Finlayson, James Gordon 2010. „Bare Life“ and Politics in Agamben’s Reading of Aristotle. The Review of politics 72: 97-126. doi:10.1017/S0034670509990982

[…] Arendt originated the thesis that the economic, biological, and instinctual bases of human association—because they are based in our physical and animal existence—areopposed to and excluded from political life, and the idea that what the Greeks called zoe is opposed to and excluded from bios. Arendt is also the person who first offers Aristotle’s Politics as evidence for this view. Persuaded by her account of ancient politics, Agamben complains that Arendt unfortunately failed to connect it with “the penetrating analysis she had previously devoted to totalitarian power.” By means of his thesis on the destiny of Western politics, Agamben accordingly takes up her ideas, increases their significance, and presses them into the service of a diagnosis of totalitarian power. (103)

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. (104, footnote 32)

Aristotle: „When several villages are united in a single complete community large enough to be nearly or quite self-sufficing, the polis comes into existence, originating in life itself [ginomene¯men tou ze¯n heneken] and existing essentially for the sake of the good life [ousa de tou eu ze¯n].“ (106)

First, Agamben reads Aristotle’s contrast in the passage between life (ze¯n) and the good life (eu ze¯n) as the original instance of the opposition between bare life and politics. Second, he claims that the contrast Aristotle makes is captured by the semantic distinction between two different Greek words for “life,” namely, “zo¯e¯” and “bios.” Third, he takes this sentence as evidence that Aristotle conceives these two distinct kinds of life—“bare life” and “political life”—to be exclusive and mutually opposed and, hence, to exemplify the logic of exception. Fourth, Agamben claims that the distinction between zoe¯ and bios was pandemic in the ancient Greek language. Fifth, he claims that actual politics in the ancient world was marked by this same relation. Finally, Agamben claims both that this passage is “canonical for the political tradition of the West” and that the opposition it contains defines the end of the political community. (106)

Although it is true that for Aristotle only human beings (among mortals) are capable of living the life of contemplation and practical virtue, it is not the case that only human beings have “ways of life,” and Aristotle does not reserve the term biosexclusively for humans. Throughout his biological writings (and Aristotle was as much a biologist as a philosopher), he refers to the different “ways of life” (and the different characters or dispositions) of various species of animal. (108)

The noun zoon, by contrast, literally means an ensouled, and in this sense living oranimated, being. It is more an ontological than an ethological noun. Its primary sense in fourth-century Greek is not “animal,” although many people including Heidegger have claimed that it is. Agamben, to give him credit, notes that the term is applied equally to “animals, men or gods.” The closely cognate noun zoe is more abstract and means life, or living, or (just like bios) way of living. For Aristotle, zoe and zoon do not carry the pejorative connotation they came to have when, much later, they came to denote the life of beings with a value below that of humans, that is, beings that lacked a Christian soul or human dignity, “animals.” (108-109)

For Aristotle, zoe and bios are not a conceptual pair like dynamis and energeia, nor are they systematically linked in Greek philosophy and political culture, as, for example, physis and nomos. They are just two ordinary polysemous Greek nouns with a slightly different, partially overlapping range of meanings. (109)

Aristotle’s argument is that, if all the constituent parts of a whole exist by nature, then a fortiori the whole exists by nature; that the polis (the whole) comprises the household and the village (its parts), and that, therefore, the household and the village exist by nature. This is clear enough from the sentence directly following the one on which Agamben bases his interpretation: „And therefore if the earlier forms of association are natural so is the polis, for it is the end of them, and the nature of a thing is its end.“ (110)

Aristotle only denies that these biological, instinctual, and material bases of association are sufficient conditions of political life. A properly political order has to have, in addition to this material, economic, and instinctual basis, a deeper (and more worthy) basis in citizenship, civic friendship, and justice. The political order proper is something that is inscribed in the constitution, laws, practices, institutions, and the collective life of the polis and instilled in the ethos or character of its individual citizens through education and upbringing. (111)

[…] far from conceiving the relation between mere life and the good life to be one of exclusion or opposition, Aristotle thinks of them as two internally related and continuous, albeit qualitatively distinct, layers of life. (112)

Mere life and the good life, in fact, relate to one another in much the same way that material, moving, formal, and final causes relate to one another in Aristotle’sPhysicsand Metaphysics: they cooperate in directing a being toward its essence and inner perfection. Broadly, Aristotle views i– iv above—”life,” “mere life,” or “life itself”—as the efficient cause of the polis; its citizens, territory, walls, and so forth as its material cause; the constitution, laws, and so on as its formal cause; and eudaimonia or the happiness of its citizens and the polis as a whole as its final cause. (112)

The property of beingpolitikoncannot be the specific difference that determines the genus zoon, for the simple reason that the attributepolitical, as Aristotle understands it, is not specific to human beings. In his biological writings, Aristotle maintains that there are several different kinds of “political animal.” For example in theHistory of Animals, he distinguishes between gregarious animals and solitary animals. Some gregarious animals, he notes (not those that merely herd or flock together or swim together in shoals), are political animals. (113)

„Animals that live politically are those that have any kind of activity in common, which is not true of all gregarious animals. Of this sort are: man, bee, wasp and crane.“ (Aristotle, 114)

The shared collective endeavor that marks human beings as political animals is organized on the basis of practical reason, which is peculiar to humans and makes them the most political among animals. Thus, man’s political nature has a biological, instinctual, and material basis, but also a deeper and more specifically human essence. If there is a definition here, it is that man is an animal with speech and reason, a capacity for ordering his political existence on the rational basis of mutual advantage and justice. (114)

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Agamben follows Arendt’s view of the Greek household as a private realm of human labor and reproduction, which is opposed to and excluded from the public realm of speech and action, the bios politikos. However, Agamben’s analysis is vitiated by the insistence that the public/private distinction sits flush with, and indeed stems from, the alleged bios/zoe distinction. (122)

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