Archē : Stathis Gourgouris

We thus reach the paradoxical situation, by modern logic, where what begins is already in the midst of what exists; a point of departure (and governing principle) is permeated by forces that can never be accounted for one by one but together form the abyssal point of emergence, the opening in the infinite that creates this midst in what exists. But also, what exists is, as such (if this can even be said), indeterminable, impossible to subject to any singular origin, any singular reason for being, because it, too, exists within the infinite. The only thing that can be said about what exists is that it exists so as to cease existing, or rather, this is the only way to determine that something exists: that its existence is finite. Only insofar as it has a definite telos (end) can one understand that what exists has an archē (beginning)—finitude is the only rule (archē) of existence.

This orientation may be called philosophical—as a profound attempt to create meaning out of meaninglessness, while neither denying meaninglessness nor seeking to transcend it—but is profoundly political, not only because it belongs to the social imaginary institution of the polis, but because it expresses an elemental struggle against heteronomous determination beyond the strictly physical realm. We can think of this another way. If, in the first instance, Anaximander’s fragment entails a specific conceptualization of physis, in the last instance—as it becomes comprehensible within a social historical frame—it also conceptualizes a certain nomos. Physis, let us recall, is not a state of things; it is not nature as a given in the way that modern thought (moral, religious, scientific) has configured it. It is literally a condition of emergence (the verb phyein means to sprout, to surge forth) out of an indeterminate abyssal infinite, which cannot quite be called source, at least not source as Ursprung.

Physis is not a state of things as they are, but an interminable flux of generation and degeneration (phthora), literally a dynamic of living (and of course, dying) being. This dynamic shows that physis bears in itself a nomos—a mode by which the cosmos is regulated and balanced, by which justice is achieved. The ordinance of time (kata tou chronou tixin) expresses the necessity (kata to chreōn) of finitude which thereby preserves the possibility of interminable generation (archē) from the matrix of the infinite.

The injustice does not reside in the struggle between the infinite and the finite, the indeterminate and the determined, as if they are two polarities as different universes. The struggle takes place within the infinite; what is determined to be (to live and die) emerges as determined within the interminable and indeterminable to-be, as Castoriadis would put it (à-être).17 The paradoxical figure of the ontological injustice of death, being at the same time a reconstitution of the order of the infinite and therefore a gesture of justice against the injustice of existence disrupting the infinite fold, suggests a social-imaginary that takes irrevocable death as the ultimate limit of living being, the only untranscendable limit that thereby frees life from any other imposed limits. (Where limits occur, we might also want to write determinations.) Heteronomy is thus removed from the realm of necessity in the course of one’s life; its one and only place is in death. In other words, limits or determinations in the course of one’s life are open to becoming a matter of self-knowledge, self-determination, autonomy—in the strictest sense of determining the question of what nomos is within one’s conditions of living?

Later in the Politics, Aristotle reiterates his understanding of the undoing of archē as singularity and primacy by explicitly connecting democracy to the institution of existential liberty (eleutheria).18 Against all notions that the concept of “individual liberty” emerges in Enlightenment individualism and liberalism, one finds in Aristotle that the liberty of living as one likes (το ζην ως βούλεται τις)—for to live not as one likes is precisely the condition of being a slave—is an essential element of democratic archē. Living as one likes, as a condition of being, is expressed politically in the desire not to be ruled by anyone (εντεύθεν ελήλυθε το μη άρχεσθαι, μάλιστα μεν υπό μηδενός—“from there arises [the desire for] not being ruled, indeed by no one”) or, if that’s not possible, to rule and be ruled in turn (ει δε μη, κατά μέρος). In other words, the necessity of sharing rule (of ruling as the practice of knowing how to be ruled) is predicated on the desire not to be ruled at all. However, it depends on the recognition that this desire is possible only as an existential desire—the prerequisite of an ontological freedom—since the coexistence of free citizens that makes up the polis makes some institution of rule necessary.

We can also think of it in reverse: refusal to be ruled existentially can only be actualized politically in sharing rule (μετέχειν της αρχής), in knowing how to be ruled. This only makes sense if we abolish our preconception that “being ruled” means “having no power.” In democracy, being ruled means having power—not as some sort of clientelist electorate or the alleged agency of public opinion as happens routinely in contemporary liberal oligarchies, but precisely insofar as the decision to be ruled is made autonomously, in full cognizance of the fact that this is a decision made by the plurality of rulers, since rule—or more precisely, self-rule—is shared by all.19

17. Note also the following: “The nondetermination of what is is not mere ‘indetemination’ in the privative and ultimately trivial sense. It is creation, namely, emergence of other determinations, new laws, new domains of lawfulness… No state of being is such that it renders impossible the emergence of other determinations than those already existing.” Cornelius Castoriadis, “The Logic of Magmas and the Question of Autonomy” in The Castoriadis Reader, ed. David Ames Curtis (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), 308.

18. Aristotle, Politics, Book VI, 1317b.

19. There is a curious configuration here where the self is radicalized as an autonomous entity and yet, simultaneously, pluralized and shared according to the isonomy of the polity. It would be an error to consider this along the lines of the divide between public and private, whereby one refuses to be governed in the private sphere and submits to government in the public sphere. This is a purely liberal formulation. Neither is it, however, akin to Kant’s pious reversal—freedom of thought and speech in the public sphere, obedience to the (moral) law in the private sphere—because, though oikos and agora are distinct spaces, in the Athenian imaginary there is no stipulated separation between the ethical (private) and the political (public). One’s existential condition of freedom is a matter of physis, while the political enactment of freedom is a matter of nomos. Physis and nomos are not contradictory; they are co-extensive cosmological crossings permeating the entire ancient Greek imaginary.

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