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  • Eros and JusticeThe Erotic Origin of Society
  • James Mensch (bio)

Readers of Levinas are often puzzled by the move from the ethical to the political. The ethical relation is that of the face-to-face, and it is marked by inequality and exclusivity. The other is first and I am second. The other obligates me; I do not obligate the other. At the extreme, Levinas will say, “In the access to the face there is certainly also an access to the idea of God” (EI 92). This access is one-to-one. It leaves no room for others in the total obligation that the other imposes on me.1 The political, however, is characterized by equality and universality. Since the Enlightenment, its ideal has been a justice that is no respecter of persons; the touchstone of the political has been equal justice for all. How, then, are we to move from the ethical to the political? Does Levinas provide us with a way to mediate between the two?

The standard answer to this question is to look to the third person — to the fact that each of us has multiple others. Each such other, when regarded from the perspective of the face-to-face, is a unique and incomparable other. Yet, confronting the obligations such others impose on me, I must compare them. With this, “the hour” of “justice” sounds (TO 106). The demand of justice that I compare the incomparable results, for Levinas, in the transformation [End Page 97] of the other. In his words, “The other is no longer the unique person offering himself to the compassion of my responsibility, but an individual within a logical order or a citizen of a state in which institutions, general laws, and judges are both possible and necessary” (IR 116). Facing this transformed other, how do I hold on to the ethical? The appearance of the third confronts me with the obligation to rationalize my response in the face of multiple others. Where do I get the resources for my response? An adequate response would be to hold on to the uniqueness of the other even while affirming his equality with all others. The difficulty is that when we affirm this equality through universal standards, such standards, through their very impersonality, ignore such uniqueness.2 The elimination of uniqueness, however, is the elimination of the ethical. The question, then, is this: how can we move from the ethical to the political without losing the uniqueness of the other? What would mediate this transition?

The very notion of mediation presupposes that there are levels that intervene between the individual and the political. To consider them we have to go beyond the standard conception of the political, which understands it as an association of individuals. This understanding finds its basis in Plato, who assumed that the state was the individual’s soul written large and that the state could, therefore, be analyzed in terms of the souls of its citizens.3 What this view forgets is that souls are embodied. The citizens that possess them are born within a family and live in society.

Focusing on such facts, Aristotle notes the insufficiency of the individual, who depends on the family just as the family depends on society to secure the necessities of its existence. The city-state, for Aristotle, is the natural end of the individual insofar as it is the first unit that, being self-sufficient or nearly so, can survive on its own.4 This necessity of living in a city (polis) is what makes the individual a political animal. For him, a single individual “may be compared to an isolated piece at draughts.”5 Apart from the board and the other pieces, the piece has no sense. This does not mean that humans in [End Page 98] their interdependence are identical to one another; like the pieces on the board, their very positionality stemming from their embodiment prevents this. Concretely, such individuals are mothers, daughters, sons, and fathers. They are cousins, nephews, nieces, and other, more distant relations. To take these relations into account is to see the family and the society composed of families as standing between the...


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pp. 97-121
Launched on MUSE
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