Towards a Levinasian Understanding of Christian Ethics: Emmanuel Levinas and the Phenomenology of the Other

Article excerpt

The good life has classically been understood as the state of being (dasein) (1) in which one lives joyfully in the fullness of one's humanity. We do not always experience ourselves as living, in an existential way, the good life. Still we have some kind of primordial notion of it. "The true life," writes Emmanuel Levinas, "is absent. But we are in the world." (2) Our yearning for happiness Levinas terms metaphysical desire. Metaphysical desire is a positive, personal one; part of subjective human experience founded on the idea of infinity. "(Totality and Infinity) does present itself as a defense of subjectivity, but it will apprehend the subjectivity not at the level of its purely egoist protestation against totality, nor in its anguish before death, but as founded on the idea of infinity." (3) The idea of infinity is neither an abstract intellectual construct nor an impersonal ideal springing from an apprehension of need. Nor is metaphysical desire a desire to return to a prior ontological state. Such an understanding of desire would be nostalgia for the same (our own horizon). "The metaphysical desire does not long to return, for it is a desire for a land not of our birth, for a land foreign to every nature, which has not been our fatherland and to which we shall never betake ourselves. The metaphysical desire does not rest upon any prior kinship." (4) Instead it is a transcendent human desire for meaning rooted in the existential experience of human relationships that seeks the Other (that Levinas sometimes renders using the Biblical imagery of Stranger) in the face of the other. "To begin with the face as a source from which all meaning appears, the face in its absolute nudity ... is to affirm that being is enacted in the relation between men, that Desire rather than need commands acts. Desire, an aspiration that does not proceed from a lack--metaphysics--is the desire of a person." (5)

The desire is for that which is Other. Maintaining the alterity of the other is an important aspect of Levinas' metaphysical understanding. We deprive the other of its alterity when we distinguish being from existent. "Being, which is without the density of existents, is the light in which existents become intelligible. To theory as comprehension of beings the general title "ontology" is appropriate." (6) Ontology inasmuch as it concerns itself with grasping the universal truth of things (being) apart from the plurality and density of actual existents prevents us from maintaining the other's alterity. Consequently, ontology creates a self-contained system (the "same") that resists any intrusion that would call forth from us an existential response. "Here (ontology) theory enters upon a course that renounces metaphysical Desire, renounces the marvel of exteriority from which the Desire lives." (7) Allowing the Other to disrupt the "at homeness" (chez-soi) of our own horizon is ethics. It is not simply a medium by which we abstract from existents the truth of their being and grasp them in their primordial sublimity separate from their density, but is an existential response accomplished through ethics. "Ethics is the spiritual optics ... The work of justice--the uprightness of the face to face--is necessary in order that the breach that leads to God be produced--and 'vision' here coincides with this work of justice. Hence metaphysics is enacted where the social relation is enacted--in our relations with men. There can be no 'knowledge' of God separated from the relationship with men. The Other is the very locus of metaphysical truth, and is indispensable for my relation with God." (8) Levinas is interested in developing a phenomenology of the Other, and resting all other structures on the ethical response. "The establishing of this primacy of the ethical, that is, of the relationship of man to man--signification, teaching, and justice--a primacy of an irreducible structure upon which all the other structures rest (and in particular all those which seem to put us primordially in contact with an impersonal sublimity, aesthetic or ontological), is one of the objectives of the present work. …