Waiting for Politics to Begin Again (5)

5. The Roots of Politics

In 1955, eleven years after the lecture course he gave at the end of World War II at issue in a preceding post in this series, Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) gave a short talk at his hometown of Meßkirch, a small south-German community near the Austrian border, not far north of Lake Constance. Heidegger’s talk at his hometown was part of a municipal memorial celebration on the 175th anniversary of the birth of another child of the town, the composer Konradin Kreutzer (1780-1849).

In his remarks, Heidegger says that it is only by sending down roots into our native soil that human beings can flourish. He ends his address by citing some lines from yet another child of the German-speaking area around Lake Constance, the writer Johann Peter Hebel (1760-1826). Hebel had been born in Basel, and he wrote in the Alemannic dialect common to that entire German-speaking region.  

“We are plants,” Hebel says in the lines Heidegger cites to end his memorial address, “that—whether we like to admit it to ourselves or not—must rise with our roots from out of the earth, to blossom in the ether and be able to bear fruit.”*

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From 1933 to 1945, as I already noted in my one of my earlier posts in this series, Heidegger, born a German, was a dues-paying member of the Nazi Party. His younger contemporary, Simone Weil was a French woman born in 1909, twenty years after Heidegger. She was the child of Alsatian Jewish parents who had moved with their families to Paris after Germany annexed Alsace-Lorraine at the end of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871. When, still early in World War II, the Germans occupied Paris and the rest of northern France and installed the puppet Vichy government in the southern part of the country, Weil agreed to accompany her parents into exile, to protect them against the Nazis. She eventually moved to London to work with the Free French government in exile. She died there in 1943 at the age of only 34, perhaps from self-imposed starvation undertaken as an expression of solidarity with the victims of Nazi terror back in her French homeland.

As different as they were in many regards, especially including their public stances toward the Nazis, both Heidegger and Weil insisted on “the need for roots,” to borrow the title of one of Weil’s most famous works, a manuscript she wrote in London for the Free French. Both Heidegger and Weil argued that human beings had such a need for roots, and that it was, indeed, definitive of their very humanity.

Weil’s The Need for Roots: Prelude Towards a Declaration of Duties Towards Mankind was not published until 1949, the sixth year after her death. It was published that year in French, the same language in which it was written, as L'Enracinement, prélude à une déclaration des devoirs envers l'être humain, which translates more literally as Rootedness: Prelude to a Declaration of Duties Toward the Human Being.

In that book, Weil argues in detail for just what the title indicates, namely, that there is a fundamental human need to send down roots—what we might call a root human need for rooting. For Weil no less than for Heidegger, human beings need to root themselves deeply in whatever may be their native soil—“native”: from natus, past participle of nasci, “to be born” (as already noted in an earlier post of this series)—in order fully to come into possession of their own human heritage itself. Only so can they “acquire” that heritage and “make it [their] own,” as Goethe admonishes readers to do toward the end of the first part of Faust

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Ten years before his memorial address in his own hometown, Heidegger had already said as much to his students, in his truncated lecture course of 1944-45, just a year or so after Weil wrote The Need for Roots and died. As mentioned in one of my earlier posts of this series, in that 1944-45 course Heidegger used the old, often derogatory saw about the Germans being “a nation of poets and thinkers” to insist that the Germans truly were such a nation—that they were indeed poets and thinkers by birth, as it were: that thinking and poetizing were “native” to them.

However, what we are so born to, what we are literally “given to be” with and by our birth itself—our very“nation” and “nationality” in that sense—is a gift that, as is true for any gift, can come fully into its own as the gift that it is, only if it is received by those to whom it is given. To come fully into its own as the gift that it is, one’s “nationality” must be taken up by the recipient, and allowed to do its own work. And it is only by literally taking root there ourselves, that we receive our own homeland as gift, and make that homeland our own.

To do that, in turn, is to build a genuine polis—or “city,” to use a word that derives from Latin rather than Greek. It is to build a genuinely “civilized” home (from the same Latin root as “city”), which is to say a truly human home: a place where human beings can dwell, to thrive and come into their own. That, the building of such a place, such a “polis,” is the original sense of “politics.”

Using another term that, like the term politics itself, is derived from Greek rather than Latin, we could call politics in that original sense of building a truly human place “archaic politics—from arkhe, “beginning”. “Archaic” politics would thus be the politics of the beginning.

Such archaic politics, a politics of the very beginning, one that keeps on beginning again and again, setting then keeping the building of the polis always underway, is the only sort of politics worth waiting for.

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To be continued.


* My translation. Heidegger’s original German address can be found as “Gelassenheit” on pages 517-529 of Reden und andere Zeugnisse eines Lebensweges (Gesamtausgabe 16, Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 2000). An English translation by John M. Anderson and E. Hans Freund is available in Heidegger, Discourse on Thinking (New York: Harper, 1966).