Skip to main content Accessibility help

“Bare Life” and Politics in Agamben's Reading of Aristotle

  • James Gordon Finlayson (a1)


Giorgio Agamben's critique of Western politics in Homo Sacer and three related books has been highly influential in the humanities and social sciences. The critical social theory set out in these works depends essentially on his reading of Aristotle's Politics. His diagnosis of what ails Western politics and his suggested remedy advert to a “biopolitical paradigm,” at the center of which stand a notion of “bare life” and a purported opposition between bios and zoē. Agamben claims that this distinction is found in Aristotle's text, in ancient Greek, and in a tradition of political theory and political society stemming from fourth-century Athens to the present. However, a close reading of Aristotle refutes this assertion. There is no such distinction. I show that he bases this view on claims about Aristotle by Arendt and Foucault, which are also unfounded.



Hide All

1 Agamben, Giorgio, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998). Agamben, Giorgio, Means without End: Notes on Politics, trans. Binetti, Vincenzo and Casarino, Cesare (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996). Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive (New York: Zone Books, 1999). State of Exception, trans. Kevin Attell (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003).

2 The translator into English of Homo Sacer and two other of Agamben's volumes is Daniel Heller-Roazen, professor of comparative literature at Princeton. I offer here a few select examples of recent work on Agamben or influenced by him, work that is either written by high profile academics or that appears in significant journals or in volumes published by major presses. Some of this work is very critical. Still, I take it that the authors in question deem that Agamben's work is sufficiently influential to be a worthy target of their criticism.

3 See for example, ten Bos, René, “Giorgio Agamben and the Community without Identity,” Sociological Review 53, no. 1 (2005): 1629.

4 See for example, Huysmans, Jan, “The Jargon of Exception. On Schmitt, Agamben and the Absence of Political Society,” International Political Sociology 2 (2008): 165–83.

5 See Mesnard, Phillipe, “The Political Philosophy of Giorgio Agamben: A Critical Evaluation,” Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions 5 (Summer 2004): 139–57; and a recent article by Mazower, Mark A. of Columbia University, “Foucault, Agamben: Theory and the Nazis,” Boundary 2, no. 35 (2008): 2334.

6 See the recent volume International Law and Its Others, ed. Anne Orford (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006). It has 24 cited references to Agamben, some extensive, and, by way of comparison, only 2 to Rawls. See also Hussain, Nasser and Placek, Melissa, “Thresholds, Sovereignty and the Sacred,” Law and Society Review 34, no. 2 (2000): 495.

7 For example, in July 2005 a symposium took place at Yale University Law School entitled “The Political: Law, Culture, Theology.” It was held under the aegis of the SIAS (Some Institutes for Advanced Studies) consortium, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, and attended by 18 of the world's brightest young European and American scholars in law and in the humanities. They came to study the work of Giorgio Agamben among other authors.

8 At last Google count, “Agamben” netted 1,200,000 hits, up from 404,000, when I first submitted this article in July 2008.

9 Agamben, Homo Sacer, 181/202. Henceforth second references, after the solidus, are to the Italian original: Homo Sacer: Il potere sovrano e la nuda vita (Torino: Giulio Enaudi, 2005).

10 Ibid., 5/7, 10/14. “The camp—as the pure absolute and impassable bio-political space …—will appear as the hidden paradigm of the political sphere of modernity [come il paradigma nascosto della spazio politico della modernità] …” Ibid., 123/35. On the biopolitical paradigm, see also Homo Sacer, 3, 9, 166–81.

11 See Agamben, State of Exception, 2–3. See also “Interview with Giorgio Agamben: Life, A Work of Art without an Author: The State of Exception, the Administration of Disorder and Private Life,” German Law Journal 5, no. 5 (May 1, 2004, special edition): “It is firstly obvious that we frequently can no longer differentiate between what is private and what public, and that both sides of the classical opposition appear to be losing their reality. And the detention camp at Guantanamo is the locus par excellence of this impossibility” (612). See also van Munster, Rens, “The War on Terrorism: When the Exception Becomes the Rule,” International Journal for the Semiotics of Law, 17, no. 2 (2004): 141–53.

12 Agamben's statement that Western politics has been biopolitics “from the very beginning” is evidence that he thinks there is a single overarching paradigm.

13 Agamben, Homo Sacer, 9/12 and 123/31.

14 It is important to note that what Agamben calls the logic of exception is still, at some level, a logic of mutual opposition and of exclusion, even if this exclusion is at the same time an inclusion. There is no state of exception that is not also at some level a state of opposition and exclusion.

15 Agamben, Homo Sacer, 4/7, 7/10.

16 Ibid., 4/6. Paul Patton in an informed and insightful essay argues that Foucault abandons his short-lived notion of biopower after 1976. Among other things, he belatedly recognized that state power had always intervened in the biological lives of citizens, and that in truth the real change in the nineteenth century was that advances in technology, science, and medicine allowed government interventions to be more efficient. Patton, , “Agamben and Foucault on Biopolitics and Biopower,” in Giorgio Agamben: Sovereignty and Life, ed. Calarco, Matthew and De Caroli, Steven (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007), 203–19.

17 Foucault in “Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the Collège de France 1975–1976 (New York: Picador, 2003), 239–65. In this essay, Foucault is particularly interested in the irony that it was liberalism, which he understands as a reforming “critical reflection upon governmental practice,” and thus as a manifestation of social criticism, that brought about this extension in the reach of governmental control. Cf. also Foucault, , The Will to Knowledge: The History of Sexuality, vol. 1 (London: Penguin, 1976), 141–42, where he describes biopolitics as “nothing less than the entry of life into history, that is, the entry of phenomena peculiar to the life of the human species into the order to knowledge and power, into the sphere of political techniques… . For the first time in history, no doubt, biological existence was reflected in political existence; the fact of living was no longer an inaccessible substrate that only emerged from time to time, amid the randomness of death and its fatality; part of it passed into knowledge's field of control and power's sphere of intervention. Power would no longer be dealing simply with legal subjects over whom the ultimate dominion was death, but with living beings, and the mastery it would be able to exercise over them would have to be applied and the level of life itself; it was the taking charge of life more than the threat of death, that gave power its access even to the body.”

18 Foucault, “Society Must Be Defended,” 241–42. For this reason, I think that Žižek's talk of a “sense of biopolitics from Foucault to Agamben” is wholly mistaken, while Ziarek's talk of Agamben's “revision” of Foucault's concept understates the fact that Agamben takes the concept, transforms it, and adapts it for purposes for which it was not intended. Žižek, Slavov, “From Politics to Biopolitics and Back,” South Atlantic Quarterly 103, no. 23 (2004): 501–21. Ziarek, Eva Płonowska, “Bare Life on Strike: Notes on the Biopolitics of Race and Gender,” South Atlantic Quarterly 107, no. 1 (2008): 89.

19 Foucault, Michel, Naissance de la Biopolitique : Cours au Collège de France, 1978–1979 (Paris: Gallimard, 2004), 24.

20 Agamben, Homo Sacer, 2/4 (translation amended).

22 Arendt, Hannah, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), 24. 27.

23 Ibid., 25. She makes this claim about Greek political thought, Greek political reality, and about Aristotle's conception of politics.

24 Note how Arendt transliterates the Greek noun. See note 50 below.

25 Arendt, The Human Condition, 24.

26 Agamben, Homo Sacer, 2/4.

27 Ibid. Jacques Rancière argues that in Agamben's account “radical suspension of politics in the exception of bare life is the ultimate consequence of Arendt's arch-political position, of her attempt to preserve the political from the contamination of private, social, apolitical life.” “Who Is the Subject of the Rights of Man?” The South Atlantic Quarterly 103, no. 2/3 (Spring/Summer 2004): 301–2.

28 Benjamin, Walther, Illuminations, trans. Zone, Harry (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), 257.

29 Agamben, “The State of Exception as a Paradigm of Government,” chap. 1 of State of Exception.

30 Benjamin draws a distinction between mythical law-founding and law-keeping violence and divine violence and writes the following: “For blood is the symbol of mere life. The dissolution of legal violence stems, as cannot be shown in detail here, from the guilt of more natural life, which consigns the living, innocent and unhappy, to a retribution that ‘expiates’ the guilt of mere life—and doubtless also purifies the guilty, not of guilt, but of law. For with mere life the rule of law over the living ceases. Mythical violence is bloody power over mere life for its own sake, divine violence pure power over all life for the sake of the living” (Benjamin, W., “Critique of Violence,” in One-Way Street and Other Writings [London and New York: Verso, 1997], 151). Benjamin, W., Zur Kritik der Gewalt und andere Aufsätze. Mit einem Nachwort versehen von Herbert Marcuse (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1965). Thanks to Verena Erlenbusch for pointing this out to me.

31 Agamben, State of Exception, 22. See also Schmitt-Dorotic, Carl, Die Diktatur: Von den Anfängen des modernen Souveränitätsgedankens bis zum proletarischen Klassenkampf (Munich: Duncker and Humblot, 1921).

32 Each of these three ingredients is, viewed from a source-critical point of view, controversial and open to objection. First, there is Agamben's anachronistic and ahistorical reworking of Foucault's notion of biopolitics mentioned above; second, his application of Arendt's reading of Aristotle and her critique of the rise of the social to the phenomenon of twentieth-century totalitarianism; and third, his use of the idea of the state of exception to explain the suspension of aspects of international law, as well as the recent erosion of civil and human rights by executive and autocratic governance. That said, I shall leave these lines of objection to be pursued by scholars of Foucault, Arendt, Benjamin, and Schmitt respectively.

33 Agamben, Homo Sacer, 8/11.

34 He is a confusing example also, as Paul Patton points out. Homo sacer is supposed to be bare life and thus outside the law, yet owes his peculiar legal status wholly to Roman Law. Patton, , “Agamben and Foucault on Biopolitics and Biopower,” in Giorgio Agamben: Sovereignty and Life, ed. Calarco, Matthew and De Caroli, Steven (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007), 211.

35 The index and the structure of Homo Sacer are good evidence for this claim. Agamben's social theory and his analysis of sovereign power in particular do not depend on the example homo sacer—he has a whole array of other instances, including (at random): the Versuchsperson (Agamben, Homo Sacer, 154–60, 171–78); people in a persistent vegetative state (163–64, 181–83); the sadomasochist and “Sade's entire work (in particular … 120 Days of Sodom)” (134–35, 148–49); not to mention “the entire population of the Third World” (180–211).

36 Agamben, Homo Sacer, 2/4. Agamben, Means without End, 3/13. Henceforth references to the original are given after the solidus: Mezzi Senza Fine: Note sulla politica (Torino: Bollati Boringhieri, 1996).

37 He also calls it the “founding opposition” and the “hidden foundation” (Agamben, Homo Sacer, 2, 4, 7, 8, 9, 11, 181–84).

38 Ibid., 1/3.

39 Ibid., 2/4. Aristotle Politics 1252b29–31. English translations from Aristotle, , The Politics, trans. Jowett, , ed. Everson, S. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988). References to the Greek from Aristotelis, , Politica (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1957).

40 Agamben, Homo Sacer, 2/4. “[W]hen Aristotle defined the end of the perfect community in a passage which was to become canonical for the political tradition of the West (1252b30) he did so precisely by opposing the simple fact of living (to zēn) to politically qualified life (ginomenē men oun tou zēn eneken ousa de tou eu zēn).” Would not one be just as entitled (if not more so) to claim that the Roman distinction between res publica and res privata constituted the foundation of modern politics; or that Hobbesian social contract theory, which is based on the repudiation of and break with Aristotle and Aristotelianism, was paradigmatic of modern Western political theory and modern politics?

41 Ibid., 7/10.

42 Ibid., 4/7, 8/11. It is not clear whether he is claiming that this distinction is in Aristotle and, therefore, in Greek, which, as Laurent Dubreuil points out, would be a fatal inference, not because (as I will show) there is no such distinction in Aristotle, but because even if there were such a distinction, one cannot infer from Aristotle, let alone from one passage in the Politics, to the Greek corpus. Dubreuil, , “Leaving Politics: Bios, Zoe, Life,” Diacritics 36 (Summer 2006): 8399.

43 Agamben, Homo Sacer, 1/3; Means without End, 3/13.

44 This is reading between the lines; however, Agamben clearly implies that zoē and bios respectively correspond to voice and language, and Aristotle clearly states that whereas animals have voice, only human beings have speech. Dubreuil reads Agamben in the same way that I do. Dubreuil, “Leaving Politics.”

45 See Kraut, Richard, Aristotle on the Human Good (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989).

46 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1098a16–18.

47 If Aristotle did reserve the term bios for humans, presumably he would not use the word bios in the famous passages of the Nicomachean Ethics (1095b19) where he characterizes the life of gratification and pleasure as “slavish” and “a life for grazing animals” [boskēmatōn bion]. Bios is in this respect more like ethos—another term Aristotle does not reserve exclusively for humans. For example, “Further differences exhibited by animals [tōn zōōn] are those which relate to their ways of life, their actions and their dispositions [kata tous bious kai tas praxeis kai ta ēthē] (History of Animals, 487a11). This is typical of his usage, as we see from, e.g., History of Animals, 487a14, 487b34, 488b37; and Generation of Animals, 750a6. See Bonitz, H., Index Aristotelicus (Graz: Akademische Druck- und Verlagsanstalt, 1955), 137.

48 Heidegger, Martin, “Letter On Humanism” [1949], in Basic Writings, ed. Krell, D. F. (London: Routledge, 1994), 227: “[W]ith the animal zōon, an interpretation of ‘life’ is already posited that necessarily lies in an interpretation of beings as zōē and physis within what is living appears… . It finally remains to ask whether the essence of man primordially and most decisively lies in the dimension of animalitas at all. Are we really on the right track toward the essence of man as long as we set him off as one living creature among others, in contrast to plants, beasts, and God?” See also Arendt who claims that Plato and Aristotle did not count the need-based sociality of humankind among the specifically human characteristics; it was something human life had in common with animal life and for this reason could not be fundamentally human. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, 24.

49 Agamben, Homo Sacer, 1/3.

50 Note the spelling, with omega, not omicron. This is normally transliterated in Latin script thus: zōē. Curiously, Agamben writes it “zoē” throughout Homo Sacer and Means without End in both English and Italian. This spelling seems to have caught on. See Politics, Metaphysics and Death: Essays on Giorgio Agamben's “Homo Sacer,” ed. Andrew Norris (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005); and Giorgio Agamben: Sovereignty and Life. Note that the accents often go missing in html text, and in texts printed from articles on the web in html. In texts originally printed on paper, however, there is no reason not to write zōē rather than zoē. From now on, I shall appropriate Agamben's peculiar spelling for my own purposes: I will use “zoē” when citing Agamben and to designate the notion he takes to be equivalent with “bare life,” and I shall use “zōē” only when referring to Aristotle's concept and the actual Greek word.

51 Dubreuil, “Leaving Politics,” also notes this point.

52 Jonas, Hans, “Zwischen Nichts und Ewigkeit. Zur Lehre vom Menschen,” cited in Bien, Günther, Die Grundlegung der Politischen Philosophie bei Aristoteles (Freiburg: Karl Alber, 1973), 123. While this may be generally true, as Jonas and Bien claim, Aristotle does sometimes use the term to mean animal in the pejorative sense of beast or brute. See for example Politics 1280a30, where Aristotle contrasts political life with a life of indolence and pleasure fit only for animals and slaves and Politics, 1251a16–19 where he claims that only man—in contrast with the other animals—has a sense of justice. In these passages, Aristotle must be using the word in the narrow and pejorative sense, otherwise the comparison fails.

53 Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics 1181b15.

54 Agamben, Homo Sacer, 2/4, 7/10. Agamben, Means without End, 3/13.

55 Dubreuil claims that in Aristotle zōē tends to denote life in general, and bios particular life. Laurent Dubreuil, “Leaving Politics,” 84. The view that there is a sharp distinction between something called ‘zoē’ and bios in Aristotle is now firmly entrenched in the secondary literature. See Giorgio Agamben: Sovereignty and Life, and Politics, Metaphysics and Death: Essays on Giorgio Agamben's “Homo Sacer”.

56 See H. Bonitz, Index Aristotelicus, 137. Laclau perceptively notes that by Agamben's own lights “living beings are not distributed between the two categories—those who have exclusively bios and those who have exclusively zoē—for those who have bios obviously have zoē as well” (Ernesto Laclau, “Bare Life or Social Indeterminacy,” Giorgio Agamben: Sovereignty and Life, 17). The converse is also true, of course: it would make no sense for Aristotle to attribute physical life to a being and not a way of living, and his usage is indicative of this. Perhaps Laclau thinks that “bios” is a distinctively human way of life, which is what Agamben also thinks.

57 Dubreuil, “Leaving Politics,” 85.

58 Aristotle, Politics, 12531–2.

59 Aristotle, Politics, 1253a1–3. Newman puts the argument nicely: “The household cannot be natural and the State other than natural: what holds of the former must hold of the latter: if the household is natural, a fortiori the State is so, for it is the completion of the household.” Newman, W. L., The Politics of Aristotle, vol. 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1887–1902), 2930.

60 Aristotle, Politics 1252a30.

61 Aristotle, Politics 1252a31–5.

63 Aristotle, Politics 1252a14.

64 Aristotle, Politics 1278b25. See also Politics 1280b30–40: “A polis exists for the sake of a good life, and not for the sake of mere living… . It is clear then that a polis is not a mere community, having a common place, established for the prevention of mutual crime and for the sake of exchange. These are conditions without which a state cannot exist; but all of them together do not constitute a state, which is a community of families … in well-being for the sake of a perfect and self-sufficing life… . The end of the state is the good life, and these are the means towards it.”

65 The distinction is roughly between the economic and instinctual basis of human association and, as it were, the moral basis.

66 Andrew Norris notices this, but fails to see (i) as counterevidence to Agamben's central thesis. Norris, , “Giorgio Agamben and the Politics of the Living Dead,” in Diacritics 30, no. 4 (2000): 45 n. 17. He also notices various confusions in Agamben's discussion of zoē and bare life, but notes apologetically that “many of the confusions that seem to plague Agamben's use of the term ‘bare life’ are superficial.” On the contrary, I think they are deep.

67 Bradley, A. C., “Aristotle's Conception of the State,” in A Companion to Aristotle's Politics, ed. Keyt, D. and Miller, F. D. (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991), 27. This continuity is nicely captured by Jowett's translation of ginomenē as “comes into existence” and ousa as “continuing in existence” (Aristotle, , The Politics, ed. Jowett, [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989], 3).

68 Newman, The Politics of Aristotle, 1: 17ff.

69 Ibid., 18.

70 Aristotle, , “Physics,” in The Complete Works of Aristotle, ed. Barnes, Jonathan, 2 vols. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press), 2:3, 1:332–34; and “Metaphysics,” 6.2, 2:1620–22.

71 Aristotle Physics, 2.1:193b13–14 and 2.2:194a31–34, in Barnes, Complete Works of Aristotle, 1:330, 332.

72 Newman, The Politics of Aristotle, 1:30.

73 Agamben, Homo Sacer, 7/10, 2/4.

74 Ibid., 2/4.

75 Foucault, La Volonté de Savoir, 188, cited in Agamben, Homo Sacer, 3. Foucault, The Will to Knowledge, 143. Incidentally, the same idea is found in Arendt's The Human Condition, though she notes that Aristotle has more than one definition of man. “Aristotle's famous definition of man as zōon politikon was not only unrelated and even opposed to the natural association experienced in household life; it can be fully understood only if one adds his second famous definition of man as a zōon logon ekhon (‘a living being capable of speech’)” (Arendt, The Human Condition, 27).

76 Günther Bien, Die Grundlegung der politischen Philosophie bei Aristoteles, 70–72. Wolfgang Kullmann, “Man as a Political Animal in Aristotle,” in A Companion to Aristotle's Politics, 94–117. John Cooper, “Political Animals and Civic Friendship,” Aristoteles’ “Politik”: Akten des XI Symposium Aristotelicum, Friedrichshafen/Bodensee, 25.8–3.9.1987, ed. Günther Patzig (Göttingen: VandenHoeck u. Ruprecht, 1990), 221–48.

77 Aristotle, History of Animals 1.1.488a8–10 in Barnes, Compete Works of Aristotle 1:776–77.

78 Aristotle, Politics 1253a7 (my emphasis).

79 See also Aristotle, Politics 1332b5: “Man and man alone has reason [logon]” and 1334b15 where Aristotle claims that “both reason [logos] and intellection [nous] are the end toward which nature strives, so that birth and education in customs should be ordered with a view to them.”

80 Aristotle, Politics 1251a16–19: “For by contrast with the other animals [ta alla zōa] he alone can perceive what is good and bad, and just and unjust.”

81 For, as Aristotle argues a few lines later, “the virtue of justice [dikaiosunē] is what is political, and justice [dikē] is the basis on which the political association is ordered, and the virtue of justice is a judgement about what is just” (Aristotle, Politics 1253a33–35).

82 Aristotle offers several other definitions of man, all of which satisfy the criterion for definition, namely that they pick out a specific difference of the defined term. For example, man is the only animal who can speak, the only animal that can deliberate and decide, the only animal who can act, the only animal who can count, the only animal who can remember, and the only animal that can do science. On this see Günther Bien, Die Grundlegung der politischen Philosophie bei Aristoteles, 120–24. A reviewer for this journal countered that since Aristotle links man's being political with man's capacity for speech/reason, the latter is his specific difference, regardless of what he says in the History of Animals. I take Aristotle at Politics 1253a7–10 to be saying that man's faculty of speech and reason and sense of justice articulate the specifically human way of being political, and thus that he qualitatively distinguishes human sociality and cooperativeness, as rational, from the instinctive sociality of nonhuman animals. This supports my contention (and Kullmann and Bien's) that Aristotle does not actually define man as a political animal.

83 Winckelmann, Johann Joachim “Gedanken über die Nachahmung der griechischen Werke in der Malerei und Bildhauerkunst” (1755–56), cited in Nietzsche on Tragedy, ed. Silk, M. S. and Stern, J. P. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 5. Note that, unlike Plato, Winckelmann says nothing about brightly painted statues, and one assumes that he believed their weathered whiteness to be part of their noble simplicity. After all, the fact that he could read his idea of serenity and simplicity into Laocoön, a statue representing a man and his sons trying to escape the clutches of two huge sea snakes, is an indication that Winckelmann, like many others of his era, was determined to find his preferred ideals in Greek art whatever the evidence.

84 A reviewer of Homo Sacer notes that “in investigating the current relation between human life and state power … Agamben finds answers in remotest antiquity, in Aristotle's political writings.” I would add that these are not answers and are not found in any usual sense of the word, and that the inferences Agamben draws for the present situation rest on a series of free associations which do not stand up to scrutiny. Nikolopoulou, Kalliopi, “Review of Homo Sacer,” Substance 93 (vol 29, no. 2) (2000): 124.

85 Nietzsche “Über Wahrheit und Lüge im aussermoralischen Sinne” in Sämtliche Werke. Kritische Studienasgabein 15 Bänden, ed. G. Colli und M. Montinari (Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1980), 1:883. I have taken this remark out of context, which is the outright debunking of the idea of truth.

86 Pace Dubreuil: “We don't have to confine ourselves to a counter-criticism that itself eschews interpretative warrant, and truth, and confines itself to the task of divesting the crow of its peacock feathers” (Dubreuil, “Leaving Politics,” 88).

87 “Agamben's philology suggests disciplinary procedures, but is foremost intended for the readers who do not possess the means of verification—even more so since the cited texts are commented upon rather evasively” (Dubreil, “Leaving Politics,” 88).

88 Dubreuil “Leaving Politics,” 84.

89 Agamben, Homo Sacer, back cover.

90 See also Ernesto Laclau, “Bare Life or Social Indeterminacy,” in Giorgio Agamben: Sovereignty and Life, 11.

91 Agamben, Homo Sacer, 1/3.

92 Salkever, Stephen G., Finding the Mean: Theory and Practice in Aristotelian Political Philosophy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990); Swanson, Judith, The Public and the Private in Aristotle's Political Philosophy (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1992); Yack, Bernard, The Problems of a Political Animal: Community, Justice, and Conflict in Aristotelian Political Thought (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).

93 For example, Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1094b2 and Politics 1253b1–3.

94 It is dangerous, for example, to take Aristotle's critique of democracy as a description of actually existing political reality. See Ober, Josiah, “How to Criticize Democracy in Late Fifth and Fourth Century Athens,” in The Athenian Revolution: Essays on Ancient Greek Democracy and Political Theory (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), 144–45. See also Yack, Bernard, “Community and Conflict in Aristotle's Political Philosophy,” Review of Politics 47 (January 1985): 92112; and the appendix in Judith A. Swanson's The Public and the Private in Aristotle's Political Philosophy, 213–26.

95 See section II, note 23 above.

96 The Human Condition, a critique of productivism and instrumentalism, and of the unlimited expansion of social and economic forms of association in McCarthyite America during the Cold War and the postwar boom, tells more about the intellectual context of Arendt's than about Aristotle's philosophy. Her diagnosis is as follows. “The modern age has carried with it a theoretical glorification of labor and has resulted in a factual transformation of the whole of society into a laboring society… . It is a society of laborers which is about to be liberated from the fetters of labor, and this society does no longer know of those other higher and more meaningful activities for the sake of which this freedom would deserve to be won. Within this society … there is no class left, no aristocracy of either a political or spiritual nature from which a restoration of the other capacities of man could start anew” (Arendt, The Human Condition, 4–5). (Notice the suggestion that a spiritual or political aristocracy would be the remedy to our current situation.)

97 Wiggins, David, “Deliberation and Practical Reason,” Needs, Value, Truth (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998), 223–24.

98 Agamben, Homo Sacer, 81–86/90–97.

99 Ibid., 167–80/185–202.

100 Ibid., 154–60/171–78.

101 Ibid., 163–64/181–83.

102 Ibid., 134–35/148–49.

103 Ibid., 131/145.

104 Ibid., 180/201.

105 See for example “Interview with Giorgio Agamben: Life, A Work of Art without an Author”: “It is firstly obvious that we frequently can no longer differentiate between what is private and what public, and that both sides of the classical opposition appear to be losing their reality. And the detention camp at Guantanamo is the locus par excellence of this impossibility.”

106 Agamben, Homo Sacer, 181/202.

107 Ibid., 9/13 (my emphasis).

108 It is true that a central task of modern liberal democratic governments is to regulate and control the biological lives of citizens, and moreover, that social life is increasingly shaped by a global capitalist economy driven by production and consumption, leading to huge surpluses of wealth and goods for some and misery and poverty for others. Agamben might have this (among other things) in mind. But, first, this general diagnosis is not original, and second, the distinction between zoē and bios does not shed any new light on it.

109 Agamben implies that none of the other well-attested differences between ancient and modern democracy make any difference: for example, the vast differences of scale, the numerous differences between direct and representative government, the fact that modern democracies have a separation of powers and ancient democracies tended not to, the fact that ancient democracies (unlike modern ones) relied heavily on practices such as selection by lot, the fact that in the ancient world society and politics were chiefly concerned with the prosecution of war rather than commerce, whereas in the modern world the reverse is the case, etc. See, for example, Constant, Benjamin, “The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with That of the Moderns,” in Constant: Political Writings, ed. Fontana, Biancamaria (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997); Finley, M. I., Politics in the Ancient World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977). On assigning office by lot under a democratic constitution, see Plato Republic 557a.

110 Agamben, Homo Sacer, 2, 4, 183, 187.

111 Ibid., 187/210.

112 “The rise of the Greek city-state meant that man received ‘besides his private life, a sort of second life, his bios politikos”‘(Arendt, The Human Condition, 24). Arendt herself quotes Werner Jaeger's Paideia.

113 Geuss, Raymond, Public Goods, Private Goods (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001).

114 Finley, Politics in the Ancient World, 82. See also Constant, “The Liberty of the Ancients,” 311: “All private actions were submitted to a severe surveillance. No importance was given to individual independence neither in relation to opinions, nor to labor, nor, above all to religion… . Among the Spartans, Therpandrus could not string his lyre without causing offence to the ephors. In the most domestic of relations the public authority again intervened. The young Lacedaimonian could hardly visit his new bride freely… . The laws regulated customs, and as customs touch on everything, there was hardly anything that the laws did not regulate.”

115 Swanson, The Public and the Private in Aristotle's Political Philosophy, 11.

116 Note that I am not denying that there were any operative notions of public and private in ancient Greece. I am claiming that there are many historically various private/public distinctions, and that it is a mistake to construe the operative notions of public and private as a single binary opposition. Connolly calls the liberal and Arendtian assumption that there was a time when politics was restricted to public life and biocultural life was kept in the private realm “a joke.” William E. Connolly, “The Complexities of Sovereignty,” in Calarco and De Caroli, Giorgio Agamben: Sovereignty and Life, 29. Though I am inclined to agree, I would add that with certain jokes it is important to understand why people are telling them. I am claiming that it is a mistake to construe the operative notions of the public and the private as a single opposition.

117 Agamben, Homo Sacer, 11/15: “[S]olo una riflessione che … interroghi tematicamente il rapporto fra nuda vita e politica che governa nascostamente le ideologie della modernità apparentemente piú lontana tra loro, potrà far uscire il politico dal suo occultamento e, insieme, restituire il pensiero alla sua vocazione practica.” See also Homo Sacer, 5/7.

118 “Only a politics that will have learned to take the fundamental biopolitical fracture into account will be able to stop this oscillation and to put an end to the civil war that divides the peoples and cities of the earth” (ibid., 180/201).

119 Ibid., 180/201, 4/ 5, 11/15.

120 Ibid., 181/201.

121 Heidegger, in an interview with the Spiegel in 1966, reflecting on his involvement with the Nazis, claimed that “only a God can save us,” implying that this task was not for a politician, not for a philosopher, and, if we humans are Godforsaken, altogether impossible. Martin Heidegger, “Nur ein Gott kann uns retten,” Der Spiegel, May 31, 1976. The apparent similarity between Adorno's and Habermas's views on this point, namely, that the philosopher and critical theorist are not the appropriate agents to bring about a transformed political praxis, conceals deeper underlying differences. On this see, Finlayson, James Gordon, “Political, Moral and Critical Theory: On the Practical Philosophy of the Frankfurt School,” The Oxford Handbook of Continental Philosophy, ed. Leiter, B. and Rosen, M. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 626–71.

122 This is true of what Raymond Geuss calls “conceptual innovation,” which, he argues, is an important and legitimate task for political theory. He cites an example of Tony Blair's “the Third Way” as an example of a conceptual innovation that failed to take root, because it was entirely empty. Geuss, , Philosophy and Real Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), 47.

123 Autonomy and Solidarity: Interviews with Jürgen Habermas, ed. Peter Dews (London: Verso, 1992), 202, 168.

124 Arendt, The Human Condition, 5.

Thanks to John David Rhodes, Verena Erlenbusch, to the editor and to several anonymous referees of this journal. Especial thanks to Jane Elliot and Christian Skirke.

Attribution of Epigrams: Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, vol. 2, trans. R. D. Hicks (London: Heinemann, Loeb Editions, 1970), 57. The words attributed to Diogenes of Sinope are “ou to zēn alla to kakōs zēn” and Michel Foucault, Naissance de la Biopolitique. Cours au Collège de France. 1978–1979 (Paris: Gallimard, 2004), 24.


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed