We continue asking the question of being, approaching it from ever new angles and fresh perspectives. This time we want to focus on its supposed obviousness. If being is so evident that it is not even worth asking about, why is it mischaracterized at the outset of Western thinking? And why does this definition influence the way being is determined in subsequent ages? In opposition to what arises and passes away, the Greeks understood being as that which is permanent, as constant presence. Living things are ephemeral, are born, live, and die. If being is what is permanent, it therefore cannot be located either in life or the consciousness that belongs to life. The question “What is being?” turns into “What is permanent?” But with this transformation of the question, the possibility of correctly determining being is forfeited. At the same time, the folly of identifying presence with permanence is carried over into the new way of posing the problem.
Especially after Copernicus, this ontological problem becomes acute since human life seemingly becomes extrinsic, even to the point of irrelevance. Today being is tacitly taken to be synonymous with the stuff and laws of physics, whose existence is assumed to be completely independent of human life. Meanwhile, no distinction is made between the being of these physical phenomena and the physical phenomena themselves. Even in the case of God, a determination of being would have to ask after the being of God, which is a different question than asking about God as an entity.
What is it that is taken for granted in the determination of being as permanence? To exist, physical reality, whether permanent or otherwise, requires a there in which to be. What can be more clear? Why bother asking about this “there”? Answer: Because this “there” is erroneously, if tacitly, assumed to be space. But space is completely closed to being, not only to its own but to the being of all things. It simply does not have the kind of openness that allows things to be. Being is provided by a completely different kind of openness, viz., the openness of the soul of living things to other things and to themselves, an openness in which things have an actual meaning and significance. Only this kind of openness supplies the there in which things can actually be present.
Whenever we think that there are physical things “there” outside of the soul — everything in the universe that no one is conscious of — we surreptitiously provide, by always being conscious when we think it, a there in which we place what is supposedly completely independent of life, that which we assume to be capable of being there on its own. But in fact the complete absence of life is also the absence of a there; it is therelessness. Ontologically, a never being there for anyone or anything is nothingness. Being only emerges by means of the soul, through it and for it.
The question is therefore not what provides this there, but who. If we posit an omniscient and everlasting God, eternal being would rest, not in things themselves, but in the being of things for this everlasting being. And if for purposes of elucidation we now prescind from God, being’s essence, far from being what is permanent, becomes finite, as it must now be thought in terms of the finitude of mortal beings. Being would only be held open through the finite time of living things, and actual presence would be confined to what presences in the present of living beings. But since animals lack even a pre-thematic understanding of being, and since we know of no other species that shares this understanding with us, the history of being is essentially a phenomenon of the human soul. It opens with the first soul and closes with the last as if nothing had ever been. Being would continue beyond this point only if there is an afterlife.
If the essence of being is “obvious,” it is only obvious in the way that a pair of glasses that sits on your nose while you look for them is obvious. When you finally find them so close to you (in fact, as what is closest), you become almost embarrassed at the conspicuousness of the fact that they were there all along. The light of being shines from the soul. It is important for people of faith to emphasize this in an age where science has seemed to displace human life from a position of centrality. In fact, the soul is always the center of being, and human life remains absolutely distinctive in having an understanding of being. From this understanding all religion, art, philosophy, history, and science flows.