A good name is better than fine perfume, and the day of death better than the day of birth (Ecclesiastes 7:1)
Martin Heidegger was a 20th-Century German philosopher (he died in 1976), a very deep thinker and, unfortunately and as a side point, a Nazi sympathiser. During his high school years, he started to think about the “meaning of being”, what it means to “be”. This topic never left him, which is a reminder of the impressions of youth. No matter how long your life goes on, you will in many ways be shaped by the experiences of your youth.
In fact, this is Heidegger’s key idea: that experience shapes you, and that humans are uniquely equipped to reflect on their existence, their “being”. We can observe ourselves “ being in the world”, “ being a certain way towards other people”, and, most importantly today, “being on our way to death.”
Heidegger thought that “ being-toward-death” as he termed it, was the only way to live an authentic life.
Remember you must die – memento mori, as the earlier Latin thinkers said. Your history stretches out in one direction towards your demise. Those around you will lure you into a kind of group-think avoidance of this fact (what he delightfully calls “constant tranquillisation about death” by your “they-self”), but you must face it in order to truly live.
Of course, such thinking is much older than Heidegger, and the millennia-old Bible quote from Ecclesiastes at the top of this column has provided a surprising angle on the subject. It praises death. Or perhaps, at least, the awareness that you will die.
If you are going to live a worthwhile life, you have to recognise the problem of your death. Plenty of people today get this, and desperately endeavour to compensate for the fact that we are headed for the dust.
Through achievements, political, artistic, career; through reproduction, attempting to out-do death by producing more life. We humans are very inventive when it comes to death-defying.
The newest way is to spruik your Personal Brand online. At this point in history, more people than ever before have left a “mark” on the world. That mark is most often digital. Your social media profile means you are “published”, you are immortalised in your tweets and Facebook posts. Beyond your death, your social media branding remains. As the old wall graffiti said, You Wuz ’Ere.
I’m not the first to note that there is something desperate in all this status updating. What we all want is “A Good Name”. It smells better than perfume. It’s so wonderful to have people like your Facebook posts, retweet your tweets, to rate you. This is what we want, and we have wanted it since at least 900 BC – to be known and to be valued. That’s what really smells sweet to us.
But stupid, unstoppable death stands in the way, so our chance to gain a name is time-limited.
Back to Heidegger. This Nazi-sympathising, difficult and somewhat depressing philosopher seemed to understand that human knowledge is partial, incomplete, and dissatisfying in the face of death. He also recognised this left humans with a very specific, singular hope.
In a famous interview for Der Spiegel newspaper in 1966, Heidegger made a fascinating remark. When asked whether individuals could really make any difference to the fate of the world, in particular whether philosophy could guide human activity in a meaningful way, Heidegger said the following: “If I may answer briefly, and perhaps clumsily, but after long reflection: philosophy will be unable to effect any immediate change in the current state of the world. This is true not only of philosophy but of all purely human reflection and endeavour. Only a god can save us …”
To find personal value beyond the grave: that’s what every Facebook account is in the end for. So that people know you, even when you are gone. The Christian view of life offers such a comfort, such an identity, in being known by God. It suggests that you don’t just have a Personal Brand by which you might be remembered, but that you are also Personally Branded by the God of the universe. You belong to him, he wants you and remembers you, and longs to connect with you, not through Facebook, but face-to-face.
“Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known,” says Paul. To have a good name before God, to be fully known by him, that is sweeter than perfume.
The impending day of our death awakens in us the reality that we are hopeless in the face of the world’s immensity. Unless someone can save us, in which case we just might gain a good name long beyond when people care about our Facebook posts.
Greg Clarke is CEO of Bible Society Australia.