Opus Dei: An Archaeology of Duty


In this follow-up to The Kingdom and the Glory and The Highest Poverty, Agamben investigates the roots of our moral concept of duty in the theory and practice of Christian liturgy. Beginning with the New Testament and working through to late scholasticism and modern papal encyclicals, Agamben traces the Church's attempts to repeat Christ's unrepeatable sacrifice. Crucial here is the paradoxical figure of the priest, who becomes more and more a pure instrument of God's power, so that his own motives and character ...

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In this follow-up to The Kingdom and the Glory and The Highest Poverty, Agamben investigates the roots of our moral concept of duty in the theory and practice of Christian liturgy. Beginning with the New Testament and working through to late scholasticism and modern papal encyclicals, Agamben traces the Church's attempts to repeat Christ's unrepeatable sacrifice. Crucial here is the paradoxical figure of the priest, who becomes more and more a pure instrument of God's power, so that his own motives and character are entirely indifferent as long as he carries out his priestly duties. In modernity, Agamben argues, the Christian priest has become the model ethical subject. We see this above all in Kantian ethics. Contrasting the Christian and modern ontology of duty with the classical ontology of being, Agamben contends that Western philosophy has unfolded in the tension between the two. This latest installment in the study of Western political structures begun in Homo Sacer is a contribution to the study of liturgy, an extension of Nietzsche's genealogy of morals, and a reworking of Heidegger's history of Being.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780804784030
  • Publisher: Stanford University Press
  • Publication date: 9/18/2013
  • Series: Meridian: Crossing Aesthetics Series
  • Pages: 164
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.60 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Giorgio Agamben, an Italian philosopher and political theorist, teaches at the IUAV University in Venice and holds the Baruch Spinoza Chair at the European Graduate School. Stanford University Press has published a number of his books in English, most recently, The Highest Poverty (2013).

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An Archaeology of Duty

By Giorgio Agamben, Adam Kotsko

Stanford University Press

Copyright © 2012 Giorgio Agamben
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8047-8403-0


Liturgy and Politics

1. The etymology and meaning of the Greek term leitourgia (from which our word liturgy derives) are clear. Leitourgia (from laos, people, and ergon, work) means "public work" and in classical Greece designates the obligation that the city imposes on the citizens who have a certain income to provide a series of services for the common interest. These services ranged from the organization of gymnasia and gymnastic games (gymnasiarchia) to the preparation of a chorus for the city festival (choregia, for example the tragic choruses for the Dionysian festival), from the acquisition of grain and oil (sitegia) to arming and commanding a trireme (trierarchia) in case of war, from directing the city's delegation to the Olympic or Delphic games (architheoria) to the expectation that the fifteen richest citizens would pay the city for all the citizens' property taxes (proeisphora). It was a matter of services that were of a personal and real character ("each one," writes Demosthenes, "liturgizes both with person and with property" [tois somasi kai tais ousiais leitourgesai]; Fourth Philippic Oration 28) that, even if they were not numbered among the magistracies (archai), had a part in the "care of common things" (ton koinon epimeleian; Isocrates 25). Although the services of the liturgy could be extremely onerous (the verb kataleitourgeo meant "to be ruined by liturgies") and there were citizens (called for this reason diadrasipolitai, "citizens in hiding") who sought by every means to exempt themselves from them, the fulfillment of the liturgies was seen as a way of obtaining honor and reputation, to the point that many (the prime example, referred to by Lysis, is that of a citizen who had spent in nine years more than twenty thousand drachmae for the liturgies) did not hesitate to renounce their right not to serve the liturgies for the two following years. Aristotle, in the Politics (1309a18–21), cautions against the custom, typical of democracies, of "costly but useless liturgies like equipping choruses and torch-races and all other similar services."

Since the expenses for the cult also concern the community (ta pros tous theous dapanemata koina pases tes poleos estin), Aristotle can write that a part of the common land must be assigned to the liturgies for the gods (pros tous theous leitourgias; ibid., 1330a13). The lexicons register numerous witnesses, both epigraphic and literary, of this cultic use of the term, which we will see taken up again with a singular continuity both in Judaism and among Christian authors. Moreover, as often happens in these cases, the technico-political meaning of the term, in which the reference to the "public" is always primary, is extended, at times jokingly, to services that have nothing to do with politics. A few pages after the passage cited, Aristotle can thus speak, in reference to the season best suited to sexual reproduction, of a "public service for the procreation of children" (leitourgein ... pros teknopoiian; ibid., 1335b29); in the same sense, with even more accentuated irony, an epigram will evoke "the liturgies" of a prostitute (Anthologia Palatina 5.49.1; qtd. in Strathmann, 217). It is inexact to claim that in these cases "the significance of the leitos [public element] is lost" (Strathmann, 217). On the contrary, the expression always acquires its antiphrastic sense only in relation to the originary political meaning. When the same Aristotle presents as a "liturgy" the nursing of puppies on the part of the mother (De animalia incessu 711b30; qtd. in Strathmann, 217) or when we read in a papyrus the expression "to oblige to private liturgies" (Oxyrhynchus Papyri 3.475.18; qtd. in Strathmann, 218), in both cases the ear must perceive the forcing implicit in the metaphorical shift of the term from the public and social sphere to the private and natural sphere.

* The system of liturgies (munera in Latin) reached its greatest diffusion in imperial Rome starting in the third century AD. Once Christianity becomes so to speak the religion of the State, the problem of the exemption of the clergy from the obligation of public services acquires a special interest. Already Constantine had established that "those who see to the ministry of the divine cult [divini cultui ministeria impendunt], that is, those who are called clergy, must be completely exempted from any public service [ab omnibus omnino muneribus excusentur]" (qtd. in Drecoll, 56). Although this exemption implied the risk that affluent people would become clergy to escape onerous munera, as a subsequent decree of Constantine that prohibited decuriones from taking part in the clergy proves, the privilege was maintained, albeit with various limitations.

This proves that the priesthood was seen in some way as a public service and this may be among the reasons that will lead to the specialization of the term leitourgia in a cultic sense in the sphere of Greek-speaking Christianity.

2. The history of a term often coincides with the history of its translations or of its use in translations. An important moment in the history of the term leitourgia thus comes when the Alexandrian rabbis who carried out the translation of the Bible into Greek choose the verb leitourgeo (often combined with leitourgia) to translate the Hebrew šeret whenever this term, which means generically "to serve," is used in a cultic sense. Starting from its first appearance in reference to Aaron's priestly functions, in which leitourgeo is used absolutely (en toi leitourgein: Exodus 28:35), the term is often used in a technical combination with leitourgia to indicate the cult in the "tent of the Lord" (leitourgein ten leitourgian ... en tei skenei; Numbers 8:22, referring to the Levites; leitourgein tas leitourgias tes skenes kyriou, in 16:9). Scholars have wondered about this choice with respect to other available Greek terms, like latreuo or douleo, which are generally reserved for less technical meanings in the Septuagint. It is more than probable that the translators were well aware of the "political" meaning of the Greek term, if one remembers that the Lord's instructions for the organization of the cult in Exodus 25–30 (in which the term leitourgein appears for the first time) are only an explication of the pact that a few pages earlier constituted Israel as a chosen people and as a "kingdom of priests" (mamleket kohanim) and a "holy nation" (goj qados) (Exodus 19:6). It is significant that the Septuagint here has recourse to the Greek term laos (esesthe moi laos periousios apo panton ton ethnon, "you shall be my treasured people out of all the nations"; Exodus 19:5) in order then to subsequently reinforce its "political" meaning by translating the text's "kingdom of priests" as "royal priesthood" (basileion hierateuma, an image significantly taken up again in the First Epistle of Peter 2:9—"you are a chosen race, a basileon hierateuma"—and in Revelation 1:6) and goj qados as ethnos hagion.

The election of Israel as "people of God" immediately institutes its liturgical function (the priesthood is immediately royal, that is, political) and thus sanctifies it insofar as it is a nation (the normal term for Israel is not goj, but am qados, laos hagios, "holy people"; Deuteronomy 7:6).

* The technical meaning of leitourgia and leitourgeo to indicate the priestly cult is standard in Alexandrian Judaism. Thus, in the Letter of Aristeas (second century BCE), ton hiereon he leitourgia refers to the cultic functions of the priest, meticulously laid out, from the choice of victim to the care of the oil and the spice (Aristeas 92). A little after Eleazar en tei leitourgiai designates the high priest in the act of officiating, whose holy vestments and paraments are described with care (96ff.). The same can be said for Flavius Josephus and Philo (who also use the term in a metaphorical sense, for example with respect to the intellect: "when the mind is ministering to God [leitourgei theoi] in purity, it is not human, but divine"; Philo 84).

3. All the more significant is the lack of importance of this lexical group in the New Testament (with the notable exception of the Letter to the Hebrews). Beyond the Pauline corpus (where one also reads the term leitourgos five times), leitourgein and leitourgia figure only twice, the first time quite generically in reference to Zechariah's priestly functions in the Temple (Luke 1:23) and the second in reference to five "prophets and teachers" of the ecclesia of Antioch (Acts 13:1–2). The passage from Acts (leitourgounton de auton toi kyrioi; 13:2) does not mean, as some have wanted to suggest with an obvious anachronism, "while they were celebrating the divine service in honor of the Lord." As the Vulgate had already understood in translating it simply as ministrantibus autem illis Domino, leitourgein is here the equivalent of "while they were carrying out their function in the community for the Lord" (which was precisely, as the text had just specified, that of prophets and teachers—prophetai kai didaskaloi; Acts 13:1—and not of priests, nor is it clear what other leitourgia could be in question at this point; as to prayer, Luke generally refers to it with the term orare).

Even in the Pauline letters the term often has the secular meaning of "service for the community," as in the passage in which the collection made for the community is presented as a leitourgesai (Romans 15:27) or as diakonia tes leitourgias (2 Corinthians 9:12). It is also said of the action of Epaphroditus, who has put his life at risk, that he has carried it out in order to make up for the "liturgy" that the Philippians have not been able to perform (Philippians 2:30). But even in the passages where leitourgia is deliberately connected to a properly priestly terminology, it is necessary to take care not to incautiously mix up the respective meanings, thus allowing the specificity and audacity of Paul's linguistic choice, which intentionally juxtaposes heterogeneous terms, to pass unnoticed. The exemplary case is Romans 15:16: "to be a leitourgos of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles, carrying out the holy action of the good news of God [hierourgounta to euangelion tou theou]." Here commentators project onto leitourgos the cultic meaning of hierourgeo, writing: "What follows shows that [Paul] is using leitourgos cultically almost in the sense of priest. For he construes it in terms of hierourgein to euanglion. He discharges a priestly ministry in relation to the Gospel" (Strathmann, 230). The hapax hierourgein to euanglion, in which the good news becomes, with an extraordinary forcing, the impossible object of a sacrum facere (just as, with an analogous tour de force, latreia, the sacrificial cult, is linked in Romans 12:1 to the adjective logike, "linguistic"), is all the more effective if leitourgos conserves its proper meaning as "one entrusted with a community function" (minister, as the Vulgate correctly translates it). The connection of the cultic terminology of the Temple to something—the announcement made to the pagans and, as is said immediately after, the "offering of the Gentiles," prosphora ton ethnon—which can in no way take place in the Temple, has an obvious polemical meaning and does not intend to confer a sacrificial aura to Paul's preaching.

Analogous considerations can be made for Philippians 2:17: "But even if I am being poured out as a libation [spendomai] over the sacrifice and the offering of your faith [epi tei thysiai kai leitourgiai tes pisteos], I am glad and rejoice with all of you." Whatever the connection between spendomai and the words that follow, the affirmation gains its pregnancy only if, leaving aside the anachronism that sees in leitourgia a priestly service (the Pauline community obviously could not have been familiar with priests), one perceives the contrast and almost the tension that Paul skillfully introduces between cultic terminology and "liturgical" terminology in the proper sense.

* It has been known for some time (see Dunin-Borkowski) that in the earliest Christian literature the terms hiereus and archiereus (priest and high priest) are reserved solely for Christ, while for the members or heads of the communities, a properly priestly vocabulary is never used (leaders are defined simply as episkopoi [superintendents], presbyteroi [elders], or diakonoi [servants]). A priestly vocabulary appears only with Tertullian (On Baptism 17.1; Against the Jews 6.1.14), Cyprian (Epistle 59.14, 66.8), and Origen (Homiliae in Numeros 10.1). In the Pauline letters, which mention episkopoi and diakonoi (in Colossians 1:25, Paul calls himself a diakonos), particular attention is dedicated to the various functions carried out in the community, none of which is defined in priestly terms. (Cf. 1 Corinthians 12:28–31: "And God has appointed in the church first apostles [apostolous], second prophets [profetas], third teachers [didaskalous]; then deeds of power [dynameis], then gifts of healing [charismata iamaton], forms of assistance [antilepseis], of leadership [kyberneseis], various kinds of tongues [gene glosson]"; Romans 12:6–8: "We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering [diakonian en tei diakoniai], the teacher, in teaching [didaskon en tei didaskaliai], the comforter, in comforting [parakalon en tei paraklesei].")

4. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews elaborates a theology of the messianic priesthood of Christ, in the context of which the lexical group that interests us occurs four times. Developing the Pauline argumentation about the two covenants (2 Corinthians 3:1–14), the theological nucleus of the letter plays on the opposition between the Levitical priesthood (levitike hierosyne, 7:11), corresponding to the old Mosaic covenant and encompassing the descendants of Aaron, and the new covenant, in which the one who assumes the "liturgy" of the high priest (archiereus, this time encompassing the descendants of Melchizedek) is Christ himself. Of the four appearances from the lexical family, two refer to the Levitical cult: in 9:21 Moses sprinkles with blood "the tent and all the vessels used in the liturgy" (panta ta skeue tes leitourgias); in 10:11 the author evokes the priest of the old covenant, who "stands day after day for his liturgical functions [leitourgon], offering again and again the same sacrifices." The remaining two occurrences refer in turn to Christ, the high priest of the new covenant. In the first (8:2) he is defined as "liturgue of the holy things and of the true tent" (ton hagion leitourgos kai tes skenes tes alethines; cf. Numbers 16:9); in the second (8:6) it is said that he "has obtained a different and better liturgy (diaphoroteras tetychen leitourgias), to the degree to which the covenant of which he is mediator is better." While in fact the sacrifices of the Levites are only an example and shadow (hypodeigma kai skia, 8:5) of heavenly things and cannot therefore complete or render perfect (teleiosai, 9:9, 10:1) those who offer them, the sacrifice of the new covenant, in which Christ sacrifices himself, annuls sin (athetesin hamartias, 9:26) and purifies (kathariei, 9:14) and sanctifies the faithful once and for all (teteleioken eis to dienekes tous hagiazomenous, 10:14).

Excerpted from OPUS DEI by Giorgio Agamben, Adam Kotsko. Copyright © 2012 Giorgio Agamben. Excerpted by permission of Stanford University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Translator's Note....................     ix     

Preface....................     xi     

1 Liturgy and Politics....................     1     

Threshold....................     27     

2 From Mystery to Effect....................     29     

Threshold....................     63     

3 A Genealogy of Office....................     65     

Threshold....................     87     

4 The Two Ontologies; or, How Duty Entered into Ethics....................     89     

Threshold....................     126     

Bibliography....................     131     

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