Archē : Stathis Gourgouris

In his stipulation of the substitutable nature of archon and archomenos, Aristotle reconfigures the stakes of Anaximander’s cosmology in explicitly political terms; this cosmology echoes in his account of ruler and ruled, although I am not, of course, claiming that this account belongs to a pre-Socratic idiom. The temporal distance between Anaximander and Aristotle is a matter of historical interest, but this cannot be used to bar the fecund association I am invoking, first because if we know anything of Anaximander it is because of Aristotle and his students, and more importantly, because the power of the notion of archē in the Greek world does not wane in the least, nor does it undergo such transformation in the three hundred years that separate the two philosophers as to be altogether alien. Jean-Pierre Vernant, the greatest classicist of his generation, points out that Aristotle is struck by the notion that infinity holds together a balance of contentious forces, so that

no individual element should be able to monopolize the kratos [power] and impose its domination over the world. The primacy [archē] that Anaximander grants to apeiron aims to guarantee the permanence of an egalitarian order in which opposing powers are balanced against one another in such a way that if one of them is dominant for a moment, it is then in its turn dominated, if any one of them advances and extends itself beyond its limits it then recedes as much as it has advanced, yielding to its opposite.10

In this respect, Vernant goes on to say (reading both Aristotle and Simplicius) that infinity cannot be seen as one element among the many opposing elements of the cosmos, but precisely as the intermediary between the elements, what mediates them and is, by the same word (meson), in the middle of them: the mediating space of the elements—a limitless abyssal terrain—on which the limit and capacity for self-limitation in every element is tested (drawn and redrawn, broken and reconstituted).

The limitless is a mediatory field that enables limits to be self-instituted. The very constitution of the middle is itself a groundless condition of autonomy. According to Anaximander’s vision, the earth exists in the midst of infinity, situated thus and sustained because of the equilibrium produced by interminably contending and opposing forces, an equilibrium that is never static but interminably dynamic, since if any one force achieves dominance it must be immediately destroyed by an emergent opposing force, and so on. In this infinite dynamic, the earth is otherwise υπό μηδενός κρατούμενη, that is, literally “held by nothing” but also (equally literally) “beholden to no one,” not dominated (kratoumenē) by anything, independent, autonomous.11 That is, in the midst (meson) of the infinite universe, the kratos of the earth is self-authorized dynamis—there is no better evidence of the social imaginary of the democratic polis than the political hue of this language of cosmological physics.

Moreover, the significance of the middle—meson—is not only figurative, as mediating space, but geometric, as central space, in relation to which all elements, by virtue of the balance that they are thus always pressed upon to sustain, are equidistant from, or as Vernant (thinking in political terms) hastens to add, in a condition of isonomia:

It can thus be said of the centre, as of the apeiron, that it represents not so much a particular point in cosmic space, an ίδιον, but the common mediator among all the points in space, a κοινόν, to which they all refer equally and from which they are all measured.12

Idion and koinon are related to each other by a mutual irreconcilable otherness—something that cannot possibly be conveyed by their plausible translation as self-same and collective-common, respectively. This incapacity of translation encapsulates the profound difference between the Athenian democratic imaginary and the imaginary of today’s so-called liberal democracies, in which any notion of the collective is configured by some sort of phantasmatic multiplication of the individual. Though in Anaximander’s language archē and dikē pertain to cosmology, their political meaning is unquestionable. Not only because we know them to be explicitly political terms in subsequent phases of Greek society, but because the constitutive emergence of the polis as a specific mode of social organization takes place—before it even becomes democratic in Athens—within and through the same social imaginary that enables Anaximander’s cosmology.

There is a long discussion over the relation of pre-Socratic cosmologies and concurrent political structures, from Nietzsche and Heidegger to Werner Jaeger and beyond. Gregory Vlastos, whose philosophical reading of the fragment is celebrated, disputes that Anaximander’s categories can be translated into political terms, even if they represent the first instance of a de-theologizing process in philosophy. Vlastos’ announced impetus is to correct Jaeger. However, his philosophical interpretation of the fragment confirms Vernant’s, for whom the political significance of Anaximander’s cosmology is unquestionable.13

10. Jean-Pierre Vernant, Myth and Thought Among the Greeks (London: Routledge, 1983), 205.

11. Jean-Pierre Vernant, Myth and Thought Among the Greeks, 186 and 192.

12. Jean-Pierre Vernant, Myth and Thought Among the Greeks, 206-207.

13. See Gregory Vlastos, “Equality and Justice in Early Greek Cosmologies” in Studies in Greek Philosophy: Vol. I – The Presocratics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), 57-88. Next to Vernant, foremost in placing his commentary on Anaximander at the core of the social-imaginary institution of the polis itself is Castoriadis in Ce qui fait la Grèce, 185-224.

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