The devil’s opus operatum

In the Agamben book I’m currently working on translating, Opus Dei: An Archeology of Office, he points out a fun fact: the term opus operatum, familiar from sacramental theology, was actually coined in the context of a discussion of the devil’s role in God’s providential plan. The text comes from the Sententiae of Peter Poitiers (book 1, chapter 16, available in PL 211), which I provide in Latin and in my own translation “below the fold.”

“…et diabolus ei servit et approbat eius opera quae operatur, non quibus operatur; opera operata ut dici solet, non opera operantia; quae omnia mala sunt, quia nulla ex charitate. Sicut approbavit Deus passionem Christi illatam a Judaeis et quod fuit opus Judaeorum operatum; non approbavit opera Judaeorum operantia, et actiones quibus operati sunt illam passionem: pro actione enim diaboli offenditur Deus, sed non pro acto; nec vult Deus ut diabolus faciat eo modo quo facit quod praecipit ei facere Dominus. Si tamen inveniatur scriptum quod praecipiat Dominus diabolo aliquid facere, sicut forte in libro Regum (ch. 22) de deceptione Achab, de quo tamen post plenius agetur, non est intelligendum quod praecipiat quasi velit; vel si vult, ut faciat sicut facit. Licet enim faciat diabolus quod vult Dominus, non tamen facit sicut vult Dominus, et ideo semper peccat.”

“And the devil serves God and God approves the works that he has done, but not the way in which he has done them [opera eius quae operatur, non quibus operatur]: the works done, as one is accustomed to saying, not the doing of the works [opera operata, ut dici solet, non opera operantia], which are all evil, since they do not proceed from charity. So God approved of the passion of Christ carried out by the Jews, insofar as it was the Jews’ work done [opus iudaeorum operatum], but did not approve the Jews’ doing of the work [opera iudaeorum operantia] and the actions by which they worked that passion. God is offended by the devil’s action, but not by the act itself; God does not want the devil to do that which God commands him to do in the way he does it. If one reades in the Scriptures that God commands the devil to do something, as is said for example in the Book of Kings (ch. 22) of the deception of Ahab… this must not be understood to mean that he commands it as he wants it. Rather, if he wants him to do it, he does not, however, want him to do it as he does it. Even if the devil does what God wants, he does not do it as God wants and, for that reason, he always sins.”

12 thoughts on “The devil’s opus operatum

  1. I could see how this transition could be natural… during the Donatist controversy where the precursors to this formulation are found, talk of baptism would presumably also often involve talk of exorcism. Upon googling a bit in light of this post, I even found reference in St. Optatus (De Schismate Donatistarum, PL11 1058B) to the non-disciple exorcist of Luke 9:49-50 (though for Optatus, so far as my crappy Latin can determine, the concept has a twist to it – nomen est quod sanctificat, non opus. But the underlying point appears to be the same.)

    Carrying the argument of ex opera operato to this 13th century discussion of the devil is almost a raising of the stakes, then — not only does God smile upon the work of an exorcist who works outside of the canonical group of disciples… He even smiles upon the work of the very demons that are being cast out, so far as their work is considered as it is ordained by God rather than as it is their own work or purpose.

    A modern theologian that might make an interesting comparison is Schleiermacher on evil and divine ordination.

  2. Evan, That’s an interesting connection, but it may be a little anachronistic (I’d emphasize my uncertainty).

    Even if there’s a conceptual tradition going back to the Donatist controversy, scholars generally seem to agree that Peter of Poitiers coined the term for theological use, and sacraments are nowhere in view in the passage I quoted. In fact, it’s not until book V of the text that he finally gets around to explicitly applying “opus operatum” to baptism.

  3. I certainly only meant to be speaking of a conceptual connection rather than claiming an earlier date for this exact terminology. I suppose the usage he references by “ut dici solet” is the key to determining anachronism or a real history.

  4. With all due respect and in the spirit of collegial debate, may I offer a stricter and (I hope) clearer translation (the Latin reproduced here for greater convenience):

    “…et diabolus ei servit et approbat eius opera quae operatur, non quibus operatur; opera operata ut dici solet, non opera operantia; quae omnia mala sunt, quia nulla ex charitate. Sicut approbavit Deus passionem Christi illatam a Judaeis et quod fuit opus Judaeorum operatum; non approbavit opera Judaeorum operantia, et actiones quibus operati sunt illam passionem: pro actione enim diaboli offenditur Deus, sed non pro acto; nec vult Deus ut diabolus faciat eo modo quo facit quod praecipit ei facere Dominus. Si tamen inveniatur scriptum quod praecipiat Dominus diabolo aliquid facere, sicut forte in libro Regum (ch. 22) de deceptione Achab, de quo tamen post plenius agetur, non est intelligendum quod praecipiat quasi velit; vel si vult, ut faciat sicut facit. Licet enim faciat diabolus quod vult Dominus, non tamen facit sicut vult Dominus, et ideo semper peccat.”

    “…and the devil serves him and he approves his works that he WORKS, not THE THINGS BY WHICH he WORKS them; the works having been worked, as it is accustomed to be said, not the THINGS [agents or factors] WORKING THE WORKS; which are all bad, because none (of them come) from love. JUST SO God approved the passion of Christ brought on (him) by the Jews and THE FACT THAT IT HAD BEEN WORKED AS WORK OF THE JEWS; he did not approve the THINGS [agents or factors] WORKING THE WORKS OF THE JEWS, and the actions (doings or driving forces) by which they worked that passion: for God is offended on account of the action (doing or driving motive) of the devil, but not on account of the act (thing acted or deed); nor does God want the devil to do it in that way in which he does what the Lord instructs him to do. However if it is found written that the Lord instructs the devil to do something, as perhaps in the Book of Kings concerning the deception of Ahab, about which however a fuller treatment will later be given, it is not to be understood that he would instruct (him) AS IF he would want (it); OR if he wants (it), that he wants him to do it just as (just the way) he does it. For, ALTHOUGH the devil does what the Lord wants, he does not, however, do it just as the Lord wants (it), and therefore he always sins.”

    I have capitalized the changes I suggest, two of which I will note here.

    First, I have rendered the puzzling phrase OPERA OPERANTIA as “things [agents or factors] working the works,” as the artisanal Latin demands, rather than as “the doing of the works” (grammatically impossible here, for that would have to be OPERUM OPERANTIA, but OPERANTIA would still be a bizarre substitute for the usual OPERATIO). The discrete purchase of this seeming hair-splitting is that the stricter translation opens up what is left out of divine approbation to all kinds of contributing elements, not just the DOING of a certain deed. Otherwise we would be treading close to some sort of double predestination: damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

    Second, taking QUOD in the second period as “the fact that” (more common in Medieval Latin) rather than causally, makes clear the distinction between God’s acceptance of the Jewish involvement in the passion of Christ, on the one hand, and the non-sanction of the contributing factors and circumstances (OPERA…OPERANTIA and ACTIONES), on the other, which go even beyond thetic action. This does not entirely exonerate Peter of Poitiers of a certain anti-Jewish attitude (or at minimum callousness) pervasive in the European Christendom of his day, but it does not quite show him as captive to the extremes of that trend responsible for the anti-Jewish violence of Fourth Lateran Council (1213-15) just after his death (1205 or 1215).

    In other words, despite the unsavory parallels made here between the devil and the Jews (resumed recently by Mel Gibson’s crass film), I think the weight of the text should be placed on Peter’s attempted theodicy rather than his anti-Jewish proclivities. This theodicy, more over, is a clear legacy from the prologue of Job, where the Satan is delineated (and thus “safely” distinguished from God) as the agent (driver) of Job’s sufferings. In this way, God (or at least the God of the prologue and epilogue) is acquitted of any gratuitous cruelty or sadism. Thus the notion of OPUS OPERATUM serves here, as it does in the later sacramental context of the Reformation, as a DISCRIMEN, literally a way of separating out crimes for which agents are still responsible with respect to how certain deeds and ends are achieved.

    This legal coloring of the Biblical, Scholastic and Reformational disquisitions of moral agency is further intensified by the (quasi)juridical connotations of two key words in Peter’s text here. One is OPUS itself, which in Latin also means a task, a job, an ethical necessity even, as in the expression “OPUS EST MIHI + inf.” (I have to, or I need to). In short, OPUS is also an obligation. Not having yet read Agamben’s Opus Dei, I don’t know HOW he makes use of this (though the subtitle with the word “office” assures me THAT he does), but the phrase OPUS DEI can also be understood as divine obligation, both as what God has to do (or has tasked Godself to do), and what humans are REQUIRED to do by God. The other tale-telling term is ACTIO, which is not only action in our sense, or even more fundamentally the driving, say, of a flock, a mechanism or a deed. It is also the technical term in Roman legal tradition for bringing accusation against someone, thereby forcing that person to stand trial before a court and its judge.

    Taken in this light, a second way of reading emerges for the phrase NON APPROBAVIT… ACTIONES QUIBUS OPERATI SUNT ILLAM PASSIONEM: PRO ACTIONE ENIM DIABOLI OFFENDITUR DEUS. That is, besides the specific factors of the Jewish involvement in Jesus’ death, God also so did not approve the ACCUSATIONS “by which they worked that passion” of Christ, “for God is offended on account of the accusation of the devil.” But of course! The DIABOLOS (Gk.) is the accuser (someone who literally hurls across charges), just as the SATAN (Hbr.) is like the Persian satrap whose duty was to inspect the probity of the imperial officials in the provinces and bring their misdeeds to imperial review and judgment (this is by the way paralleled by the Prechristian usage of EPISKOPOS). In Peter’s text, then, God is offended by the self-arrogation of the devil to bring charges against his own son Jesus. In the historical context this took place, through “the Jews,” not in God’s own court (as in Job’s case), but in the human courts of Caiaphas and Pilate. The incompetence of these human courts for a divine accused was, for Peter of Poitiers, what so offends God.

    Which brings me to ask, so how else, according to Peter of Poitiers, was the Son of God supposed to suffer an ignominious and unjust death? In the end his theodicy, like all others, fails to give a proper account of a putative divine mastery (or sovereignty) over (unjust) suffering. This proverbial aporia is signaled by the very self-referential nature of the deponent (because denominative from OPUS) verb OPEROR (I work or operate), which looks passive but functions actively – except in the neuter perfect participle OPERATUM, where it is taken as a passive, as in Peter’s Sententiae (hence OPUS OPERATUM as the “worked work”). But of course, the same OPUS OPERATUM could also easily (and more naturally in terms of strict grammar) be the “work that has worked,” as if something that has accomplished itself, in its own self-enclosed, autistic theater, a tautology that begs and defies explanation and rationale.

    This sacral mystery and absurdity, may very well be, I suspect, Agamben’s point in deploying this sacramental phrase (most likely a legal term in Peter’s time), as the byword in his presumed critique of contemporary capital and its self-justifying mastery over the earth. Accordingly, OPUS OPERATUM and OPUS DEI would be the grand self-realizing work, the unquestionable task and tasking of capital under whose thrall we all labor – unquestionable, of course, only because merely (that is, purely and utterly) unanswerable.

  5. Thank you for your suggestions — I will take them into account as I revise my translation of the Agamben. I will note, however, that I’m going to be favoring idiomatic English over ultra-precise rendering of the Latin, particularly as Agamben includes the relevant Latin verbiage in brackets. So with “the doing of the work,” I wasn’t trying to capture some imagined genetive, but rather the very same distinction between the agent and circumstances and the end result that you are emphasizing.

  6. Upon further reflection on the phrase OPERA OPERANTIA, it occurred to me that it is none other Peter’s (early) Scholastic way of expressing Aristotle’s efficient cause(s). The Latin expression CAUSA EFFICIENS did not yet exist, or probably was unknown to Peter of Poitiers, who more likely got OPERA OPERANTIA either from the translation of Gerard of Cremona (a major contributor to the 12th-century Aristoteles Latinus), who Latinized the Physics from the Arabic, or from associated (Arabizing) digests of Aristotle’s work. This would explain the internal accusative which is a distinctive penchant of Semitic languages but of neither Greek or Latin (James of Venice had translated the Physics from the Greek before 1150). So one option you have in paraphrasing OPERA OPERANTIA is to render it as “ efficient causes.” The purchase of this choice would be in solving the ambiguity occasioned by the deponent verb between “works that work,” where OPERA is the subject, and “things that work the work,” where OPERA is the object of OPERANTIA (though in the two cases the referents of OPERA are flipped between what affects and what is effected). The shortcoming of this choice, however, is it sounds just as wooden as “things working the works.” Still, both renderings are better than “the means of doing the work,” because the latter subtracts the subject (here the devil) from his actions, whereas in Physics 2.3 Aristotle privileges the subject over its action (which together effect change) in the third cause. Here it is the very inclusion of the subject in the efficient cause that allows Peter’s God to disapprove of the devil and his doings, though not his DEEDS, i.e., the effects. So here are my suggestions for rendering OPERA OPERANTIA:

    Either “agents and their agency,”
    OR “the doers and their doings.”

    Of these, I think the second is smoother, but it would also necessitate translating OPERA OPERATA as “deeds done” to catch the verbal relations.

    I fully appreciate your preference for an idiomatic translation in your rendering of Agamben’s work; I would do the same. The translation I offered was merely my way of grounding an analysis of the passage from Peter beyond the scope of Agamben’s use of it, which by your account was only incidental.

  7. I would argue for viewing the (immediate) subject of the act as a “means,” given that any subject’s work, insofar as it contributes to the economy of salvation, is ultimately an opus Dei. Thomas will later be able to speak of the priest as an “animate instrument” in his discussion of the doctrine of the opus operatum — so I think the weirdness of translating it as “means” when (as is clear from context) the “means” is a self-conscious subject who is nonetheless held responsible for the moral content of “his” action may well be called for here.

  8. Understood. Indeed what allowed Thomas to consider the priest as animate instrument of the OPUS DEI were two things. One was precisely the Aristotelian conception of efficient cause, which included the (immediate) human agent of the work. The other is another Aristotelian notion, that of God as Unmoved Mover or final cause (PRIMUM MOBILE). As such, however, God also becomes, in Christian interpretation, the divine subject of an operation that could use created subjects as efficient causes for his own ends (FINES or TELE) or final cause. So as long as you intend by “means” (which however would also effectively cast God as the real OPERANS, thus overcomplicating and confusing the passage) such created subjects, here in Peter’s text the devil or the Jews, as well as THEIR own means and attending efficiencies, then that is fine. My question is, how many of your general readers of Agamben are going to get that on their own? This is why I suggest you give them some help, as minor as the point may be in context…

    Incidentally, the TELOS in Aristotle’s fourth cause could also mean end result (EFFECTUS in Latin or the ACTUM in Peter’s text) as well as a task and an office or magistracy (and even magistrate) in the ancient polis – much like OPUS and OFFICIUM in the Latin tradition. Moreover, TELOS is also a common word for death and for sacrifices (in the pl.) to the (Eleusinian) gods. Against this background, then, we can also say the OPUS OPERATUM of Peter’s discussion is always already a soteric and sacramental OFFICIUM, and in translating this into an Agambenian critique of modern capital and its totalism, we also feel the cold tremor and shivers of the sacrifice, because we are all at present Isaac bound on that senseless altar of Mt. Moriah – and our own sacrificiant. Question is, (how) does the death of God prevent this sacrifice?

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