Agamben Notes: Ch. 5, “The providential machine”

I’ll begin by noting that it’s not clear to me what is motivating the use of the term “machine” in the title of this chapter, aside from Agamben’s general penchant for using it to refer to Western political arrangements.

This chapter finally includes a head-on discussion of Foucault, specifically the lecture course Security, Territory, Population (1977-78). Agamben agrees with Foucault that the paradigm of the modern state is governmentality rather than sovereignty. He also agrees with the connection that Foucault draws between governmentality and medieval pastoral care, or “governing of souls.” However, he believes that Foucault’s genealogy is inaccurate insofar as it focuses on explicitly “political” texts. Agamben hopes to correct this error through his own theological genealogy, but he believes Foucault’s broad conclusions are nonetheless correct. A footnote explains that a proper genealogy must be willing to look in unexpected places — in the current case, the explicitly political medieval texts don’t seem to have much relevance to modern political arrangements, whereas the theological texts provide the paradigm for the modern state.

The bulk of the chapter is given over to a selective survey of the long-running debate on divine providence, particularly on the question of whether God directs the world on a general level (general providence) or controls particulars (special providence). The latter must be reconciled with the free will of human beings, and though that aspect of the debate has been the focus of the most attetion, Agamben believes that the real point of contention is actually the possibility of a divine governance of the world.

Agamben begins his investigation with Chrisippus’s [?] Peri pronoias [note: I sometimes have difficulty recognizing who the Italian versions of proper names are referring to — in this case, it’s “Crisippo”]. Crissipus provides the paradigm by bringing together “two apparently distinct questions: that of the origin and justification of evil, and that of the governance of the world.” Evil becomes a kind of “collateral damage” [my term at this point, though Agamben does bring it up later] in the generally good governance of the world. He then turns to Alexander of Aphrodisia, a commentator on Aristotle. Alexander opposes the Stoic idea that nothing can happen in the world without divine intervention, claiming that it is actually unworthy of God to be involved in every single detail — someone who has to manage every aspect of a task is “beneath” that task (by which I think he means submitted to the task), whereas God must be above it. To make sense of this, Alexander needs to establish a kind of “third realm” between volitional intervention by God and sheer chance — a realm of collateral but still calculated effects. The governance of the world emerges in a contingent, yet conscious way from the universal providence of God, which acts according to the nature of things. Christianity will take up and develop Alexander’s basic scheme. (Agamben also mentions in passing the islamic philosopher Jabir ibn Hayyan and Philo of Alexandria as responding to Alexander.) A footnote explains that modern government follows this scheme exactly — government has a particular goal, yet collateral effects emerge and must be accounted for.

Agamben then discusses the origin of the term “providence” in Stoicism, where it is coordinated with fate. By means of a very long and detailed analysis of Plutarch that I don’t want to reproduce here, he concludes that fate is the specificity of providence, basically equivalent to “special providence,” and that fate operates in a “collateral” or “effectual” way. Agamben believes that these last two notions introduce a significant novelty into classical ontology, substituting continengent “effects” for Aristotelian ends. By creating a bipolar system of providence and fate, this ontology also produces a “zone of indistinction between primary and secondary, general and particular, final cause and effects.” This zone of indistinction is the condition of possibility of governance, which “is not directed, in the last analysis, either to the general or the particular, either to the primary or the consequent, either to ends or means, but to their functional correlation.” A footnote claims that in light of what has been said, the theological concept of the governance of the world and the modern scientific worldview are actually deeply similar, contrary to common perceptions.

Alexander rejects the initial Stoic formulation of the relationship between providence and fate, first of all because of the sheer number of details providence would have to consciously coordinate — many of which, such as facial tics or deformities in plants and animals, seem to have no purpose whatsoever. The deeper reason, however, is that if governance didn’t experience some “push-back” from the world, especially from human action, then there simply wouldn’t be governance and there wouldn’t be a world in the sense of an ordered totality. So Alexander articulates general providence, contingency, and human free agency in a way that, again, is passed on to Christianity and thereby to modernity. In a medieval text attributed to Proclus, called Questions on Providence, the same division of reality into the planes of the general and the particular, which must then be coordinated, holds (the analysis of this text is much longer than my notes indicate).

The direct Christian connection to this basic scheme comes from Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy — providence is the general, fate is the particular. The governance of the world emerges from the interaction between a transcendent good and an immanent oikonomia. (Boethius makes the political implications clear by using an explicit political analogy.) The two levels are intertwined in such a way as to produce a spontaneous theodicy — what appears incomprehensible at the lower level must be referred to the superior level. A footnote discusses a bishop named Salvianus who divides the governance of the world into three levels that seem to Agamben to echo the modern division of government into three powers.

The longest analysis is given over to Thomas Aquinas’s De gubernatione mundi. The big addition for Agamben seems to be the fact that the governance of the world is not coercive or violent, but acts according to the nature of the things governed. Thus the governance of God and the self-governance of things correspond, and it might seem that the concept of governance is empty. Aquinas rejects two extremes, namely that God directly acts in everything (this would make creation useless) and that God doesn’t directly act in anything (this would expose creation to a return to the nothing from which it came). To resolve this aporia, Aquinas argues that the proper sphere of governance is not in the realm of primary causes, but of secondary causes — in a miracle, for instance, God can introduce a new element into the causal chain that accomplishes his greater ends in a way that would otherwise be impossible. But on the level of the primary cause or general providence, Agamben claims, God is “impotent” and unable to act in a way contrary to the nature of things as he had already established them. This distinction between the two levels is essentially the division between being and act in the intra-divine economy, which then becomes a “machine of governance” for creation. It also creates a distinction between deliberation and execution, which Agamben traces forward to the division of powers in modern states.

Later in De gubernatione mundi, Aquinas will repeat Boethius’s use of the terms providence and fate, defining fate as the “economy [dispositio — Agamben often repeats that this is the Latin translation for oikonomia]” of secondary causes. Thus fate is not a matter of substance, but rather of relation. In addition, not all creatures are governed in the same way. God created rational creatures for an end that surpasses their natural capacity, and so the method of governance most appropriate to their nature is supernatural grace. From this point on, the debate over providence is increasingly dominated by the question of the efficacy of grace. But grace remains governance and therefore must correspond to the nature of the governed, meaning that God’s grace must act in us in such a way as to leave us free — as Suarez will later say, free will and grace necessarily imply each other. Thus “the providential paradigm of the governance of human beings is not tyrranical, but democratic.”

Agamben concludes the chapter with what seems to me to be a somewhat compressed analysis of the necessarily vicarious nature of providential governance. The pope claims to be ruling vicariously for Christ, but that is only because Christ himself acts vicariously on behalf of the Father. Agamben interprets the intratrinitarian relationship between Father and Son as essentially vicarious: “The trinitarian economy is, thus, the expression of an anarchical power and being, which circulates among the three persons according to an essentially vicarious paradigm.” It’s not surprising, therefore, that when Thomas discusses earthly rulers, he understands them as ruling vicariously as well. In fact, Agamben believes that the operation of sovereign power is always vicarious: “Governance certainly acts vicariously with respect to Reign [Kingdom]; but this latter has its sense only within an economy of alternations, in which no power can do anything without the other.”

Final paragraph of the chapter proper: “Vicariousness implies, therefore, an ontology — or, better, the substitution for the classical ontology of an ‘economic’ paradigm, in which no figure of being is, as such, in the position of arche, but the very trinitarian relationship is originary, where each of the figure gerit vices, acts in the other’s place. The mystery of being and of divinity coincide without remainder with their ‘economic’ mystery. There is not a substance of power, but only an ‘economy,’ only ‘governance.'”

[Question: what about the divine substance in the Trinity?]

[Note: The “threshold” of this chapter is a summary of the results thus far, and so I am going to just outright translate it in a forthcoming post. Hopefully it will be somewhat clarifying.]

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