The discovery of the square root of two is a capital event. The accumulation of plague-stricken corpses in the streets of Athens is not. According to Alain Badiou, this is the Platonic view. Badiou thinks Plato was right.1 For a mathematical discovery is testimony to the affirmative capacity of thought and, as such, of interest to the philosophical mind. The same can be conceded of Lucretius’ poetic response to the Athenian pestilence at the end of De Rerum Natura, for the same reason.2 But, though brute catastrophe may rightly concern the poet or scientist, or, if it is a political catastrophe, the political activist, it is of no concern to the philosopher. The disasters which punctuate human history cannot serve as a point of departure for philosophy.3 Suffering cannot be its theme. For the Good is always its proper aim and end (‘sa visée propre’, CI, 8). ‘I would agree with Nietzsche without hesitation’, writes Badiou, ‘philosophy must be integrally affirmative’ (ibid.).4
Lucretius tells us that the ‘fatal tide’ of the plague ‘laid waste the Athenian fields, turning the highways into deserts and draining the city of citizens’.5 When Badiou insists that philosophy should remain indifferent to this, he also makes much modern literature and art seem remote from and unpalatable
1 See CI, 8–9.
2 See VI. 1138–287; Lucretius, On the Nature of the Universe, tr. R. E. Latham, introd. and notes John Godwin (Penguin: London, 1994), 195–9.
3 Badiou makes the point, surely rightly, in repudiation of the contemporary insistence that the conditions of philosophy have been fundamentally changed by the Holocaust. See CI, 7–8. The repudiation is explicit elsewhere: see MP, 7–12, especially at p. 11. Cf. also the critique of the category of ‘the disaster’ (CS, 226–30), and of the political thought of Hannah Arendt (AB, 19–34). The ‘profound compassion’ of the philosopher for the victims and the ‘absolute judgment’ he passes on the perpetrators have no bearing on the issue (CO, 13).
4 This is the more striking in that Badiou conceives of Nietzsche as an anti-philosopher, and therefore an antagonist, if a worthy one. Badiou has developed the theme of affirmation more explicitly in ‘Esquisse pour un premier manifeste de l’affirmationisme’ (2001, typescript).
5 See De Rerum Natura VI. 1138–40.