Pre-eminence and the Status of Politics

“…all superior men who were irresistibly drawn to throw off the yoke of any kind of morality and to frame new laws had, if they were not actually mad, no alternative but to make themselves or pretend to be mad—and this indeed applies to innovators in every domain and not only in the domain of priestly and political dogma…” (Daybreak, 14).

In contrast to some of the shrewder commentary on Nietzsche’s politically charged philosophy, I would like to try and sketch out my case that Nietzsche’s middle works (Human, All Too Human and Daybreak) do not constitute anomalous representatives of the whole, but a much more thoroughly nuanced discussion of politics than Nietzsche grants his other books. It would be facile to say that Nietzsche is only concerned with morality in these works, and that his true political ruminations will come later. Even if the tone of these works does not immediately resemble that of the later works, there is no viable reason to avoid theorizing some of the most provocative statements I have come in contact with in reading Nietzsche’s oeuvre. Understanding how morality brings about the political conditions of its overcoming will help us to posit a vision of the world and community that does not at all lead to the “great politics”: instead of the latter, in these two books it is always a question of law, history and transformative universalism.

Nevertheless, the importance placed on the middle works is only relevant here to me as a secondary interest (read: they are being used as material or as a foil) insofar as they promote a general (problematic) reciprocity between the political theorization of Nietzsche and Aristotle; it is above all in Human All Too Human’s infamous section “A Glance at the State” where we see Nietzsche coming close to a classical description of the different forms of government which were relevant for his time (hence the critiques of socialism, utilitarianism, and above all democracy).

In fact, a quick skim of Aristotle’s Politics against this section may give some the impression that Nietzsche slept with a copy of the Politics under his pillow during this time. Yet, as I intend to show, the methodology with which these two thinkers approach the subject of politics are almost diametrically opposed: we could say that Nietzsche’s politics here is “open,” whereas Aristotle formulates a “closed” view. This is the same as arguing that Nietzsche, in the middle works, operates according to a logic of transformational politics, and Aristotle is mainly concerned with a generative outlook.

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Aristotle, ontology, Politics

Family contra the State: Problematizing Aristotle and Confucius

“..for the relationship between people and government is the most pervasive ideal relationship upon which commerce between teacher and pupil, lord and servants, father and family, general and soldier, master and apprentice have unconsciously been modeled.”—Friedrich Nietzsche. 

For centuries, the history of philosophy has explored the general opposition set up between Occidental and Oriental philosophy, especially concerning their respective “origins.” Generally speaking, it has been assumed that Western and Eastern philosophies differ over the metaphysical question of the constitution of the (conditions of possibility of the) universe, ending with the antinomy of a decision concerning Being/Nothingness (Plato vs. Lao-Tzu, both of whom subordinate becoming either to the movement of the idea or the non-activity of the Dao). In the same sense, Aristotle’s political ontology has been argued to end up in another binary opposition with that of Confucius: it is asserted that the former makes the state primary to the family, whereas for the latter this formula must be inverted. Instead, these reflections will attempt to illustrate that the opposition of these philosophical decisions should be shown to be inadequately founded and that a more clarified reading can show that this opposition is both untenable and capable of exemplifying that the problem has not yet been sufficiently determined.
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Aristotle, friendship, justice, Politics

Friendship and the State

 In chapter 9 of book III of the Politics, Aristotle discusses the general relation between justice and the state. In the course of examining the relation of equality and inequality, Aristotle proposes that the state “exists for the sake of a good life, and not the sake of life only” (1279b31-32). Notice that the good is already predicated of the state in this statement, and it is because of this bias that Aristotle will conclude: “if life only were the object, slaves and brute animals might form a state, but they cannot, for they have no share in happiness in a life based on choice” (1279b33-34). Although happiness as an end for the virtuous life is one of Aristotle’s primary concerns, the emphasis on the choices that the political situation makes possible seems to conceal the fundamental lack of choices for the individual as well as the a priori nature of any state whatsoever. This assertion stems from Aristotle’s misunderstanding that the political arrangement of a state (whether constitutional or otherwise) has very little to do with the will or mood of the multitude, even if, in the last analysis, they are given priority in power because of their total quantity of property (cf. 1282a37-40).

 In other words, since Aristotle theorized earlier that the state precedes any individual which would constitute it (just as the whole precedes the parts), it seems to be false that the state would only consist of individuals for whom life was founded on a choice. Moreover, when Aristotle claims that the state is a community of families whose goal is self-perfection and self-sufficiency, he seems to undercut the primordial character of the state that would subordinate families for its own ends (i.e. his previous position). More fundamentally, he also seems to negate his earlier statement that political life had anything to do with a choice. He writes: “Such a community can only be established among those who live in the same place and intermarry. Hence there arise in cities family connections, brotherhoods, common sacrifices, amusements which draw men together. But these are created by friendship, for to choose to live together is friendship” (1280b36-38 my emphasis). It then follows that our political environment is contingent and that friendship is only a choice in terms of choosing to live virtuously; only then could we call “living together” a choice, insofar as we choose not to live or strive against one another.

 The concept of friendship, which is analyzed in depth in the Nicomachean Ethics, in relation to political choice can be better illustrated in reference to the pre-eminent individual (1284a10-15). The pre-eminent individual is a person whose excellence, especially in political affairs, overshadows that of anyone else. In fact, Aristotle admits that they are “God among men” and that “legislation is necessarily concerned only with those who are equal in birth and in capacity; and that for men of pre-eminent excellence there is not law—they are themselves a law.” In this sense, they are above the law simply by being at the very center of it. Men of this caliber may find it difficult to find friends because of a lack of equals suitable for them, but the important point is that the example of the man above the law logically leads to the counterexample, i.e. that of the ostracized man, the outlaw, those beneath the law (1284a34-36). 

What is characteristic of these singular positions in society is the fact that they have nothing to do with a political choice, at least in the straightforward sense in which Aristotle presents his argument. If we were to agree that these positions could be characterized by choice, we would be forced to look at the more fundamental phenomena at work in the unconscious of the society as a whole. In other words, ostracizing someone from political life and incarnating them in the very fabric of the law constitute the extreme forms under which the balance of justice and friendship in the state come to take on their most dissymmetrical distributions of equality and inequality. But it is also here that justice as friendship, as the (anonymous) perpetuation of noble deeds in the absence of a telos, can illustrate the very inconsistency of the social bond (Badiou).