Agamben Notes: Ch. 4, “Kingdom and Government”

Agamben begins by discussing the figure of the Roi mehaignié, that is, the do-nothing king, found primarily in Arthurian legends. Understanding this figure requires understanding the shift in the notion of sovereignty from the ancient world to the Christian middle ages. In the course of tracing this shift, Agamben jumps around a lot from Peterson and Schmitt to Augustine, Aquinas, canon law, etc., making this one of the most difficult chapters to follow thus far.

In Monotheism as a Political Problem, Peterson cites the pseudo-Aristotelian text On the World as a way of indicating the passage between the Aristotelian and Judaic concept of the monarchy of God. This text views God as working through various intermediaries arranged into a hierarchy, which Peterson (and apparently Agamben as well) views as establishing the difference between potestas and auctoritas — thus bringing us back into contact with one of the key distinctions from State of Exception. In this scheme, God ultimately causes everything, but the intermediaries are the more direct causes. The text explicitly uses the analogy of what we would now call a bureaucracy — the king wills something, but his ministers actually carry it out. Agamben sees this as closely connected with the Christian notion of economy, and notes that the text includes a form of the word oikonomia.

Although Peterson’s goal is to prove the impossibility of a Christian “political theology,” Schmitt seizes on his reference to the phrase Le roi règne mais ne gouverne pas in this context as proof that the liberal regime really is based on a certain type of theology. Peterson denies that the split between kingship and government actually comes from Christianity, and Agamben diagnoses this as a product of Peterson’s (apparently quite crude) anti-Semitism, which basically consists in claiming that the Jews refused to see the light and turned instead to a worship of economy in the modern sense, etc. Schmitt rejects the split because it posits an impossible “neutral power,” while for Schmitt all political power must be mobilized by the friend/enemy distinction. In a long footnote, Agamben argues that Schmitt’s Nazism leads him to politicize even what in his own account should be outside the political realm — namely, to make the bodily reproduction of the people a directly political question through official racism. Both are united, then, in avoiding the theological question of economy.

For most of the chapter, though, Agamben seems to put the investigation of economy on hold in order to trace the theological genealogy of the distinction between kingship and government — the possibility, that is, of a king who reigns without governing. The initial root is the Gnostic distinction between the good God (styled a king) and the evil demiurge. This isn’t just a dualism of good and evil. More importantly, the good God/King doesn’t do anything. The image of the transcendent God as a king appears to come from Platonism and also comes back in the very influential text of Numenius. Numenius’s attempt to keep kingship and government distinct yet coordinated was, in Agamben’s view, naturally very interesting to Christian theorists of the divine economy.

Agamben then turns to an investigation of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, which he believes provides the philosophical paradigm for the distinction in question. I was not able to follow Agamben’s commentary in every detail, but he goes against many commentators who claim that Aristotle is trying to reconcile transcendence and immanence by saying that instead, Aristotle is trying to coordinate two types of orders — one by which all things are ordered to God and the other by which all things are ordered to each other. Tellingly, Aristotle uses a domestic analogy to explain the coordination between these two types of order. Agamben then proceeds to claim that even though it is never explicitly defined, taxis (order) is a technical term in Aristotle and in fact a key to understanding his thought in general, because it is his way of bringing together the two questions of ontology: separate being and being as such (presumably the same as Heideggerian seiende and Sein).

Medieval thought latched onto the Aristotelian concept of order to explain the relationship between God and the world. Here Aristotle’s Metaphysics provided a paradigm at the same time covincing and aporetic. Aquinas in particular took up the twofold notion of order as referring to the creatures’ relationship to God and their mutual relationships as well, claiming that the two are necessarily coordinated. The relationship between God and the order of creation had also come up earlier in Augustine’s De genesi ad litteram, where Augustine ultimately comes to the conclusion not only that all creatures depend continually on the action/ordering of God but that God himself is thought primarily as an ordering dispositio (the Latin translation for oikonomia). Ultimately, God even orders himself in the Trinitarian processions, where the Son serves as the archetype for creation: “Trinitarian oikonomia, ordo and gubernatio constitute an inseparable triad, whose terms pass into one another, and in this way name the new figure of ontology that Christian theology will consign to modernity” (loose translation). (In a footnote to this passage, Agamben claims that the early Marx simply replaced God with humanity in this basic paradigm, such that humanity continually produces itself through labor.)

Agamben then turns to the theological distinction between creation and conservation, which he analogizes to constiutive and constituted power.

Another pseudo-Aristotelian text, the Liber de causis or Liber Aristotelis de expositione bonitatis purae provided another crucial point of reference for medieval thinkers, particularly Aquinas, who tries to establish the relationship between primary and secondary causes. It might appear that the secondary cause is more the cause and is therefore more important — and if I’m reading Agamben correctly, that seems to be what the text in question actually says — but Aquinas argues that the primary cause is actually more truly the cause insofar as the secondary cause has from the primary cause its very being as cause. (That is to say, I think, that the primary cause sets up the very order of causality.)

Later, in the tractate De gubernatione mundi in the Summa, Aquinas tries to establish the necessity of the primary cause working through secondary causes, which proves to have important political implications. The useless king was not simply a legend — there was a case in which a pope deprived an incompetent king of the execution of his office while not depriving him of his royal dignity. This was a very practical illustration of the difference between dignitas and administratio. The more important question, however, was the meaning of the pope’s supposed plenitudo potestatis, a fulness of both spiritual and temporal power, of which he delegated the temporal part to human rulers.

The scriptural basis for the division of power into “two swords” is found in the passage in the Gospel where Jesus’ disciples tell him they have two swords and he says, “That is enough.” One, the spiritual, remains always in its sheath, while the temporal is actually used (to cut off that one guy’s ear). Agamben goes through the various arguments in favor of there being two and only two swords, only one of which can be used. He then relates it to the late medieval controversy over the divine potentia ordinata and potentia absoluta. Agamben sees the potentia absoluta as being ultimately the reserve of things that God is unable to do — and concludes the chapter proper with a long quote arguing that only this divine impotence allows for the world to be properly ordered.

The threshold to this chapter takes the argument step further by claiming that those (such as Ockham) who argued for an irreducible distinction between the potentia ordinata and potentia absoluta, and therefore a kind of “reserve” of potential that never becomes actual, were in Agamben’s mind defending a distinctively Christian political theology against the ancient pagan view where political authority and political activity are simply one and the same. Agamben views the Christian position as the more “democratic” one, but at the same time, he notes that this very reserve is what opens up the space for a “state of exception,” as when Scotus argues that God can in fact act legitimately beyond the limits of his potentia ordinata.

At this point, a question I have is what we’re supposed to do with all the stuff in State of Exception about the ancient distinction between auctoritas and potestas — surely that didn’t come from Christianity, right? Indeed, what are we to do with Homo Sacer, which traces the current political paradigm directly back to Roman law? Maybe he will address this seeming contradiction in later chapters. (I also note, for Craig’s benefit, that the next chapter appears to start off with a discussion of Foucault — nothing on Foucault in the present chapter, however.)

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