Heidegger & Ethics

Heidegger most heavily discusses “ethics” in “The Letter on Humanism,” a work responding to a series of questions posed by his French followers. One question was:

“What I have been trying to do for a long time now is to determine precisely the relation of ontology to a possible ethics.”

Here are some brief observations about his answer.

First of all, Heidegger rejects the distinction between “ethics” and “ontology.” “Ethics,” after all, comes from Plato’s academy, where philosophy was divided into “logic, physics, and ethics.” For Heidegger, the division of things into different “regions” means that “thinking” has disappeared and “science” has taken over, slicing “ethics” off as a separate region of study, something unconnected to Being. Remember, Heidegger isn’t interested in doing “ontology,” but something prior to ontology: raising the question of Being itself.

Accordingly, Heidegger goes back to thinking before this Platonic division, where philosophy wasn’t divided into independent categories. His primary source for ethics is Sophocles. He writes:

Thinkers prior to this period [Plato’s academy] knew neither “logic” nor an “ethics” nor “physics.” Yet their thinking was neither illogical nor immoral … The tragedies of Sophocles – provided such a comparison is at all permissible – preserve the ethos in their sayings more primordially than Aristotle’s lectures on “ethics.”

He discusses Antigone in detail in the lecture course Introduction to Metaphysics. He also discusses Heraclitus’ fragments in the “Letter on Humanism” in relation to “ethos” as well.

The Heraclitus fragment is three words:

“ethos anthropo daimon”

Heidegger translates these three words as:

“The (familiar) abode for humans is the open region for the presencing of the god (the unfamiliar one).”

He takes this from a story where some people went to see Heraclitus and found him huddle around the fire, shivering. The people who went to see Heraclitus were disappointed, thinking he’d be a guru who’d do something eccentric, something they could recount to their friends. Yet Heraclitus, bundled up before the fire, invites them in, saying (in Heidegger’s translation): “here too the gods come to presence (a translation of einai, which means “Being”).

For Heidegger, “ethics” is primarily connected to human “dwelling.” Dwelling, for Heidegger, is the human mode of “Being-in,” of existing within a world, of having a home. Yet this “home” houses the truth of Being. Heidegger likes a Holderlin poem that says: “poetically man dwells upon this earth.” Likewise, humans “dwell ethically.”

Heidegger’s “ethics,” accordingly, doesn’t treat classical ethical problems or even talk about “what is the right thing to do.” Rather, it thinks about the way that Being opens up a dwelling space, a city, a sphere for human action. Even huddling around the fire, “gods are here too.” As Heidegger writes:

“even here,” at the stove, in that ordinary place where everything and every circumstance, each deed and each thought is intimate and commonplace, that is, familiar, “even there” in the sphere of the familiar, it is the case that “gods come to presence.”

He thus concludes:

“If the name “ethics,” in keeping with the basic meaning of the word ethos, should now say that ethics ponders the abode of the human being, then that thinking which thinks the truth of Being as the primordial element of the human being, as one who eksists, is in itself originary ethics.

So basically, there’s a difference between the “thinking of human ethos” and the “science of ethics.” Heidegger isn’t interested in the latter, but the former.


Plato on Myth: Boreas and Orithyia

In the Phaedrus, Socrates and Phaedrus walk together along the Ilisus river, looking for a spot to sit. There, they shall read and recite speeches to each other. As they walk, Phaedrus asks:


Tell me, Socrates, isn’t it from somewhere near this stretch of the Ilisus that people say Boreas carried Orithuia away? – Phaedrus, 229b

Socrates confirms this, informing Phaedrus that the spot is “two or three hundred yards further downstream.” Phaedrus then asks:

But tell me Socrates, in the name of Zeus, do you really believe that that legend is true? –Ibid. 229c

The Noble Lie

Most students of philosophy are familiar with Plato’s “noble lie” in the Republic. Here, Plato spoke of “a Phoenician tale,” arguing that citizens should be taught that they are all created from the same earth. As such, citizens learn to treat each other as brethren, ce9b7998a37fa5204fc354140ea78daf7ontenting themselves to live within the stratified class system.

Since Plato so readily spoke of these myths as “lies,” one imagines Plato didn’t actually
believe any of the myths. After all, don’t we find this unbecoming of a philosopher? All too readily, we find ourselves agreeing with Meletus, charging Socrates and his pupil with teaching students not to believe in the gods.

Boreas and Orithyia


Solimena Francesco (1657-1747)

Orithyia was the daughter of Erechtheus, an Athenian king. While playing near the Ilisus river, Boreas the North Wind kidnapped her, raped her, and made her his wife. Orithyia becomes deified in later accounts as the goddess of cold mountain winds, an apotheosis already present in Herodotus, who tells us that the Athenian navy offered sacrifices to both Boreas and Orithyia. 



Poets and painters alike fixate upon the rape of Orithyia. Ovid especially highlights the violence of this nature, writing:

But when he found his soothing flatt’ries fail,
Nor saw his soft addresses cou’d avail;
Blust’ring with ire, he quickly has recourse
To rougher arts, and his own native force.
-Ovid, Metamorpheses, VI.

From here, Ovid continues to describe this “native force.” Boreas decided to rape, rather than woo, Orithyia, because as the North Wind his nature is violence.

Socrates’ Answer

When asked if he believes this myth, Socrates states:

Actually, it would not be out of place for me to reject it, as our intellectuals [sophoi] do. I cold then tell a clever story: I could claim that a gust of the North Wind blew her over the rocks where she was playing with Pharmeceia; and once she was killed that way people said she had been carried off by Boreas – or was it, perhaps, from the Areopagus? The story is also told that she was carried off from there instead.
-Plato, op. cit. 229c-d

Even in Socrates time, intellectuals attempted to debunk myths and legends, resorting to natural explanations. We discover the real events by stripping the mythological context, img018discovering what “really” took place. After all, we all know that one can’t be raped by the wind.

Socrates admits: the story has many versions, each with different details. Full of conflict, they lend themselves to revision and skepticism. Given these conflicts, shouldn’t Socrates side with the naturalists? After all, Socrates quest is wisdom, and what more could be wisdom than knowing how to separate fact from fiction?

Socrates gives a surprising answer:

Now, Phaedrus, such explanations are amusing enough, but they are a job for a man I cannot envy at all. He’d have to be far too ingenious and work too hard – mainly because after that he will have to go on and give a rational account of the form of the Hippocentaurs, and then of the Chimera; and a whole flood of Gorgons and Pegasuses, and other monsters, in large numbers and absurd forms, will overwhelm him.
-Ibid, 229d.

Furthermore, Socrates states:

Anyone who does not believe in them, who wants to explain them away and make them plausible by means of some sort of rough ingenuity, will need a great deal of time. -Ibid.

Socrates speaks of people who attempted to explain myth by appealing to natural phenomenon. This practice exits in our own time among public intellectuals. Yet more radical public figures (and indeed the most popular ones) aim to overturn mythologies, filling the shelves with bestseller after bestseller, waging their unholy crusade against superstition.

According to Socrates, such does not merely take a great deal of time; it is a waste of time – at least, for those who wish to become wise. He writes:

I have no time for such things; and the reason, my friend, is this. I am still unable, as the Delphic inscription orders, to know myself; and it really seems to me ridiculous to look into other things before I have understood that. That is why I do not concern myself with them. Ibid. 229d-230a

Socrates sees these iconoclastic endeavors as a waste of time, claiming such myths are not worth debunking. Yet surely these myths are lies; perhaps noble lies? Should then a person believe them, desiring to be wise? On the contrary, Socrates says:

I accept what is generally believed, and, as I was just saying, I do not look into them but into my own self. -Ibid. 230.


In the Republic, Plato shows myth to be the glue of society, the fabric holding together citizens as brethren. Plato acknowledges this utility even if the myth is a lie. In the Meno, Plato uses a myth to explain how human beings are able to recollect the forms; yet he does not rest his argument upon this myth. Rather, the myth gives a possible explanation, not the grounds, for knowledge as recollection.

As the fabric that holds society together, Socrates accepts “what is generally believed” and doesn’t see a reason to debunk this or explain it away. Rather, “self-examination” guides Socrates: a reflective turn inwards.

For Plato, it must be acknowledged that the noble lie aims to solidify and maintain class distinctions. Yet also, the philosopher king, by knowing this function, is wise. Reversing this, it seems the duty of philosophers to critique the political power of myths, be these stories religious narratives or national narratives.

Yet Plato places little value upon debunking these myths for the sake of iorithyiaconoclasm, a task which falls upon public intellectuals with “a great deal of time and ingenuity.” Since in our time, we don’t believe Boreas and Orithyia actually occurred, or even that the North Wind is a divine and a predator, we may think we can glean nothing from it. Yet this story, its prominence in Plato’s work, its mimetic properties as a salacious topic in neoclassical art; moreover and most importantly, that the story describes a violent rape and forced marriage, debunking Boreas and Orithyia, not only wastes time, but may neutralize or hide the violence in this story: precisely that, if this story is a noble lie, Orithyia cannot speak.

By Colin Bodayle