DAVID KRONEMYER: It would not be an overstatement to say that Martin Heidegger’s “The Origin of the Work of Art” is one of the 20th Century’s most influential texts on aesthetics. In it, he expounds an inspiring theory about the relationship between art and culture.
A “work of art,” according to Heidegger, isn’t any ordinary painting, statue, or musical performance. Rather, in order to ascend to that exalted realm, it must have the capacity to crystallize and focus a society’s meaning and purpose. It points to, or creates, what Heidegger called a “clearing” – a kind of zone within which people, things, and for that matter all forms of human endeavor, appear and acquire intelligibility and significance. It is a cultural paradigm that “collects the scattered practices of a group, unifies them into coherent possibilities for action, and holds them up to the people who can then act and relate to each other in terms of that exemplar. Works of art, when performing this function, are not merely representations or symbols, but actually produce a shared understanding,” Dreyfus 354.
These are enigmatic notions, to say the least. Probably for that reason, “The Origin of the Work of Art” “has given rise to a baroque foliage of secondary literature that has had progressively less and less to do with Heidegger,” Young 5.
Heidegger’s foundational example of a work of art is the Greek temple. “It is the temple-work that first fits together and at the same time gathers around itself the unity of those paths and relations in which birth and death, disaster and blessing, victory and disgrace, endurance and decline acquire the shape of destiny for human beings. The all-governing expanse of this open relational context is the world of this historical people,” Heidegger 42. “The temple held up to the Greeks what was important, and so let there be meaningful differences such as victory and disgrace, disaster and blessing. * * * The Greeks whose practices were manifested and focused by the temple lived in a moral space of gods, heroes, and slaves, a moral space that gave direction and meaning to their lives,” Dreyfus 353. The temple, then, must be more than merely a thing – an item of “equipment,” which for Heidegger is a technical term referring to something that is used, almost autonomically, by beings-in-the-world.
All of this makes it sound like it would have been pretty amazing to be a Greek round ‘bout then. There is, however, a slight problem. Which is, there is no archaeological evidence the temples Heidegger is talking about really existed at the time with which he most was concerned. The Greeks didn’t have temples of the sort Heidegger wants for them to have, during that phase of their culture, that interests Heidegger the most. The inescapable conclusion is, the entire concept of “the temple as cultural paradigm” only is a construct (albeit an interesting and useful one) of his highly imaginative brain.
One of the first things you have to know about Heidegger is that he is a big fan of Greek philosophers such as Parmenides, Heraclitus and Aristotle. Aristotle in particular, “because he preserves, even in the face of his teacher Plato, an echo of originary Greek thinking,” Brogan 3. In fact, “It is necessary to surpass Aristotle – not in a forward direction, in the sense of a progression, but rather backwards in the direction of a more original unveiling of what is comprehended by him,” Brogan 5 (emphasis added). The archaic, pre-Aristotelian Greeks are particularly interesting to Heidegger, because they had a fresher and more pristine understanding of the meaning of Being, uncontaminated and unpolluted by subsequent cultural accumulation and detritus.
Who exactly were they? The ancestors of the people Heidegger calls “the Greeks” entered the geographic area known to Heidegger (and presently known) as “Greece” around 2000 BCE, the beginning of the Middle Helladic period. The first Mycenaean texts emerged around 1400 BC, and Mycenaean culture reached its high-point around 1300 BC. The Trojan War is thought to have occurred, if it did, around 1250 BC. Starting around 1100 BC and continuing to around 800 BC, Greek civilization was in a kind of “dark ages,” and nothing much was going on. Homer is thought to have written the Iliad and the Odyssey, if he did, around 800 BC. Then came Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and their ilk, around 500 BC. This is known as the “classical period,” and it lasted until around 300 BC.
For Heidegger, “temples” in the pre-classical period would be somewhat of a disappointment. They comprised nothing more than an altar, marked off with boundary stones, or possibly a surrounding fence made “of mud brick or field stone which will serve more to demarcate the sacred area than to protect it. It might deter the wandering cow or sheep,” Mikalson 7. Some of them may have been little more than caves, Burkert 12. The temple primarily was a repository for sacrifices. “Around an altar belonging to the archaic period we usually find layers of ashes, charred animal bones, and votive offerings. They were the property of the god and must not be removed from the spot, although according to our ideas they must have formed an objectionable rubbish heap,” Nilsson 80. “[E]ven at Olympia this and nothing else was the Altar of Zeus,” Burkert 87.
The etymological derivation of “temple” is témenos, which simply means an “enclosed area;” originally, it was more akin to an estate or land grant that a tribal chieftain might allocate to one of his followers. “The témenos is the germ of private property emerging within the tribal system,” Thomson 329. Gradually it evolved into a specific place within an inhabited dwelling reserved for liturgical practices. “[T]he Mycenaeans did not, so far as we know, usually build free-standing temples, but carried out their religious rites in special parts of their palaces. We might legitimately substitute ‘shrine’ for ‘temple’,” Chadwick 141. Often, these were multi-purpose rooms; “cooking and eating also took place” there, Burkert 89.
The classical-period “temples” – let us call them temples per se – were constructed on top of, or repurposed from, these structures. Thus, for example, “On the ruins of the Mycenaean palace at Mycenae a temple of Athena was built. Under the foundations of the so-called old Temple of Athena on the Acropolis at Athens lie the remnants of the Mycenaean royal palace. * * * With the cessation of the monarchy – perhaps even earlier, as it weakened – the cult which had formerly been the king’s domestic cult became public. Finally the royal palace became the seat of the goddess and the chief temple of the free state,” Nilsson 25 (emphasis added).
Then, and only then, did the religion become the property of the people, as opposed to the private devotions of their ruler. It was only “[w]ith the decay of kingship in post-Homeric Greece” that the témenos became the “temple,” Finley 94n. This most likely occurred sometime around 700 BC, with the invention of architectural features such as roof tiles and columns. Temple architecture “attained its acme and a certain finality in the Temple of the Olympian Zeus (about 460) and in the Parthenon on the Athenian Acropolis (consecrated in 438),” Burkert 91. Even then, “However much the picture of Greek religion was thereafter defined by the temple … for the living cult they were and remained more a side-show than a centre,” Burkert 91 (emphasis added).
“[F]rom the point of view of Greek religion, the temple was by no means given as a matter of course; most sanctuaries are older than their temples, and a number always disdained the temple. * * * In fact, in many places the most important gods of the Mycenaean period, Zeus and Poseidon, did without cult image and temple down into Classical times,” Burkert 88 (emphasis added). In point of fact, even during the Classical Period, there only were about 20 major sanctuaries even in Athens, the richest of the Greek city-states at the time, Mikalson 1. “Unlike a Christian church, the temple does not house the altar and is not the central place of worship. In the Greek sanctuary the outdoor altar remains the religious center, the place of offering and prayer. The temple functions rather as an elaborate treasury building,” Mikalson 20.
All of this poses a real problem for Heidegger. Because, the temple had no “world-defining” properties of the sort Heidegger attributes to it. Nor did whatever properties it had suddenly “spring into action” during the classical period. Rather, the history of Greek religion (like that of most everything else) is one of slow evolution, accumulation and syncretism. What once was a cult for privileged rulers gradually became broader-based and accepted by the rest of the polis. The Greek “world” – its disclosive space – already was there, before the first stone was hewn.
What was the source of Heidegger’s confusion? For starters, he was profoundly influenced by the prevailing religious climate of his youth. “Heidegger was born, so to speak, in the church. His father was a sexton, who led both a vocational and a familial life under one roof, in a house situated next to the church. [NOTE: kind of like the early témenos?] * * * It is highly likely that the relationship that Heidegger maintained to faith, theology, and the church throughout the whole of his work can be traced back to this early influence,” Vedder 11. Heidegger also believed “the founding of Being for Western humanity completed itself with Homer,” Young 30. Like Heidegger, Homer also imagined a magnificent neighborhood of temples, even though none existed at the time, Finley 39.
Brogan, W., Heidegger and Aristotle – The Twofoldness of Being (2005).
Burkert, W., Greek Religion (1985).
Chadwick, J., The Mycenaean World (1976).
Dreyfus, H., “Nihilism, Art, Technology, and Politics” in Guignon, C. (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Heidegger (2nd ed. 2006).
Finley, M., The World of Odysseus (1977 ed.).
Heidegger, M., “The Origin of the Work of Art” in Hofstadter, A. (tr.), Poetry, Language, Thought (1971); reprinted in Krell, D. (ed.), Basic Writings (1977).
Mikalson, J., Ancient Greek Religion (2005).
Nilsson, M., A History of Greek Religion (rev. 2nd ed. 1952).
Thomson, G., Studies in Ancient Greek Society – The Prehistoric Aegean (1965).
Vedder, B., Heidegger’s Philosophy of Religion – from God to the Gods (2007).
Young, J., Heidegger’s Philosophy of Art (2001).