What is “The Last God” in Heidegger?

A representation of the Greek god Chaos.  Note the correspondence with the act of exchange and the similarity to the model used in quantum field brain theory.

(image from Chaos in Greek Mythology)

“The gods of Greece and their supreme god, if they ever come, will return only transformed to a world whose overthrow is grounded in the land of the gods of ancient Greece.”

Martin Heidegger, Sojourns, translated by John Panteleimon Manoussakis (Albany: SUNY Press, 2005)

Heidegger usually leaves the notions of god and gods fairly indeterminate, often not even maintaining a consistent usage of the singular and plural forms. Yet in the quote above he is unusually determinate about The Last God, although the god is not named or identified. In “Heidegger’s Last God and the Schelling Connection” George J. Seidel points out that the term originated in Schelling.

For Schelling, the symbolic is where both the general and the particular are absolute. Some examples of the symbolic are: art, philosophy (from the standpoint of arithmetic or geometry), sculpture, and drama. In the domain of the religious, Maria is the symbol of the “eternal woman.” In the gospels there are symbolic actions: the baptism in the Jordan, the Last Supper. The church and its liturgy are symbolic. Angels are symbols of good and evil. Indeed, any seeing of the infinite in the finite is a symbolic endeavor (SW III, 427-467; on angels cf. p. 357). The symbolical, as art generally, is tied up with Schelling’s rich notion of the potencies (Potenzen), which, in the Philosophy of Mythology, will be tied into what he terms the théogonie process, whereby the histories or stories of the Gods (Gôttergeschichte) actually come to be in consciousness. The potencies represent the content implied or involved in this process. It is in this context that the phrase “the last God” (der letzte Gott) occurs in Schelling (SW III, 452).

He insists that the divine becoming human differs in paganism and in Christianity. In the latter there is a finitude that has fallen away from God which, in the person of the Christ, is reconciled with God through an annihilation (Vernichtung) of that fallen finitude. Drawing upon the notion of kenosis, from Philippians 2:6-8 — God emptying himself out, taking the form of servant, etc. — Schelling says that in self-sacrificing his infinitude it is as if (als ob) Christ puts an end to the old time (alten Zeii), the old world of the pagan Gods : Christ is simply there to set the limit : the last God. God is the apex {Gipfel), and the end, of the old world of the Gods.

Heidegger, though, in Contributions to Philosophy: vom Ereignis, where the notion of The Last God receives the most treatment, is insistent that The Last God has nothing to do with the Christian God. This priority of the Greek gods over the Roman as well as the Christian is echoed in the quote with which I began the article. Seidel’s reading of the book apparently ignores the repeated opposition of The Last God and the Christian God, not to mention Heidegger’s repeated statement that his work is a destruktion of onto-theology. If Heidegger’s Da-sein has anything to do with Christ it could only be a Christ that is completely human, such as the Christology of Rahner where Christ is like any other man, but is unique as proof that a full openness to the infinite mystery is possible

The most common way in which The Last God is invoked is not in the model of some sort of savior, but is invoked precisely as “The passing of the Last God” and even “The passing-away of the Last God”. This way of mentioning the Last God fits with the quote above, in that the “return”, which is simultaneously the “passing” or “passing away” of the Last god indicates a certain operativeness of the Last God throughout metaphysics, an operativeness that, revealed as such by technology, thus both “returns” in that it is experienced as what it is, and simultaneously loses its effectiveness and “passes-away”.

Going back to the first quote, in which Heidegger gives the most determinate hints as to the nature and possible identity of the Last God, we can note a few features. I am not claiming, here, that the vagueness is not necessary, the Last God is after all simultaneously only a possibility, and the identity therefore cannot be posited absolutely. It’s significant in this, though, that the more determinate description comes significantly later in Heidegger’s writing, in terms of its being revealed by technology specifically in its most advanced formulation.

The Last God is/will be a transformation of the Greek gods.

The Last God appears to specifically refer to their “supreme” god, or perhaps their “supreme god” transformed in such a way that the others are included.

The gods, including the Last God, or perhaps as the Last God, will come as an overthrow of a world in some way already predicated on them.

Unsurprisingly there are many echoes of Nietzsche in vom Ereignis, given the focus Heidegger applied to his work just prior to its writing. One of the echoes that appears to me to be operative in the notion of the Last God is Nietzsche’s quote “Two millennia and not a single new god!”

At the same time, it does not appear that Heidegger is expecting a new god in the sense that Nietzsche means it. Nor does it appear that the Last God inherently does anything. Rather, it appears that the recognition of the Last God and the trace of its passing (away) is all that is needed.

If we look again at the determinations we drew out of the quote, the most obvious question to begin with is what was the “supreme” god of the Greeks? This isn’t necessarily as obvious as one might expect, since different versions of the stories contain contradictory genealogies of the gods. The leader of Olympias, Zeus, is himself descended from more fundamental gods. If we begin with Hesiod’s Theogeny as a starting point, the first god, the most primordial, is posited as Chaos. Chaos has no form, since there is no separation of elements within which form could be embodied. Rather there is merely a random constant exchange of elements with one another to no apparent purpose, and with none ever fully separated from any of the others.

It might be interjected that this is all very interesting, but Heidegger’s mythological escapism is hardly relevant. In response the mythologies of the Greeks are inherently metaphorical, as is the basis of our understanding. The notion of a literalist history didn’t arise until sometime after Hesiod. In improvising from latent possibilities, those that are dormant in Greek mythology may be as relevant for Heidegger’s thinking of Ereignis as is the violence he does to Greek etymologies. Heidegger doesn’t posit some “golden age” in which aletheia, for example, was actually experienced as unconcealment, but that interpretation can be exchanged for our usual understanding of truth in such a way that adequatio gives way to an improvised having-been where a latent possibility becomes an actualizable potential. Heidegger’s use of mythos is as metaphor that already constitutes an economy of meaning. As such it is not mytho-logical but mythic. Metaphysics, and the religions and science it supports as onto-theology, are also mytho-logical.

Heidegger notes in a number of places that what is earliest only shows itself latest. Thus the first god of the Greeks, which is simultaneously a god in large part ignored by the Greeks themselves, may only show itself as what it properly is last. While most of the Greek gods have direct Roman counterparts, for instance, Chaos does not, at least as the first or founding god. Yet there is a Roman god that partially corresponds to Chaos, whose name in fact derives precisely from the original Latin word for chaos. As well, this god is one that the Romans expressly claimed as their own, and as such was the last of the Roman gods, the others having already been adapted from the Greeks.

This last of the Roman gods was Janus. Without specific rites, he was considered to be implicitly part of the rites for all the other gods, since he could stand-in for any of the Roman gods and goddesses. Janus is best known as the god of the double-face, but as such was the god of exchange, of trade, of harbors, of beginnings and endings, and of birth and death. Janus was often represented not as the origin of currency, but as currency itself. Many Roman coins are imprinted with the image of the Janus-head, and the double-sidedness of a coin itself was simultaneously seen as representative of the god. It may be relevant that the festival that became Christmas was the festival most associated with Janus.

Although Janus came from Chaos through Uranus (origin of Good) and was thus inherently creative, he was raised in the underworld by Hecate (origin of Evil) and was thus also inherently destructive.

Janus was given no determinate features, but when he escaped the underworld and was exposed to the sun he grew features randomly in response to things he was exposed to – thus he was many faced, many limbed, almost randomly; vampirically and to men, monstrously so.

If Janus, simultaneously a transformation of Chaos as the origin of all the Greek gods, and himself able to stand-in or be exchanged-for the other Roman gods, is the Last God of Heidegger’s thinking, then the Last God is also the metaphorical understanding, prior to rational understanding, of both exchange itself and of the currency that acts as its appropriate measure. Christ can be seen as a stand-in for Janus, who as operative remains protected, hidden. Christ can stand-in for Janus because Christ is an exchange of god-for-man.

But the transformation of Chaos to Janus must be in some sense itself exchanged in order for Janus to be experienced as the return/passing of the Last God. As a pre-rational understanding of exchange and currency, a rational understanding of each would be such a metamorphosis. Yet do we have such an understanding at present? The belief in the market as “an invisible hand”, the superstitious value attributed to currency, one not matched in other forms of measure to which, rationally, it is no different, indicate that we do not. It’s not difficult to see Western history as operatively determined by the actions of exchange and currency, while these have simultaneously remained hidden under Christian ideas, or under the notion of progress, or the notions of materialistic science.

The de-materialization of currency via technology, the inauguration of the so-called “cashless society”, may be what allows for a rational understanding of currency as arbitrary measure, since that is precisely how it appears when its only representation is as numbers on a computer screen. Currency thus no longer meets the definition of the metaphysical real, bringing both the reality of currency and the essence of the real itself into question.

A revitalized notion of chaos itself, not as the pseudo-chaos of mathematics that is merely a concealed order, is an origin that simultaneously cannot be an origin, in the sense that “origin” already implies an arrangement, an order. Chaos has to resolve to an “or”, an “other“, to become an origin. Chaos is literally “primordial”, without order, unarranged. Only as exchange can chaos resolve into origin. Chaos denies explanation because explanation always assumes origin, it is only explanatory insofar as it is at least potentially explanation-from-origin. It is as explanatory that the religious basis of science becomes evident, a basis itself based on a metaphysical economy of thinking – an arrangement of thinking that must always value because at root it is always a measuring.

As Nietzsche intuited, the Greeks themselves had an Olympian transformation of the “Last God”. Dionysius could stand-in for both Chaos and currency – Dionysius’ own Janus nature. Wine itself had been used as currency in earlier Greek times, and the Dionysian rites were symbolic of chaotic revelry and interminable exchange. Nietzsche’s revaluing of all values, then, could only be Dionysian at root.  Dionysius was the last god to join the Olympian canon, replacing the goddess of home and hearth.  The mint itself was kept in the temple.  The Mnemosynes, as memory, were none other than the bookkeepers of the mint.

“Guide: Things rest in the return to the abiding-while of the expanse of their self-belonging.

Scholar: Can there then be a rest in the return, which is after all a movement?

Guide: Indeed there can, if the rest is the hearth and the reign of all movement.”

Martin Heidegger, Country Path Conversations (italics mine)

But the first appearance of the last god as such could only be a representation of that which cannot be represented.  Hence, although the Last God structures Western reality as rational, literal and historical, it is nevertheless only an idol, a stand-in as an exchange for the Last God proper, which must be a transformation of the First God of the West.

The confluence of emerging Christianity and Neo-Platonism, responded to most authentically and therefore most adequately accomplished by St. Augustine, provided an exchange of the Abrahamic God for the creator-being of the Neo-Platonists, which originated with the Stoics.  This exchange provided a theosophical underwriting of the privileging of sight over the other senses, and thus the justification for reality as a fully constituted, historical as always-having-been, rational and literal world-picture.  The resulting “god of the philosophers” provided a cover for the Roman god, a cover itself doubled and made ambiguous by its continuing identification with the Abrahamic Yahweh.  This god became the “official” god of Rome shortly after, though the now hidden Janus remained covertly operative.  Thus the idolatry of Rome was itself covered over and made unquestionable.

Although it’s operative status was suspended for a time due to the fall of Rome and the temporary reversion to mythic thinking, it was reinstated and more fully inscribed by St. Thomas Aquinas in his rehabilitation of Aristotle, which required a reinterpretation of Aristotle guided by the Neo-Platonism of Augustine.  This reinstatement and solidification of Roman reality now apparently confirmed by Aristotle’s more rigorous thinking on other fronts allowed the most extreme forms of onto-theology to appear rational, even obvious, in the fundamental view of post-Cartesian modernity, until the contradictions at its core came to their paradoxical culmination via the rigour of Kant’s critiques.  The god of the philosophers, constitutive of reality as the creator, remains operative in modern cosmology as in other modern science, from the god for whom the universe is the sensorium in Newton, to the initial singularity retaining the necessary features of the philosopher’s god while dispensing with the contentious ones in the Big Bang theory.

Yet there is no equivalent structuring posit in quantum mechanics or quantum field theory.  In quantum field theory we do find, though, the necessity for a grounding field that is simultaneously not-ground, the quantum vacuum as the site of exchange which allows complementary asymmetrical quantum fields to arise and persist for a time.  This “quantum vacuum field” has precisely the attributes: an interminable universal exchanger, itself both unique and self-indifferent, of the original Greek god Chaos, whose first emanation was the abyss itself, Tartarus, as the most fundamental ground, abyssal ground, or abground.  Much of the apparent difficulty of understanding QM and QFT, as a result, lies in their contradiction of the basic assumptions that structure reality for most people.  By contrast those raised on eastern mysticism find it non-paradoxical, at times even obvious.  The abyss is not abyssal due to its great depth but in that it has no depth, it is seen for representational thinking, which must go beyond the object to grasp it as object,  as the horizon.

The Last God has not yet appeared as such, as a god, much less as the last.  Whether it dissembles as the initial singularity of cosmology or, more cogently, as the modern financial system, it appears as either a physical reality or a human agency.  But modern cosmology by definition contains analogues of the Kantian paradoxes, as does the modern financial system.  That Marx’s Kapital is necessarily isomorphic to Hegel’s Science of Logic should be comprehensible, at least in a prefatory sense, from this vantage.  Hegel upside down is still Hegel.  The Kantian problematic clarifies to paradox precisely via universalization.  But capitalism and the financial system it depends upon have become universal today – there is no relevant economic power outside capitalism.  Zizek rightly notes that this “universality” remains non-All, but it is no less universal for that.  Precisely since it has become universal the financial system has been rocked by regular crises, each increasing by magnitudes in terms of potential effect.  These crises, from the perspective of capital, are always ascribed to other crises, but crisis cannot beget itself.  Despite the experience of capitalism as so universal that alternatives are unthinkable even by fictionists in whose work human beings themselves have been dispensed with, capitalism itself arose only once in human history, even though the economic prerequisites were met in numerous other cultures at other times.  It thus cannot be viewed as inevitable, except within the rational history of the West as the history of rationality itself.

The pattern of capitalist economic activity, which starts as a massive growth curve but then becomes cyclical, and eventually chaotic in the mathematical sense of pseudo-chaotic but still deterministic, is projected to become truly chaotic, random, within a time-frame that may be shorter or longer via the given variables, but cannot be considered particularly long historically, even by the fleeting standard modernity sets on history itself.  As random, the appearance of sense and rationality that the financial system projects cannot in any way be sustainable.

Technology, via both the increase in productivity in wage-goods and wage-services, and the increase in speed and efficiency of the financial system itself, is the biggest accelerator of the contradictions that underlie the financial system.  Will this effect of technology reveal the non-rational substantialization of currency on which the financial system is functionally predicated?  Will the technologization of goods themselves, posited as the “internet of things” which via such become neither an internet nor metaphysically remain things as ownable property, reveal the non-rational founding of the real as property, or that which can be owned?  Or, as Heidegger asks, will we continue to flee and turn away from what technology reveals, this fleeing itself aggravated into total flight by the more and more overt appearance of that from which it flees?  Or can we turn back towards ourselves as the beings we are, not as objects to stand against a horizon so that they may be viewed and nominalized, but as the verbal ontic ontologizing of the open region itself?

Seen properly, the essence of technology is a “freeing claim”, as literally as that phrase can be taken.  It threatens the valuing of what is valuable, and thus the basing of exchange, which must itself in any event continue at its technologically driven pace, on substantialized value, hence the free in ‘freeing’ can be taken both in the figurative and the literal sense.  It figuratively frees us from the misapprehensions of capitalism and literally frees the real from its determination as property, as intrinsically valued.   If this substantialization of value is itself no more than the base tenet of the religion of the Last God, will its impossibility reveal the Last God as the last godas a god and as the last?  By appearing as the last god, will the Last God therefore finally pass and in its passing, pass-away?  Or is the passing of the Last God more than just the passing-away of what has passed for the Last God, the First God of the Greeks, Chaos itself and its horizonal protector, Tartarus?

“Scholar: And if we experience the essence of truth according to

Greek saying and thinking as unconcealment and revealing, we

remember that the open-region is presumably that which essentially

occurs in concealment [das verborgen Wesende], or, as I would

like to say, the essential occurring [Wesung] of truth.

Scientist: And the essence of thinking, namely releasement to the

open-region, would then be a resolute openness to the essential occurring

of truth.

Guide: In releasement there could be an endurance concealing itself,

one which rests purely in the fact that releasement enters ever more

purely into an intimate awareness of its essence [ihres Wesens inne

wird] and, enduring it, stands within it.”

Martin Heidegger, Country Path Conversations


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