Archē : Stathis Gourgouris

The relation between ruler and ruled is therefore not simply dialectical; it belongs to the order of co-incidence. It is by this logic of co-incidence that I speak of anarchy, to return to my first thesis: anarchy is the archē of democracy. The term literally means the impossibility of fully constituted (or once-and-for-all instituted) archē, both as point of origin and as point of governance. It does not mean the refusal of governance or the refusal of principle—at least, not when it comes to politics in a democracy. In Herodotus, there is the famous episode of the three Persian princes who are discussing the form of power that the Persian kingdom must have in the wake of the reign of Kambyses. As has been amply pointed out, Herodotus is here enacting an allegorical exercise to discuss different modes of politics. This is a theatrical exercise, and despite the fact that the actors are Persians, the dramaturgy is Greek. And so is the matter enacted.

It’s inconceivable that three Persian princes would conduct a debate over which political mode would be the best to succeed the death of King Kambyses. Moreover, we know that Herodotus made a sojourn in Athens c. 447-443 (in Periclean times, as the Parthenon was being built), and we may just as well imagine that this specific scene would have been publically performed for the benefit and interrogation of the Athenians. The theatrical debate as to which mode of rule was preferable (democracy, oligarchy, or monarchy) itself deserves a close reading, for it bears considerable rhetorical and political subtlety. Most striking, however, is the concluding phrase by Otanis (the advocate of democracy), who, upon facing the agreed decision (by majority) that the preferable solution is monarchy, decides to withdraw his name from the process of succession to the throne by famously declaring: ούτε άρχειν ούτε άρχεσθαι εθέλω (“I want neither to rule nor to be ruled”).20

This phrase in Herodotus is often identified as an expression of anarchist sentiment. This is absurd in any strictly political sense. I take it to be the mere expression of the desire to be exempted from the political, literally an option to withdraw into the private sphere. Otanis deliberately opts out of any participation in government and, in return, he and his family gain a sort of asylum, a freedom in a state of exception established by a certain rule—a rule of the game, a convention—but a rule of an Other nonetheless. For even if it is Otanis’ own decision to opt out, the survival of the agreement he brokers is henceforth predicated on the good will of another, the one who will come to rule.

In the discussion that takes place before the agreement, Otanis defends the option of democratic politics, not using the name democracy, however, but isonomia. (I would argue that isonomia works much like the co-incident (isonomic) archē of ruler/ruled; they are the necessary institutions of democracy.) His critique of monarchy is precisely that it is situated in a hubristic relation to the law. By occupying the law absolutely, it exceeds, violates, and thus annihilates the law. There is indeed a subtle but definitive shift in the language from archē to nomos (monarchy to isonomy), for democracy is qualitatively other to monarchy, not merely by the fact that rule is exercised by the multitude (plēthos) as opposed to the rule of the one, but that rule (archē) is subject to law (nomos) according to the essential significance of the source verb nemein: divided, apportioned, mediated, shared. Otanis’ final decision, however, is ultimately a rejection of the democratic politics he espouses, for no community, no polis and no dēmos, can be constituted on the basis of a refusal to rule and be ruled. It is, moreover, a blatant violation of isonomy in that Otanis’ decision pertains to himself only (his family is literally his property, proper to him). It is, if you will, an option for idion over koinon, thereby positing the exclusive privilege of just one: a monologic position that is, strictly speaking, monarchic, even if in name anarchic.

In other words, despite Otanis’ overt naming of his decision, his position is actually not anarchic because anarchy, in the way I am defining it, can only exist against the provenance of the One (the singularity of archē as origin and rule). Moreover, as a political position, anarchy is not a matter of personal desire; it is an investment in a specific signification of archē, whereby the business of ruling is a plural, shared, yet contentious affair. Anarchy can never be linked to an apolitical position, to the voiding of archē, whereby the business of ruling is left to the others.21 In that sense, too, anarchy is the archē of democracy.


Stathis Gourgouris is Professor of Classics, English, and Comparative Literature and Society, and Director of the Institute of Comparative Literature and Society at Columbia University.


Published on November 1, 2013

20. Aristotle, Histories, Book III.

21. In his exemplary reading of this passage in Herodotus, Castoriadis argues that the essential articulation in Herodotus is the antithesis between freedom and despotism—which, incidentally, can never be reduced to the antithesis between Greeks and barbarians. In this respect, Otanis’ phrase makes sense as the ultimate refusal of despotic logic. But, by the same token, it thus remains locked in this specific existential antithesis and can never become a springboard for the political freedom of autonomy. See Cornelius Castoriadis, La Cité et les lois, 264-269.

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