On the Strength of the Weak

On the Strength of the Weak / Sur la force des faibles
Jean-François Lyotard
from L’Arc 64 (1976):4-12
   The title is inspired by a past and present indignation felt by “the lovers of wisdom” against the artists of words. Plato above all, who by the mouth of Socrates lists the great orators of the past before criticizing their art, cites for comparison Tisias and Gorgias. One must not forget them, he says, “who saw that likelihoods are more to be esteemed than truths, who make small things appear great and great things small by the strength of the argument” (Phaedrus 267a).
    Then Aristotle: he identifies the small contrivance of which Plato speaks as one of the commonplaces of all genres of discourse (political, judiciary, ornamental); it is the topos of greatnesses: one enlarges what is small, one belittles what is great. That is good oratorical warfare. But indignation returns to Aristotle with regard to a trial which was close to his heart, imputed to Corax, one of the founders of Sicilian eloquence, who was Gorgias’ teacher. “My client is accused of brutalities against another: look at him, he is weak, puny, this is by no means likely. Very well,” says Aristotle, “the argument rests on a real likelihood. But if Corax’s client is, on the contrary, a strapping fellow, the lawyer will plead thus: see how robust he is, is he not accused by that itself in advance? And can you believe that my client would have fallen into that trap? He foresaw a likely indictment and held back from all brutality, that is why he is innocent.”
   “Shameful,” says Aristotle, “Corax confuses two sorts of likelihood, what is absolutely likely and what isn’t. That which is used in the second case is only relative, singular.” And the philosopher adds, “That is to make of the weakest discourse, the strongest discourse. Hence people were right in rejecting what Protagoras promised, because it is falsehood, likelihood of pure appearance, without any truth, which is accepted in no art except rhetoric and eristic” (Rhet. 1402a 17ff.).
   The technê of Corax consisted in a figure of amplification, but pushed to the extreme, and where it exceeds what is permitted and ceases to be a technê for that reason, is in the use of likelihoods. If one deals with the likely, very well, that is the same position of the arts of discourse and the practical wisdom of life, as | opposed to the certainties of thought (science), which have to do with the true. But even in the rhetoric of the likely, one must also do in dialectic. In the others, it is the same error, says Aristotle, which is made in dialectic, when one says that there is a being which is non-being on the grounds that non-being is non-being, or that the unknowable is knowable because one knows it to be unknowable (Rhet. 1402a 3-6): one confuses in the same usage the term taken in itself and the term taken in its singular relation to another term. In this case, with itself.
   What are the lovers of wisdom protesting against? Against a logical trick, but one which is also moral, political, economic; it consists simply in putting what is given as the absolute, as the last word, in putting that in relation to itself; and in consequence, to order it among all the other relative, singular things. If likelihood can serve the judge as a criterion for establishing his verdict, why may not this use of likelihood (in this sense of likelihood) serve the accused for guiding his conduct? How is redoubled likelihood, relative to itself, and accused by itself, less noble, less valuable than “pure” likelihood?
   Aristotle know perfectly well that there is, in the hand of the weakest prisoner, the principle of a disquieting strength which consists in the elevation of that which is likely in power (squared, cubed), which authorizes the inversion of every argument (logos) if it belongs to the realm of likelihoods. And the disquieting thing about this principle is that the likely, raised to a greater power (as n+1 is to n) is not stronger for that, not more persuasive, not more “true.” So in these matters, there is no last word, no criterion in-itself, no judge and no master. The relative, the singular can be stronger than the absolute, than what claims to be absolute.
   The field of this ancient and current battle was taken not only on the surfaces of language, but simultaneously on those of living bodies, on those of political societies, of economic communities, of classes based on age or sex. The lovers of wisdom, Plato, Aristotle, everywhere sought to establish magisterial relations, to fix a referent which could not be referred to, to determine a term which escapes relatedness and which rules all relations. Opposite them, the weak battered unflaggingly at these hierarchies.
   A magisterial definition of “the speaker” in these times of Athenian imperialism: the Athenian citizen, son of Athenian parents, recipient of the income from a plot of land, male, speaking Attic, respectful to the civic cults, bearing arms. If one regards the composition of the party of the weak, of those at whom the entire tradition from the Academy and the Lyceum, by way of the Thomist school even to today’s University, have taught us to smile–one will see this: the first Sophists and the Cynics are almost exclusively people from Asia Minor and Sicilians; the great adversaries of Platonic and Aristotelian Socratism, the great paradoxists, are provincials form Megara, a vassal city of Athens; among the Cynics, a woman, Hipparchia, Crates’ concubine, presented herself like him | in public; the Sophists are nomads, “flying professors” wandering from one city to another to sell their lessons and their lectures, — Gorgias and Protagoras, very high-priced, from what their enemies say, who accuse them of having made a fortune by trafficking in words; the Cynics are contrariwise the epitome of poverty, but that was no less suspect: it was said that Diogenes was banished from his city, Sinope, for having printed counterfeit money; his doxograph has this admirable formulation: “Diogenes, who changed the morals just as he changed the money” (Diogenes Laertius, VI); worse still, these inconsistent lecturers who murdered the Greek of the masters with their foreign accents went so far as to make their bodies “speak,” and not at all according to the rules established for competition between athletes or warriors: for example, by farting.
   The University (one must read the Histoire de la logique by Carl Prantl (1855), one must read Festugière (“Antisthénica,” Revue des Sciences philosophiques et thèologique XXI, 1932); or this short note by J. Tricot to the Metaphysics 1024b 33: “Aristotle speaks rarely of Antisthenes and without goodwill, perhaps because Antisthenes was nothos (born of a foreigner) and because he recruited his clientele from among the populace.” That says it all), the university composes of these particularities a veritable clinical list of sickly discourses: discourses for sale, effeminate discourse, foreign discourse, hysterical discourse. It was right: all these traits spoke against it, against the existence of a place beyond relativity where all these discourses take place. This must be seen: it could well give them the floor, discuss their “theses,” trap them in the ritual of dialogue, and thus leave suspended the nature of the last word; the fact remains that it claims to be the place where this question must be posed, so as the last place of words, their place par excellence (in the Aristotelian sense, “justly”) so to speak.
   So the eccentricities of these crazy Cynics, of these uncultivated Megarics, of these clowns the Sophists, did not gain a following, and so do not enter this space: they are kept locked outside like slaves, like women, like barbarians, like children are outside citizenship, of Hellenism, of virile homosexuality. But for them this outside is not an outside, for the last place, the last word, the ultimate referend, the absolute–have precisely no spatial value. For them no outside because no inside, no in-itself: The in-itself as pretended interiority falls immediately into exteriority. There is nothing but exteriority. Or better: there is exteriority.
   This can also be put: there is only minority, there are minorities. What one calls someone is a complex surface made of a crowd of small movements, all minor; the same for a supposed concept (universal); the same for a supposed attribution (copula). Minorities without majority: all mastery is usurped, it comes, as Nietzsche says, from a strange malady, the belief that there is something to cure. Decadence is not multiplication, the proliferation of these minorities, as the last word’s point of view suggests; it is the magisterium, exercised from this point of view. The proposed remedy is the sickness.
   This is not just a matter of transvaluing the margins and the marginal. What the minor Greeks said (like Rabelais, a great Sophist revivalist) is that on the contrary, there are not margins at all. The voice which speaks of margins is that of the Empire; this fact reflects its borders, its frontiers, its hinterlands (regions to conquer). |
   Protagoras sued his student Euathlos for his fees. Euathlos protested: “Can you tell me how you have brought me the least victory?” Protagoras’s response: “In any case, the money will come to me: in the case of my victory, if I win, or yours if you win” (Diogenes Laertius IX, 55; DK 80 A 1). Of what victory was the teacher speaking?
   Logical analysis: there is a law, a contract between the Sophist and Euathlos, which says, “for every victory due to Protagoras, he must be compensated.” The student says, “There has been no victory, so there will be no compensation.” Protagoras responds, “Excuse me, there will be a victory (egô mên an nikêsô, (…) ean dê su (…)) necessarily, for there is between us now a conflict concerning precisely the question of my fees, and one of us will win it. One must therefore apply the contract agreed to between us equally to this debate. So if I win it, it will be due to my efforts, and if you win it, likewise. So you must pay me” (Protagoras’s reasoning is put in the mouth of Carneades by Cicero, First Acad., II, 98).
   The recourse to paradox consists in the inclusion of the teacher-student conflict in the class of conflicts exterior and inferior to those for which the professor prepared his student. Or again: in the juxtaposition of the name of Euathlos as the student and as the adversary; he will pay if he loses, as with all adversaries, but if he wins, he will pay as a student.
   First observation: the relation of mastery is not isolated, nothing distinguishes it from the relations of a commercial contract. That is enough reason that a School can’t institute itself, nor establish its own disciples. For the disciples are always spirits kept sheltered from adversity, in proximity to the last word, on the inside of magisterial protection. Here adversity cuts across the discipline.
   The insolence of Protagoras signifies something else, which is strictly logical and which will be found elaborated again among the Megarics and the first Stoics: Euathlos the student is one object of discussion, Euathlos the adversary is another object of discussion, and that’s why it is not in the least contradictory to make this one pay and to make that one pay. There is a paradox from only one point of view, that of the masters, who would like there to be an identity of Euathlos independent of the circumstances, or at least that there be certain attributes essential to him (like student, for example) and others accidental (like adversary). Protagoras’s paradox simply says: there is no subject persisting under the “attributes” which can be observed of it, and there are no attributes more important than any others, there are as many legitimate subjects as there are situations. Hence the destruction of absolutes, of substances, so evaluation case-be-case and the denial of all attributive logic.
   One more thing to note in this affair: the humor of Protagoras is that of the mercantilism which so frightened the conservative Greeks, beginning with Plato. You could not escape the generalized exchange of values, you would have to pay not only if you lost, but even if you won. The circularity of Capital.
   And finally that which is firmly secured by the paradox is an idea and a praxis of time as diachrony, one thing after another. The answer of | Protagoras to Euathlos anticipates the outcome of their debate, and includes the undisclosed result in the actual decision; “you can pay me now, because I will win either way.” So the weak one, the oppressed can reach peculiar results with this figure.
   You may say, “Protagoras is not exactly the oppressed under these circumstances.” What do you think? Euathlos is probably the son of some great family which draws its income from their lands or from arming ships. Protagoras has nothing but his victories in argument to live on; without even a salary, he is an artist.
   We have from the beginning only been talking about one strength, the strength of the inclusion of the law which, on the whole presses upon the weak whom it governs, and the effects which follow from this. It is a very small strength, not even worth reckoning. The technê of this inclusion is shown by the liar’s paradox, attributed to Eubulides of Megara, which Cicero reports in these terms: “If you say you are lying and are telling the truth, then you are lying” (First Academy ,II 95). The logic follows, “but if you say you are lying and you are lying, then you are telling the truth,” etc.
   Here as well there is a protest from the doctors, who set themselves to refuting this diabolical little contrivance. Bertrand Russell is one of the most sympathetic of these despisers, because he doesn’t hide his aim behind metaphysical words (and for good reason), and because his refutation shows itself almost crudely for what it can’t help being, to wit, a decision. It is known to consist of saying, “Distinguish statements of type 1, which bear on any kind of objects, from statements of type 2, which bear on the set of statements of type 1. Eubulides’ paradox, ‘if you say you are lying and you are speaking the truth,’ must be separated into a statement of type 1, ‘I am lying,’ and a statement of type 2, ‘I am speaking the truth that,’ the latter bearing on the set formed by the first statement whatever the value attributed to its propositional variable (‘I am lying when I say this, when I say that,’ etc.).”
   If one wants to end the vertigo this paradox inspires, one must, Russell says, grant in principle that the class of type-2 statements is not included in the set of type-1 statements, so that the truth-value of these (False: “I am lying”) can’t modify that of those (True: “I am speaking the truth when I say that,”). So one saves at the same time the possibility of non-contradiction, that of mathematics (this is the age of the Principia Mathematica), and satisfies the attempt for “logical common sense” (History of my Philosophical Ideas, ch. VII).
   Things are thus so perfectly clear, it is necessary to decree the non-inclusion of type 1 in type 2. One wouldn’t know how to demonstrate it, since this demonstration would need, to establish itself, this non-inclusion itself. This decree is not of the logical order. If, for example, one became a disciple of Eubulides, one might ask, “Of what type is Russell’s statement?” It bears on the set formed by the relation (whatever the propositional variable might be) of type-2 statements with type-1 statements; it therefore has the property of type-2 statements because it affirms a truth-value for the set of propositional variables of a statement. But since this last statement is itself a type-2 statement, Russell’s statement is therefore part of the class of the statements to which it refers–this is precisely what he is trying to prevent. If one wants to avoid this consequence, one must | introduce a principle of superior level, positing a type number 3 of statements (that of Russell) and its disjunction from type 2. Infinite regression.
   In one sense, all this is not so serious. One makes a meta-axiom to stop this regression, one simply recognizes that truth-values cannot in effect be arrested except on the condition of this axiom. But in a sense, this is serious indeed; for this formalism, indeed this artificiality is precisely what the masters hide. Where is their authority if it is not based on an order which is anterior to itself, if it is decreed by itself? What makes Russell’s decision more valid than that of any liar? Purely moral and political authority: the masters preserve us from worse, they say. But it is they who decree that the worse is the absence of archê, “anarchy.”
   Protagoras, before Eubulides, maintained that all appearances (phantasma) are true (Sextus Empiricus, Adv. Math. I, 389). Plato, before Russell, refuted him in the following way: “If Protagoras is right, then the sentence ‘all appearances are not true,’ is itself true, since it is an appearance.” And Plato concludes, “so the statement ‘all appearances are true’ is false.” A master’s counter-use of the paradox of the weak ones. but the master concludes the wrong way. Because the inclusion of the class of all the classes among these last examples, which Plato employs against Protagoras, afterwards manifestly turns itself against his own conclusion: if it is false that all appearances are true, how are we to know if Plato’s statement is true or false? In truth (!), the statement attributed to Protagoras must be understood to mean, “the truth has no opposite.” Which Antisthenes will repeat.
   The body can insinuate itself into the discourse of a master, and laugh and make others laugh. Evidently not the body of the master, not that of the gymnasts. One well can see that the “body” is a bad word, like all words, readily able to switch from one party to the other, and again to a third. So what sort of body? Surely bodies of weakness.
   Diogenes Laertius (VI) narrates the conversion of a student of the Aristotelian school, Metrocles. He was sick, and one day in the middle of a philosophical discussion, he broke wind. He returned to his home, so ashamed that he decided to starve himself to death. Crates the Cynic heard of the affair, ate a big plate of beans, went to find him, to teach him that the shameful thing would be not to fart, since that would be against nature. (On this subject, one sees what “nature” can be.) And thereupon he began farting even more. Metrocles, healed, healed of the malady of thinking himself sick when his body made noise during the principal discourse, Metrocles made himself a Cynic.
   When one addressed a petition to someone, one would touch him on the knees. So Crates approached his master of gymnastics, but he touched his buttocks. The latter was indignant: “Why,” said Crates, “is that not as much yours as are your knees?” (ibid.). Well put: “gymnastic master.”
   Hipparchia, the sister of Metrocles the convert, fell in love with Crates. Her heartbroken parents called him to dissuade him from marrying her. They did not succeed. Then he undressed before her (and, I suppose, before them) and said to her, “Here is | all that your husband will own.” She married his cause so thoroughly that they made love in public (ibid.).
   Diogenes ate in the agora, to general scandal. Diogenes rebutted the scandal by saying, “If there is nothing wrong with eating, there’s nothing worse with eating in public. Now, there is nothing wrong with eating; so there is nothing wrong with eating in public.” He masturbated in public, with only this excuse: “Ah, if only one could ease hunger this way, by rubbing one’s stomach!” (ibid.). It is a poor man’s device. But his poverty reveals elementary syntheses, those that too-rich discourse will not, in the end, reach. In the syllogism of the meal in the street, one recognizes the same hypothetical and deictic form that the Megarics, then the Stoics, developed. Now, the use of deictic in the minor premise, frequently concealed, (“now, there is nothing wrong with eating”; “now, it is daytime”) appeals to the perceiving body: at the moment I am speaking, I am hungry. Synthesis of the subjects, of the word and of the need, which the masters intended to make unworkable, except by their mediation: those who are hungry shut up, those who speak aren’t hungry, and only we, the masters, can articulate the two together into a hierarchical society, into a hierarchical body.
   Another poor synthesis in this weak philosophy: someone denies movement before Diogenes, he gets up and walks (ibid.). Does this have to do with the Eleatic paradox of Achilles and the arrow? Not as a refutation, but as a displacement of the problem: movement (the synthesis par excellence) is not an affair of concepts, it is inconceivable, it is an affair of the will. The cynic body organizes perspectives, therein lies its poor strength, and thus it escapes the law of the masters, mimêsis. It turns its back on the animal-machine and automatons, which are the servile bodies dreamed-of by the masters.
   It is not, then, the fact of bringing the body itself into play which gives strength to the weak; on the contrary, it is the masters who think of the body as a machine capable of being dominated, and that is why they don’t hesitate to urge its expropriation, as far as possible, to obtain its servitude. They torture it, vivisect it, humiliate it in erotic behavior, waste it in labor camps and death camps. The weakening where they reduced the body quite to the border of death uncovers an improper body, disjointed bits of very small syntheses, ephemeral, but sufficient to show that the power to unite has not left them, and that they usurp it.
   This is what Diogenes said when, prisoner of pirates, he was sold at auction in a slave market in Crete. The auctioneer called to him, “And you, Diogenes, what do you know how to do?” And Diogenes answered, “To command. So sell me to Xeniades there; he needs a master” (ibid.). Bodily impropriety has the same effect as the rhetor’s discourse, or medicine (the pharmakon of Gorgias; DK 82 B 10, 14): it strengthens the weak.
   Nietzsche was counting on nothing else in his experience of decadence and sickness (Ecce Homo I, 1), than this power of attaining the clearest view, the most refined touch, the most exacting adroitness in matters of the spirit–despite the fact of migraines, nausea, ophthalmia expropriating the organism and plunging him into disgust for living. Health asserts itself from the bosom of sickness, not as the desire for healing and the demand for security, not as restoration; | but that which passes for the weakening of natural vigor uncovers other strengths and other perspectives, which the noisy success of the organism hides.
   Perhaps this reascent of the weak body into the milieu of sleek and muscle-bound homosexuals (whom Diogenes didn’t stop needling since they were the ideal of the masters’ community), perhaps this has in effect some relation to decadence, more precisely with the emergence of the feminine, which is the failure of political society, that of men. Feminine humor with regard to the political, to citizenship, to civic cults oriented towards pale gods, with regard to the masculine effort to construct a history, a sense well below the weakness of little passions–this humor is perceived and categorized, by men who occupy themselves with business, as the unfitness and foolishness of women. When it returns into the concerns of the city, in a thousand forms, the art of seduction with words, poetry, rhetoric, bizarre theologies honoring the hypocrisy and perversity of the divine, scenic games adoring no longer the impassibility of the gods, but their pathos–then the citizens shout “Decadence!” and concoct laws, systems, utopias–remedies to prepare for its return.
   The remedies all bear the imprint of the same seal: there is nothingness, meaning is absent, let us work towards its advent. All right: we are in the disorder of a sickness, let us conquer the fullness of health. Two simple examples of this nihilist heritage in the battle against nihilism: the functions assigned to death in amorous desire and in the authority of the word.
   In the story of the birth of Eros which Plato tells (Symposium 203b ff.), one must pay attention to Eros’ qualities which come to him from his father. Poros is the opposite of the aporia, it is the passing through, “there is always a medium of mediation.” And what are the epithets which identify his son, Love? Epiboulos, poacher always setting traps for what is beautiful and good, andreios, courageous, itês, bold, one who goes before, suntonos, taut, intense, thêreutês, hunter, always in the middle of hatching some scheme (tinas mêchanas), phronêseôs epithumêtês kai porimos, desirous of discretion and resourcefulness, philosophizing about the duration of life, deinos goês, marvellous sorcerer, kai pharmakeus, great healer, kai sophistês, great sophist. And Plato adds here, “he lived, he died on the same day, and he is resuscitated by the strength of successful dodges.”
   Our friends among the metics would do better than those who raise him from the semantic field marked out by these words. One thing to bear in mind: love is a sophist, it inhabits a space of hunts and pursuits, not of tarrying, a time of metamorphoses, not of continuities; and its logic is that of paradoxes and machinations, not of reasons; discretion and audacity serve it as morality; like Nietzsche, it is most vital when it is most morbid, this is what comprises its pharmacy to itself, that of the Phoenix. Eros so situated is the opposite of a master, he is cousin to the Sophists, the Cynics, the Megarics — the little ones, of those who live from day to day, with the inextinguishable strength, the andreia, the virtu, the power always to turn again (this theme of return, of strophê, being itself part of the semantic field under consideration).
   What does the master add to this portrait? Exactly what he needs to | disfigure it, and the disfigurement is such that it has affected ethics, logic, and the politics of the West for more than two thousand years. Plato adds the lack. The mother of Eros is Poverty, he says, who took the opportunity to profit from Poros’ drunkenness to make a baby for herself. Women are poverty in the discourse of the masters. And they lay their little plans to be impregnated.
   Here is a perfectly magisterial idea: the Sophist who pays no heed to reason and ends, nothing but a passion for means, and to whom all strength, like that of the weak, consists in laying traps or, where by definition the relation of strength which is unfavorable to him can be reversed, it is necessary nonetheless, say the friends of wisdoms, that this madman lack something. If not, wouldn’t he quite simply incarnate wisdom? Therefore, behold Poverty: Plato invented the desire for immortality as the mainspring of love (207a ff.); it was necessary that all his art, all his techniques, all this wise and lively inventiveness, his despair and gaiety, all this be subordinated to the lack of life, the fear of death; it was necessary to declare that love wants to procreate, make babies, perpetuate itself, thus to attain immortality rather than the object of its love. Philosophical love substituted itself for sophistical love, and Plato for Protagoras.
   One eliminates the race of the affects, one locates the feminine in the poverty by which it must pass, they say, to reach the truth which is outside of time. So the dialectic is born, where a woman like a slave according to Hegel has the beautiful and the evil role in a process of culture, which is a quite magisterial business.
   Second example. This Protagoras, great setter of ambushes, was accused of impiety and atheism, and banished from all Greece, according to what Philostratus believes. He evidently said (Eusebius, in DK 80, B 4) that it was “impossible to know if the gods existed or not, nor how to imagine their features.” He fled; one can imagine his last years, the former hunter being hunted from town to town. It is possible that autos-da-fé of his books were decreed and executed.
   Socrates found himself in the same circumstances, accused of impiety and of corrupting the youth. But this was a lover of wisdom, so his death has a different meaning: it can bear witness, an idea which never came into the mind of Protagoras. The Sophist doesn’t put himself above the laws of the city, but below them. The irony of Socrates, openly provocative during the trial (Apology), rested on the masters’ disdain for opinion. He asked for nothing but to die, because he had already formed the prejudice, which would make his fortune, that to die for a cause is to attest its truth and to reinforce its credibility. One couldn’t imagine any Sophist martyrs, Cynic martyrs. The martyr says: it is true since I shall die for it; my truth is not of this world. (Thus the grumblers on every side found that May ’68 lacked the deaths to make truth.) Masters like martyrs very much, including those of their enemies. But the flight of Protagoras reminds one of the young Horace: it is not a matter only of saving one’s life, but the possibility of turning again, and of turning the situation inside out.
[This translation by A.K.M.Adam, with generous help from David Cunningham; improvements are necessary and welcome! There is under this title an authorized translation of a very different, shorter text by Roger McKeon in Semiotext(e) 3:2 (1978):204-14. The contents of McKeon’s text are quite interesting, too, and in places of overlap his renderings were consulted in revising the present translation. In L’Arc, Lyotard appends a note to the first paragraph declaring that “These pages are taken from a book in preparation.” Will try to retrieve footnotes for this translation; page breaks in the original text are marked with a “|”.
 The reference is to Diels, H., and Kranz, W., Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker Vol. II, 6th ed., Berlin, 1952.
 Sc., “prescription.”
Critical Theology 1 (1989):21-30

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