Archē : Stathis Gourgouris

Right off hand, I would point out two essential elements established by this fragment, whose complexity, of course, is vastly disproportionate to its brevity:

1. Archē here is infinite. This does not preclude it from being a source (of all matter, of everything). Nor, however, does this mean that it is somehow external to this everything it enables, because this everything decays, is finite, and thereby returns to become source again. Source, therefore, is not Ursprung, the one and only origin, the once and for all event of creation, but an infinite space of interminably enacted beginnings of an indefinite array of “things” that have one thing in common: they terminate. There is a crucial element in the meaning of apeiron we need to remember: whatever has no peras doesn’t just mean whatever has no limit but also whatever cannot be completed. In this sense, the infinite is also incomplete. The paradoxical condition is that the incomplete/infinite enables the emergence of the finite/completed, an emergence that is, as such, a disturbance of the infinite. The finitude of existence is thus justified by its very violation of the infinite; it is this violation that inaugurates the question of justice (dikē).6 In addition to signifying whatever is unlimited and incomplete, the infinite (apeiron), by virtue of the literal polysemy of the word, also means whatever exceeds experience (peira)—literally, something that cannot be empirically determined.7 In this latter sense, insofar as it cannot be empirically known, the infinite (apeiron) is not just interminable (atermon), as it came to be understood in Aristotle’s day, but indeterminable: something that in itself has no telos, no finality, no termination—which is another way of saying that it lacks de-finition, de-limitation, de-termination.8

2. But this disturbance of the infinite/indefinite/indeterminate by virtue of termination or finitude also means that the infinite source is not omnipotent, for it is thus crossed by time. Time is what makes things/beings decay and die and, in so doing, opens infinity to their re-admittance, to their return, which thus makes the infinite source, simultaneously, a sort of repository, a burial ground of what has come into the world and has gone out of it. (Ground, here, is metaphorical, for apeiron rests on nothing—it is abyssal and only figuratively situated, precisely by this relation to finite things, for its spatial dimension is otherwise a void.) The condition of things/beings entering the world and necessarily having to go out of it constitutes, in itself and without any other qualification, an injustice [adikia]. This is to say, with utter brutality, that time itself constitutes an injustice, which the infinite, though an archē, can neither overrule nor alleviate. The relation between infinity and time hangs in the cosmic balance which finite matter inevitably unsettles—for on the one hand, matter is subject to time, thereby defying the infinite, and on the other hand, matter returns to the infinite, thereby defying time. This unsettling of balance, this injustice, is life itself—the tragic life, from which there is no redemption.

This impossibility of redemption ends any resemblance of this cosmological sense with views of humanity separated from the divine, fallen from grace by original sin or what have you. The Greeks gesture toward a permanent cosmological condition that cannot be repaired in some Messianic sense (Jewish or Christian) or alleviated by some paradisial after-life (Christian or Muslim). They gesture toward an injustice of which death (irreparable finitude) is both the mark and the cost of retribution, insofar as it restores the matricial integrity of the infinite. Imaginaries of original sin or fall from grace celebrate an imposed-inherited limit of existence. This Ionian imaginary, for which finitude itself constitutes an injustice, provides justice (dikē) precisely in determining that one makes one’s own limits in the course of living, while submitting unredemptively to the ultimate limit of death. While living, one’s life is potentially unlimited—one’s imagination is infinitely capacious, it partakes of the abyssal infinite, one might say—hence the danger of committing hubris and the demand thereby that one authorizes (I would say poietizes) one’s own limits.

It is important to add—and about this matter alone a whole other essay would have to be written—that this astounding fragmentary thought, pertaining to the core of the cosmic and articulated in just a couple of sentences, is explicitly understood to be a way of speaking and thinking poetically. The force of poiein—what enables a society to create a world for itself and a mythic language (poetry) that makes this society fully accountable to the fact that it and no other has created this world—is essential to understanding the peculiar significance of both tragic life and democracy.9

6. Note Barry Sandywell’s succinct formulation: “Whatever exists is universally subject to justified destruction. Now the kosmos is perceived as a vast process of coming-to-be and passing-out-of existence. Every existing thing is a site of expiation for its violation of the apeiron.” Barry Sandywell, Pre-Socratic Reflexivity: The Construction of Philosophical Discourse (London: Routledge, 1996), 141.

7. For this reason, as Castoriadis puts it, “a theory of the infinite is, in some ways, a literal contradiction” because there can never be an empirical (experimental and experiential) basis on which the infinite can be theorized. “Hence, only poets can touch the infinite.” See Cornelius Castoriadis, Philosophia kai Epistēmē (Athens: Eurasia, 2003), 112. It is important to add that, although the Anaximander fragment is about physics, the thinking involved is not mathematical strictly speaking. In modern mathematics infinity is calculated; it can be mathematized, that is, it can literally be part of an equation that can be solved, even if infinity remains unknown. In Anaximander, infinity is a non-mathematical entity. It does denote an order, but an order that cannot be calculated because it is incomplete and intangible.

8. See Cornelius Castoriadis, Ce qui fait la Grèce (Paris: Seuil, 2004), 175.

9. In his extensive reading of the Anaximander fragment, Castoriadis points out the peculiarity of this creation of the notion of the infinite precisely as an entirely non-instrumental, non-determinant conceptualization, as thought itself—for him the archē (beginning) of philosophy. He would not disagree, I would argue, that this philosophical archē is indeed, contra Plato, poietic in essence. See Ce qui fait la Grèce, 210-214.

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