Archē : Stathis Gourgouris

This is not some pedantic philosophical issue. We are talking of an archaic world, whose cosmological understanding cannot be divorced from its political imaginary on the grounds of some sort of epistemological or disciplinary difference. In such a world, it is not farfetched to argue that a politics, and even an ethics, can in fact rise out of physics, which would not be to conduct some natural law argument. The Anaximander fragment articulates a field of observation of whatever exists around the observer, who in turn is simultaneously the thinker and the poet—this is precisely the mark of its archaic epistemology.

Whatever exists ‘around’ includes, of course, the most distant things, the sea, the sky, the stars, etc. The Anaximander fragment has been called the first naturalist way of thinking because it places whatever is based on observation and probable measurement at the center of philosophical/poetic speculation. But the very first level of observation is actually anthropological—Anaximander was in fact the first to speculate that all life, including human life, emerged from the sea—meaning specifically what happens to the human body: decay and then death. This is understood to be a natural condition. There is nothing peculiar about it; it is a brutal fact like any other fact, like water is a fact. So, from this standpoint, what would be called political or ethical rules, which pertain to how human beings interact and live together, are predicated on a brutal natural condition. Not in a deterministic way, however. Nature (physis) is a necessary substratum; without it humans—the world itself—would not exist. But human societal organization (nomos) is the outcome of working upon this substratum, ultimately exceeding it, while never altering it as last instance, never abolishing it.

So it is possible to say that because the human being is part of nature like any other, no better or worse, specific in its difference but like any other material specificity in the universe, it becomes an indication of how everything works. The amazing thing is that now we know that is the case. Stars are actually finite; all matter decays. The infinite and the finite are the ways of the cosmos. And so the terms for justice or injustice are literally of existential cosmological significance. It is really unjust that we die. Or even more so, it is unjust that we live, for this means that we die. It is not death that signifies injustice, because this thought leads to the desire for an after-life. It is life itself that signifies injustice because it interrupts the universal infinite fold. Finite beings come into being and then this perfect beautiful infinite is disrupted. Our death is retribution for the fact that we have come to be.

No doubt, only an archaic civilization could think that way. Nowadays, we would consider this thinking poetic. And it is—not only because the fragment ends on the phrase “putting it rather poetically,” which could easily be a later interpolation, but because poiēsis means creation of forms and thus belongs to that same language of physics. In turn, this is the epitome of the creative/destructive capacity of the human animal: observation and measurement are already modes of transforming material elements into conditions of life.

Vernant and Castoriadis both speak of the institution of the polis as a radical space of isonomy and isēgoria far before the Cleisthenes reforms in Athens, indeed taking place in the Ionian societies from which, what we call pre-Socratic thinking, emerged. A cosmology of groundless mediation and a geometry of equidistance from a central point are the essential registers that permeate all aspects of the city, from its architectural planning to the organization of its domestic space. Vernant specifically makes the argument that the centrality of the agora in Athens is not due to some economic principle in the modern sense (the centrality of the market place in the exchange of goods and ideas), but harkens back to the primitive circle of warriors (as described by Homer) in which the man who speaks takes a position at the center of the circle of equals and returns to the circle for the next man to step in the middle and so on. Likewise, he argues that once the polis is instituted as a new mode of social organization, the hearth—the sacred space in every house that resides at the center and is implanted in the earth—is reconfigured as common hearth (Hestia koinē) and placed in the center of the agora space, now identified explicitly as a political symbol devoted to no divinity and thereby desacralized.14

This geometrics of meson, of mediation and middle, which irrevocably alters any understanding of archē as the fixed point of origin and primary rule, operates in another often quoted instance in Aristotle: “A citizen is simply determined [horizetai], above all other matters, in sharing/participating [metechein] in judgment [krisis] and rule [archē].”15 This phrase demonstrates in the language itself not only how archē is indeed not constituted as a primordial whole—that it is in fact cleft, permeated by différance both as origin and as principle—but that it is also, by virtue of that permeability, a condition of mediation. The citizen does not possess or occupy (katechein) rule/origin (archē), but shares (metechein) in rule/origin. In dismantling the verb etymologically one could argue that metechein means also one “exists within it,” or literally, one “permeates its possession” or, even more precisely, one “enters a medium of this possession.” But it is not only this permeation/mediation that disrupts the illusion of a primordial and integral archē or that it displaces its possession of the origin. It is also that, insofar as archē becomes a matter of share (metochē), it is simultaneously mediated and pluralized.

Democratic archē can only be shared. If not shared, it does not exist. It sounds self-evident, but we better take seriously what it means for it not to exist. In addition—by virtue of the same language—democratic archē is also constitutively mediated by the transient community that shares in power. The very institutions of isonomia and isēgoria signify and actualize this mediation of archē achieved by the sharing of power. Insofar as one (absolute singular) cannot occupy (katechein) this archē—which isn’t to say that no one occupies this archē—one (generic impersonal and substitutable singular) traverses (metechein) this archē: the archē becomes a shared space of mediation that thereby disrupts the constitution or reconstitution of absolute, singular (literally, monarchical) rule/origin.16

14. See Jean-Pierre Vernant, Myth and Thought Among the Greeks, 183-189. Vernant speaks of Hippodamus of Miletus, fellow citizen to Anaximander but a century later, as the architect of the first polis based on an agora space in the center of a circular construction, adding that, though an architect Hippodamus was indeed a political theorist (185). This geometrical imaginary of the polis can be said to be at work also in the ideal architecture of Vitrivius, according to which the city’s center must be open to ventilation by a series of radial streets in a circle around it.

15. Aristotle, Politics, Book III, 1275a.

16. See also Martin Oswald’s discussion of this significance of metechein in “Shares and Rights: ‘Citizenship’, Greek Style, and American Style” in Dēmokratia: A Conversation on Democracies, Ancient and Modern, eds. Josiah Ober and Charles Hedrick (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), 49-61. Notably, Ostwald reads Aristotle’s phrase exousian einai metechein not in the sense that exousia means sovereignty or even power achieved by right, but rather, “something ‘permissible’, ‘allowable’, that is open to a person, not something to which a person is ‘entitled’” (56).

« Previous // Next »