Post-Modern Aristotles: Strauss, Arendt, Virno
William Clare Roberts
APSA 2009 Toronto Meeting Paper
In this paper I investigate the relations between politics and intellect in the works of Leo Strauss, Hannah Arendt and Paolo Virno. Each thinker articulates a fundamentally critical engagement with modern liberal political theory, which is simultaneously an ambivalent encounter with the political philosophy of Aristotle.
For Strauss, the study of politics is ever inscribed within the horizon of Aristotle’s Politics. And yet, Strauss wrote relatively little about Aristotle in general or the Politics in particular. Instead, Aristotle’s philosophy appears in his writings at one remove, either as it is “pre-iterated” by Plato or reflected in various Medieval philosophers. In short, for Strauss, there is only one pre-modern or classical political philosophy, it is Aristotelian, and it consists in the modest political rationalism that makes peace with the irrationality of political life in order to guard a space for rational inquiry outside of politics.
Arendt, too, takes from Aristotle a fundamental separation between the contemplative life of the mind and the active life of political participation. If she valorizes political action to an extent that Strauss does not, this is not on the basis of a fundamentally different reading of Aristotle, but is understood by Arendt herself to be a criticism of Aristotle’s Platonism, his temptation to subordinate unruly politics to the ordering of the intellect. This Platonic temptation is a persistent danger, right up to Heidegger, and can be fended off only by a more-Aristotelian-than-Aristotle insistence upon the peculiar and separate dignity of political action.
Virno criticizes Arendt, from a neo-Marxian perspective, for trying idealistically to separate what contemporary global capitalism has materially fused. This paper argues for a consideration of Virno’s suggestion that political action no longer constitutes a separate sphere because work has come to include intellect to such an extent that it looks a lot like political action - it is communicative, innovative, and leaves behind no artifact. But if contemporary capitalism has undermined Arendt’s sharp distinctions, it has not invalidated Aristotle’s categories. Instead, Virno’s analysis of the present indicates that Aristotle’s understanding of intellect, rather than fleeing from or subordinating politics, is immediately and perfectly political. Theory is a communal and political practice that exits the modern state in order to found a republic of friends.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 31working papers series
Date posted: August 13, 2009
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