Sunday, 3 October 2010

Polos: Heidegger and the state

Some remarks at a seminar last week set off my curiosity. Polis as polos? The state as a “pole” around which the uncanny performs the movement of a swirl?

The seminar was about Heidegger. The presenter talked about two texts based on the wartime lecture series Parmenides (1942/43) and Hölderlin's Hymn "The Ister" (1942) in which Heidegger claims that the Greek polis is derived from polos, or pole. Polis cannot be understood simply as what we today call a state or city-state, as a system of power ruling a specified, bordered territory. As polos, it should be understood as an unsettled abode of Being around which everything turns. His example is Antigone, "the most uncanny", whose passionate and unreasonable insistence on giving a burial to her brother imperils the state and the safety of its citizens.

Intrigued by these remarks, I decided to have a look at Parmenides. The part about polis comes in the midst of a discussion about the relation between aletheia and lethe (truth/unconcealing and forgetting). The essence of the Greek polis, Heidegger claims, is grounded in the essence of aletheia. “Polis is the polos, the pole, the place around which everything appearing to the Greeks as a being turns in a peculiar way”, a pole which “lets beings appear in their Being” (Heidegger 1992:89). He goes on to claim that the root of the word polis is identical with the Greek word for "to be", pelein: "to emerge, to rise up into the unconcealed” (ibid 90). The polis should therefore not be understood as a state or city-state, but as “the abode of the essence” of Greek humanity, as “the abode, gathered into itself, of the unconcealedness of beings” (ibid 90).

Then comes an interesting passage. Being, he points out, is essentially strife, a welling up of the uncanny:
If now, however, as the word indicates, aletheia possesses a conflictual essence, which appears also, in the oppositional forms of distortion and oblivion, then in the polis as the essential abode of man there has to hold sway all the most extreme counter-essences, and therein all excesses, to the unconcealed and to beings.
This, he asserts, explains “the frightfulness, the horribleness, the atrociousness of the Greek polis” (ibid 90).

On the very next page, however, he adds that despite this atrociousness the polis cannot be understood as evil. “The essence of power is foreign to the polis, with the consequence that the characterization of power as ‘evil’ finds no ground there [...] No modern concept of ‘the political’ will ever permit anyone to grasp the essence of the polis” (ibid 91).

These are dense passages. Two immediate thoughts:

Firstly, the final passage on how “the political” (understood as a struggle for power) fails to capture the essence of the polis sounds like an attack on Carl Schmitt, who in The Concept of the Political had defined the essence of politics as residing in the choice of friend and enemy. It's easy to use passages like this to conjure up the image of Heidegger as a pacifist recluse withdrawn from politics - as Heidegger himself does in texts like "Overcoming Metaphysics" (written during the war but published in 1954) where he laments the planetary "struggle for power" and criticizes it for bringing about a night of the earth and an oblivion of Being (ibid 1993:82f). In texts like these, the "attentiveness to Being" comes forward in a guise that is seemingly extricated from the logic of domination. But a "pacifist" interpretation like this quickly runs aground on Heidegger's own characterization of the polis as an abode of atrociousness, horror and strife. Clearly, what Heidegger criticizes is not violence and domination per se - only violence and domination that happens to be accompanied by blindness to Being.

Secondly, the fact that the passage on the “horribleness” and “atrociousness” of the polis is written in the winter 1942-43 makes one wonder: is this exegesis on the Greek polis really as irrelevant for the modern state – especially the Nazi state – as Heidegger claims?

To be able to venture a guess I need first to place the statement in context. By 1942 Heidegger had long withdrawn from active support for the Nazi regime. If we go back to 1935, however, we can see that ideas very similar to that of the polis and polos are expressed already in Introduction to Metaphysics. This is the text where he notoriously endorses the "inner truth and greatness" of the National Socialist movement. Here too we find discussions of Antigone and the uncanny (defined as the "unhomelike", unheimische, which throws us out of the accustomed and familiar) and of the polis as "the ground and place of human Dasein itself” which cannot be understood as "state" or "city-state" in a modern sense (ibid 2000:162).

If we look at the 1942 text Hölderlin’s Hymn “The Ister” the discourse on polis and homecoming is even more closely intertwined with present-day politics and the ongoing war. Despite his disillusionment with the National Socialist regime Heidegger still identifies the fate of the oblivion of Being with the fate of the struggle of the German people. The American entry into the war amounts to a "self-destructive" attempt to "annihilate" the "home" (Heimat) of Western philosophy. The task presented to the Germans is, by contrast, to overcome the oblivion of Being associated with metaphysics and the reign of technology. This overcoming must occur, not by uselessly denying or rejecting metaphysics but by coming to "know the essence of its truth" (ibid 1996:53). This in turn implies a pious "homecoming through the un-homely" or in other words as a German rediscovery of itself through the Greek "fire from the heavens" invoked in the first line of Hölderlin’s hymn. Only in that way can the Germans  remedy their onesided proclivity for clarity and order, and their tendency to become “carried away by the provision of frames and compartments, making divisions and structuring” (ibid 136). By returning to the Greeks and encountering what is foreign to them, Heidegger hopes that the Germans will be able to excel in "what is proper to the Greeks", namely the "fire from the heavens", and in that way even surpass the Greeks. “It could be that a ‘guest-house’ and establishment might be founded and built for the gods, one that the Greek temples can no longer approach” (ibid 124).

Such a homecoming through the Greeks would imply a recovery of the Greek polis, which - like in the Parmenides text - is defined as polos, the "swirl in which and around which everything turns” or as “that realm and locale around which everything question-worthy and uncanny turns in an exceptional sense" (ibid 81). Again he repeats that the polis cannot be understood from the vantage point of modern idea of the state. Therefore, he adds, it is ridiculous to make the Greeks “appear as the pure National Socialists” avant la lettre (ibid 80). On the contrary we must “think the state and the city from out of their relation to the polis” (ibid 82). This sentence is the key to how Heidegger understands the relationship betweten the polis and the modern state. That it is mistaken to project back any modern conceptions of the state on the polis does not mean that the polis is irrelevant for our understanding of the modern state. On the contrary, the polis is the historical archetype of the state or the political. The implication would seem to be that Heidegger leaves open the possibility of a political act of "foundation" in modern times through which the polis - understood as a abode where people gather since they perceive it as a site where Being manifests itself - is resurrected. Considering the world-historical role he still accords to the German people at this stage, it would seem that he is hoping for the German Reich to be the agent of such a foundation. This was in fact the promise he had once perceived to be inherent in the National Socialist movement as its "inner truth and greatness" but which, he now seems to be lamenting, the National Socialist movement has sadly forfeited.

If it is true that in 1942 Heidegger envisioned the German Reich as harboring the possibility of reapproaching the Greek polis, understood as a "pole" or abode of the unconcealedness of Being, then we can be forgiven, I think, for understanding his brief remarks on the “atrociousness” of the polis in 1942-43 as an allusion to the same, indeed very atrocious Reich. Here, however, a new problem arises. If he in fact endorses this infusion of "uncanny" energies, of the "fire from the heavens", into the modern German state, then it is hardly possible to interpret the remarks on "atrociousness" as an indictment of the horror of that state. In fact, we would have to concede that Heidegger is perfectly logical and true to his premises when he asserts that the polis (the Greek one as well as the possible German one) is free from "evil", despite its horros.

The resulting picture of the state is very ambivalent.

On the one hand, Heidegger opens up for the possibility of grasping the state itself as an abode of the "unconcealment" of Being. In its origin or essence, the state is not a formal organization or system of power, not a smokescreen thrown up by the ruling classes, but something as primordial as poetry or religion. As the speaker at the seminar I attended argued, such a way of grasping the state might make it possible to grope for a new way of providing "human rights" with a foundation without having to rely on law or jurisdiction. What is primordial and essential in the polis is not the border or formal criteria of citizenship, but taking "care” of the territory in which one dwells. Whoever dwells there, and who acts in such a way that he or she takes care of this abode, also belongs there. Antigone belongs to the state as much as Creon, von Stauffenberg as much as Hitler, and today’s sans-papiers and vagabonds belong to the modern nation-state as much as the formal citizens.

But by liberating the state from its own legal morings, we end up, as in Schmitt, with a picture of the state as above the law. Taking “care” will always involve the possibility of states of “exception” or emergency - the torture of dissidents, camps, eugenics, genocide. We end up in political theology, and not only in a narrow Schmittian sense, but in a wide sense in which the state literally takes on divine properties.

We can illustrate this with what just might have been one of the sources of Heideggers idea of the state as a "pole": the East Asian identification of imperial power with the pole star, the immovable mover around which the universe turns, the "abode" of the first principle of Tao before its bifurcation into yin and yang. This originally Chinese idea was notoriously used to underpin the prestige of Hitler’s comrade-in-arms: the Japanese "Heavenly sovereign", whose name, tenno, incidentally, is derived from the Taoist divinity thought to inhabit the Pole Star configuration. As became apparent with the intense criticism of the "organ-theory" of Minobe in the 1930s, the tenno came to be viewed as transcending the formal state apparatus rather than as part of it, as a divine embodiment of the eternal "national body", kokutai, rather than a mere head of the transient political system, seitai. To the young and idealist Japanese fascists who felt free to assassinate "liberal" politicians in the name of the Emperor in the 1930s, the latter was indeed a "pole" around which Being manifested itself regardless of illegality. Heidegger’s philosophy of polis would suit them as a glove fits the hand. Let me repeat that nothing in this philosophy condemns power-struggles or violence per se, only such struggles or such violence that is accompanied by an oblivion of Being.

No, the polis is not polos. I prefer a formal state to the conception of the state as an abode of Being, because a formal state is a state which can be rejected and stepped out of. Heidegger’s claim that polis is not the structure opposed by Antigone, Creon’s rule, but a movement that incorporates her opposition is perverse. The perversity lies in the implication that even the state’s victims and dissidents are complicit in its rule, unable to escape it. Von Stauffenberg becomes complicit with Hitler and the refugees hiding from the police complicit with the migration authorities that seek to expel them - all mixed up in the same swirl. Believing in divine monsters is questionable enough, and identifying them with the state is even worse.


Heidegger, Martin (1992) Parmenides, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

- (1993) “Overcoming Metaphysics”, pp 67-90, in R. Wohlin (ed) The Heidegger Controversy. A Critical Reader, Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press.

- (1996) Hölderlin’s Hymn “The Ister”, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

- (2000) Introduction to Metaphysics, New Haven: Yale University Press.

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