On the (Meta)biopolitics of Happiness

Aktiviteetti: Kutsuttu esitelmä


The terms “biopower” and “biopolitics” were famously used by Michel Foucault in the 1970s and 1980s to describe the intensifying tendency of modern political governments to view and control their citizens as members of a biological population, with a focus on health, reproduction, and genetic, in some cases even eugenic, considerations. For Foucault, biopolitical government was primarily a modern phenomenon connected to the emergence of industrial capitalism and modern human sciences and biosciences. However, several later commentators have argued that biopolitical tendencies are in fact characteristic of the entire history of Western political thought and political technology since antiquity.

In my talk, I approach the question of the history and origin of biopolitics by looking not at specific political techniques but rather at political ideals, theoretical notions of the final aim of the political community. I acknowledge that it is undeniable that biopolitical techniques and means of control existed already in Greek antiquity and ancient and medieval political thought. However, I argue that the “happiness” (Greek eudaimonia, Latin beatitudo) that constitutes the greatest human good and the ultimate end of polities in the Aristotelian tradition is not a “biopolitical” ideal, but rather a “metabiopolitical” one, consisting in a contemplative activity situated above and beyond the biological as well as the political levels of human existence. This ideal persists through the medieval tradition of Aristotelian thought.

It is only in modernity that this classical ideal of happiness is fundamentally challenged and transformed; as Hannah Arendt puts it, in Western modernity, mere being alive comes to be seen as the greatest human good, and happiness gradually begins to be understood as a subjective “quality of life.” This is particularly evident in Thomas Hobbes, who denies the validity of the Aristotelian ideal of a supreme human good and insists that the end of the political commonwealth is rather to preserve citizens from the supreme evil, namely, violent death. This “biopolitical” understanding of the end of political government as mere preservation of life leads Hobbes to identify civic happiness with “commodious living,” that is, with the liberty to privately pursue one’s private goals and to thus seek a maximal quality of life. John Locke echoes Hobbes by equating happiness with maximal subjective pleasure, which different for different persons; the purpose of the commonwealth is the preservation of life for the pursuit of whatever one’s individual happiness may consist in.

I conclude by noting that in both the Aristotelian “metabiopolitical” and the Hobbesian “biopolitical” paradigms, the political realm is ultimately seen as a means to an end that itself is situated outside the realm of politics. Hannah Arendt draws our attention to a neglected third alternative: an ideal of “public happiness” consisting in political participation itself.
Aikajakso28 syysk. 2023
PidettyHistoria, filosofia ja kirjallisuustiede
Tunnustuksen arvoNational

Country of activity

  • Suomi

Nature of activity

  • Tutkimuksellinen