Giorgio Agamben: God, man, animal

From Quodlibet

When Nietzsche, almost one hundred and fifty years ago, formulated his diagnosis of the death of God, he thought that this unprecedented event would fundamentally change the existence of men on earth. ““Where are we headed? Are we not endlessly plunging — backwards, sideways, forwards, in all directions? Is there an up and a down anymore? Do we not wander as if through an endless nothingness?” And Kirilov, the character of The Possessed/The Devils, whose words Nietzsche had carefully meditated on, thought of the death of God with the same sense of pathos and extracted from it as a necessary consequence the emancipation of a will without further limits and, at the same time, without meaning. and suicidal: “If there is no God, then I am God. … If God exists, all is His will and from His will I cannot escape. If not, it’s all my will and I am bound to show self-will. … I am bound to shoot myself because the highest point of my self-will is to kill myself with my own hands.”

We must not tire of reflecting on the fact that, a century and a half later, this pathos seems to have completely disappeared. Men have peacefully survived the death of God and continue to live peacefully, as if nothing happened. As if nothing were. Nihilism, which European intellectuals greeted at first as the most disturbing of guests, has become a lukewarm and indifferent everyday condition, with which, contrary to what Turgenev and Dostoevsky, Nietzsche and Heidegger thought, it is possible to live peacefully, continuing to seek money and work, getting married and divorced, traveling and going on vacation. Man today wanders mindlessly in a no man’s land, beyond not only the divine and the human, but also (with good grace for those who cynically theorise a return of humanity to the nature from which it comes) the animal.

Surely everyone will agree that all this does not make sense, that without the divine we no longer know how to think about the human and the animal, but this simply means that now everything and nothing are possible. Nothing: that is to say, that at the limit there is no longer a world, but language remains (that is, thinking about it, the only meaning of the term “nothing”: that language destroys, as it is doing, the world, believing that it can survive it). Everything: perhaps even – and this is decisive for us – the appearance of a new figure – new, that is, archaic and, at the same time, so close that we cannot see it. Whose and what? Of the divine, of the human, of the animal?

We have always thought about what is alive within this triad, at the same time prestigious and malicious, always pitting them against each other or with each other. Is it not time to remember when the living was not yet a god, nor a man, nor an animal, but simply a soul, that is, a life?

March 18, 2024

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