Heidegger’s Πολις and the “Demonic” Characterization of Power. Including an introduction to καταχθονιος metaphysics

Unresolved is the popular opinion on Heidegger’s neglect to speak about the horrors committed by the Nazi party, including his neglect to speak about his membership in the party and his participation in party activity during his rectorship at Freiberg University. The most popular opinion views Heidegger’s silence as damaging to his character, if not also to his philosophy as well. Michael Allen Gillespie, for example, has directly attacked Heidegger’s political project as it manifested at the University of Freiberg, specifically on account of Heidegger’s endorsement of the führerprinzip. However, and despite the demands which may still press upon us today, we must avoid slandering Heidegger’s character—certainly if this is merely for the sake of our own reputations. To be sure, such virtue signalling obstructs a genuine understanding of Heidegger’s silence and, as a consequence, a genuine understanding of his philosophy too. However, there is also a more pressing issue. Insofar as Heidegger’s philosophy has attempted a novel interpretation of the subiectum of the being of the world, his philosophy demands the articulation of a novel political theory beyond liberalism and its subject matter—the I, myself, “man”. We can be sure that such subjectivist politics are no longer satisfactory. As evidence, we might cite the turn away from metaphysics during the intellectual period following WWII. In this article, I will explore Heidegger’s political philosophy by way of his silence, in order to understand the subject matter of any political philosophy which follows from Heidegger’s interpretation of the subiectum.

First, in order to shed light on Heidegger’s philosophy, I choose to refer to Gesamtausgabe, volume 54—a collection of edited material from Heidegger’s lecture course conducted during the winter term of 1942–1943 at the University of Freiburg. In this volume, we find Heidegger eager to transport his students’ thinking away from any modern prejudices. His ambition is to wrench Parmenides’ goddess, Αληθεια (Alētheia), from any associations which our translation into truth might provoke. Heidegger seeks to redeem αληθεια from the Latinization of Ancient Greek culture. However, it is within The Third Directive of this volume where we find Heidegger initiating a reflection on what might rightly be considered the kernel of his political philosophy. Section six of this directive investigates the meaning of the πολις (polis, commonly translated as “city”, or “one’s community”). He does so by way of the phonic similarity between the words πολις and πολος (polos, “pivot, hinge, axis, pole”). Let us begin here, where Heidegger offers his students a perhaps unexpected answer to the question, “What is the πολις?”

“The πολις is the place around which all beings turn and precisely in such a way that in the domain of this place beings show their turning and their condition. Πολις is the πολος, the pole, the place around which everything appearing to the Greek as a being turns in a peculiar way.

The pole, as this place, lets beings appear in their Being and show the totality of their condition. The pole does not produce and does not create beings in their Being, but as pole it is the abode of the unconcealedness of being as a whole. The πολις is the essence of the place, or, as we say, it is the settlement of the historical dwelling of Greek humanity. Because the πολις lets the totality of beings come into this or that way into the unconcealedness of its condition, the πολις is therefore essentially related to the Being of beings. Between πολις and “Being” there is a primordial relation.

This word πολις is, in its root, identical with the Ancient Greek word for “to be”, πελειν: “to emerge, to rise up into the unconcealed”. The πολις is neither city nor state and definitely not the fatal mixture of these two inappropriate characterizations. Hence, the πολις is not the notorious “city-state” but is, rather, the settling of the place of the history of Greek humanity—neither city nor state but indeed the abode of the essence of this humanity. This essential abode gathers originally the unity of everything which, as the unconcealed, comes to man and is dispensed to him as that to which he is assigned in his Being. The πολις is the above, gathered into itself, of the unconcealedness of beings. If now, however, as the word indicates, αληθεια possess a conflictual essence, then in the πολις 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, i.e., counter-beings in the multiplicity of their counter-essence.”

Let us repeat: Αληθεια is the unconcealed while it has its counter-essence in ληθη (the concealed). The πολις (as “the essential abode of man”) contains both the unconcealed and the concealed. The πολις “holds sway” over beings and counter-beings. This conception of the πολις drives the development in The Third Directive, section number six. However, important to our purpose is the conclusion to this section, which includes a reflection on the “demonic” characterization of power as we have inherited it in the modern era (or possibly the postmodern era, today). This reflection on the demonic characterization of power continues directly from where the last paragraph ended, with a reflection on the conflictual essence of αληθεια,

“[Αληθεια possesses a conflictual essence.] Here lies concealed in the primordial ground of that feature Jacob Burckhardt presented for the first time in its full bearing and manifoldness: the frightfulness, the horribleness, the atrociousness of the Greek πολις. It is not by chance that man is spoken of in this way in Greek tragedy. For in the possibility, and the necessity, of “tragedy” itself has its single source in the conflictual essence of αληθεια.

In the introduction to his lectures on the “history of Greek culture”, Jacob Burckhardt knowingly inserts a thesis he heard as a student from his teacher in classical philosophy at Berlin, Bockh, and it runs as follows: “the Hellenes were more unhappy than most people think.” Burkhardt’s presentation of the Greeks, which he often repeated in his lectures at Basel from 1872 on, was constructed entirely on this insight, or rather, surmise. Nietzsche had in his possession an auditor’s transcript of these lectures, and he cherished the manuscript as his most precious treasure. Thus Jacob Burckhardt himself contributed to the fact that Nietzsche still thought of the essence of the Greek world and of its πολις in a Roman way.

Burckhardt considered the Greeks with a view towards the “history of Greek culture”, by which he means the “history of the Greek spirit”. The concepts of “spirit” and “culture”, no matter how they are defined, are representations belonging to modern thought. Burkhardt gave these representations a special stamp on the basis of his discovery of the “Italian Renaissance”. In this way, essentially Roman, Romanic, and modern conceptions flow into Burkhardt’s historical thinking.

Burkhardt agrees with the thesis of F. Chr. Schlosser, that “power is in itself evil”. This thesis has often been repeated in several variations. Power is called “demonic”, but no reflection is given to the essence of power, nor is it said what “demonic” is supposed to mean here. The characterization of power as “evil” and “demonic” is a metaphysical judgement on something undetermined in its metaphysical essence. But a discussion in these terms does not even reach the perimeter of the essence of the πολιςThe essence of power is foreign to the πολις, with the consequence that the characterization of power as “evil” finds no ground there. The essence of power, as meant in modern thinking about the state, is founded in the metaphysical presupposition that the essence of truth has been transformed into certitude, i.e., into the self-certitude of the human being in his self-positing, and that this later is based on the subjectivity of consciousnessNo modern conception of “the political” will ever permit anyone to grasp the essence of the πολις.”

Sociological power contra natural power

Let us continue by asking a question: what is this so-called “modern conception of the political” to which Heidegger readily associates with Rome and “the Romantic”? To be sure, it is hardly worth repeating the already-established adage—“the political is power”. For evidence, we need not even turn towards modern political ideologies such as nationalism or communism. We can include liberalism too. Having been delivered over to the value creation of market economics, which deals with data and statistics for commodifying experiences (and this for the sake of capital interests), every economic exchange appears to have been rendered into an operation within an economy of power within “the pole”; whether we are purchasing products or simply hanging the free ones on a Facebook wall, clapping for them on Medium, or liking them on Instagram, and so on. This characterization of the world as power continually forces itself to the foreground of our attention, no matter how much our stomachs may churn, or how much we may want to resist. However, what we should notice immediately is that this characterization of the world as power is grounded in what we would call today, sociologic. The heritage of this particular λογος can be traced back through history—included in that history is the Roman imperium—“command”, as the essential ground of domination as being-superior, which is only possible as the constant surmounting of others who are thereby the inferiors. (This is a history which Heidegger elucidates in The Third Directive, section three.) However, there are other lineages beside this one historical narrative. We only need to consider that sociological power has little to do with power as it is used in mathematics—and both of these objects are different from the power which is treated within the discipline of physics. We could consider other alternatives. Yet, for the sake of our argument, let us consider the experience of power which is utterly removed from the domain of “man” and is rather a natural power—that which, to be sure, is the same power which Hegel treated in his Phenomenology of Spirit, translated as “Force” by A.V. Miller.

To elucidate this natural power, we can consider the experience of that which occurs of itself—say, a natural landscape. Though, to be honest, even an artist’s depiction of such a landscape will suffice. After all, what we wish to call to attention, in either experience, is the unique space which opens up in the landscape—namely, a safe space which frees one for a complete and utter subjection to the phenomenon. This freedom for subjection is afforded by way of safety and security, such that being dominated by the landscape is pleasurable. In the vein of philosophical speech and terminology, we would say that the object is that which comes to overstand the subject. If we allow ourselves to reflect on the most extreme cases of such natural power, then it is likely that there will be no greater sign of this complete reversal of subject and object than the tears which are shed over the phenomena which provoke the experience of the epic. We only need to consider the experience of being captured by Arkhip Ivanovich Kuindzhi’s 1880 Moonlit Night on the Dnieper, or Maxfield Parrish’s 1922 masterpiece, Romance. This domination is a possibility which, in the social domain, could only be appreciated as a fetish. However, within the natural domain, and when being dominated as such, there is something of a primordial actio mediated by the object—an actio which belongs neither to the subject, I, myself, nor to the object. It is this negation of an I, in either a subject or an object, which provides fruitful insights for understanding Heidegger’s silence as a testament to his political philosophy.

The πολις as the “above”. Introducing a καταχθονιος metaphysics

We can be sure that Heidegger’s political philosophy makes a problem of the subjection of “man”. Evidence for this claim can be found throughout his writing. In Sein und Zeit (“Being and Time”) this subjection is expressed by the conditioning existentiale of da sein (“being there”). In the opening pages, Heidegger makes clear that the subject of his architectonic is something other than the I, myself. When Heidegger’s questioner asks into the subject under investigation, the questioner does not find an I, but rather a mine. This mine is not a me; nor is it even my consciousness. It is da sein. Yet, my da sein is not even exclusive to me. Rather, my da sein is the conditioning of possibilities which we express by the one—this one is the any one of us. The devices by which da sein “levels down” the possibilities available are well-understood. We may call to mind any number of social mechanisms which we might call the sacred or the taboo. On this point, we may call to mind the Russian political theorist Aleksandr Dugin who, having applied Heidegger’s da sein thusly understood to political theory, has proposed a quite subjectivist political theory, and thereby continued the Western bias which places special priority on the human animal and its cultures. However, when we follow the nuances of Heidegger’s thought, we can advance further than Dugin, and even Heidegger himself.

As is well known, Being and Time is the product of Heidegger’s reckoning with Aristotle’s metaphysics and his politics. To a certain extent, we can consider Heidegger’s Being and Time as a working out of Aristotle’s Πολιτικα (Politika, “the things concerning the πολις”). In the Πολιτικα, Aristotle is clear, “the state [πoλις] is a natural growth and a prior condition to the individual”. It is not difficult to see how Heidegger’s da sein parallels Aristotle’s πoλις. Both describe a greater commercium to which “man” is subjected. Yet, even as a repetition of Aristotle, Heidegger places the πολις itself in a different location within the metaphysical architecture—not as the condition and below, but rather above. Indeed, repeating again from the Parmenides lecture course material, we find that Heidegger says, “The πολις is the above”.

“The πολις is the above, gathered into itself, of the unconcealedness of beings.”

Therefore, Heidegger amends Aristotle thusly: the πολις is not the prior condition to the individual, but rather an indication of that to which individual human animals and “man” are subjected,

“The pole lets beings appear in their Being and show the totality of their condition.”

By taking Being and Time as our clue, we can then say that Heidegger understands that condition as the commercium—which lies below as the ground and condition for “the above”. However, and despite Heidegger’s successes in expanding the domain by which to think about the conditions of possibility, what should also be obvious is that any anthropological reading of the conditions of possibility, such as that of Being and Time, also preserve an unfortunate bias—namely, the priority of the human animal over non-human animals, even machines, intelligent programs, and perhaps even algorithms. Today, we must find it difficult to maintain this bias. Of course, it may be true that when looking back into history, and towards a particular period of human civilization, we can see that the conditions of possibility into which one has been “thrown” can be suitably exemplified by the various human tribes, villages, communities, or nations which we find recorded into history by the human hand. However, when looking at our own era today, we might find that these forms of human organization are merely types, and only particular instances of, various environmental work-worlds indicating da sein.

If this is the case, then we should rather follow the insight that,

“This essential abode [the πολις] gathers originally the unity of everything which, as the unconcealed, comes to man and is dispensed to him as that to which he is assigned in his Being.”

We pay close attention to the wording of the phrases “comes to man” and “that to which he is assigned in his being”. This speaks to the fact that Heidegger may not have had the courage to acknowledge what he really knew during the construction of Being and Time, but which nevertheless grew inside him during his lectures on Parmenides’ goddess, Αληθεια. For us today, now eighty years advanced from Heidegger’s Parmenides, we cannot look towards a description of the heavens (the ειδος or ιδεα) for the foundation of subjectivity. Rather, we are encouraged to follow Heidegger below human being—towards the subterranean. The Ancient Greek word for this is καταχθονιος (katachthonios, κατα “down” + χθόνιος “earth”). When following this conclusion to its reasonable end, it would be correct to name the greater economic or ecological commercium as the proper subject matter of any philosophizing on the conditions of possibility, including any political theory which follows from this metaphysics. A name for the domain of thought which treats the commercium as its subject matter has been proposed—namely, first economics philosophy.

Heidegger’s silence and his political philosophy

If the above is correct, and if we correctly understand Heidegger as committed to the subordination of human being to the natural powers of the greater economic or ecological commercium, then when we expect Heidegger to respond to sociological concerns, such as to speak about the horrors committed by the Nazi party, then we are also asking him to abandon his commitment. When undertaking the project to describe a new god, flattering our virtue can only be a distraction, at best. Therefore, once we immerse ourselves in Heidegger’s philosophical project, we can see how Heidegger’s silence is consistent with his political philosophy; his silence is a testament to his inability to authentically own power from within the logic of society. While we are free to question his commitment, and also the sacrifices which he may have made in order to maintain such a commitment, we are also able to appreciate his disciplined thinking. Such thinking is rare, indeed. Not every monk can be a politician. It may even be that one of these roles violates the other.

Of course, to this interpretation of Heidegger’s factual life, we can also expect objection. After all, there is also the fact that in 1933, Heidegger endorsed the führerprinzip—that is, the principle that the leader is always right and that his words demand total obedience. And while this threatens the above interpretation of Heidegger’s “inner world”, his endorsement can only be understood in context to his analysis of Platonism as it appears, for example, in his Nietzsche lectures, first delivered in 1936, as he defended Nietzsche’s metaphysics from both moral and biological interpretation by the Nazi ideologue Alfred Baeumler. It is a Platonic understanding of Heidegger’s thought which shows just how far outside of sociology he is thinking. For Heidegger, the fühur must have (as his way of being) δημιουργος (dēmiurgos); but not in the sense of a god-creator—which Heidegger designates as φυτουργoς (fytourgos)—but as a craftsman who produces the ιδεα (idea) of the δημος (dēmos, “the public, the people”). That is to say, the δημιουργος produces the outward appearance of the world within the commerce of the public usage of things and of communal life. If we understand democracy—that is, a rule by the people—not from the perspective of top-down government administration, but in the sense of communal economy, then Heidegger’s endorsement of the führerprinzip is democratic. Of course, this collapse of autocracy into democracy may sound frightening to those of us invested with the spirit of liberation. Perhaps it may sound as if this collapse provides a vacuum for tyrannical leadership. However, if we are to think of democracy as an economic activity (as we have now suggested here), then the production of the δημιουργος is, and can only ever be, a manifestation of ιδεα insofar as the δημιουργος is equally being as the δημος. That is to say, the ιδεα essentially belongs to the people. Therefore, the δημιουργος can only ever merely present the ιδεα through such production, being as one such instance of the people. Consequently, if the ιδεα is not of the δημος, then neither is the being of the producer as δημιουργος. Of course, what then becomes paramount are the mechanisms by which the production of the δημιουργος coheres with the δημος. We can be sure that thinking on these mechanisms takes us away from philosophy and into practical governmental questions. We can safely assume that these questions were outside the scope of Heidegger’s thinking. Because of this, we cannot consider those mechanisms here, in this Medium article about Heidegger’s πολις and the demonic characterization of power. However, it should be mentioned that those mechanisms have been explored and a proposal has been offered in the book, How to Nurture Truth and Authenticity: A Metamodern Economic Reform Proposal.

Heidegger, the metamodernist

If we continue thinking of democracy as an economic activity, and then apply the aesthetic periodization which was introduced at the inception of this article—namely, the modern and the postmodern—then we are granted a new perspective on how our governance condition might progress when taking Heidegger’s teachings into account. We can say that early in the modern era, liberal values established liberal governance mechanisms. We call these our democratic institutions: electoral processes, freedom of the press, the right to bear arms, et cetera. However, those institutions have proven themselves to be satisfactory only insofar as they allow for social governance mechanisms. From the perspective of social governance, thinking of governance as merely top-down government administration is not only unsatisfactory, but also archaic. Consider, as an example, the social justice warrior’s fight against the system itself. Yet, we can say that a similar dissatisfaction belongs to social governance as well. Simply recall the tactics of social governance as law: social legislation, surveillance, and punishment. Neither does this represent the entirety of governance. For sure, this form of governance as law, whether it be liberal or social, neglects exactly what the church, for example, meant to satisfy in the whole of human economy. Inspiration. Hope. Communion. What should be kept in mind, then, is that when thinking about governance through the lens of economy (in particular, the political activity of the δημιουργος, as did Heidegger), we are not suggesting to abandon either liberal or social governance mechanisms. Instead, we are suggesting something else altogether—something grounded and built upon liberal and social governance mechanisms. Only here and now, equipped with our own narrative, can we suggest a governance of creative production which prioritizes “the below”, as a condition for a you, a me, and an us.

If we can accept that the πολις, as the totality of beings, is necessarily a derivation or modification of the greater commercium—one which lies below as the condition—and if we also valiantly accept the task of conditioning each other by way of the vehicle of the πολις, as our indicator, then perhaps we can set our goals higher than a mere liberal tolerance for one another. Perhaps what society demands of us today is not a battle of selfishness between various individual-subjects and identity-subjects, resulting in legislation and social laws, but rather a healthy conditioning of one another by way of civic engagement and civil engineering. Perhaps a project-based governance and economic nationalism could be the rightful form of our future liberation. It is with this said, and only now and with a bit of distance from the liberal crusades and virtue signalling of the post-WWII period, that something like a characterization of Heidegger, the metamodernist, can come to dominate Heidegger, the Nazi.