In other words, if we have a nature or essence, then surely only a god could know and deﬁ ne it, and the ﬁ rst prerequisite would be that he be able to speak about a ‘who’ as though it were a ‘what’. The perplexity is that the modes of human cognition applicable to things with ‘natural’ qualities, including ourselves to the limited extent that we are specimens of the most highly developed species of organic life, fail us when we raise the question: And who are we? This is why attempts to deﬁ ne human nature almost invariably end with some construction of a deity, that is, with the god of the philosophers who, since Plato, has revealed himself upon closer inspection to be a kind of Platonic idea of man. 1
If we do not return to the old maxims, if education is not returned to the priests, and if science is not uniformly relegated to a subordinate rank, incalculable evils await us. We shall become brutalized by science, and this is the last stage of brutality. 2
In fact, the Rights of Man represent above all the original ﬁ gure of the inscription of bare natural life in the legal-political order of the nation-state. That bare life (the human creature) which in the ancien régime belonged to God, and in the classical world was clearly distinct (as zoe-) from biological life (as bios ), now takes center stage in the state’s concerns and becomes, so to speak, its terrestrial foundation. Nation-state means a state that makes nativity or birth (that is, of bare human life) the foundation of its own sovereignty. 3
In Joseph de Maistre’s complex but uniform hostility to the French Revolution and what he saw as its antecedents – the Reformation and the philosophy of the Enlightenment – two interrelated themes take central place. Inherent in his view of the Revolution’s blasphemy – that ‘man’ has sought to overthrow God as the creator of all authority and legitimacy – was the prophecy that the humanism born in its wake – what he saw as the replacement of God by man – could lead not only to instability, but also
terror and ‘brutality’. In short, the triumph of man would and could lead inexorably – the two are intimates – to the death of man:
It was generally agreed that the purely human foundation for political power had, in the events of the recent Revolution, been shown to be utterly unstable and inadequate. It was, therefore, a pious duty to combat the exaggerated importance of human will and reason as factors in the formation of political institutions … ‘The Tower of Babel,’ says de Maistre, ‘is the naïve image of a mass of men who assemble to create a constitution;’ and even more emphatically, ‘not only does the creation not belong to men, but it appears that our power, unassisted, does not extend to changing for the better established institutions’. 4
De Maistre’s criticism of the humanism at the heart of the (political) French rev o lution was made before the catastrophes of the twentieth century. Over a hundred years later, Agamben’s political thought in general and the presentation of the Muselmann in particular as the unmediated expression of Enlightenment and Revolutionary praxis can be read as a contribution to this counter-Revolutionary tradition as well as a conﬁ rmation and vindication of de Maistre’s dire prophecy. It is to an exposition of this claim that the current chapter is addressed.