They make a desert, and call it an ontology of peace: Some reflections on Milbank

While engaging with the classical Greek sources and particularly with Nicole Loraux’s work last semester in class, I found myself increasingly sounding like John Milbank. In very broad and abstract terms, the question that guided my path through the texts we were studying was whether conflict or peace is ontologically primary — exactly the duality that Milbank sets up between agonistic ontology and the ontology of peace. Furthermore, I found that his narrative where Plato and Augustine are attempting to set up an ontology of peace to counter the prevailing agonistic ontology is basically right, as is his insistence that the key strategy for creating that ontological peace is an ontological hierarchy.

Loraux refers to a memorable image from Heraclitus, who expressed his view that conflit keeps the city together by shaking up a beverage called the kukeon, which is made up of oil and grain and separates out unless it is kept shaken. What Plato is saying, essentially, is that we should stop shaking and let the layers separate out. Treating unequals as equals produces nothing but conflict, and peace will come from putting everyone in their right place.

What’s striking to me is how much Plato recognizes the artificiality of his solution — indeed, he all but rubs it in our faces. The perfectly separated hierarchical city is quite literally founded on a lie in The Republic, and he admits that it will crumble because nature won’t cooperate with the goals of his breeding program in the long run. Augustine is even more up front about the fact that the peace we experience in this fallen world is a sham peace, a pale imitation of the real peace of God (which, like Plato’s peace, is also hierarchical). Yet he advises us to cling to that false peace as preferable to the chaos toward which all worldly interactions tend.

This is why Milbank can make the claim, on the face of it ludicrous, that Scotus destroyed everything. By breaking down the conceptual hierarchy of being, the reasoning goes, Scotus broke the spell of the ontology of peace and unleashed the forces of chaos yet again. The kukeon had settled into nice stable layers, and then Scotus came along and shook it up by (in this view, spuriously) treating all instances of “being” as conceptually equal. In principle, we’re back to the worst excesses of the forever-war Homer depicts in The Iliad.

What I wonder is whether Milbank is a Platonist and an Augustinian in every sense — whether he knows very well that the agonistic ontology is actually primary and irreducible, at least in the world we know, and whether all his bluffing about “robust” ontologies, etc., is his attempt at the noble lie. If he styles himself the modern Plato or Augustine, reenacting their intervention in the conflicts of the classical world, then a lot of his political interventions make more sense: above all his bizarre and seemingly anachronistic affection for monarchy and hierarchy (stop shaking the kukeon!), but also his increasing demonization of Islam. While it may seem contradictory for the ontologist of peace to call for a clash of civilizations, avoiding civil war by uniting against a common enemy is an age-old strategy.

The racism underlying many of his political interventions also falls right into place — because race is surely the modern legacy of the analogia entis, wherein humanity is said in many ways and to many degrees. (Hence it’s unfortunate that colonialism ended so precipitously, for instance.) Yes, the modern regime of race hierarchy is a pale imitation of the true divine hierarchy of peace, but hey, it’s at least an imitation! Close enough for this fallen world! Especially when the alternative is a global war of all against all, right?

In short, it’s a theological Schmittianism that turns absolute cynicism into the only possible virtue, that is willing to go to such lengths to stave off the worst that it invites the very worst. And that’s in the best case, where he actually knows in his heart that racism and Islamophobia are less than ideal but feels constrained to embrace them as a “lesser evil.”

3 thoughts on “They make a desert, and call it an ontology of peace: Some reflections on Milbank

  1. How can the “analogia entis”–whatever that is–simultaneously have a modern legacy and be destroyed by Scotus? I mean, the concept of humanity is far and away the favorite example of a univocal term in classical metaphysics because of its reliability as an agreed-upon definition. Are you saying that in modernity “white man” becomes “God” in the sense of a primum analogatum?

  2. For Heraclitus, who is shaking the ‘kukeon’? I’m assuming it’s the Logos, either directly or indirectly through the forces of attraction-repulsion. If that’s so, in this schema does that mean that Plato is (and Augustine sort of) fighting against god? To me, it seems like Milibank represents a general trend, to put it in biblical idiom, to build a tower of Babel. But I suppose it’s a thin, but crucial, line that separates Babel from Pentecost.

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