Agamben Notes: Ch. 2, “The mystery of the economy”

In this chapter, Agamben traces the history of the word oikonomia (which I will render as “economy” from here on out) from its original sense of the management of a home to its incorporation into Christian theology in the pre-Nicene period — a pregnant moment for Agamben’s purposes because the now-standard bifurcation between economy and theology had not yet taken hold. This chapter is somewhat difficult to summarize because of the high number of blockquotes and arguments with conventional wisdom, but I will try to give the general thrust of his argument.

His main goal throughout is to demonstrate that “economy,” when used in early Christian theology, does not mean “divine plan of salvation” and is in no way a technical term with a solely theological meaning. Rather, it extends the basic semantic nucleus of “economy” into the theological realm, as indeed that semantic nucleus had already been extended into other areas. To locate the semantic core, Agamben turns to the classic texts of Aristotle and Xenophon. What emerges is a sense that economy is distinguished from politics in not being law-governed. Rather, it is a series of ad hoc measures suited to each particular situation, and so economy can never be the object of a science properly-so-called. Xenophon uses the analogy of a ship on a voyage, where there is a captain and yet everyone is immediately responsible for everything, shifting their strategies according to ever-changing conditions.

Agamben maintains that this notion of ad hoc, non-rule-governed management is the semantic core of the term, which is then reflected in the metaphorical usage — for example, in rhetoric it comes to mean the skillful organization of a treatise or speech to match the occasion. Thus it would be curious if Christians took up the term to mean a foreordained divine plan, since that would seem to turn it into its very opposite. After a little excursus on the linguistics behind his claim that “economy” has a semantic core that underlies its metaphorical usage, he turns to various passages from Paul and pseudo-Paul in which “economy” appears. Common opinion holds that it is Paul who turned “economy” into a technical theological term, but Agamben argues, to my mind convincingly, that it is impossible to deduce from context that Paul is ever using the term in anything but a metaphorical sense — indeed, to import the notion of a fixed “divine plan” into many of the passages clearly won’t work. (Sidenote: this is similar to Ted Jenning’s claim that Paul cannot be using the Greek term for “justice” to denote some completely separate notion of “righteousness” — when he says “justice,” he means what people mean when they say “justice.”) Instead, Paul is talking about his own free, ad hoc management of the task that God has assigned to him. Particularly important here is the phrase “economy of the mystery” (Eph 3:9), which would be reduntant if economy only referred to the (presumably mysterious) divine plan. When Paul talks about the “economy of God,” he’s similarly talking about God’s ad hoc management (to me, this provides a good frame for understanding Paul’s argument in Romans 9-11). He ends his consideration of Paul with some less convincing claims that Paul is never using political language — particularly problematic is his notion that ekklesia is used in a novel, non-political way — but in any case, he underlines the importance of the fact that the messianic community was initially conceived as an economy.

He goes through several other fathers, showing that the term “economy” is increasingly used to describe what we would call the intra-trinitarian relations as well as the management of the church community or the divine actions taken for the sake of redemption. He also argues that Irenaeus twists the term so as to contradict Gnostic claims that the true God is uninvolved in creation. Hyppolytus and especially Tertullian are where his real focus lands, though. Both reverse the Pauline phrase to be “mystery of the economy” rather than “economy of the mystery.” This reversal further highlights the difference between the two terms and for Agamben reinforces the notion that we must understand economy as retaining its metaphorical significance — what both fathers are saying is that it is the ad hoc divine action itself that is the mystery. There is no antecedent mysterious plan that is carried out in some particularly effective way, but the mystery directly is the economy. This reversal also underwrites the increasing use of “economy” to describe the relationship between the Father and the Son. In a particularly interesting formulation, Tertullian says that the Trinity doesn’t divide the divine substance, but manages it: “The Father and the Son are two, but non ex seperatione substantiae sed ex dispositione,” dispositio being one of the standard Latin translations of economy (I find this whole line of thought very exciting theologically in light of some work that I’ve done on Augustine’s doctrine of the trinity). Agamben points out that Tertullian is explicit about connecting his use of the term economy with its original domestic implications and quotes and analyzes several very long passages to that effect.

Using Origen, Agamben argues that we need to retain this original nucleus of the term economy if we are to understand the specifically Christian concept of history. Origen brings together providence and economy, and for Agamben, that means that he is completely divorcing himself from the pagan notion of an antecedent fate and instead positing that freedom is at the heart of history — and I will note here that when Agamben was talking about Schelling in chapter 1, he was talking specifically about Schelling’s linkage of economy and freedom, which is what he promised his investigation would make intelligible. In a footnote, Agamben points out that when the left-Hegelians rejected the theological framework of Hegel and Schelling, they nevertheless “put at the center of the historical process the economy in the modern sense, that is, the historical self-production of humanity.” Agamben also traces Origen’s usage of economy back to Clement of Alexandria, pointing out that Clement believes that the notion of economy is the only thing that can keep the story of the incarnation, etc., from appearing to be either myths or allegories.

The chapter concludes with the development in Byzantine canon law of an exception to the law based on “economy” — leading Agamben immediately to gesture enigmatically at the essential connection between economy and the state of exception, etc. (That’s something frustrating about this book so far — there’s so much that’s surprising and exciting, to the point where I’m suspecting that it may turn out to be his magnum opus, but every so often something comes up that rather flat-footedly returns everything to a predetermined scheme.) The threshold reiterates the importance of the patristic reversal of the Pauline “economy of the mystery” into “mystery of the economy,” which allows the same concept to describe the divine life and the creator’s relationship to creation and ultimately allows Christian theology to make sense of a transcendent God who nonetheless manages creation. Later theology will separate the two, reserving “economy” only for the relationship to creation, but Agamben claims that even then, the separation never really becomes complete.

4 thoughts on “Agamben Notes: Ch. 2, “The mystery of the economy”

  1. I think that a “know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em” interpretation of Aristotle’s views on oikonomia is questionable; at the beginning of the Economics Aristotle compares home economy to statecraft, which is defined as a subject of a science at the beginning of the Nichomachean Ethics. Phronesis is an endlessly abusable concept — and not the end of Aristotle’s analysis of practical judgment — so perhaps one should hesitate before defining his view of excellence in reasoning about oikonomia as the coherence of ad hoc rules.

    Another recent work where the “mystery of economy” is discussed is Miguel Tamen’s Friends of Interpretable Objects. His reading is quite different: “The word oikonomia here denotes a domain where the terms to be explained can only be understood in terms of one another, and so the domain where, unlike in strict theological discourse, no reduction of sensorial cognition to meaning is ever fully possible.” As presented by Tamen oikonomia in Orthodox theology is interpreted in terms of the Incarnation (and worldly phenomena following on from it like ikons), rather than the one-off character of God’s plan. I have no way of knowing whether this is a good interpretation by Tamen and the book is problematic in other respects, but I thought I’d throw it out there.

  2. Hi Jeff

    It’s my understanding that the Economics of Aristotle weren’t written by him, but there are only two texts of his standard corpus that are on economics as a branch of ethics that are his. I don’t have my notes on them or the recent comprehensive secondary text, but from what I can recall, it differs from your characterisation here and is closer to Agamben. But I am ready to stand corrected on this one.

  3. I’m aware that the Economics is frequently characterized as spurious (along with the Eudemian Ethics and many other texts). However, throughout European intellectual history they have been frequently treated (by Marx, e.g.) as legitimate and so secondhand knowledge of modern philological views (which is the only kind I possess) could be misleading from the standpoint of doing intellectual history.

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