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Nomos

I have been revisiting some old writing lately. Some of it should be confined to the dustbin… some of it deserves more consideration. These thoughts on Agamben & Strauss I’d say deserve more thought. They were the focus of an old conference paper I once gave, and then never did anything with. Writing and reading is purely for pleasure now, so I’m not sure what I will do next, but these thoughts have some kernel of usefulness in them, I believe.  With the publication of Strauss’s lectures, and helpful volumes such as the recent collection on Strauss’s 1930s work (“Reorientation”), obviously the literature would need to be addressed anew. I’ve long thought that Strauss needs to supplement the arguments that Agamben makes in Homo Sacer, especially given that Agamben mentions him by name. What follows is the beginning of such an attempt. 

“What is Security?” Two answers from Strauss & Agambem

Strauss’s “Notes on Carl Schmitt” have been translated and published alongside Schmitt’s treatise since 1996, while the appearance of Homo Sacer in English in 1998—a book that takes up the debate on emergency powers between Schmitt and Walter Benjamin—shows readers that Strauss’s philosophy is one of the touchstones from which Agamben’s critique takes its bearings.  Agamben, while introducing his understanding of the distinction between zoe and bios says the following:  “The idea of an inner solidarity between democracy and totalitarianism…is obviously not (like Leo Strauss’s thesis concerning the secret convergence of the final goals of liberalism and communism) a historiographical claim, which would authorize the liquidation and leveling of the enormous differences that characterize their histories and rivalry” (Agamben 1998, 10).  That is, Strauss’s interpretation of the history of political philosophy in Agamben’s presentation is unable to “thematically interrogate the link between bare life and politics” and cannot “bring the political out of its concealment and, at the same time, return thought to its practical calling” (Agamben 1998, 4-5).  Agamben turns to Strauss again at the very conclusion of the work:

Every attempt to rethink the political space of the West must begin with the clear awareness that we no longer know anything of the classical distinction between zōe and bios, between private life and political existence, between man as a simple living being at home in the house and man’s political existence in the city.  This is why the restoration of classical political categories proposed by Leo Strauss and, in a different sense, by Hannah Arendt can have only a critical sense.  There is no return from the camps to classical politics. (1998, 187)

Agamben has picked a fine interlocutor, though it is unclear how aware Agamben is of this fact, as Strauss demonstrates a surprising ability to respond to Agamben’s challenges.[1]  Agamben mentions Strauss on other time in Homo Sacer, during his discussion of the distinction between physis [nature] and nomos [law/custom/convention].[2]  There, Agamben identifies the “classical natural right” teaching—by way of Strauss—to be the use of the “law of nature” to undermine the “Sophistic opposition” between nature and nomos (1998, 35).[3]

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The Enlightenment – more specifically, the critique of enlightenment has become in the last three to four days a question of great interest to me.  The germ of this idea began easily enough, reading, rereading Rousseau’s Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts along with Strauss’s 1947 essay “On the Intention of Rousseau”.  This quickly turned into a return to Natural Right & History, and the Rousseau chapter therein.  I was stunned (though I should not have been stunned) at the amount of shared material between these two essays.  Mostly surprising because Strauss doesn’t mention (unlike many of the other sections of the book) that it has been published before.  The differences were more striking than the similarities, especially the framing of the nature–>society question in the Ancients vs the Moderns (compare the relation between natural (in)equality and politics in “OIR” with regards to the Greeks, and in NRH with regards to Hobbes).  The pairing of Cato-Axa has also been made interesting to me.  Cato, the “spectacle and model of purest virtue” that ever existed, with Axa, Rousseau’s aesthetic construction at the end of his Apologia d’Ephraim who’s self-sacrifice brings virtues back to Israel.  Rousseau presents himself as “the confusing spectacle of a man who perpetually shifts back and forth between two diametrically opposed positions.”  Rousseau’s name remains ever-close to the phrase “political philosophy”.   At any rate, whilst trying to make sense of the Discourse on Inequality, as I mentioned a few weeks ago, the pairing of tyrant-legislator finally struck me.  One feels human passion too keenly; the other doesn’t participate in human passion.  Thus the remarks from NRH 287 (“OIR” 481) jumped off the page, urging a comparison between the question coeval with political life that the Legislator answers, and the danger coeval with political life that ensues from this answer.  The crisis of modernity – and Rousseau is the source of the first crisis –  is that man “no longer believes…”.  Strauss opens his introduction to Maimonides with, “I believe…”.  One last thought.  Rousseau – like the medieval or “pre-modern” philosophers – doesn’t urge the separation of law and morality.  Rather, the fusion of law and morality is to be the new source of popular enlightenment, via the Legislator who can “persuade with convincing” (cf. WIPP 46).  Thus one needs to turn to Strauss’s “enlightenment thought”, Philosophy and Law, Hobbes’s Critique of Religion, and so on.  We’re not far off the mark suggesting that Rousseau revives nomos not because he is a conventionalist but for the sake of its interlocution with physis.

For months I’ve been trying to avoid the confrontation that awaits with Heidegger’s Being and Time.  Given that I happened to be the bearer of a gift card to my university bookstore, and after a small existential crisis about the merits of Stambaugh/Schmidt vs Macquarrie/Robinson – or whether perhaps Foucault’s History of Madness might be more worth my time – I finally heard/felt “the call”.  Everything has been pointing here in recent months.  Strauss, Levinas, Derrida, Schmitt, Sloterdijk, &c.  I can’t say enough how much I enjoyed Richard Velkley’s Heidegger, Strauss, And the Premises of Philosophy: On Original Forgetting.  And, as an I.R. student trained in the Critical tradition, the problem of nomos has been uncharacteristically making itself known in a variety of ways.  Let a large amount of angst ensue.

While reading Seth Benardete’s essay Socrates and Plato: The Dialectics of Eros I stumbled across the most fantastic quote.  Quote:  “…negation is always the other of the other (Sophist 258a4-5).  Philosophy therefore tends to become conspicuous at the boundaries of things, where it binds together what seems to be apart and separates what seems to be together.”  Someday soon I hope to formulate some thoughts on Being, inside/outside, and philosophy being “on the line”.  Perhaps while discussing the quid sit of securitasSecuritas is a freedom from anxiety – freedom from angst – or composure.  It is also the name of a minor Roman Goddess or personified as the “tutelary goddess of the Roman state”.  Security and Political Theology always, always, go hand in hand.  To wit: ti esti nomos?

p.s. Confer Saint Jerome’s translation of Maccabees 11:30

p.p.s. Blushing is the surface that reveals the heart of things.

p.p.p.s. Is philosophy the seaming of seemingness?