Biopolitics and Ancient Thought

Biopolitics and Ancient Thought

A Free Lecture

With Antonio Cimino & Jussi Backman

Thursday, February 9 at noon EST

Prof. Antonio Cimino | Biopolitics in Antiquity?


I briefly outline the main question addressed in the volume Biopolitics and Ancient Thought (eds. Jussi Backman & Antonio Cimino; Oxford University Press, 2022), that is, whether and to what extent biopolitics also existed in antiquity. First, I introduce Michel Foucault’s concepts of biopower and biopolitics, and explain why he argued that biopolitics is specific to European modernity. Second, I concentrate on Giorgio Agamben’s revision of the Foucauldian narrative of power and clarify his ideas about the ancient origins of biopolitics. Third, I point out the pros and cons of Foucault’s and Agamben’s approaches to the history of biopolitics, and draw attention to recent debates about the relationship between biopolitics and antiquity.


Antonio Cimino is assistant professor in history of philosophy at the Center for the History of Philosophy and Science, Radboud University, The Netherlands. His main fields of research are the history of contemporary European thought and the reception of ancient philosophy in modern and contemporary thought. His publications include Phänomenologie und Vollzug: Heideggers performative Philosophie des faktischen Lebens (Klostermann, 2013) and Enactment, Politics, and Truth: Pauline Themes in Agamben, Badiou, and Heidegger (Bloomsbury, 2018). He is also coeditor of Biopolitics and Ancient Thought (with Jussi Backman, Oxford University Press, 2022).


Prof. Jussi Backman | Biopolitical Techniques and Ideals, Ancient and Modern


Following up on the introductory talk by Antonio Cimino, I briefly discuss biopolitics as 1) a “political technology,” as governmental techniques aimed at controlling citizens as members of a biological population, with a special focus on their health, reproduction, and mortality, and involving genetic, sometimes even eugenic, considerations; and as 2) an ideal of political theory in which the ultimate aim and purpose of the political community and the political government is to enhance the biological life-process of the population, and which understands the civic “happiness” of the population in terms of a biologized “quality of life.” As many commentators have shown, it is evident that biopolitics in the first sense of a governmental technique existed in antiquity and was also an important facet of ancient and medieval political theory in Plato, Aristotle, and Thomas Aquinas. However, I argue that biopolitics as a political ideal is a modern phenomenon that properly emerges with Thomas Hobbes. In ancient and medieval political theory, the ultimate purpose of the polity – supreme human happiness – was situated on a level above and beyond the human biological life-process.


Jussi Backman is an Academy of Finland senior research fellow in philosophy at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland. His work has involved contemporary continental thought, ancient philosophy, political theory, and philosophy of religion; his ongoing research project is related to the conceptual history of creation and creativity. Backman is the author of Complicated Presence: Heidegger and the Postmetaphysical Unity of Being (State University of New York Press, 2015) and Omaisuus ja elämä: Heidegger ja Aristoteles kreikkalaisen ontologian rajalla (Eurooppalaisen filosofian seura, 2005), and coeditor of Biopolitics and Ancient Thought (with Antonio Cimino, Oxford University Press, 2022) and several other edited volumes and special issues. He has also authored ca. 50 peer-reviewed academic articles and book chapters.


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