If I had to name the task that the coronavirus entrusts us with, I would use the ancient Latin expression “vitam instituere”. Without retracing its history – it is a passage from Demosthenes, quoted by the Roman jurist Marcianus in the Digest – we may focus on its most current meaning. At a time when human life appears to be threatened and overpowered by death, our common effort can only be that of ‘establishing’ it again and again. What else, after all, is life, if not this continuous ‘establishment’, the capacity to create ever new meanings. It is in this sense that Hannah Arendt, and before her Augustine, said that we, mankind, constitute a beginning because our first action is to come into the world, starting something that was not before. This first beginning was followed by another, a further founding act, constituted by language – the French psychoanalyst Pierre Legendre called it a second birth. It is from this birth that the city and political life originate, providing biological life with a historical horizon. This horizon is not in contrast with the world of nature, rather, it traverses it in all its extension. The space of logos, and then of nomos, however autonomous in its wealth of configurations, has never become separate from that of bios. On the contrary, their relationship has become increasingly closer, to the point it is impossible to talk about politics by removing it from the sphere in which life is generated.
The first birth announces the second one in that the latter is rooted in the first. For this reason, it is not possible for human beings to abstain from establishing life. For it is life that has instituted these same human beings by placing them in a common world. In this sense, human life cannot be reduced to simple survival – to ‘bare life’, we may say, quoting Benjamin. Having been established from the very beginning, our life never coincides with mere biological matter – even when it is crushed against it. And also in this case, perhaps especially in this case, life as such reveals a way of being that, however deformed, violated, trampled on, remains such – a form of life. What gives it this formal character – something other than mere biology – is its belonging to a historical context, constituted by social, political and symbolic relations. What establishes us from the beginning, what we ourselves continually establish, is this symbolic pattern within which everything we do acquires meaning and significance for us and for others.
It is precisely this pattern of common relations that the coronavirus threatens to break. Not only the first type of life, but also the second – the social character of our relationship with others. Clearly, in order to express itself, the latter requires to be alive. The term ‘survival’ bears no reductive connotation. On the contrary, the problem of conservatio vitae is at the heart of classical and modern culture. It resonates in the Christian conception of sacred life, as in the great political philosophical tradition inaugurated by Hobbes. The first task this wretched virus entrusts us with, in its deadly challenge, is to stay alive. What is more, by defending this first life, we must also defend the second life, established life, which is, for this reason, the one able to establish and create new meaning. Therefore, at a time when we are doing all that is in our power to stay alive, as is understandable, we cannot renounce the second life – life with others, for others, through others. This is not, however, allowed, in fact it is, rightly and logically, forbidden.
To consider this sacrifice as unbearable, when there are those who are risking their lives in hospitals to save ours, is not only offensive, it is ridiculous. In no way does this diminish established life. Nor does it diminish the need to continue, despite everything, and even more so at a time when social relations are wounded, to live in common. Also alone. Giving a common sense to this aloneness. It is, in fact, precisely that which today connects us to others. To all others – at present half of humanity, perhaps in a month’s time it will be the whole of humanity. After all, distance itself is also a profoundly human dimension – the same way closeness is, from which it derives its meaning. Not only by contrast – ‘individual’ has never been the mere opposite of ‘social’, it is in turn a social construct. Today this symbolic link between distance and proximity – the symbol is precisely the figure articulating it – acquires even greater importance. In times of pandemic, human beings are united by a common distance. Yet also this is a way – at present a necessary one – of establishing life, of defending it from the blind force that threatens to devour it.
Translated from the Italian by Emma Catherine Gainsforth
Roberto Esposito, born in Italy, teaches theoretical philosophy at the Scuola Normale Superiore. Among his books, translated into numerous languages, Communitas. The Origin and Destiny of Community (Paolo Alto: Stanford 2004); Immunitas. The Protection and Distruction of Life (London: Polity 2011); Bios. Biopolitics and Philosophy (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press 2008); Third Person. Politics of Life and Philosophy of the Impersonal (London: Polity 2012); Living Thought. The Origin and Actuality of Italian Pghilosophy (Palo Alto: Stanford 2012); Two. The machine of Political Philosophy and the place of Thought (New York: Fordham 2015); Persons and Things. From the Body’s Point of Wiew (London: Polity 2015); Politics and Negation. For an affirmative Philosophy (London: Polity 2019); A Philosophy of Europe. From the outside (London: Polity 2018); Instituing Thought (London: Polity 2020).