The main idea that is being promoted throughout the book Homo Sacer by Giorgio Agamben is that, ever since the dawn of history, people never ceased being unconsciously aware of the fact that there is a qualitative difference between the notion of a ‘bare (primeval) life’, on the one hand, and the notion of a ‘good (civilized) life’, on the other. Whereas individuals that lead a ‘bare life’, while acting on behalf of their atavistic instincts, are the history’s objects, their ‘good living’ counterparts are the subjects of history, as it is due to the latter’s ability to act as the inhibitors of the evolutional evolvement that the historical progress has been deemed possible, in the first place.
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It is namely this specific ability, on the part of the ‘good living’ individuals, which allows them to exercise the ‘semiotic authority’ of providing definitions to the visually observable workings of the universe – including the definition of what accounts for the fundamental difference between life and death. As the author noted: “Life and death are not properly scientific concepts but rather political concepts, which as such acquire a political meaning precisely only through a decision” (94). What qualifies one to be considered a ‘good living’ person? I believe that the answer to this question can be found in The Death of King Arthur (a new verse translation) by Simon Armitage, as such that does contain several insights into what accounts for the psychological traits of a ‘good living’ individual. In the next part of this paper, I will explore the validity of the above-stated at length. During the process, I will also promote the idea that the readers’ exposure to both of the mentioned literary pieces should help them to recognize the deterministic essence of one’s ability to lead a life worthy of living.
One of the main motifs, which define the discursive sounding of The Death of King Arthur, is the psychological dichotomy between the representatives of the King Arthur court’s nobility, on the one hand, and commoners, on the other. Partially, this dichotomy is being extrapolated by how nobles and commoners address life challenges. Whereas King Arthur’s knights appear to derive emotional pleasure from being faced with impossible odds, the individuals that are being commonly referred to as ‘lesser men’ by the translator, seem to be solely concerned with one thing – trying to ensure the longevity of their physical existence, as their foremost priority in life. To illustrate the validity of this suggestion, we can well refer to the scene, in which Sir Lancelot glorifies the virtue of loyalty: “
I thank God for the loyalty…
Let lesser men have to leave to speak as they like
Without tying their tongues, but I tell you this:
I shall fight from the first with my fellow knights (369-372).
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As it appears from the above-quoted lines, Sir Lancelot thought of people’s inability to keep their emotions under control, as has been reflective of their inability to understand what the concept of loyalty stands for and to relate to this concept cognitively. In this respect, ‘lesser’ people are no different from animals – just as it happened to be the case with the horned, tailed, and feathered representatives of the fauna-kingdom, they are the slaves of their animalistic instincts – specifically, the instinct of survival. As such, these people are incapable of sacrificing their agenda in life, as the mean of contributing to society’s overall well-being, which in turn implies that they cannot be elevated to the position of authority, by definition. The situation with the ‘good living’ individuals is entirely different – while remaining constantly ready to sacrifice their lives for some higher cause, they are entitled to the right to risk the lives of others, especially if these others happened to be history’s passive objects.
To be able to provide semiotically legitimate definitions to the controversial subject matters, which in turn increases the extent of their existential fitness, people must be capable of understanding what accounts for their place themselves within the surrounding natural environment. After all, it is only when a particular person knows how to draw a line between himself, on the one hand, and the blind works of nature, on the other, that he ends up being in the position to effectively address the task of adequately setting up its life-priorities. However, as soon as a particular individual grows into the perceptually ‘subjectified’ one, it becomes only a matter of time for him to begin experiencing the desire to ensure its dominance within the concerned environmental forte. This is exactly the reason why people’s ability to contribute to the ongoing social and cultural progress goes hand in hand with their imperative desire to subject ‘lesser men’ to their willpower. As King Arthur put it, while addressing his knights:
May our God in heaven honor you all;
as long as I lead you may I never lose you.
My title and name you maintain across nations
and uphold my honor in alien kingdoms (390-394).
In other words, one’s ability to act as a ‘sovereign’, and consequently to come up with the musingly valid suggestions, in regards to what can serve as the indication of a qualitative difference between life and death, directly derives out of the concerned person’s taste for ‘conquering and diving’. In this respect, it will prove quite impossible to disagree with Agamben, who suggested that: “The redefinition of borders (between the state of existence and non-existence) indicates that the exercise of sovereign power now passes through them more than ever and, once again, cuts across the medical and biological sciences” (94). What causes some people to preoccupy themselves with trying to ‘conquer and divide’, and consequently enables them to be elevated to the position of authority? The answer to this question, we will need to refer to one of the 20th century’s greatest thinkers – Oswald Spengler.
According to Spengler, in the psychological sense of this word, people can be categorized as ‘Apollonians’, on the one hand, and ‘Faustians’, on the other. Whereas, ‘Apollonians’ can be best defined as people, concerned with seeking pleasures, ‘Faustians’ are primarily preoccupied with seeking adventures. A ‘Faustian’ thinks of its existence as a continuous quest for some higher goal. For ‘Faustians’, to exist means to be constantly struggling to overcome obstacles. The process of overcoming obstacles, ‘Faustians’ perceive as such that represents the objective value of a ‘thing in itself’. Spengler thought of the Faustian spirit in people, as the driving force behind the Western civilization’s rapid advancement (Kidd 27).
The ‘Faustian’ workings of one’s mentality reflect the concerned individual’s assumption that: “One’s willpower must never cease combating obstacles, that the catastrophes of existence come as an inevitable culmination of past choices and experiences, and that the conflict is the essence of existence” (Greenwood 53). The existential mode of ‘Faustians’ is being concerned with the ‘expansion of boundaries’ – that is, the concerned individuals never cease to push away the goal that they initially aimed to reach. This is because, for ‘Faustians’, it is not the reaching of a particular goal that represents the foremost enjoyment in life but being in the process of actively striving to reach such a goal. ‘Faustians’ always aim to expand the boundaries of their authoritative power, which explains why just about all the scientific breakthroughs, made possible by this type of people, were initially meant to advance military aspirations, on their part. Given the fact that the earlier mentioned psychological traits of ‘Faustians’ can be well discussed as the progress’ actual ‘fuel’, there is a good rationale in believing that the ‘sovereign’ definitions, provided by ‘Faustians’, are indeed valid – even when those who come up with them cannot be considered particularly bright. Therefore, there is nothing odd about King Arthur’s statement:
Not once on this earth did you (God) send us to dishonor,
but saw that we held the upper hand against all others (4300-4302).
After all, it does correlate perfectly well with the fact that, as history shows, ‘Faustians’ (Westerners) never ceased proving themselves more than capable to beat the impossible odds, while faced with the numerically superior forces on the battleground – all due to their endowment with the strongly defined willpower.
Thus, it will be thoroughly appropriate, on our part, to suggest that, as compared with Agamben’s book, Armitage’s The Death of King Arthur can be well-referred to as being somewhat ‘deeper’, in the philosophical sense of this word. The reason for this is that, whereas, Agamben solely explains the mechanistic subtleties of how the concept of ‘sovereignty’ came into being; Armitage’s translation helps readers to gain an in-depth understanding of what accounts of the legitimacy of one’s claim to be in the position to exercise ‘sovereignty’. And, as it was mentioned earlier, it is specifically those individuals who do possess what it takes to be able to transform the surrounding reality by the sheer strength of their willpower that may enjoy a ‘good living’, in the first place. Consequently, such their ability legitimizes these individuals’ definitions, as to what the notion of a ‘bare life’ stands for.
Even though the earlier provided line of argumentation (as to what can be considered the universally recognizable indications of one’s ability to radiate ‘sovereignty’) may seem to be at odds with the initially stated thesis, I nevertheless believe it is fully legitimate. After all, it does help readers to understand that there is nothing accidental about the phenomenon that, as of today, the euro-centrically focused social, political, and cultural outlooks on the significance of the objective reality’s manifestations continue to exert a great discursive influence on people – regardless of what happened to be their geographical positioning on the planet. The provided arguments also highlight the importance of ensuring that, within the context of discussing highly controversial subject matters, only the opinions of the ‘natural born opinion-givers’, affiliated with the ‘Faustian’ existential values, should be taken into consideration.
Agamben, Giorgio 1998. Homo Sacer. PDF file.
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Armitage, Simon. The Death of King Arthur. London: Faber & Faber, 2011. Print.
Greenwood, Susan. Anthropology of Magic. Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2009. Print.
Kidd, James. “Oswald Spengler, Technology, and Human Nature.” European Legacy 17.1, (2012): 19-31. Print.