Authority : Avital Ronell

IV. The Invention of Hell

Plato began to consider the introduction of authority into the handling of public affairs in the polis.

[H]e knew he was seeking an alternative to the common Greek way of handling domestic affairs, which was persuasion as well as to the common way of handling foreign affairs, which was force and violence.5

It was not only that Plato was trying to negotiate between rhetoric and violence; he was mourning the death of Socrates, a seismic event that had unmistakably diminished the pull of persuasion:

It was after Socrates’ death that Plato began to discount persuasion as insufficient for the guidance of men and to seek for something liable to compel them without using external means of violence.6

Scanning for authority, Plato was trying to clinch a force that could dispense with the use of force by priming a power that renounces power. Authority starts at home, as the Romans relayed, taking up Plato’s dilemma.

For his part, Plato had to leave the earth to build a case for authority. He started up the machinery of rewards and punishments in the hereafter, “a myth which Plato himself neither believed nor wanted the philosophers to believe.”7 The myth of hell at the end of the Republic was aimed at those who are not capable of philosophical truth. In the Laws Plato deals with the same level of perplexity that led to his creation of hell, but in the opposite way; here he “proposed a substitute for persuasion, the introduction to the laws in which their intent and purpose are to be explained to the citizens.”8 Both going to hell and citing the law provided Plato with ways to locate coercion without violence. (We will not for now engage a critique of violence here or take measure of its overflowing borders, asking where violence begins and ends or whether the invention of hell is all that nonviolent: thanks, Plato.) The main dilemma of his political philosophy required Plato to find a means of coercion that parts ways with violence and proves stronger than persuasion and argument.

As Arendt offers, seeking a legitimate principle of coercion, Plato was motored by the hostility of the polis toward philosophy,

which had probably lain dormant for some time before it showed its immediate threat to the life of the philosopher in the trial and death of Socrates. Politically, Plato’s philosophy shows the rebellion of the philosopher against the polis.9

Like the survivor of so many police films, Plato was set off by the murder of his partner. In his case, he had to reroute the philosophical premium, renouncing his partner’s softer ways: the patient if shrewd tapping of persuasive energies with which Socrates to this day is associated. This is not the place to get into some of Socrates’s bullying tendencies, which count neither for Plato nor Arendt as cornerstones of violence. Philosophy had to put together a survival kit, and fast. (Plato’s survival-mourning involved the outbreak of another myth, that of his taking up writing, whipping out the pen as Socrates had declined. Writing-up Socrates may belong to the mourning rituals and hardening that Plato endured after the state murder.) The only way for the philosopher to win a hand was to go through hell and fill out the blanks of a generalizable religion. So Plato, for tactical reasons, finds religion. He is not the only one.

Religion, provided with its rent-controlled abode of the damned, trumps the more earthbound rhetoric of persuasion. Hell burns through the combustible hold of a rhetoric that proves fragile in terms of staying power, ever diminishing its influence over the polis. Both Arendt and Kojève find a sticking point for authority in religion, skimming over the trifle of whether or not God exists. His analyses—phenomenological, metaphysical, ontological—require Kojève to make use of the notion of God (“il faudra se servir de la notion de Dieu“), even while admitting that the latter does not exist (“même en admettant que ce dernier n’existe pas“), except as a “myth.”10 For the man of “faith” (“Car l’homme ‘croyant’”) has always attributed to God the highest authority and it is thus through him that one can study this phenomenon as if under a microscope. And to the extent that we are dealing with a “myth,” Kojève continues under the cover of quotation marks (is it a myth or not, why the persistent sprinkle of quotation marks in this place?).

5. Hannah Arendt, The Portable Hannah Arendt, 464.

6. Hannah Arendt, The Portable Hannah Arendt, 465.

7. Hannah Arendt, The Portable Hannah Arendt, 465.

8. Hannah Arendt, The Portable Hannah Arendt, 476.

9. Hannah Arendt, The Portable Hannah Arendt, 475.

10. Alexandre Kojève, La Notion de L’Autorité (Paris: Gallimard, 2004), 54.

« Previous // Next »