Heidegger’s Πολις and the “Demonic” Characterization of Power

Including a Reflection on Subjectivist and Objectivist Politics

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”, or “humanity”. We can be sure that such subjectivist politics no longer satisfy our content. Therefore, in this article, we will explore Heidegger’s philosophy by way of his silence, in order to understand the object of any political philosophy which follows from Heidegger’s interpretation of the subiectum.

First, in order to shed light on his philosophy (especially by way of his silence), we 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. (We take notice of the dates.) 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, section number 6, where we find Heidegger initiating a reflection on what might rightly be considered the kernel of his political philosophy. This section includes a reflection on αληθεια and its opposites, specifically with regards to the πολις (polis, commonly translated as “city”, or “one’s community”). We begin here, with Heidegger reflecting on the meaning of the word πολις,

“What is the πολις?

Πολις is the πολος, the pole, the place around which everything appearing to the Greek as a being turns in a peculiar way. 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.

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 6. However, important to our purpose also 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

In proceeding further, let us now ask the 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 liberalism or communism. 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. Of course, in granting this, and if we understand the πολις as “the abode of man”, we can ask: what do we make of Heidegger’s claim that “the essence of power is utterly foreign to the πολις”? To be sure, Heidegger means the essence of power according to this Romantic and modern conception. Yet, even so, the conflictual essence of αληθεια within “the abode of man” remains. Therefore, we can ask, what conflict is essential within the Ancient Greek πολις?

In order to make headway in answering this question, we would do well to remind ourselves that the 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 3.) At the same time, 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 “power” 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.

Now, to elucidate this “natural power”, let us 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.

Heidegger’s silence and his political philosophy

Let us remind ourselves that sociological power and natural power belong to different domains of thought. Insofar as we understand “natural power” as defined above, it belongs to a different project than that of “the social”. To be sure, we only need to acknowledge the position of the human animal in either domain of thought. In the case of sociology, “man” is the subiectum; this animal and his interpersonal commerce are the object of critique — as such, within sociology, this animal is that which is to be worked upon. However, in the other, this animal is subjected to a power greater than his own. When our sights are on nature, the human animal is not the object of critical analysis. Therefore, we can say that in either case, we are presented with a unique subject matter, and therefore also a unique “science” as well. Let us define natural power as that by which phenomena adhere and maintain in their adherence of themselves, such that any I is utterly subjected to the object. Once having acknowledged this, we can admit that framing the human animal as either the subject or as the subjected may have value. (Of course, the value of either “frame” can only be determined by measuring the frame against the explanatory power which the frame can produce.) However, even when granting all of this, we must still be able to see that any acknowledgment of sociological power would place us in a frame inconsistent with the bulk of Heidegger’s philosophical work — and, by consequence, also in a frame inconsistent with his public life. Heidegger’s political philosophy makes a problem of the subjection of “man”. Evidence for this claim can be found throughout his writing — and also throughout each of his so-called “periods”. Therefore, 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. Granting this, we could venture to make the claim that his interest in metaphysics stems from his political philosophy, and not the other way around.

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.

Evidence for the “subjection of man” in Heidegger’s writing. Subjectivist and objectivist politics

Having now considered what could rightfully be called “Heidegger’s democracy”, we must also come to understand the subiectum of such a democracy. After all, thus far we have only brought to our attention the being of the δημιουργος and its relationship to the δημος. However, if we were to end our elucidation on Heidegger’s political philosophy here, we would not have acknowledged Heidegger’s problematization of “man’s subjection”. Furthermore, we would have ended with a quite unradical political theory — namely, one which places the human animal, and this animal’s being, as the subject of political theory and activity. It could be argued that concluding with the δημιουργος and δημος would leave us with a political theory of liberal democracy. Therefore, in order to continue our elucidation of Heidegger’s political philosophy (by way of his aforementioned silence in particular), let us now repeat what we learned from our last section — specifically from our definition of “natural power”. Natural power is that by which phenomena adhere and maintain in their adherence of themselves, such that any I is utterly subjected to the object. It is this understanding of power which will provide a vantage point from which to view a political philosophy (indeed, a democracy) of “man’s subjection”.

Now, as is well known, in the opening paragraphs of Being and Time, 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 rather da sein (“being there”). Yet, my da sein is not even exclusive to me. Rather, my da sein is the one — this one is the any one of us. But this does not mean Heidegger’s subject is us either. Rather, the subject of Heidegger’s inquiry is the possibilities available to this any one of us. This means that the subject of Heidegger’s conditions of possibility is the possibilities available to a “pole” — whether we think of that “pole” as a tribe, village, community, industry, or nation. The devices by which the social commercium of the human tribe “levels down” the possibilities available to its members 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 quite well known, Being and Time can be interpreted as a response to Aristotle. Therefore, we can also understand Heidegger’s introduction as a repetition of Aristotle, who claims that, “It is evident that the state [πολις] is a natural growth and a prior condition to the individual”. Yet, even as a repetition, Heidegger places the πολις in a different location within the metaphysical architecture than does Aristotle — 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 social commercium — which lies below as the ground and condition for “the above”. However, and despite Heidegger’s successes in expanding the scope with which to think about the conditions of possibility, what should also be obvious is that any anthropological or sociological readings of the conditions of possibility also preserve an unfortunate bias — namely, the priority of the human animal over non-human animals, even machines, artificial intelligence, and perhaps even algorithms. Today, we must find it difficult to maintain this bias. Now, 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 Parmenides. For us today, now eighty years advanced from Heidegger’s Parmenides, and when following this conclusion to its reasonable end, it would be correct to name the greater economic (or possibly even 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 in the above mentioned How to Nurture Truth and Authenticity, and in the Terminus Mechanicae article here — namely, first economics philosophy.

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 (including the authentic self), is necessarily a derivation and modification of the greater commercium — one which lies below as the metaphysical 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 nationalismcould 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.