Communitas: The Origin and Destiny of Community

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No theme has been more central to international philosophical debates than that of community: from American communitarianism to Habermas's ethic of communication to the French deconstruction of community in the work of Derrida and Nancy. Nevertheless, in none of these cases has the concept been examined from the perspective of community's original etymological meaning: cum munus. In Communitas: The Origin and Destiny of Community, Roberto Esposito does just that through an original counter-history of political philosophy that takes up not only readings of community by Hobbes, Rousseau, Kant, Heidegger and Bataille, but also by Hölderlin, Nietzsche, Canetti, Arendt, and Sartre. The result of his extraordinary conceptual and lexical analysis is a radical overturning of contemporary interpretations of community. Community isn't a property, nor is it a territory to be separated and defended against those who do not belong to it. Rather, it is a void, a debt, a gift to the other that also reminds us of our constitutive alterity with respect to ourselves.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Underlying [Esposito's] philosophical work is the idea that our political vocabulary is exhausted. Old political notions need not to be replaced by new ones, but through historical reflection it is important to trace what has remained unthought in those concepts . . . Esposito's reflections are most stimulating."—Walter Van Herck, Bijdragen, International Journal in Philosophy and Theology

"Those—especially English-speaking readers—familiar with Esposito's later research (and, in particular with Bios, Esposito [2008]) will find this work particularly valuable for laying out the ontological ground upon which his account of immunity and biopolitics was subsequently worked out."—Andrea Rossi, In-Spire Journal of Law, Politics, and Societies

"Esposito is an expansive thinker, unusually attuned to the historical as well as the philosophical dimensions of that hybrid field called 'political theory.' After a wondrous excursus on the problematic of 'community,' Esposito's challenging elaboration of community as alterity unfolds. This important and attractive translation brings to political theorists working in English Esposito's skill at speaking across the division between the analytic continental traditions." —Kirstie McClure, University of California, Los Angeles

"With Communitas, Esposito has made an enormous contribution to the cardinal and complex notion of community, taking issue with the essentializing view of community that remains inherent in the language of contemporary philosophy. The reader feels guided through debates of great complexity by a generous expert who knows not only the major arguments, but the minor caveats and inconsistencies as well." —Peter Connor, Columbia University

"With his usual erudition and philosophical precision, Roberto Esposito traces the development of the concept of community and its limits through the European tradition. His argument poses a challenge for anyone who wants to think community today."—Michael Hardt, Duke University

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780804746472
  • Publisher: Stanford University Press
  • Publication date: 12/9/2009
  • Series: Cultural Memory in the Present Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 208
  • Sales rank: 1,160,785
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Roberto Esposito teaches contemporary philosophy at the Italian Institute for the Human Sciences in Naples. His Bíos: Biopolitics and Philosophy (2008) has also been translated into English.

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The Origin and Destiny of Community
By Roberto Esposito


ISBN: 978-0-8047-4646-5

Chapter One


More than the thousand books that crowd the immense, official bibliography for Thomas Hobbes, a short text in the form of an aphorism from Elias Canetti introduces the secret heart of Hobbes's thought:

Hobbes. Thinkers not bound to any religion can impress me only if their thinking is extreme enough. Hobbes is one of these; at the moment, I find him to be the most important. Few of his thoughts strike me as correct ... Why, then, does his presentation so greatly impress me? Why do I enjoy his falsest thought as long as its expression is extreme enough? I believe that I have found in him the mental root of what I want to fight against the most. He is the only thinker I know who does not conceal power, its weight, its central place in all human action, and yet does not glorify power, he merely lets it be.

In Hobbes, hate and love, sharing and refusing to share, attraction and repulsion are based on a singular mixing that has at its origin the same element. The element in question is fear: "He knows what fear is; his calculation reveals it. All later thinkers, who came from mechanics and geometry, ignored fear; so fear had to flow back to the darkness in which it could keep operating undisturbed and unnamed." It is the centrality of fear that explains for Canetti both Hobbes's greatness and his unbearableness. It is what makes Hobbes necessary analytically and unacceptable prescriptively; what makes him almost our contemporary and at the same time distances us from him as what is and indeed needs to be other from us. Or better: what places us in relation and in struggle with something that is already within us but which we fear can be extended to the point of taking us over completely. This something that we feel is ours (and for precisely that reason we fear it) is fear. We are afraid of our fear, of the possibility that fear is ours, that it is really we ourselves who have fear; whereas it is the courage to have fear that Hobbes teaches us, which comes most profoundly from his fear: "I am still attracted by everything in Hobbes: his intellectual courage, the courage of a man filled with fear." Hobbes has the courage to speak to us about fear without subterfuge, circumlocution, and reticence; that fear is ours in the most extreme sense that we are not other from it. We originate in fear. In his Latin autobiography Hobbes writes that his mother was so frightened by the impending Spanish invasion that she gave birth to twins—himself and fear—and that in fear we find our most intimate dwelling. Indeed, what does it mean that we are "mortals" if not that we are subjects above all to fear? Because the fear that traverses us or rather constitutes us is essentially the fear of death; fear of no longer being what we are: alive. Or to be too quickly what we also are: mortal insofar as we are destined, entrusted, and promised to death. Hobbes says it with glacial clarity: "For every man is desirous of what is good for him, and shuns what is evil, but chiefly the chiefest of natural evils, which is death."

Hobbes here examines the fear of death from the point of view of its complementary opposite, which is to say that instinct for self-preservation [conatus sese praeservandi] that constitutes the most powerful psychological foundation of man. But the instinct for preservation is nothing but another affirmative mode of inflecting the same fear of death: one fears death because one wants to survive, but one wants to survive precisely because one fears death. Leo Strauss had already assigned this logical-historical primacy of the fear of death with respect to the will to survive to the circumstance that is identifiable with a summum malum and not a summum bonum, the order of good not having any real limit: "Hobbes prefers the negative expression 'avoiding death' to the positive expression 'preserving life': because we feel death and not life; because we fear death immediately and directly ... because we fear death infinitely more than we desire life."

The fact is that fear comes first. It is terribly originary: the origin for that which is most terrible about fear. Even if in daily life fear is never alone, it is also accompanied by what man opposes to it, namely, hope, in the illusion that hope is its opposite, while instead hope is fear's faithful companion. What, in fact, is hope if not a sort of fear with its head hidden? Hobbes admits as much when in De homine he explains that hope is born from conceiving an evil together with a way of avoiding it, while fear consists, once a good is in view, in imagining a way of losing it. From this we read his conclusion, which sounds like a substantial identification between fear and hope: "And so it is manifest that hope and fear so alternate with each other that almost no time is so short that it cannot encompass their interchange." Isn't it hope that pushes men to trust in themselves, carrying them right up to the edge of the abyss?

When one moves to the realm of politics, the role of fear becomes even more decisive. Nowhere more than here is its founding fundamentum regnorum revealed. Fear isn't only at the origin of the political, but fear is its origin in the literal sense that there wouldn't be politics without fear. This is the element that for Canetti separates Hobbes from all the other political philosophers past and present, and not only from those who belong to the so-called idealist or utopian line of thought but also from those to whom is traditionally assigned the term "realist." But why? What is it that isolates and pushes forward Hobbes with respect to his and to our current theoretical scenario? Above all, there are two intuitions and both concern fear. In the first instance, Hobbes raised what was unanimously considered the most disreputable of the states of mind to the primary motor of political activity. Compare in this regard Hobbes's position on fear to those of his greatest contemporaries. René Descartes expressly excludes the utility of fear, whereas Spinoza assigns the task of liberating us from fear to the state. Hobbes's second intuition was to have placed fear at the origin not only of the degenerate or defective forms of the state but above all, its legitimate and positive forms. Here one finds all of the original power of Hobbes's thought as well as the cause for the very real ostracism to which that thought has been subjected for more than two hundred years, beginning with those same authors who derived their thought from Hobbes. Seen from this perspective, all wither when compared with Hobbes, that is, with the hardest rock, the sharpest blade, the coldest metal.

Certainly, others from Plato to Xenophon, to Machiavelli, accentuated the political role of fear. Then there is Montesquieu, who made fear the principle itself of the despotic regime. But here lies the point: for Hobbes fear is bounded by the universe of tyranny or despotism. It is the place in which law and ethics of the best regime are founded. At least potentially, fear doesn't only have a destructive charge but also a constructive one. It doesn't only cause flight and isolation, but it also causes relation and union. It isn't limited to blocking and immobilizing, but, on the contrary, it pushes to reflect and neutralize danger. It doesn't reside on the side of the irrational but on the side of the rational. It is a productive power [potenza]. It is this functional side of fear that distinguishes it from terror, from immediate fright or absolute panic. It's no accident that Hobbes never confuses metus and pavor, or fear [in English.—Trans.] and terror [in English.—Trans.], as sometimes his Italian and French translators do; in the sense that the second term—the Italian terrore, the French terreur (or crainte), and the German Entsetzen—connotes a completely negative and therefore paralyzing sensation, the first—the Italian paura (or in a more attenuated form, timore), the French peur, and the German Furcht—is also considered to be an element of strength because it forces one to think about how best to escape a situation of risk. In fact, Hobbes responds to his critics who accuse him of making fear out to be a unifying rather than a disunifying power that they confuse apprehension [timore] with terror [terrore], fear [metuere] with being terrified [perterreri]. Once he subtracts fear from the negative semantics of terror, Hobbes makes it the base of his entire political anthropology, the very presupposition of the social covenant as Carl Schmitt synthetically represents it: "The terror of the state of nature drives anguished individuals to come together, their fear rises to an extreme: a spark of reason (ratio) flashes, and suddenly there stands in front of them a new god." And this in the sense that fear not only originates and explains the covenant but also protects it and maintains it in life. Once tested, fear never abandons the scene. It is transformed from "reciprocal," anarchic fear, such as that which determines the state of nature (mutuus metus), to "common," institutional fear, what characterizes the civil state (metus potentiae communis). Fear does not disappear, however. It is reduced but doesn't recede. Fear is never forgotten. As already noted, fear is a part of us; it is we outside ourselves. It is the other from us that constitutes us as subjects infinitely divided from ourselves.

It is this permanence of fear even within the condition of its modern "overcoming" that attracts Canetti to Hobbes, which makes him see Hobbes as the undisputed head of those "dreadful" thinkers that "look at reality point-blank and never fear calling it by its name." This is true from Joseph de Maistre to Friedrich Nietzsche, for whom the longest of all the epochs is that of fear since "fear is a human being's original and basic feeling; from fear everything can be explained," including morality, whose "mother" is fear. To these names we could easily add Guglielmo Ferrero, who considered fear "the soul of the living universe." He goes on:

The universe cannot enter into the sphere of life without becoming afraid ... The highest living creature is man, who is also the most fearful and the most feared creature. He fears and is feared more than any other because he is the only creature with the idea, the obsession, and the terror of the great dark gulf of death into which the torrent of life has been pouring ever since the beginning of time.

Ferrero's presupposition is Hobbesian, that is, the fear of death not only as the angle with which to look upon life but also as the "political" conclusion that inevitably derives from it:

Every man knows that he is stronger than certain of his fellows and weaker than others; that, living alone in a state of complete anarchy, he would be the scourge of the weaker and a victim of the stronger, and would live in perpetual fear. That is why in every society, even the crudest, the majority of men give up terrorizing the weaker so as to be less afraid of the stronger—such is the universal formula of social order.

This is exactly how Hobbes reasons. The texts are well known in which this transition from an originary fear emerges, that of everyone toward each other, to the derived and artificial fear with respect to the state, which can protect but only in proportion to the continuing threat of sanctions. But it's worth recalling at least that text according to which "the origin of all great and lasting societies consisted not in the mutual good will men had towards each other, but in the mutual fear they had of each other," for the force with which Hobbes casts aside all the positive anthropology (of the Aristotelian sort) of the natural sociality of man. This is how the infinite dialectic of fear begins and unravels: to escape an initial and indeterminate fear, men accept an amount of fear and indeed institute a second and certain fear with a covenant. They organize the conditions for rationally stabilizing fear by defining it as the normal state. For this reason it is a legitimate power [potere]. What distinguishes a despotic state from a legitimate one is not, therefore, the absence of fear or its lessening, but the uncertainty (or certainty) of its object and its limits, according to Franz Neumann's well-known distinction between neurotic Angst and Realangst. The state's task is not to eliminate fear but to render it "certain." This conclusion opens a tear of unusual analytic depth in the entire paradigm of modernity. That the modern state not only does not eliminate fear from which it is originally generated but is founded precisely on fear so as to make it the motor and the guarantee of the state's proper functioning means that the epoch that defines itself on the basis of the break with respect to the origin, namely, modernity, carries within it an indelible imprint of conflict and violence. Note well: I am not speaking of the simple secularization of a more ancient nucleus, nor am I speaking about a "memory" that is temporarily necessary for reactivating an energy on the verge of exhausting itself. Rather, I have in mind something more intrinsic that could be defined as the modern archaic [l'arcaicità del moderno]. By this I mean the permanence of the origin at the moment of its leaving. Here lies the double layer that is least visible in the Hobbesian text. Differently from what is generally held, the political-civil state is not born against or after the natural one but through its reversed inclusion in terms of an emptiness rather than a fullness.

This is what the liberal interpretation in all its possible inflections is unable to grasp: it is true that state order puts an end to natural disorder, but within the very same presupposition. What this might be isn't difficult to recognize because it also constitutes at the same time the reason and the object of that fear that we have identified in the same form of the modern archaic. We are dealing with the relation between equality and the capacity to kill:

The cause of mutual fear consists partly in the natural equality of men, partly in their mutual will of hurting: whence it comes to pass, that we can neither expect from others, nor promise to ourselves the least security. For if we look on men full grown, and consider how brittle the frame of our human body is, which perishing, all its strength, vigour, and wisdom itself perisheth with it; and how easy a matter it is, even for the weakest man to kill the strongest: there is no reason why any man, trusting to his own strength, should conceive himself made by nature above others. They are equals, who can do equal things one against the other; but they who can do the greatest things, namely, kill, can do equal things. All men therefore among themselves are by nature equal.

What men have in common is the capacity to kill and, correspondingly, the possibility of being killed: a capacity for killing [uccidibilità] generalized to such a degree as to become the sole link that joins individuals who would otherwise be divided and independent. This is Hobbes's discovery that makes him the most tireless adversary of community. The res publica is nothing other than a form of life that is preserved or lost according to changing and uncontrollable relations of force. We can say that the entire Hobbesian anthropology is constructed on this fixed principle: "Men by natural passion are divers ways offensive one to another." They are united by the common desire to injure one another since they aim at the same objective constituted by power. But because power isn't measured except in relation to another's powerlessness [impotenza], all are focused on mutually destroying each other. The reason is that men are essentially "against": forever and always "in the state and posture of gladiators; having their weapons pointing, and their eyes fixed on one another." They encounter each other in battle; they develop relations in violence; they face each other in death. They are "those who clash," the "opponents," the "competitors" based on the image of the running to the death, moving toward death, and giving oneself over to death, which constitutes the most fitting figure of the community of the crime: "Continually to out-go the next before, is felicity. And to forsake the course, is to die." For this reason "men are accustomed to hasten to the spectacle of the death and danger of others," because "the delight is so far predominant, that men usually are content in such a case to be spectators of the misery of their friends"; and because "the way of the competitor to the attaining of his desire is to kill, subdue, supplant, or repel the other." The fundamental reason for all of this is "metaphysically" planted in that terrible dialectic between power [potere] and survival, whose ancestral, anthropological roots Canetti analyzed with unmistakably Hobbesian overtones: "The situation of survival is the central situation of power," to the point that the pleasure that each "draws from surviving grows with his power; power allows him to give his consent to it. The true content of this power is the desire to survive ever greater numbers of men." Power doesn't need life any less than life needs power. For this reason—and here it is Hobbes who speaks—we fear "death, from whom we expect both the loss of all power and also the greatest of bodily pains in the losing" One can ensure life, which is the first necessity, only by accumulating power, which is the first passion. Yet one can accumulate power only at the expense of others; at the cost of their life; living in their place, at the cost of their death. After all, Hobbes sees in war—not necessarily one fought openly but the one that is latent—men's very same "condition" and their "time," with respect to which peace is nothing but an exception, a parenthesis, a contretemps. This means that the relation that unites men does not pass between friend and enemy and not even between enemy and friend, but between enemy and enemy, given that every temporary friendship is instrumental ("Friendships are good, certainly useful") with regard to managing the only social bond possible, namely, enmity.


Excerpted from COMMUNITAS by Roberto Esposito Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Introduction: Nothing in Common....................1
1 Fear....................20
2 Guilt....................41
3 Law....................62
4 Ecstasy....................86
5 Experience....................112
Appendix: Nihilism and Community....................135
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