Monday, June 11, 2012

Necessity and the State, and Justice and the Exception

Personified in Roman myth as Necessitas, Necessity originally appears as the Greek goddess Ananke. Ananke not only represents necessity, or the inevitable but, in addition, force and constraint, as well as compulsion and, according to some accounts, power as well. But these are not the limits of her attributes; Ananke is also associated with the Greek Goddess of violence, and violent haste, Bia, with whom she was worshipped at Corinth. Among other things, Bia, violence, was understood by the ancient Greeks to be “essentially antithetical” to Dike, the principle of justice.[1]

Representative of necessity and the inevitable, and implicitly opposed to justice, Ananke was, as Aeschylus informs us in his Prometheus Bound, one who “permits no resistance.”[2] A Protogenoi, one of the primeval gods Ananke, along with Chronos/Time, is credited with having created the cosmos. Blended among one another and enwrapping the world, the two of them, as time and fate, maintain the universe’s perpetual movement. As Plato described it, the whorls of the cosmos rotate around a spindle, and this spindle “turns in the lap of [Ananke].”[3]

In Book X of his Republic, Plato informs us that Ananke is the mother of the Moirae, The Fates.[4] In charge of carrying out their mother’s orders, the three Fates, each holding one of her hands on the spindle, control the life and death of every human being. And while Zeus is the most powerful of the gods, reputedly stronger than all of the other gods combined, when it comes to the Fates, “even he cannot escape what is foretold.”[5]

In spite of all of this, however, the son of Apollo, Asclepius, “the godlike healer of all mortal sickness,”[6] was able to defy the Fates. Once Asclepius had developed his skills sufficiently, he could not only heal the sick but could raise the dead as well, transgressing the jurisdiction of the Fates and upsetting the order of the universe. That is, salus/health was not only able to function beyond the rule of salus/necessity, it was able to do so in direct opposition to Necessity. Implied in this negation of Necessity and injustice via Bia is a realization of health as justice. For his transgression Asclepius was promptly incinerated by a lightning bolt from Zeus and was subsequently deified.

This story not only illustrates the opposition of Health and (apparent) Necessity, and the congruency of Health and Justice, but that Health in realizing a truth, reveals the falsity of Necessity’s claim to be ‘inevitable’ after all. By operating not only beyond what was sanctioned but beyond what was considered possible Health exposes potentialities that Necessity is, for various reasons, incapable of realizing and thereby demonstrates the contingency and the merely arbitrary nature of Necessity/Ananke. As such, one recognizes that necessity as force, as fate, and as utile, is merely necessity’s semblance. In actuality, necessity – as objective, as universal – is health.

While he does not refer to its structure, or to its analogues, Walter Benjamin’s observation, concerning the relationship of Fate and violence, that “far from inaugurating a purer sphere, the mythical manifestation of violence shows itself fundamentally identical with all legal violence”[7] is notable here.

As mentioned earlier, The Moirae, or Fates, are three sisters. Though they all act in unison, each has a specific function to perform in realizing (apparent) Necessity. Clotho, the spinner, spins the thread of life. Lachesis, the measurer, measures out a length of this thread. And Atropos, known as Morta to the Romans, the goddess of death, was the cutter. Often depicted with a pair of scissors, it was her function to cut the thread of life.[8]

The Fates’ structure is identical to an entity central to the argument of this essay: the tripartite schema of government which, while it has its roots in the works of the ancient Greek historian Polybius, is articulated modernly by Montesquieu in his Spirit of the Laws. Just as Ananke’s power, the Fates, is separated into three aspects, so did Montesquieu divide power into three branches – in order to separate it. As such, his Legislature occupies a position that is roughly equivalent to that of Clotho, the spinner. The Legislature spins the thread of power into laws. The Judiciary performs a function comparable to that of Lachesis; it measures the laws to determine whether they conform to the constitution. And finally there is the Executive, whose function George W. Bush memorably described as being “the decider.” That the term ‘to decide’ literally means ‘to cut off’[9] is not coincidental here. What is peculiar, however, is just how closely the separated powers mirror the Fates. Perhaps, however, this should not come as such a surprise since The Fates are also separated powers – the separated powers of Necessity.

This raises the question as to what in Montesquieu’s scheme holds the analogous position of Necessity apropos the Fates; that is, what entity subtends the Legislature, Judiciary and Executive of Montesquieu?

Far from separating powers in order to preclude their concentration into tyrannical excess, the main practical benefit of such a design ‘separating’ power between different entities is that it brings stability to the institution of government. Far from checking power, then, its separation stabilizes it, securing it.

That which corresponds to the place of Necessity in Montesquieu’s schema, then, is the (apparent) necessity of the coercive power of the state itself, and injustice – in the language of Cicero, it is the utile over the honestum, or the ‘private good’ over the ‘public good.’ In other words, the type of power that is separated by Montesquieu into three parts is not the non-coercive power of health, or actual, objective, universal necessity whatsoever, but the coercive, arbitrary power of domination which stands in opposition to the liberating power of Asclepius, of Salus, and, by implication, Dike.

[1]  Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer, p.31
[2]  Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound, 103 ff
[3]  Plato, The Republic, Book X, 617 b.
[4]  Plato, The Republic, Book X, 617 c.
[5]  Ibid, 510 ff
[6] Pindar, Pythian Ode 3. 5 ff (trans. Conway) (Greek lyric C5th B.C.)
[7]  Walter Benjamin, Critique of Violence, in Reflections, p. 296.
[8]  While different from the Hindu concept of the Trimurti, it is interesting to note that the Fates share a very similar structure to the Hindu Trimurti. Brahma, the creator, holds a position analogous to Clotho’s; Vishnu, the preserver, is comparable to Lachesis; and Shiva, the destroyer, or transformer, corresponds to Atropos.
[9]  from L. decidere “to decide, determine,” lit. “to cut off,” from de- “off” (see de-) + caedere “to cut”

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