Archē : Stathis Gourgouris

On the other hand, Aristotle’s configuration of archē also subverts the signification of ruler as primordial authority, which is why it is pertinent only in a democracy, and not in a monarchy. If, concurrently to rule, archē signifies origin, the requisite knowledge of archomenos forbids the ruler’s singular occupation of the origin of authority, thus introducing a difference at the origin, a foundational différance. As archomenos, a ruler can never claim to be the first and only. At most he can acknowledge the position of archon as a transitory moment in the process of ruling, which is a process whose ultimate beginning is unknown and irrelevant and whose ultimate endpoint is incomprehensible as such—a process undertaken by society as a whole, provided that society recognizes and enacts its autonomy.3 For an archon to recognize the archomenos as a subject-position means to recognize an alterity within, which by traditional logic is impossible. What makes it possible—the capacity for self-alteration—is even more far-fetched, logically speaking. It signifies a process by which alterity is internally produced, dissolving the very thing that enables it, the very thing whose existence derives meaning from being altered, from othering itself.4

If knowing how to be ruled is essential to ruling, no ruler can claim self-authorization, and archē can no longer constitute itself as a singular origin. Authority begins already cleft and differential, open to question at the point of its constitution by virtue of the fact that both subject and object of power are in a position of co-incidence. Although nominally, at a specific point in time someone rules and someone is being ruled, these positions are not structurally or temporally frozen, but are provisionally filled by whoever fills them.

In a democratic situation, according to Aristotle’s stipulation, this “whoever” pertains to both domains (ruler and ruled) without qualification—hence being called to the responsibility of ruling by lot. In this respect, the mutual alterity between the positions of ruler and ruled does not disintegrate to mere opposition, but rather remains involved in a mutual complicity where any primordial notion of archē as singular authority or singular origin of power is irreparably disrupted. This exposes the whole business of ruling as a veritably an-archic condition in the sense that rule, though not abolished, is provisionally constituted on no other ground than the equal sharing of power among a people who occasionally perform the position of ruler and occasionally performs the position of ruled but are in essence always, politically, acting in both positions simultaneously. In this very sense, anarchy is the archē of democracy.

One may object that my quick reading of Aristotle’s phrase is not very Aristotelian. Strictly speaking, this would be correct. By Aristotelian terms, it is a perverse reading, in my conclusion at least, because the co-incidence of ruler and ruled is no doubt what the Aristotelian text pursues. My conclusion is perverse in the simple sense that anarchy, literally the non-being of rule (which isn’t to say the lack of rule or unruliness), would be inconceivable to Aristotle as the core signification of democracy. Though not quite bearing Plato’s vehemence—Plato explicitly identifies anarchy to be the internal and incurable illness of democracy—Aristotle would signify anarchy as the unraveling of democracy. Again, however, the semantic multivalence of the Greek language enables a broader horizon for understanding the permutations of archē.

Given our scant knowledge of the pre-classical Greek world, the word archē first appears as a philosophical principle in the famed Anaximander fragment, itself an interpolated text, possibly written around 570 BCE and glossed by Theophrastus, Aristotle’s premier student, around 350 BCE. Theophrastus’ commentary no longer exists, but reference to it is found in Simplicius, a Neo-Platonist writing in 517 CE, who produces in turn a citation of the famed fragment of Anaximander, in effect, a whole thousand years later.5 This initial philosophical use, by Anaximander, of a word (archē) already present in textual traces going back to Homer comes into conjunction with his introduction of a bona fide new concept: apeiron (infinity). The tenet of my argument should be obvious: the notion of archē (origin and rule) is first used philosophically in order to identify what has no origin and no end and over which there can be no rule. This is not at all a paradox. I quote the famous paragraph from Simplicius:

Among those who say that the first principle [archē] is one and movable and infinite, is Anaximander of Miletos, son of Praxiades, pupil and successor of Thales. He said that the first principle [archē] and element of all things is infinite [apeiron], and he was the first to apply this word to the first principle; and he says that it is neither water nor any other one of the things called elements, but the infinite is something of a different nature, from which came all the heavens and the worlds in them; and from which things are generated in their substance and to which they return of necessity when they degenerate [ex ōn de ē genesis esti tois ousi kai tēn phthoran eis tauta ginesthai kata to chreōn]; for he says that they suffer retribution [dikēn] and give recourse [tisin] to one another for injustice [adikian] according to the order of time [kata tou chronou taxin], putting it rather poetically [poiētikoterois outōs onomasin auta legōn].

3. Two points are worth noting even when Aristotle considers the notion of archē in a purely philosophical sense, as in the Metaphysics when he discusses the matter of first principles and causes: 1) he always speaks in the plural (archai kai aitiai) as there can never be one first principle or cause in isolation and above all others; 2) nowhere does he place the philosopher—for philosophy is the mode in which first principles and causes are to be contemplated and understood—in the position of archon as such. (See Aristotle, Metaphysics, Book I, 980-985.) But, insofar as the signifying range of archē—or rather, in the plural: archai—is limited to the temporal (“beginnings”) and not to the political, Aristotle’s thinking departs from the differential framework we see in Politics and by attributing to this term a causal determination. However, even if naturalized, this determination retains a connection to the inaugural pre-Socratic signification of the inherent finitude (telos) made imperative by the archē of time.

4. See my essay “On Self-Alteration” Parrhesia 9 (2010): 1-17 [Parrhesia Journal]

5. For the most concise exposition of the many modern glosses of the Anaximander fragment, as well as their different registers and translations (from Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Jaeger to Vlastos, Vernant, and Castoriadis), see Vassilis Lambropoulos, “Stumbling Over the ‘Boundary Stone of Greek Philosophy’” in Justice in Particular: Festschrift in Honour of Professor P.J. Kozyris (Athens: Sakkoulas, 2007), 193-210.

« Previous // Next »