Draft translation from Giorgio Agamben’s The Highest Poverty: Monastic Rules and Form of Life

Translated from Giorgio Agamben, Altissima povertà: Regole monastiche e forma di vita [The Highest Poverty: Monastic Rules and Form of Life] (Vicenza, Italy: Neri Pozza Editore, 2011), pp. 7-10.

[This rough draft translation is intended solely for purposes of personal edification and curiosity-satisfaction. Please do not cite without permission.]


The object of this study is the attempt—by investigating into the exemplary case of monasticism—to construct a form-of-life, that is to say, a life that is linked so closely to its form that it proves to be inseparable from it. It is in this perspective that the study is confronted first of all with the problem of the relationship between rule and life, which defines the apparatus through which the monks attempted to realize their ideal of a communal form of life. It is a matter not so much—or not only—of investigating the imposing mass of punctilious precepts and ascetic techniques, of cloisters and horologia, of solitary temptations and choral liturgies, of fraternal exhortations and ferocious punishments through which the monastery constituted itself, in view of salvation from sin and from the world, as a “regular life” [vita regolare]. Rather, it is a matter of understanding first of all the dialectic that thus comes to be established between the two terms “rule” [regola] and “life.” This dialectic is, in fact, so dense and complex that, in the eyes of modern scholars, it seems to resolve itself at times into a perfect identity: vita vel regula, according to the preamble of the Rule of the Fathers, or in the words of the Regula non bullata of Francis, haec est regula et vita fratrum minorum… It is preferable here, however, to leave to the vel and the et all their semantic ambiguity, in order instead to look at the monastery as a field of forces run through by two intensities that are opposed and, at the same time, intertwined, in whose reciprocal tension something new and unheard-of, that is, a form-of-life, has persistently approached its very realization and has, just as persistently, missed it. The great novelty of monasticism is not the confusion of life and norm or a new declension of the relationship between fact and right [diritto], but rather the identification of a level of consistency that is unthought and perhaps today unthinkable, which the syntagms vita vel regula, regula et vita, forma vivendi, forma vitae sought laboriously to name, and in which both “rule” and “life” lose their familiar meaning in order to make a sign in the direction of a third thing that it is precisely a matter of bringing to light.

In the course of this study, however, what has appeared to present an obstacle to the emergence and comprehension of this third thing is not so much the insistence on apparatuses that can appear to be juridical to modern people, like the vow and the profession. Rather, it is a phenomenon that is absolutely central in the history of the Church and opaque for modern people, that is, the liturgy. The great temptation of the monks was not that which the the painting[s] of the Quattrocentro [fifteenth century] has fixed in the seminude female figure and in the shapeless monsters that assail Anthony in his hermitage, but the will to construct their life as an total and incessant liturgy. For this reason the study, which proposed initially to define, through the analysis of monasticism, form-of-life, has had to contend with the unforeseen and, at least in appearance, misleading and extraneous task of an archeology of office (the results of which are published in a separate volume with the title Opus Dei: An Archeology of Office).

Only a preliminary definition of the at once ontological and practical paradigm, interwoven with being and acting, with the human and the divine, which the Church has not stopped modeling and articulating in the course of its history, from the first, uncertain prescriptions of the Apostolic Constitutions up to the meticulous architecture of the Rationale divinorum officiorum of William Durand of Mende (thirteenth century) and the calculated sobriety of the encyclical Mediator Dei (1947), could in fact allow us to comprehend the experience, at once very near and remote, that was in question in form-of-life.

If the comprehension of the monastic form of life could take place only in a continuous opposition to the liturgical paradigm, the perhaps crucial test of the study could, however, only be situated in the analysis of the spiritual movements of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, which culminate in Franciscanism. Insofar as they situate their central experience no longer on the level of doctrines and laws [legge], but on that of life, they present themselves in this perspective as the moment that was in every respect decisive in the history of monasticism, in which its strength and its weakness, its successes and its failings reached their greatest tension.

The book closes, therefore, with an interpretation of the message of Francis and of the Franciscan theory of poverty and use that, on the one hand, a precocious (premature) legend and an immense hagiographic literature have covered with the too human mask of the pazzus and the buffoon or with the no longer human mask of a new Christ and, on the other hand, an exegesis more attentive to the facts than to their theoretical implications has shut into the confines of the history of law and of the Church. In one case as in the other, what remained untouched was perhaps the most precious legacy of Franciscanism, with which the West must return ever anew to contend with as its task that cannot be put off: how to think a form-of-life, that is a human life entirely removed from the grasp of the law [diritto] and a use of bodies and of the world that would never be substantiated into an appropriation. That is to say again: to think life as that of which one can never make property but only a common use.

Such a task will demand the elaboration of a theory of use, of which western philosophy lacks even the most elementary principles, and, starting from it, a critique of that operative and governmental ontology which, under various disguises, continues to determine the destiny of the human species. This remains reserved for the final volume of Homo sacer.

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5 Responses to “Draft translation from Giorgio Agamben’s The Highest Poverty: Monastic Rules and Form of Life

  1. Hill Says:

    I began to tingle all over as I read this.

  2. Agamben, Highest Poverty draft preface | Progressive Geographies Says:

    [...] Kotsko has made available the preface to Agamben’s Highest Poverty: Monastic Rules and Forms of Life He previously made the preface [...]

  3. Adam Kotsko Says:

    This isn’t that kind of website, Hill.

  4. Hill Says:

    It is, for me.

Comments are closed.


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