Dasein over, on the contrary, it lights it up from within. Contrast Augustine’s hermeneutics of the self with the untroubled self-reflection practised by Socrates: the end of the reflective life for Socrates is not trouble, hardship, and self-problematization, but peace, equanimity, and self-transparency. 

  10. Notwithstanding the brilliance of his interpretation of Augustine, Heidegger’s critique of onto-theology never touches the heart of the medieval notion of God. It works best when dealing with proofs for the existence of God, God as efficient cause, first and highest being etc. Yet this was not the core of Scholastic theology, certainly not the core of Augustine’s theology. The essence of Augustine’s theology is the notion of simplicitas Dei. God admits no composition. Yet every thinkable being is a composite of act-potency, essence-existence, matter-form. This does not relegate God to a dimension of religious experience of no concern to metaphysics.25 God is the primum analogatum, affirmed to exist, but never conceptualized or grasped as a content. We can know that God is, we cannot know what God is.26 God is infinite meaning, the fullness of esse. Limitless esse offers theory no content. The doctrine of divine simplicity acts as a speculative speed bump in Scholasticism, a crucial reminder that at a decisive point every proof fails to articulate the being of God, and therefore, the meaning of being itself. Ipsum esse cannot be characterized as a being. In the unknowing that surrounds it like a blinding light, ipusm esse is incalculable, uncontrollable, and indefinable. In a mystical-Scholastic philosophical theology like Eckhart’s, the simplicity of God and the relational-sense of Augustine’s search for the vita beata come together: an absolutely simple being cannot be thematized and defined, but it can disclose itself relationally in the how of mystical discipleship, detachment (Abgeschiedenheit). “God” does not name a content, but a life tendency, a possibility for being-in-the-world in a different way. Augustine’s “axiologization” is his effort to work out the details of how the God-relation is to be enacted: we only “have” God in turning away from transitory pleasure and embracing the pain of a life without God. The move is entirely practical because the God relation has no theoretical sense.

  11. Religiousness is enacted in a variety of proximate content-senses: in the life of faith in a church community, in a life devoted to service, to meditation, or even to science. As a relational-sense, the proximate content-sense of religiousness can vary. It may not even know itself as religious. What is characteristic of all religious enactments is unrestrictedness.27 Religiousness in its various modes relates itself to its objectives without limit. Faith is trusting to the end. Altruism that breaks through to the religious serves the other unconditionally. A life of religious silence and meditation places no limit on the value of its goal, sunyata, the uniomystica. The will to know does not stop short of an exhaustive explanation, absolute intelligibility, where no further questions remain. A factical philosophical theology would phenomenologically show how these modes of religiousness indicate our primal being-before-God, that is, our being-toward-ultimate-accountability. This last expression should not be interpreted moralistically. That I am called to give an account of myself does not mean I can only be justified by performing certain actions. It means, rather, that my justification will involve the whole of my temporal existence. All times will be recapitulated in the account. No unguarded moment will be left out. The moralistic interpretation of ultimate accountability, for example, the apocalyptic consciousness of the Middle Ages, is a derivative form of what I am talking about here. We should understand the countless depictions of the Day of Judgment over the portals of Gothic cathedrals as mythological indications of being-toward-ultimate-accountability. The medieval peasant may have believed that he had to earn salvation by his good actions. The belief is materially false, for grace cannot be earned, but formally true: we will indeed be called to give an account.

  12. The being that we are is gripped by a concern for itself before God. God is future. God comes to meet us. The promise of this future is that we will be given back to ourselves – we will be whole for the first time -- for we will give account of what we were. Augustine finds himself on the way to God, gripped by an anticipation of accountability. He finds that God is that toward which he has been moving all along, and in finding that, he finds himself for the first time. 


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