Archē : Stathis Gourgouris

Page Witmore  / Circulation Diagram for Faux United Nations Shelter
Page Witmore / Circulation Diagram for Faux United Nations Shelter

Archē : Stathis Gourgouris

I can say, perhaps a little playfully but not altogether inaccurately, that I’ve chosen to engage with the very first political concept—certainly in name, if nothing else. But as you will see my reading is precisely to demonstrate how, from its initial invocation (from its archē, as it were), this concept renders any notions of the first or of the one impossible, indeterminable, an-archic. In this sense, though the word I am examining is archē, the political concept I really and substantially engage with and care about is anarchy, whose elemental significance, I argue, is actually inherent in the archaic conceptualization of archē. And it is the archaic conceptualization that interests me here; hence I do not engage with some important treatments of this notion in Heidegger, Derrida, or Reiner Schürmann. So, I will merely spin a thread around four instances of the notion in the Greek philosophical vocabulary, two phrases in Aristotle, one in Herodotus, and the famous passage known as the Anaximander fragment.

Let us begin by looking at a well-known assertion in Aristotle’s Politics:

Έστι τις αρχή καθ’ ήν άρχει των ομοίων τω γένει και των ελευθέρων (ταύτην γαρ λέγομεν είναι την πολιτικήν αρχήν), ήν δει τον άρχοντα αρχόμενον μαθείν

There is a sort of rule pertaining to those similar in birth and free—this we call political rule—where the ruler learns by being ruled.1

This phrase encapsulates not only the paradoxality of democracy, but the deeper significance of what it means for a society to constitute on its own and for itself a mode of political life without fixed norms and without guarantees. This mode of life is political par excellence and democracy is its name. It is a mode that animates political life as such: the essence of human-being as political animal (zoon politikon). In other words, if the human animal is a political animal it is because it refuses to consider the archē of things as natural and subjects it to interrogation. Aristotle’s particular stipulation about rulers learning by being ruled has drawn voluminous commentary on its significance as political science. But as always there is more to the Greek language than might be immediately comprehensible.

We must not forget that archē means both origin and rule, much in the sense that in the English language, we understand rule to pertain both to matters of governance and to matters of principle, indeed first principles, the essential rules of the game, of proposition, of foundation, of order. The ruler, after all, is a primary figure (even in cases articulated as primus inter pares), the premier in a constitutive mechanism of ruling that presupposes him to be the primary guardian of the set of rules that he represents. In any archaic configuration of power, the archon commands authority not only over the domain of rules that govern a society. He also embodies the point of departure of whatever trajectory such rules are to have in their implementation, whether they are to be enforced in principle or not, safeguarded for future generations (of rulers and ruled), or dismantled in favor of another course of rule, another beginning. Such is obviously the essence of the figure of the patriarch, which is why even when the primordial parricide takes place, according, let us say, to Freud’s tales—when in fact the singular origin of principle and rule is to be multiplied and distributed (in Freud’s analysis, institutionalized) in the hands of the many murderous sons—the patriarchal order is hardly abolished. On the contrary, in its multiplication, the authorial origin is consolidated.

But when Aristotle demands that the archon must also be archomenos, something else entirely takes place. The singular notion of archē is deconstituted by a corresponding alterity. In order to know how to rule, one must know how to be ruled: this is the quintessential element of autonomy. Knowledge of being ruled does not mean mere experiential accounting from the standpoint of the (always) ruled. In a direct sense, it means knowing the other side of rule, enabling an affirmative investment in the object of rule from a subject-position that is not consumed in the typical objectification suffered by those ruled. In this respect, knowledge of being ruled provides the sort of knowledge that relativizes a ruler’s presumed monopoly over the authority to determine what rule means and, in effect, abolishes the presumed epistemic distinction between rulers and ruled in producing a subject of authority, of power, in the double sense.2

This co-incidence can be considered from two standpoints. On the one hand, the ruled authorize their own position as ruled; that is, they are not ruled in the simple sense of submitting to the authority of the ruler, an authority predicated on the assumption that the ruler is also the origin of rule. They are ruled by virtue of their own decision to be ruled, which is to say, they hold the reins of interrogation (and thus signification) over the terms of ruling—who rules, why, and how?—and this is the very mode of interrogation of the rule of law. This is why this notion has nothing to do with the debilitating paradox of “voluntary servitude” that Etienne de la Boétie so brilliantly exposed several centuries ago, which nonetheless continues to characterize most of today’s societies of consensus. The ruled who hold the reins of interrogation over the signifying framework of rule can never become servile by definition; they are motivated by a principle of self-limitation that safeguards their autonomy, their self-determination. That is why in the Athenian polis slaves are not ruled, strictly speaking; they just execute commands. And it is the same with women and children, whose existence within the oikos bears its own economy. As Hannah Arendt has famously argued, Athenian democracy makes the political independent of the social and the economic, whereas the necessary relation between these domains is a problem of modernity.

Whatever the conditions of power within the oikos and the specific variations of patriarchical society pertinent to the Greeks, archē in the political sense exists only in the public space of male citizens. All others are altogether outside the realm of ruling, not only because to be ruled means to participate in ruling, but also because ruling does not mean issuing commands within a hierarchical structure. Rather, ruling is a condition shared by the free and the equal, which is as such—Aristotle is unequivocal on this—politikē archē (political rule). By this logic, a ruler who has never known how to be ruled—a ruler who has not known the autonomy of being ruled—cannot possibly rule without abusing autonomy in favor of ruling in its name. Aristotle’s injunction against such a ruler opens the way toward considering the project of autonomy as an interminable exercise of self-rule even in the political domain of being ruled.

1. Aristotle, Politics, Book III, 1277b.

2. “Archesthai [being ruled] is not simple passive voice. Animals cannot be archomena [ruled], objects of an archein [rule]. Archesthai means to participate in a political community where one is, by necessity, also ‘under authority’—as a subject of power in the double sense.” Cornelius Castoriadis, La Cité et les lois – Ce qui fait la Grèce 2 (Paris : Seuil, 2008), 201n.

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