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Yale University Press
Heidegger's Polemos: From Being to Politics

Heidegger's Polemos: From Being to Politics

by Gregory Fried
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ISBN-13: 9780300080384
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 09/10/2000
Series: Renaissance in Europe Series
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

Gregory Fried is assistant professor of philosophy and humanities at Boston University. He has collaborated with Richard Polt on a new translation of Heidegger’s Introduction to Metaphysics as well as a companion volume to the Introduction, both published by Yale University Press.

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Heidegger's Polemos

From Being to Politics
By Gregory Fried

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2000 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-300-08038-7

Chapter One

Polemos and Heraclitus

Our task is to make sense of the role of polemos in Heidegger's thinking as part of the larger project of inquiring into what remains at issue for us in the problem of fascism. Heidegger's interpretation of the ontological meaning of polemos derives from his reading of Heraclitus, and, in particular, of Fragment 53. In what follows, I shall endeavor to provide a reading of this fragment and to show how the themes to be explored in the subsequent chapters have their enduring roots in Heidegger's reading of Fragment 53.


In Greek, this fragment reads as follows: "Polemos panton men pater esti, panton de basileus, kai tous men theous edeixe tous de anthropous, tous men doulous epoiese tous de eleutherous." A fairly literal rendering might be: "War is both father of all and king of all: it reveals the gods on the one hand and humans on the other, makes slaves on the one hand, the free on the other."

In the opening line of the fragment, "War is both father of all and king of all," we cannot fail to hear a direct challenge to the traditional conception of Zeus as father of gods and men and ruler of the Olympian court. Most commentators on the fragment recognize this resonance. As father and king of immortals and mortals, Zeus represents an overarching, commanding authority in both divine and human affairs. As Greek politics evolved from tribal kingship and cities emerged, Zeus began to seem less like an arbitrary autocrat and more like an enlightened despot. As one commentary puts it, the theogony in Hesiod encompasses a transition from natural to civil right. To Hesiod especially, war and strife, as manifestations of personal vanity, seem a frivolous and wretched disruption of the just and productive order of works and days. To name polemos as father and king, as Heraclitus does, is both to supplant Zeus in his role as ultimate authority, recognized since Homer, and to mock the bucolic sense of morality and justice that characterizes Hesiod's conception of Zeus. Not that Fragment 53 necessarily urges us to warfare; perhaps Heraclitus simply wishes to describe a principle operative in the world as he sees it.

Charles Kahn cites two ancient sources to establish the context for the polemic between Heraclitus and his predecessors. Both sources refer to "the prayer uttered by Achilles in his great speech of regret over the quarrel with Agamemnon." The first commentary is found in Aristotle, Eudemian Ethics, 1235a25, and the second in Scholium A to Iliad 18.107:

Heraclitus reproaches the poet for the verse "Would that Conflict might vanish from among gods and men!" [Iliad 18.107]. For there would be no attunement [harmonia] without high and low notes or any animals without male and female, both of which are opposites.

Heraclitus, who believes that the nature of things was constructed according to conflict [eris], finds fault with Homer [for this verse], on the grounds that he [Achilles] is praying for the destruction of the cosmos.

Kahn agrees with the implicit understanding in these commentaries that Heraclitus reads a larger meaning into the eris that Achilles prays to abolish. Opposition takes place not just between king and prince or between god and god, but also between male and female, low and high note, the bow and its string (Frag. 51). We shall return to the question of the breadth of Heraclitus' view of polemos below. Kahn goes on to observe: "This attack on Homer, which must be connected with Heraclitus' own view of war in [Frags. 50 and 53], is the counterpart to his criticism of Hesiod for failing to recognize the unity of night and day [Frag. 57]. Homer and Hesiod, the pre-eminent wise men and teachers of the Greeks, represent the general folly of mankind in failing to perceive the 'unapparent harmonie ' in which the tension between opposing powers is as indispensable as the reconciliation within a larger unity." Opposition is necessary to the cosmos, for without it, the bow is unstrung; things united in the hidden harmony of conflict lose their very definition when that strife ceases.

In Fragment 53, a saying that seems to celebrate war, we find a series of clauses ranged against each other like hoplite phalanxes. Father and king oppose each other, then gods and humans, and finally slaves and the free. The first pair, father and king, is rather puzzling. Here, there seems to be no obvious intrinsic contradiction, and, indeed, the ideas of fatherhood and kingship go together in the mythological imagination. It might seem best to translate the first phrase with "War is both father of all things and of all things king." Perhaps, then, the dialectical sense of the men ... de construction in the first phrase refers, not so much to an opposition between pater and basileus, but rather to an opposition between Heraclitus' shocking assertion and conventional religious sensibility: war usurps the throne of Zeus, patriarchal ruler of gods and of mortals.

Turning to the individual words, we find that polemos, war, is given pride of place as the first word in the fragment. As no article precedes the word, we have no immediate clue whether polemos here is to be understood as an abstract principle, an anthropomorphized god, or simply war in its ordinary sense. Perhaps Heraclitus deliberately sought to play with this ambiguity. The esti that closes the first clause serves further to emphasize polemos, as if to say, "War, not Zeus, is the father of all."

The word panton presents difficulties that penetrate surprisingly deeply into the meaning of the fragment. As a genitive plural for a word meaning "all," it can be either masculine or neutral. The question, then, is whether to translate it by "of all" (allowing for an implied sense of "of all men") or by "of all things." Some commentators (Kirk, 246; Marcovich, 146) prefer the more ambiguous "of all." Marcovich categorically asserts that "panton is clearly masculine," referring to an implied meaning, "of men and gods." There is no further evidence to justify his certainty, but his rendering accords with an interpretation of the fragment as mainly, if not solely, a social and political comment: Heraclitus wants to describe the fundamental and pervasive effects of war on all social organization. This goes against an interpretation of polemos in this fragment as part of the Heraclitean philosophy of strife and the unity of opposites, which would make polemos a metaphysical concept, that is, a concept that goes beyond the beings themselves to account for their very beingness. Hence, Diels and Kranz (162) render panton as aller Dinge (of all things), for which Marcovich takes them to task (Marcovich, 146).

Much depends on how one understands the second part of the fragment to follow upon the first. The kai that begins the second part indicates that it will serve as a clarification of what came before. The latter part describes only the relation of persons, not cosmological elements or lifeless objects. Yet why take this as an exclusive illustration? Fragment 80, after all, states: "It is needful to recognize war [polemos] as being general, and justice as strife [eris], and all things as coming to be according to strife [and necessity]." In the light of this fragment, war would simply be a manifestation, one more easily recognized by mere mortals, of the cosmological principle of strife-that is, a principle that explains the origin and dispensation of the world. Here Heraclitus asks his reader to imagine this polemos with a wider meaning, as something that is general, or common, to all things that come to be. War-as-strife would then describe the way that the logos and fire balance and order the ever-changing cosmos. Unity, or the One, must be found in the constant balancing of opposites in this polemos-eris. The gods and humans and the free and enslaved mentioned in Fragment do not constitute a mere list or compilation of those affected by war; gods and humans, free and enslaved exist as opposites because war has its roots in the cosmological nature of strife. Nevertheless, taking this fragment on its own, we must concede that only these social opposites are mentioned. No cosmological or metaphysical pairs are introduced, and so perhaps the more ambiguous "of all," and not "of all things," serves as the better translation of panton here.

We have already discussed the notion that in Fragment 53 polemos supplants Zeus in his traditional role as reigning deity. Hesiod, for example, uses two words, pater and basileus, to describe Zeus' supreme position (Theogony, 468-69, 886). The assertion that Zeus is the father and king of all means that he holds an absolute, paternal power over his subjects, whether mortal or immortal. But we should not be too hasty to conflate the meanings of pater and basileus, especially in Fragment 53. Whatever the formulaic titles associated with Zeus may have meant customarily in Greek religion, here we have a fragment where war is named father and king, and we should not assume that Heraclitus would carelessly allow these titles to lie fallow in his philosophical imagination when he otherwise so consciously appropriates the tradition. A father is, after all, a procreator of something that was not there before. Recall Fragment 80: "It is needful to recognize war as being general, and justice as strife, and all things as coming to be according to strife [and necessity]." "Coming to be" in Greek here is ginomena, the participle of a verb whose meanings include to be born, to become, to happen. In this fragment, war or strife is definitely a generative principle, if not the prime source of beings, but without the anthropomorphization of Fragment 53. We should remain open to what this might mean in Fragment 53. Furthermore, as "king of all," polemos holds sway not only over the generation of things, but also over their dispensation, their arrangement, their relations-their whole continuing existence or demise-just as kings have power over life and death. So we have two possible interpretations of war as father and king of all, depending on how we understand "of all." Either war reigns supreme in a political sense alone, establishing social distinctions, or war is the source of the coming to be of all things, political and otherwise. In the latter, metaphysical, sense, "war" would denote some essential conflict among beings, both destructive and productive, through which each being becomes defined as what it is. Each being becomes, as it were, a foil for all others by taking a stand in its own existence and thereby forcing others to do the same. Hence the pairings of Heraclitus' aphorism: each pair is united in its opposition in that each side comes to be through this confrontation.

The second part of the fragment, as indicated above, would tend to support the narrower interpretation on a first reading. This is Marcovich's contention about the scope of the polemos: "The sphere is rather social than natural (physical). The division of the world into gods and men, into free men and slaves, etc., according to Greek ideas, was 'the foundation of all order'" (Marcovich, 146). Certainly, the enslavement of entire vanquished populations was a common outcome of war in the ancient world. It seems a little odd, though, to regard the distinction drawn between gods and humans as part of a merely political or social observation; the theological twist might intimate a broader significance to war's paternity. Kahn offers the reading of Diskin Clay to resolve this question: "Battle shows the difference between men and gods by revealing the mortality of the former; gods may be wounded but not killed (as in the case of Aphrodite and Ares in Iliad V)." This is a nice observation, but it seems somewhat narrow. Continuing with this theme of mortality and death as the key to this problem, Marcovich cites Fragments 62 and 24 to argue that the gods in Fragment 53 are really those who have fallen in war, in the sense that the living remain men, while those who die well in battle are revered as gods (Marcovich, 147). Fragment 62, which is rather difficult to translate, reads: "Immortals are mortals, mortals immortals, those living the deaths of the others, the others dying the life of these." Fragment 24 reads: "Gods and humans honor those slain by Ares." This argument allows for a fairly straightforward account for how war "reveals" (edeixe, a gnomic aorist, as is epoiese) gods on the one hand, humans on the other: war pitilessly reveals the nature and fates of those involved; they either survive and remain among men, or they die well and become gods; either they are victorious, or they are humiliated and enslaved. This showing up of individuals for what they are reflects the significance of single combat in Homer as the true test of a man's heroism, only now the ambit of meaning is wider. Marcovich adds that the fragment implies that other social distinctions, such as those between rich and poor, claim their provenance from war (Marcovich, 146). All such distinctions, according to this interpretation, have their ultimate foundation and justification in the trial of war (perhaps even in the sense of class war), rather than in some comforting, moral justice. Might makes right; polemos establishes dike. This is the force of the shocking claim that polemos, not Zeus, is father and king. Force and power ultimately decide all social relations, showing each man or god his place, making each what he is. Heraclitus then becomes the predecessor of Thrasymachus.

Nevertheless, I see no grounds for limiting the meaning of the fragment to this social level alone. Heraclitus may be overlayering a social description with a cosmological, or metaphysical, principle. Also, in Fragment Heraclitus employs the words theoi and anthropoi, gods and humans-not, as he does in Fragment 62, athanatoi and thnetoi, immortals and mortals, or even heroes and andres, heroes and men. The word anthropoi does not mean warriors or males, but rather men in the generic sense: people, persons, or human beings, and so I have translated it as "humans" (cf. Frags. 110, 119). The theoi are gods in the traditional sense, and even if we do not ascribe that meaning to Heraclitus, his use of this word in other fragments does not support Marcovich's reading that gods and men are made from those who fight in war (Frags. 24, 30, 67, 83, 102).

But if we reject Marcovich's explanation, then we are faced with the puzzle of how war "reveals" gods on one hand and humans on the other.


Excerpted from Heidegger's Polemos by Gregory Fried Copyright © 2000 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix
Note on Translation xi
Abbreviations of Frequently Cited Works xiii
Introduction: How to Read This Book 1(20)
Polemos and Heraclitus
Polemos as Da-Sein
Polemos and the Revolution of History
Polemos and the Revolution of Politics
Polemos, Postmodernism, and Derrida
Conclusion: Where Do We Go from Here? 246(11)
Appendix: On the Editing of Heidegger's Nietzsche Lectures 257(6)
Notes to Pages 263(20)
Bibliography 283(14)
Index 297

What People are Saying About This

Robert Bernasconi

With this book Fried clearly establishes himself as one of the Heidegger scholars to whom one must listen.
—(Robert Bernasconi, University of Memphis)

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