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Of Death and Dominion: The Existential Foundations of Governance

Of Death and Dominion: The Existential Foundations of Governance

by Mohammed A. Bamyeh

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Death is the opposite not of life, but of power. And as such, Mohammed Bamyeh argues in this original work, death has had a great and largely unexplored impact on the thinking of governance throughout history, right down to our day. In Of Death and Dominion Bamyeh pursues the idea that a deep concern with death is, in fact, the basis of the ideological


Death is the opposite not of life, but of power. And as such, Mohammed Bamyeh argues in this original work, death has had a great and largely unexplored impact on the thinking of governance throughout history, right down to our day. In Of Death and Dominion Bamyeh pursues the idea that a deep concern with death is, in fact, the basis of the ideological foundations of all political systems.

            Concentrating on four types of political systems—polis, empire, theocracy, and modern mass society systems—Bamyeh shows how each follows a specific strategy designed to pit power against the equalizing specter of death. Each of these strategies—consolation, expansion, preparation, and repression—produces a certain style of political behavior, as well as particular psychic traumas. In making his argument, Bamyeh revisits a wide range of empirical and theoretical discussions in existentialist philosophy, psychoanalysis, comparative historical sociology, literary studies, and anthropology. By demonstrating how schemes of power are by definition also schemes for defying death—despite their claims to the contrary—his book encourages us to think of a new style of politics, one oriented toward life.

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Northwestern University Press
Publication date:
Rethinking Theory Series
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6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.60(d)

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Of Death and Dominion
The Existential Foundations of Governance

By Mohammed A. Bamyeh
Northwestern University Press
Copyright © 2007

Northwestern University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8101-2441-7

Chapter One Consolations

The Master as Slave

One of the earliest records of civilization recounts how, after crossing impossible terrains, dense darkness, and deadly waters, Gilgamesh failed to persuade the gods to revoke the mortal condition imposed on all life. He had to journey back to his kingdom, resigned to an impending death. Upon his arrival, however, he experiences a sudden shift in mood. Back home, amid the spreading shades of mortality, Gilgamesh tempers the atmosphere of mourning with an eruptive consolation. This epic, so centered around death, does not in fact end with death. Rather, it ends with Gilgamesh inviting Urshanabi, his newly found ferryman and subject, to admire the solid and splendid foundations of his master's city. The city, so is implied, will outlast its founder, its subsequent rulers, and, indeed, all of its citizens.

That is the only certainty Gilgamesh could bring back after his dreadful insight into the irrevocable approach of his own extinction. Being a ruler, so it seems, provides a set of earthly conditions which prop up one's posture in the face of death: power, in this case, is vested in a permanent construction designed to trick the forces of finitude and abate their unimpeded procession through this world. The epic of Gilgamesh thus seems to indicate that an early goal of governance, as expressed in a polis consciously carving an existence for itself out of an immense expanse of chancy nature, involved constructing a method of survival beyond death. The city itself seemed to be imagined as a sanctuary from which death may be kept out. Gilgamesh himself saw death first only outside the walls of the city, and the city itself became his last weapon against death when he failed to repeal it in the venturesome world outside. Here, governance commences with observing mortality as the epitome of danger in the world.

In his founding text of existential philosophy, Martin Heidegger asserts that Dasein itself is inseparable from manifestations of generalized fear. But this assertion remains too abstract. It gives us an existence propelled by a "fear" for which there is neither object (for example, death) nor subject (for example, governance). If we were to approach the issue in a more sociological fashion, it would be imperative to outline whether and how fear or sense of danger are connected to social hierarchy, whether or not a feeling of threat to one's existence is equally distributed across time and space, and the variety of ways by which the fear orients one toward political schemes of survival in particular. Gilgamesh, the two-thirds god, one-third man, is significant for us here because he is the first mortal to suggest the unequal social distribution of the propensity to fear death: the fear operates most intensely at the summit of society.

The starting principle here must thus be the reverse of what G. W. F. Hegel proposed as the genesis of the distinction between mastery and bondage. For Hegel, the slave becomes a slave because he refuses to sacrifice himself in the struggle with the master. The fear of death, therefore, is the first condition of the slave mind. The story of Gilgamesh, however, is a story of a master, not his subjects, dreading death. Neither is there any indication of such a dread by his savage comrade Enkidu, who had died earlier and never ruled anyone. Gilgamesh's return back to the safety of a well-fortified city is an outcome of a lost battle for immortality. There is indeed a decrease of the level of his mastery at that point-as he loses the divine portion of himself-but he is the master at the end of the story just as well, albeit a human one. From then on, he no longer seeks to rid himself of mortality, but of fear, which had occasioned his humanization.

Contrary to Hegel, we are led to ask whether the master, then, fears death even more than the slave, who refuses to sacrifice himself in a struggle for freedom. The answer from the time of Gilgamesh seems to be yes, and if we leap five thousand years forward, the answer is still yes, and indeed more emphatically so. A prototype of this answer can be found in Leo Tolstoy's Master and Man, in which both the master and the bondman express themselves on the matter. The story describes a venturesome merchant and his servant caught on the road in the deadly Russian winter. As the life force of both is gradually extracted from them by the frozen nature, the servant succumbs to his death with contentment, while the master struggles with all kinds of means to save both lives to the end. In his analysis of this tale, Norbert Elias argued that the master's behavior is typical of the enterprising spirit, which feels that it is always yet to accomplish its life's goal. By contrast, the fatalism of the servant is inseparable from his confidence that in death he will attain his freedom. This attitude is a far cry from the slave morality of ressentiment, as Friedrich Nietzsche describes it. The morality of Tolstoy's bondman is oriented toward himself and not the master. It has its eyes focused on one object only, which is its freedom. It obtains it by doing nothing, simply allowing the chill of nature to do its ordinary work and freeze into death its unfree being. The servant here has no use for revenge, moral or otherwise, but only for freedom, which can neither be granted by the master nor procured by the bondman's own effort.

The fabled and often bewildering fatalism of many of those caught in bondage may thus conceal an attitude other than simple surrender. For the bondman, freedom arrives by necessity because it arrives with death, while for Gilgamesh as well as for Tolstoy's modern enterprising master, death can only be a diminution of possibilities, possibilities which are part of their self-definition as exceptional beings in comparison to others. For such spirits, therefore, any deduction of these possibilities is a tax on freedom. The master fears death most because he has most to lose. His awareness of the pointlessness of a direct duel with death, then, is sublimated into a devious trick of survival; he governs something which he deems more immortal than himself. Gilgamesh is cognizant of that formula already, and the history of governance begins with that consolation.

Who needs this consolation? We shall see as we proceed to examine variations of the same answer. Consolation is needed first and foremost by the one who loses that which one regards as an inalienable aspect of self-constitution. Consolation reorients one's task, so that it is no longer a battle with destiny over a claimed right to interminable life. Instead, the task is reoriented toward perpetuating an interpretation of one's life as exceptional, or as the operative principle of a unique project, or as a vehicle for creation. The need for consolation implies an emphatic dread of the notion that life is merely a created object or instance and thus a cancelable entity or moment. For the ancient master as well as for the modern enterprising bourgeoisie, life becomes in this fashion its own fetish, to which one remains attached with teeth and claws even when one has no idea why one wants to live.

This fetishism of life, so normalized and made into an everyday convention by the bourgeoisie, is of a somewhat different character than the notion of life as pondered by Gilgamesh, as will become apparent in subsequent discussions. But in general, the fetish of life-that is to say, attachment to life without a clear sense of life's innate purpose-provides us with a transhistorical trope, which appears under various names, guises, and contexts. Its most audible, but by no means only, counterethic has been what may be called philosophies of detachment, expounded throughout history by voluntary outcasts and ascetics. The greatest surviving one of those is Buddhism, which I will come back to later on in commenting on the persona of Prince Siddhartha. In this context, it is noteworthy that Buddhism outlined the paradigm that offered one of the most comprehensive historical answers to Gilgamesh's request: death is caused not by the gods. Therefore, they are the wrong addressees for your request for immortality. As Anaximander did in a different context and using different language, Siddhartha discovered that death is caused by birth. Birth essentially signifies the necessity of intrusion and desire by that which is born, and it is those transgressions that seal its fate. It dies, Anaximander implies, because it must pay the price of its necessary intrusion into that which is outside of it. It dies, Siddhartha implies, because it desires to live.

In his fragment Anaximander offers no solution to the problem of death. By contrast, the later elaboration of Buddhism gives rise to ritual approaches to the problem. It is attachment to the world that presents death, along with suffering, as an experience of conquered will or unfreedom. The reigning Buddhist concept of freedom thus embraces the death instinct. In The Tibetan Book of the Dead, the equation is clear: desire and fear also exist after death, and in that sense, death is not the other of life. One fears that which is latent in one's essence, namely, enlightenment, and is attracted to that which will make one suffer unbearably, namely, shiny appearances that never sufficiently nourish the hungry ghosts. One must therefore embrace fear and reject desire. By contrast, for Gilgamesh, the historical antithesis of Prince Siddhartha, the life instinct wins out. And precisely because of its triumph, the master must endure this lingering, bitter taste of lack of freedom that had been so exaggeratingly identified with the slave mind. Political history begins not with Siddhartha-who actually abandons the palace-but with Gilgamesh, the master whose freedom appears necessarily curtailed by the recognized and feared boundaries of life. His ultimate attachment to governance represents the extravagant claims of the life instinct.

Death and Hierarchy

The political translation of the notion that one's life is exceptional is that life's fundamental meaning lies in its hierarchical relation to other lives. It is only a simple extension of this logic to the assertion that if one's life is exceptional compared to that of others, so must one's death be. Thus already in ancient Mesopotamia, records abound with portrayals of the magnanimous death of the king, whose tomb, although on a much smaller scale than was to be carried out later on by the pharaohs, was filled with treasures, provisions, and, during some periods, an entire retinue of servants who were sacrificed to serve him in the afterlife. Such devices betray an ancient fear not of death per se as much as fear of the meaning of death from the point of view of the master: for him, death is fearsome because it entails a loss of hierarchy. Since all are exposed to it, as Gilgamesh had already discovered, death is the guarantor of equality par excellence. Gilgamesh's trauma stems not simply from his fear of his own fate but more precisely from his fear of the universality of that fate; that is, his dilemma arises not out of a simple confrontation with death but out of the realization that there exists one fate that is not open to hierarchical exemptions.

Egyptian civilization also went through the same process, when initially the pharaohs and nobility of the Old Kingdom tried to insist that only they could be resurrected and thus cheat death of its universalizing and equalizing claim. Yet this scheme was vulnerable, and the point was not lost on the worshipper of Isis who explicitly stated that death meant equality. In Mesopotamia, the attempt to contest the equalizing claim of death started earlier than anywhere else but was also abandoned earlier. Ishtar's Descent into the Netherworld registered this resignation clearly; at each circle of the netherworld, Ishtar is stripped of an item of clothing. At the final circle, she is completely naked and is told of the netherworld's laws by which she would have to abide. This fate must have appeared especially debilitating, insofar as it conveys the understanding of death from the point of view of someone who once had the power of life and death over others: the death of the master is essentially a transformation from governing to being governed.

The tragedy of Ishtar's descent is clearly inscribed in that she becomes equal to all other mortals, subject to the same laws of the gods of the world of the dead. But powerful sovereigns cannot be uniformly expected to simply resign themselves to that dreadful possibility. We may even expect them to retaliate with rage at any force that seems successful in subduing them. Some of the Egyptian Coffin Texts, for example, show dead kings served by rather than serving the gods after their death. In some texts, dead kings go further, devouring their ancestors, gods, and their youngsters. In this way, not only do they escape the specter of equality in death but in effect, they are elevated even higher, reversing a hierarchy they had to maintain vis-à-vis the gods while they were alive.

This effort to construct an elaborate eschatology had the same sociological disadvantage of all similarly abstract designs, namely, that the vulnerability of the scheme to challenge tended to be proportional to the extent to which a specific social class claimed the special fate for itself to the exclusion of other social classes. Thus, by their nature, such designs must over time broaden their social applicability and become more egalitarian. We see evidence of that already in the democratization of the concept of resurrection in the Egyptian Middle Kingdom and probably even before. The Coffin Texts and the Egyptian Book of the Dead exhibit far more egalitarian tendencies than the earlier Pyramid Texts. When salvation religions appeared on the scene, they could only improve on that record and offer even more radically egalitarian claims with respect to the afterlife, completely dissociating fate after death from position in social hierarchy.

Thus, the eschatological effort by the masters of the world of the living to continue their mastery into the world of the dead could not be sustained, as the bondmen always managed to claim right of entry to every heaven constructed to house to masters and in some designs even harbored the thought of excluding the masters from heaven altogether, as in the biblical parable of the needle's eye. Thus, for Tolstoy's servant, the point is self-evident. Unlike Ishtar's "descent," the servant's death can for him only indicate "ascent." In death, he will rise to be equal to the master, and that is freedom enough for him. In his fatalism, the servant expresses once more an ancient trope that had made servitude bearable for so long, namely, that it ends with death. One of the classic Islamic compendia of death, Kitab al-'Aqibah of Ibn al-Kharrat, clearly registers this attitude toward death on its first page, in which the author praises God for introducing death into the world, as a device for breaking the power of the mighty and introducing humility into the human condition. On Judgment Day, when the record is clear and when there will be no possibility of injustice, residents of both hell and paradise are invited to witness the slaughter of Death, which then appears as a personified entity. Both communities are informed at that point that the services of Death are no longer needed, since there will be no change of status in God's kingdom. Hence the public slaughter of Death, which signifies the introduction of immortality to all in their respective stations.


Excerpted from Of Death and Dominion by Mohammed A. Bamyeh
Copyright © 2007 by Northwestern University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Mohammed A. Bamyeh is a professor of sociology at the University of Pittsburgh. He is the author of The Ends of Globalization and The Social Origins of Islam: Mind, Economy, Discourse and the editor of Palestine America.

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