Homo Sacer. Sovereign Power and Bare Life
Giorgio Agamben


The Greeks had no single term to express what we mean by the word “life.” They used two terms that, although traceable to a common etymological root, are semantically and morphologically distinct: zoē, which expressed the simple fact of living common to all living beings (animals, men, or gods), and bios, which indicated the form or way of living proper to an individual or a group. When Plato mentions three kinds of life in the Philebus, and when Aristotle distinguishes the contemplative life of the philosopher (bios theōrētikos) from the life of pleasure (bios apolaustikos) and the political life (bios politikos) in the Nichomachean Ethics, neither philosopher would ever have used the term zoē (which in Greek, significantly enough, lacks a plural). This follows from the simple fact that what was at issue for both thinkers was not at all simple natural life but rather a qualified life, a particular way of life. Concerning God, Aristotle can certainly speak of a zoē aristē kai aidios, a more noble and eternal life (Metaphysics, 1072b, 28), but only insofar as he means to underline the significant truth that even God is a living being (similarly, Aristotle uses the term zoē in the same context – and in a way that is just as meaningful – to define the act of thinking). But to speak of a zoē politikē of the citizens of Athens would have made no sense. Not that the classical world had no familiarity with the idea that natural life, simple zoē as such, could be a good in itself. In a passage of the Politics, after noting that the end of the city is life according to the good, Aristotle expresses his awareness of that idea with the most perfect lucidity:

This [life according to the good] is the greatest end both in common for all men and for each man separately. But men also come together and maintain the political community in view of simple living, because there is probably some kind of good in the mere fact of living itself [kata to zēn auto monon]. If there is no great difficulty as to the way of life [kata ton bion], clearly most men will tolerate much suffering and hold on to life [zoē] as if it were a kind of serenity [euēmeria, beautiful day] and a natural sweetness. (1278b, 23-31)


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