Stasis: Civil War as a Political Paradigm

Stasis: Civil War as a Political Paradigm

by Giorgio Agamben, Nicholas Heron

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We can no longer speak of a state of war in any traditional sense, yet there is currently no viable theory to account for the manifold internal conflicts, or civil wars, that increasingly afflict the world's populations. Meant as a first step toward such a theory, Giorgio Agamben's latest book looks at how civil war was conceived of at two crucial moments in the history of Western thought: in ancient Athens (from which the political concept of stasis emerges) and later, in the work of Thomas Hobbes. It identifies civil war as the fundamental threshold of politicization in the West, an apparatus that over the course of history has alternately allowed for the de-politicization of citizenship and the mobilization of the unpolitical. The arguments herein, first conceived of in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, have become ever more relevant now that we have entered the age of planetary civil war.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804797320
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 09/09/2015
Series: Meridian: Crossing Aesthetics Series
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 96
File size: 8 MB

About the Author

Giorgio Agamben is a contemporary Italian philosopher and political theorist whose works have been translated into numerous languages. His most recent title with Stanford University Press is Pilate and Jesus (2014).

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Civil War as a Political Paradigm

By Giorgio Agamben, Werner Hamacher, Nicholas Heron


Copyright © 2015 Giorgio Agamben
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8047-9732-0



1. It is generally acknowledged that a theory of civil war is completely lacking today, yet this absence does not seem to concern jurists and political scientists too much. Roman Schnur, who formulated this diagnosis as early as the 1980s, nonetheless added that the disregard of civil war went hand in hand with the advance of global civil war (Schnur 1983, 121, 156). At thirty years' distance, this observation has lost none of its topicality: while the very possibility of distinguishing a war between States and an internecine war appears today to have disappeared, specialists continue to carefully avoid any hint at a theory of civil war. It is true that in recent years, owing to the upsurge of wars impossible to define as international, publications concerning so-called 'internal wars' have multiplied (above all, in the United States); even in these instances, however, the analysis was geared not toward an interpretation of the phenomenon, but — in accordance with a practice ever more widespread — toward the conditions under which an international intervention becomes possible. The paradigm of consensus, which today dominates both political action and theory, seems incompatible with the serious investigation of a phenomenon that is at least as old as Western democracy.

* There exists, today, both a 'polemology', a theory of war, and an 'irenology', a theory of peace, but there is no 'stasiology', no theory of civil war. We have already mentioned how, according to Schnur, this absence could be related to the advance of global civil war. The concept of 'global civil war' was introduced contemporaneously in 1963 in Hannah Arendt's book On Revolution (in which the Second World War was defined as 'a kind of civil war raging all over the earth' [Arendt 1963, 8]) and in Carl Schmitt's Theorie des Partisanen (Schmitt 2007), a book dedicated to the figure that marks the end of the conception of war of the Jus publicum Europaeum, which was grounded on the possibility of clearly distinguishing between war and peace, soldiers and civilians, enemies and criminals. Whatever date one wishes to trace this end back to, it is certain that today the state of war in the traditional sense has virtually disappeared. Even the Gulf War, the last conflict that still had the appearance of a war between States, was fought without the warring States declaring the state of war (which for some States, such as Italy, would have been unconstitutional). The generalisation of a model of war which cannot be defined as an international conflict, yet which lacks the traditional features of civil war, has led some scholars to speak of 'uncivil wars', which, unlike civil wars, appear to be directed not toward the control and transformation of the political system, but toward the maximisation of disorder (Snow 1996). The attention which scholars dedicated to these wars in the 1990s ultimately could not lead to a theory of civil war, but only to a doctrine of management, that is, of the administration, manipulation and internationalisation of internal conflicts.

2. One possible reason for the lack of interest in civil war was the increasing popularity of the concept of revolution (at least, up until the end of the 1960s), which was often substituted for civil war, yet without ever coinciding with it. It was Hannah Arendt who, in her book On Revolution, unreservedly formulated the thesis of the heterogeneity between the two phenomena. '[R]evolutions', she writes,

are the only political events which confront us directly and inevitably with the problem of beginning [...] Modern revolutions have little in common with the mutatio rerum of Roman history or the stasis, the civil strife which disturbed the Greek polis. We cannot equate them with Plato's metabolai, the quasi-natural transformation of one form of government into another, or with Polybius's politeion anakyklosis, the appointed recurring cycle into which human affairs are bound by reason of their always being driven to extremes. Antiquity was well acquainted with political change and the violence that went with change, but neither of them appeared to it to bring about something new. (Arendt 1963, 13–14)

Although it is likely that the difference between the two concepts is in fact purely nominal, it is certain that the concentration of attention on the concept of revolution (which for some reason seemed more respectable than that of stasis, even to a scholar as unprejudiced as Arendt), has contributed to the marginalisation of studies on civil war.

3. A theory of civil war is not among the possible objectives of this text. Instead, I will restrict myself to examining the topic as it appears within Western political thought at two moments in its history: in the testimonies of the philosophers and historians of Ancient Greece and in the thought of Thomas Hobbes. The two examples have not been selected by chance: I would like to suggest that they represent the two faces, so to speak, of a single political paradigm, which manifests itself, on the one hand, through the assertion of the necessity of civil war, and on the other, through the assertion of the necessity of its exclusion. That the paradigm is, in truth, single, means that the two opposed necessities maintain a secret solidarity between them. And it is this secret solidarity that I will seek to grasp.

An analysis of the problem of civil war (or stasis) in classical Greece can only begin with the studies of Nicole Loraux, who dedicated a series of articles and essays to this theme, which were collected in 1997 in the volume La Cité divisée — the volume to which she used to refer as mon livre par excellence. As in the life of artists, so too in the life of scholars there are mysteries. Thus I was never able to successfully explain to myself why Loraux never included in the volume an essay written in 1986 for a lecture in Rome entitled 'La guerre dans la famille', which is perhaps the most important of all the studies she dedicated to the problem of stasis. The circumstance is all the more inexplicable given that she decided to publish the essay in an issue of the journal Clio dedicated to guerres civiles in the same year as the book, almost as if she were aware — but this would be a truly singular motivation — that the thesis defended in the essay went decidedly further in terms of originality and radicality than the already acute thesis advanced in the book. I will attempt, in any case, to summarise the essay's findings in order then to attempt to locate what Feuerbach called the Entwicklungsfähigkeit, the 'capacity for development' that they contain.

4. Other French scholars — allow me to mention at least two classics, Gustave Glotz and Fustel de Coulanges, and in their wake, Jean-Pierre Vernant — had underscored the importance of stasis in the Greek polis prior to Nicole Loraux. The novelty of Loraux's approach is that she immediately situates the problem in its specific locus, which is to say, in the relationship between the oikos, the family or the household, and the polis, the city. 'The matter', she writes, 'will be played out between three terms: the stasis, the city, the family' (Loraux 1997, 38). Such an identification of the place of civil war entails redrawing the traditional topography of the relations between the family and the city from scratch. What is at issue is not, as the prevailing paradigm would have it, an overcoming of the family in the city, of the private in the public and of the particular in the general, but a more ambiguous and complex relation; and it is precisely this relation which we will seek to grasp.

Loraux begins her analysis with a passage from Plato's Menexenus, in which the ambiguity of civil war appears on full display. Describing the stasis which divided the citizens of Athens in 404, Plato writes ironically:

Our war at home [ho oikeios hemin polemos] was waged in such a fashion that were fate to condemn humanity to conflict no one would wish to see their city suffer this predicament in any other way. With such joviality and familiarity did those from the Piraeus and those from the city engage with one another [hos asmenos kai oike kai oikeios allelois synemeixan]! (Menex., 243e–244a)

Not only does the verb that Plato employs (symmeignymi) mean both 'to mingle' and 'to enter the fray, to fight'; but the very expression oikeios polemos is, to the Greek ear, an oxymoron: polemos designates external conflict and, as Plato will record in the Republic (470c), refers to the allotrion kai othneion (alien and foreign), while for the oikeios kai syggenes (familiar and kindred) the appropriate term is stasis. According to the reading that Loraux gives to these passages, Plato seems to imply that 'the Athenians had waged an internecine war only in order to better reconvene in a family celebration' (Loraux 1997, 22). The family is simultaneously the origin of division and stasis and the paradigm of reconciliation (the Greeks, Plato will write, 'fight amongst themselves as if they were fated to be reconciled' [Rep., 471a]).

5. The ambivalence of the stasis, according to Loraux, is thus attributable to the ambiguity of the oikos, with which is it consubstantial. Civil war is the stasis emphylos; it is the conflict particular to the phylon, to blood kinship. It is to such an extent inherent to the family that the phrase ta emphylia (literally, 'the things internal to the bloodline') simply means 'civil wars'. According to Loraux, the term denotes 'the bloody relationship that the city, as a bloodline (and, as such, thought in its closure), maintains with itself' (Loraux 1997, 29). At the same time, precisely because it is what lies at the origin of the stasis, the family is also what contains its possible remedy. Vernant thus notes that the rift between families is often healed through an exchange of gifts, which is to say, by virtue of a marriage between rival clans: 'In the eyes of the Greeks it was not possible to isolate the forces of discord from those of union either in the web of human relationships or in the constitution of the world' (Vernant 1988, 31).

Even tragedy bears witness to the intimate link between civil war and the family, and to the threat that the Ares emphylios — the god of warfare who dwells in the oikos — brings to bear on the city (Eumenides, 862–3). According to Loraux, the Oresteia is simultaneously the evocation of the long chain of killings in the house of the Atridi and the commemoration of its overcoming through the foundation of the court at the Areopagus, which puts an end to the family massacre. 'The civic order has integrated the family in its midst. This means that it is always virtually threatened by the discord that kinship is like a second nature, and that it has simultaneously always already overcome this threat' (Loraux 1997, 39).

Insofar as civil war is inherent to the family — insofar as it is, that is to say, an oikeios polemos, a 'war within the household'— it is, to the same extent — this is the thesis that Loraux seems to suggest here — inherent to the city, an integral part of the political life of the Greeks.

6. Toward the end of her essay, Loraux analyses the case of a small Greek city in Sicily, Nakone, where, in the third century BCE, the citizens decided to organise the reconciliation following a stasis in a particularly striking way. They drew the names of the citizens in lots, in order to then divide them into groups of five, who in this way became adelphoi hairetoi, 'brothers by election'. The natural family was neutralised, but this neutralisation was accomplished simultaneously through a symbol par excellence of kinship: fraternity. The oikos, the origin of civil strife, is excluded from the city through the production of a false fraternity. The inscription that has transmitted this information to us specifies that the neo-brothers were to have no family kinship between them: the purely political fraternity overrules blood kinship, and in this way frees the city from the stasis emphylos. With the same gesture, however, it reconstitutes kinship at the level of the polis: it turns the city into a family of a new kind. It was a 'family' paradigm of this kind that Plato had employed when suggesting that, in his ideal republic, once the natural family had been eliminated through the communism of women and goods, each person would see in the other 'a brother or a sister, a father or a mother, a son or a daughter' (Rep., 463c).

The ambivalent function of the oikos — and of the stasis that is inherent to it — is once again confirmed. And at this point, Loraux can conclude her analysis with a twofold invitation:

[S]tasis/family/city [...] these notions are articulated according to lines of force in which recurrence and superimposition mostly prevail over every continuous process of evolution. Hence the paradox and the ambivalence, which we have encountered many times. The historian of kinship may find here the occasion to re-examine the commonplace of an irresistible overcoming of the oikos by the city. As for the historian of politics, he will perhaps strengthen his conviction that ambivalence presides over the Greek reflection on the city once the stasis must be incorporated within it; for internal conflict must now be conceived as having actually emerged within the phylon, instead of having been imported from without, as a convenient solution would have it [...] We must attempt to think, together with the Greeks, the war within the family. Let us suppose that the city is a phylon; it follows that the stasis is its revealer. Let us make the city an oikos; on the horizon of the oikeios polemos thus looms a festival of reconciliation. And let us admit, finally, that between these two operations, the tension cannot be resolved. (Loraux 1997, 61–2)

7. Let us attempt to summarise the findings of Loraux's essay in the form of theses:

1) In the first place, stasis calls into question the commonplace that conceives Greek politics as the definitive overcoming of the oikos in the polis.

2) In its essence, stasis or civil war is a 'war within the family', which comes from the oikos and not from outside. Precisely insofar as it is inherent to the family, the stasis acts as its revealer; it attests to its irreducible presence in the polis.

3) The oikos is essentially ambivalent: on the one hand, it is a factor of division and conflict; on the other, it is the paradigm that enables the reconciliation of what it has divided.

What becomes immediately evident from this summary exposition is the fact that while the presence and function of the oikos and the phylon in the city are broadly examined and to a certain extent defined, it is precisely the function of the stasis, which constitutes the object of the investigation, which remains in the shadows. It is but a 'revealer' of the oikos. Reduced, in other words, to the element from which it originates and to whose presence in the city it can only attest, its own definition ultimately remains elusive. We will therefore attempt to examine Loraux's theses in this direction, by seeking to determine the 'capacity for development' that they contain, which will enable us to bring to light this unsaid.

8. Regarding the first point, I believe that my recent investigations have shown beyond doubt that the relations between the oikos and the polis, and between zoe and bios, which are at the foundation of Western politics, need to be rethought from scratch. In classical Greece, zoe, simple natural life, was excluded from the polis and remained confined to the sphere of the oikos. At the beginning of the Politics, Aristotle thus carefully distinguishes the oikonomos (the head of an enterprise) and the despotes (the head of the family), who are concerned with the reproduction and conservation of life, from the statesman; and he sharply criticises those who maintain that the difference that separates them is one of quantity rather than one of kind. And when, in a passage that will become canonical in the Western political tradition, he defines the end of the polis as a perfect community, he does so precisely by opposing the simple fact of living (to zen) to politically qualified life (to eu zen).


Excerpted from Stasis by Giorgio Agamben, Werner Hamacher, Nicholas Heron. Copyright © 2015 Giorgio Agamben. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents


1. Stasis,
2. Leviathan and Behemoth,

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