Schabert traces different figurations of power inherent to our singular existence, things such as numbers, time, thought, and desire, showing how they render our lives political ones—and, thus, how politics exists in us individually, long before it plays a role in the establishment of societies and institutions. Through these figurations of power, Schabert argues, we learn how to institute our own government within the political forces that already surround us—to create our own world within the one into which we have been born. In a stunning vision of human agency, this book ultimately sketches a political cosmos in which we are all builders, in which we can be at once political and free.
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The Second Birth
On the Political Beginnings of Human Existence
By Tilo Schabert, Javier Ibáñez-Noé
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2015 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
At the Start
We must distinguish between a "beginning" [Anfang] and a "start" [Beginn]. First, we must distinguish them according to cosmological knowledge, as expressed for instance in the Dao De Jing: "All things arose from it [the great Tao/Way], but it is not their originator. ... The Tao protects and nurtures all things but does not claim to be their master" And, second, we must distinguish them by emphasizing the atemporal meaning of the word "start," since this word is intended to designate precisely that start which creates time — the sequence denoted by it — but which is itself prior to all time.
On the other hand, to make a beginning means to go beyond the start that is to be actualized in this beginning, and to add to this start — prior to which there was nothing that might have shown it — that which follows from the beginning made. Beginnings are not identical to their start. Beginnings do not simply repeat the start for which they are a beginning, in the sense of the beginning of a thing, an event, or a Gestalt (for the sake of a start), that is to say, in the sense of the beginning, in one way or another, of "something." Beginnings lead away from their start. They emancipate themselves from it and transform what arises from them into an objectivity of their own freedom. The work conceived in the start is anything but clearly determined by the beginning. Such a work "obeys" the beginning made, because it started with this beginning; but it also does not "obey" it, because it is what sets out to develop into itself out of this beginning. A work must thus, once started, be recognized from the beginning as having a "nature of its own," and must be directed precisely by that nature toward the work started. This is the reason why all creative power is also political power. God is a politician, kyrios kyrion, a magistrate of the world.
Out of beginnings something arises. Beginnings are beginnings of ..., and to that extent they are also something other than a mere manifestation of the start. In their difference from the start, beginnings bring power into play, which is expressed by the restriction of the start through that beginning. Out of beginnings something arises; and in order that it may endure, what arises needs a power that determines it and thus limits it. A beginning gains its power over the start already at the start made by the beginning. In order for something to arise, it must be given a Gestalt — or, we could also say, it must be fixed — at the beginning, for it could not arise unless it was begun in the direction of this or that Gestalt. The beginning is the first power; and this power gives to what arises its constitution and also rules over it. It "exists [continues to exist]," as Maimonides puts it, "in the thing whose beginning it is," and it retains its power over this thing until the latter reaches its full Gestalt. This Gestalt had, out of all possible beginnings, precisely that beginning which restricts it and is specific to it, and which is completely different from an infinitely open, absolute start. Such a Gestalt is a Gestalt out of this specific beginning and not out of any other. This is the mark of its power.
Beginnings open the world. They make the Other actual. A beginning is a different book, a different song, a different painting, a different piece of equipment, a different state, a different economy, a different city, a different law, a different religion. A beginning opens the world up as at its start. At the start was opened, for the very first time, that which was always already without a beginning, and which always is that which exists "at the start": the Tao, the One, the Divine. The start is characterized as "not having arisen" (arche ageneton), as Plato said in the Phaedrus. "Everything must arise out of it, but it does not arise out of anything." Yet beginnings are a revelation of the start, of that first beginning among all beginnings through which the Infinite — in which everything possible is One — was relativized and through which a beginning was made of the start, i.e., of a starting. According to the Huainanzi, a philosophical work composed by the Taoist author Liu An in the second century BC, at the beginning there was "a beginning" (chu). Thus arose that boundary of the beginning within which that which was to be "something" could be constituted, i.e., demarcated and limited by reason of its being something that has begun (and hence is finite), and thus also able, through this limitation, to be this "something" (as opposed to being nothing or simultaneously being something other). The boundary of the beginning is the "actual" start; we might also say it is the creatively opening start. In the Actual, the boundary — the form-giving power of the boundary — is the sign of actuality. Only through such a boundary can there be a number valid in itself, a clearly outlined body, a completed action, a fragmented time, a determining law, an independent individual, a separate part, individual freedom, a particular grace, a fitting narrative, this or that chapter of "history," a truth understood, and the moment of wisdom.
Bodily birth — the first birth — individualizes human beings. Such a birth brings them into the total separateness of their bodies. All human beings find themselves through their bodies, as individuals, in all the dimensions of life in their existence, i.e., in time, in space, in the multitude of all other living beings and things. Every human being is born in his own time and will die in his own time. The time that is allotted to him and the time that passes for him is his lifetime, exclusively. Wherever he goes, he will be alone with his body, and wherever he has gone with his body, he will again be alone in this different place. His appearing is the appearing of his body, i.e., the determinate (and as such unequivocal) presence of this one perceptible body in the midst of all physical appearances. And thus, whatever or whoever perceives him will perceive first and foremost that in which this human being himself is — and is in his entirety: the unmistakable concrete separateness of his body. He is everywhere, in the midst of all things, and for all time the One, an individual, standing for himself, a distinctly detached Gestalt.
Yet the first birth, as will be shown, does not release human beings into their entire existence. The human being who has arisen is only the beginning. In his individuation, he is not completely himself. On the contrary, individuation is the unequivocal sign of the predicament of not being complete at all. Existing as separate — and he could not exist in any other way — a human being exists alone for his beginning. He is a beginning, nothing more. But he is also the beginning in which the Gestalt of the human being is started through this beginning: a human being among human beings, a separate being among separate beings, an individualized being among individualized beings. He is certainly all this; and yet, individualized though he is, he is also — along with many others, who are also individuals just as he is, and on the basis of a universally shared beginning — this one thing: a human being.
Beginnings open up the world for the creative power that shines forth in it. Something from this power enters the created world through these beginnings, as though they were gates for the "Divine." Something becomes possible through them by virtue of which a "world" as such is. Through them human beings become creative for the creation "human being." Beginnings make human beings knowledgeable, for through them they experience that knowledge of power which they need for their existence — a knowledge, indeed, without which they could not even lead an existence. This is the knowledge — for the "leap of a moment" — of that absolute power which can give testimony, at once and comprehensively, of its own resolve (and which, as human beings then realize, is possible for God only); it is also the knowledge (an enduring one in this case) of that power which manifests itself in each of the creations to which human beings have directed their efforts, and which, while it rules them, lies within them, and both forms them and directs them toward themselves. Beginnings affect human beings educationally. For it is through these beginnings that they come to know the power of the Creative and thus its formative force — first and foremost in its effect on human beings and its image in them.
Power civilizes human beings. It creates them for a second time. It is the first sovereign over their existence, which rises out of every beginning they make as the ruling Gestalt of the work that was started in that beginning. Power raises human beings toward a life with their peers, according to the image of the political nature of their existence. Power gives birth to humanity, since it first makes human beings actual, i.e., sociable, humans. It is the mother of the truth designated by the concept "human being," which comes to light, in different ways, in every human society. Power is the Gestalt of humanity; human beings enter into it by actualizing their life. It is the creative path on which they find the way to their existence. Power is "their" beginning, which is always in them and with them, toward that work which is their own life.CHAPTER 2
As a beginning, number is the handle of the creative, the handle it uses for creating. It is the articulation that divides every creation. For something actual exists only in the manner of there being the One, and then the second, and then the third, and so on. "If there is One (en)," Plato sets forth in the Parmenides, "then there is necessarily also number (arithmos). And if there is number, there exist also the many and an infinite quantity (plethos apeiron) of beings." Everything created is ordered in a sequence, since every single created thing follows one after the other and thus forms a quantity that is to be counted from the One to the many and so on to the infinite. "The Way generates One" (dao sheng yi), says the Dao De Jing in a way surprisingly similar to the Parmenides. "One (yi) generates two (er), two generates three (san), three generates the ten thousand things (wan wu)." That which is, as the Pythagoreans said, exists in the image (mimesis) of numbers. "For no things would be clear to anyone in their relation either to themselves or to one another," as Philolaos explained, "if number (arithmos) and their essence were not." Number is the mode of all creation. It "is the ruling and uncreated bond of the eternal persistence of things in the world." No thing is, if it is not in number. Or it would be nothing, and would thus be the Nothing. Even if there is only the One, there is two: the One (which encompasses in itself everything in a being-less manner) and the One that is (and that shows itself as "being"). From the day — days — of creation, all creation becomes "worn out" according to number. Creation is many things and thus, as the Parmenides sets forth, is "divided" and "cut up" into these many things: "Being is dispersed among all the things (panta) that are in the mode of the many (polla onta).... Thus cut up (katakekermatistai), Being is divided into smallest and largest and into all possible kinds of things, and is partitioned (memeristai) more than anything, and there are countless (aperanta) parts of Being." In its duration, all creation numbers itself in the direction of its future, which is demarcated, to be sure, through numbers (because it exists in accordance with numbers), but is also, through numbers, unbounded in the direction of the infinite.
A creation that both exists according to number and yet is infinite would be a nonenumerable creation and thus not an actual creation, one to be measured against its Gestalt. It would not be a something and there would not be a something in it; thus, it would not be a settled creation (a world), and there would be no determinate thing in it that stands in relation to a determinate thing, i.e., there would not be a series of world things. In order to be an actual creation, a creation cannot be, in its numeric mode, without an order according to numbers. "The elemental order of all things," as Philo of Alexandria declared, "is established through numbers" (Principium itaque universorum constituunt numeri). If there is to be a beginning of the world, it is required that there be a power that enumerates the world. If there is to be a beginning for creation, there must be a summing-up of creation. But who does this? Who is the power who intervenes in the world and directs it toward its Gestalt? One answer is found in Plato's Philebus. "There is in the universe a great deal of the unlimited as well as enough limitation. And besides these," it is further stated, "there is also a nonmean cause (aitia) that orders and determines years, seasons, and months." The power of measuring introduces measures for things into the unmeasuredness of things. The power of measuring that does this is obviously not a "mean cause." Such power limits the unlimited and thus sets creation into a Gestalt. Thus, it can "rightfully be called," as the Philebus concludes, "wisdom (sophia) and reason (nous)."
As human beings, too, emerge in the process of creation, they become and are human beings in the modes of creation. They exist in creation just as everything else exists in creation, first and foremost in the manner of a beginning. From the start, they exist in the mode of a beginning. Or, to put it the other way around, human beings need beginnings in order to start existing. And the first among these is their beginning in number, i.e., that beginning which brings human beings into a numerical order.
After all, human beings arise numerically in the manner of the many, who are each of them just individuals. But how do they exist numerically, i.e., how are they together the many? And further, human beings have, numerically speaking, a thousand sounds and combinations of sounds, in order that they may hear one another while they are with one another. But how can they understand one another by means of specific sounds understandable to all, given the enormous number of possible sounds?
When Democritus expressed his view regarding the beginnings of all things and, more particularly, of human beings, he was beholden to a particular idea thereof. And yet he saw all the more distinctly, in the emergence of all things, the consequence, peculiar to creation, of the sought-after beginning in time: "In the beginning, human beings (ex arches anthropoi) — we are told — found themselves in a disordered and semibestial condition of life (bios); they gathered food, each man for himself, and sought the most beneficial fruits of wild-growing trees. Since they were attacked by wild animals, they would assist one another, instructed by common interest; and since, driven by fear (dia ton phobon), they would then stay together, they slowly learned to distinguish themselves from each other by attending to their external appearance. Their language (phone) was, at the beginning, a mishmash of indistinct sounds, but it slowly developed into articulate expression, and, by agreeing on particular designations (symbola) for each object, they found a way to communicate about everything. But since many different associations (systematon) of this sort came into existence throughout (kath' apasan) the inhabited world (oikumene), humans could not all have, through a common speech (homophonos), the same language in their respective vernaculars, because each of these associations fashioned words in its own haphazard manner; and this is the reason why there are so many different linguistic modalities. The nations (ethnoi) of human beings, however, came into being out of these first (linguistic) associations (systemata)."
Excerpted from The Second Birth by Tilo Schabert, Javier Ibáñez-Noé. Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of ContentsPreface
At the Start
In the Divine