The Highest Poverty: Monastic Rules and Form-of-Life

The Highest Poverty: Monastic Rules and Form-of-Life

by Giorgio Agamben

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What is a rule, if it appears to become confused with life? And what is a human life, if, in every one of its gestures, of its words, and of its silences, it cannot be distinguished from the rule?

It is to these questions that Agamben's new book turns by means of an impassioned reading of the fascinating and massive phenomenon of Western monasticism from


What is a rule, if it appears to become confused with life? And what is a human life, if, in every one of its gestures, of its words, and of its silences, it cannot be distinguished from the rule?

It is to these questions that Agamben's new book turns by means of an impassioned reading of the fascinating and massive phenomenon of Western monasticism from Pachomius to St. Francis. The book reconstructs in detail the life of the monks with their obsessive attention to temporal articulation and to the Rule, to ascetic techniques and to liturgy. But Agamben's thesis is that the true novelty of monasticism lies not in the confusion between life and norm, but in the discovery of a new dimension, in which "life" as such, perhaps for the first time, is affirmed in its autonomy, and in which the claim of the "highest poverty" and "use" challenges the law in ways that we must still grapple with today.

How can we think a form-of-life, that is, a human life released from the grip of law, and a use of bodies and of the world that never becomes an appropriation? How can we think life as something not subject to ownership but only for common use?

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"The range of primary sources Agamben relies on to make his argument . . . is impressively vast. As his readers have come to expect, Agamben demonstrates an uncanny ability to discover enduring significance in obscure corners of the Western tradition while doing justice to their proper historicity."—Brian Hamilton, Modern Theology

"The Highest Poverty is Agamben's attempt to define what he calls a 'form-of-life,' a mode of living where life and law enter into a zone of indistinction so that one is not able to discern between living according to the law and applying the law to a pre-existing life . . . The first thing that became quite clear in reading this book is the depth of knowledge and understanding Agamben has of monastic history as well as medieval philosophy and theology. He knows the literature, the languages, and the nuances needed for any depth of understanding . . . This book was not written for the spiritual or theological nourishment of monastics and friars. It was written as a piece of political philosophy concerned about the current all-consuming nature of law and what that does to life. Nevertheless, there is a great deal that monastics and friars can learn from the work of Agamben. He shows us a picture of ourselves from a vantage point that we seldom see. There is more to our form-of-life than immediately meets the eye."—Eugene Hensell, American Benedictine Review

"At a time when current anthropological debate has turned toward ontology, this book challenges us to return anew to questions of habits and habitus. The Highest Poverty offers a productive . . . lens through which to examine modernity, its antecedents, and its reimagined futures in the global South. Especially salient for anthropologists is the book's attention to theories of practice and a common life not wholly defined by the logics of capital and formal institutions."—Kerry Chance, Anthropology Southern Africa

"[I]t deepens the insights of Agamben's earlier work and extends them into the theological realm. . . . Recommended."—A. W. Klink, Choice

"Agamben's work remains a thought-provoking and tightly written tract, and a number of trenchant observations can be found therein. For scholars of monasticism, The Highest Poverty will present old texts in productive new lights, and for scholars of philosophy and other disciplines, it will suggest new methods and tools that can be transposed into different fields of study."—Joshua Campbell, Journal of Medieval Monastic Studies
"Like much of Agamben's writing, The Highest Poverty mixes historical, philosophical, and philological discourse with impressive skill. Agamben's book provokes insight through juxtaposition, analogy, and acts of theoretical imagination."—Brian Britt, Journal of Religion

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Stanford University Press
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Meridian: Crossing Aesthetics Series
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5.60(w) x 8.60(h) x 0.70(d)

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Monastic Rules and Form-of-Life

By Giorgio Agamben


Copyright © 2013Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8047-8405-4



§ 1 Birth of the Rule

1.1. The fourth and fifth centuries of the Christian era witnessed the birth of a peculiar literature that, at least at first glance, does not seem to have had precedents in the classical world: monastic rules. The set of texts that the tradition classifies under this rubric is, at least as concerns form and presentation, so diverse that the incipit of the manuscripts can only summarize them under very diverse titles: vitae, vita vel regula, regula, horoi kataplatos, peri tes askeseos ton makarion pateron, instituta coenobiorum, praecepta, praecepta atque instituta, statuta patrum, ordo monasterii, historiae monachorum, asketikai diataxeis ... But even if we keep to the very narrow conception of the term that underlies the Codex regularum, in which Benedict of Aniane collected around twenty-five ancient rules at the beginning of the ninth century, the diversity of the texts could not be greater. This diversity appears not only as to dimensions (from the approximately three hundred pages of the Regula magistri to the few sheets of the rule of Augustine or of the second Rule of the Fathers), but as to presentation (questions and answers—erotapokriseis—between monks and master in Basil, an impersonal collection of precepts in Pachomius, verbal proceedings of a gathering of Fathers in the Rule of the Four Fathers). Above all, they are diverse in terms of content, which ranges from questions regarding the interpretation of Scripture or the spiritual edification of monks to the dry or meticulous enunciation of precepts and prohibitions. These are not, at least at first glance, juridical works, even though they claim to regulate, often in fine detail and through precise sanctions, the life of a group of individuals. They are not historical narratives, even though at times they seem to simply transcribe the way of life and habits of the members of a community. They are not hagiographies, even though they are frequently mixed together with the life of the founding saint or Father to such a degree that they present themselves as recording it in the form of an exemplum or forma vitae (in this sense, Gregory Nazianzus could state that the life of Anthony written by Athanasius was "legislation [nomothesia] for the monastic life in narrative form [en plasmati diegeseos]"; Gregory Nazianzus, Oration 21). Although their ultimate goal is doubtless the salvation of the soul according to the precepts of the Gospel and the celebration of the Divine Office, the rules do not belong to ecclesiastical literature or practice, from which they distance themselves—not polemically but nonetheless firmly. They are not, finally, hypomneumata or ethical exercises, like those that Michel Foucault has analyzed from the late classical world. And yet their central preoccupation is precisely that of governing the life and customs of men, both singularly and collectively.

The present study intends to show how, in these texts that are at once dissimilar and monotonous, the reading of which seems so difficult to the modern reader, a transformation is carried out. This transformation—to an extent probably more decisive than in the juridical, ethical, ecclesiastical, or historical texts of the same era—collides with law as much as with ethics and politics. It also implies a radical reformulation of the very conceptuality that up until that moment articulated the relationship between human action and norm, "life" and "rule," and without which the political and ethical-juridical rationality of modernity would be unthinkable. In this sense, the syntagmas vita vel regula, regula et vita, regula vitae are not simple hendiadyses. Rather, in the present study they define a field of historical and hermeneutical tensions which demands a rethinking of both concepts. What is a rule, if it seems to be mixed up with life without remainder? And what is a human life, if it can no longer be distinguished from the rule?

1.2. The perfect comprehension of a phenomenon is its parody. In 1534, at the end of the Vie très horrifique du grand Gargantua, Rabelais recounts how Gargantua, in order to reward the monk with whom he has shared his unedifying undertakings, has an abbey constructed for him which was to be called Thélème. After having described in all the particulars the architectonic structure of the edifice (en figure exagone, en telle façon que à chascun angle estoit bastie une grosse tour, "hexagonal in shape in such a way that at each angle was built a stout round tower"; Rabelais, pp. 41/118), the arrangement of the accommodations, the style of the vestments of the Thelemites and their age, Rabelais explains comment estoient reigléz leur manière de vivre, "how they were regulated in their way of life," in a form that is, by all evidence, nothing but a parody of monastic rule. As in every parody, it witnesses a point-by-point inversion of the monastic cursus, scrupulously articulated by the rhythm of the horologia and the Divine Office, in what seems, at least at first glance, to be an absolute lack of rules:

Et parce que ès religions de ce monde, tout est compassé, limité et reiglé par heures, feut decrété que là ne seroit horologe ny quadrant aulcun, mais selon les occasions et opportunitéz seroient toutes les oeuvres dispensées ; car (disoit Gargantua) la plus vraye perte du temps qu'il sceust estoit de compter les heures—quel bien en vientil?—et la plus grande resverie du monde estoit soy gouverner au son d'une cloche, et non au dicté de bon sens et entendement [And because in the monasteries of this world everything is compassed, limited, and regulated by hours, it was decreed that there should never be any clock or sundial whatever, but all works would be dispensed according to the occasions and opportunities; for, Gargantua used to say, the greatest waste of time he knew of was to count the hours—what good comes of that? And the greatest folly in the world was to govern oneself by the ring of a bell and not at the dictation of good sense and understanding]. (Rabelais, pp. 37/116—17)

Toute leur vie estoit employée non par loix ou reigles, mais selon leur vouloir et franc arbitre. Se levoient due lict quand bon leur sembloit, beuvoient, mangeoient, travailloient, dormoient quand le désir leur venoit ; nul le esveilloit, nul ne les parforceoit ny à boire ny à manger ny à faire chose aultre quelconque. Ainsi l'avoid estably Gargantua. En leur reigle n'estoit que ceste clause : FAY CE QUE VOULDRAS [All their life was laid out not by laws, statues, or rules but according to their will and free choice. They got up out of bed when they saw fit, drank, ate, worked, slept when they came to feel like doing so; no one woke them up, no one forced them either to drink or to eat or to do anything else whatever. Thus Gargantua had established it. In their rule was only this clause: DO WHAT YOU WILL]. (Rabelais, pp. 60/127)

It has been said that Thélème "was the antimonastery" (Febvre, pp. 165/158). And yet if we look more closely, it is not simply a matter of an inversion of order into disorder and of rule into anomia. Even if contracted into only one sentence, a rule exists and has an author (ainsi l'avoit estably Gargantua, "thus Gargantua has established it"). And the end that it intends is, despite the point-by-point dismissal of every obligation and the unconditional liberty of each, perfectly homogenous with that of the monastic rule: "cenoby" (koinos bios, the common life), the perfection of a common life in all and for all (unianimes in domo cum iocunditate habitare, "live harmoniously in a house pleasantly," as an ancient rule has it):

Par ceste liberté entrèrent en louable émulation de faire tous ce que à un seul voyoient plaire. Si quelqu'un ou quelcune disoit : "beuvons," tous beuvoient; si disoit: "jouons," tous jouoient; si disoit: "Allons à l'esbat ès champs," tous y alloient [By this freedom they were all moved by laudable emulation to do what they saw a single one liked. If some man or woman said: "Let's drink," they all drank; if one said: "Let's go play in the fields," they all went]. (Rabelais, pp. 61 /126)

The abbreviated formulation of the rule is not, however, an invention of Rabelais, but goes back to the author of one of the first monastic rules, and still further, to Augustine, who, in his commentary on the First Epistle of John (7.4.8), had summarized the precept of the Christian life in the genuinely Gargantuan stipulation: dilige et quod vis fac, "love and do what you wish." Moreover, it corresponds precisely with the way of life of those monks who were, according to a tradition inaugurated by Cassian, pejoratively named "Sarabaites" and whose sole rule was caprice and desire (pro lege eis est desideriorum voluntas). The Rabelaisian parody, though comical in appearance, is thus so serious that one can compare the episode of Thélème to the Franciscan foundation of a new type of order (Gilson, pp. 265–66): the common life, by identifying itself with the rule without remainder, abolishes and cancels it.

1.3. In i785, in his cell in the prison of the Bastille, Donatien Alphonse de Sade, filling a roll of paper twelve meters long with a minute calligraphy in only twenty days, wrote what many consider his masterpiece: Les 120 journées de Sodome (The 120 Days of Sodom). The narrative frame is well known: on November 1 of an unspecified year at the end of the reign of Louis XIV, four powerful and rich libertines—the duke of Blangis, his brother the bishop, the president of Curval, and the financier Durcet—lock themselves away with forty-two victims in the castle of Silling in order to celebrate an orgy that would be without limits and yet perfectly and obsessively regulated. Here as well, the model is unequivocally the monastic rule. Yet while in Rabelais, the paradigm is evoked directly (Thélème is an abbey) in order to be precisely negated and reversed (no clocks, no divisions of time, no compulsory behavior), at Silling, which is a castle and not an abbey, the time is articulated according to a meticulous ritualism that recalls the unfailing ordo of the monastic Office. Immediately after having been locked up (indeed walled up) in the castle, the four friends write and promulgate the règlements ("statutes") that must govern their new common life. Not only is every moment of the "cenoby" fixed beforehand as in the monastery—the sanctioned rhythms of waking and sleeping, the rigidly programmed collective meals and "celebrations"— but even the boys' and girls' defecation is subject to meticulous regulation. On se lèvera tous les jours à dix heures du matin, demands the rule, parodying the scansion of the canonical hours, à onze heures les amis se rendront dans l'appartement des jeune filles ... de deux à trois heures on servira les deux premières tables ... en sortant du souper, on passera dans le salon d'assemblée (this is the synaxis or collecta or conventus fratrum of monastic terminology) pour la célébration (the same term that in the rules designates the Divine Offices) de ce qu'on appelle les orgies ... ("the company shall rise every day at ten o'clock in the morning ... at eleven o'clock, the friends shall repair to the quarters appointed for the little girls ... from two to three the first two tables shall be served ... the evening meal concluded, Messieurs shall pass into the salon for the celebration of what are to be called orgies"; pp. 4i—43/24!—46).

Corresponding to the lectio of Holy Scripture (or of the text of the rule itself, as in the Regula magistri) that accompanied the meals and the daily occupations of the monks in monasteries, one finds here the ritual narration that the four historiennes, la Duclos, la Champville, la Martaine, and la Desgranges, make of their depraved life. Corresponding to the unlimited obedience-untodeath of the monks toward the abbot and their superiors (oboedientia praeceptum est regulae usque ad mortem; Fructuosus, Regula monastica communis, chap. 5, p. iii5B), there is the absolute malleability of the victims to their masters, including extreme torture (le moindre rire, ou le moindre manque d'attention ou respect ou de soumission dans les parties de débauche sera une des foutes les plus graves et les plus cruellement punies, "the least display of mirth, or the least evidence given of disrespect or lack of submission during the debauched activities shall be deemed one of the gravest of faults and shall be one of the most cruelly punished"; Sade pp. 44/248—in the same sense, monastic rules punish laughter during gatherings: Si vero aliquis depraehensus fuerit in risu ... iubemus ... omni flagello humilitatis coherceri, "if someone is caught laughing or using scurrilous language ... we order that he be chastised in the name of the Lord by every scourge of humility"; Vogüé 1, 1, pp. 202 —4/3D.

Here also then, as at Thélème, the cenobitic ideal is parodically maintained (indeed, exaggerated). But while life in the abbey, making pleasure their rule, ended by abolishing it, at Silling the laws, in being identified at every point with life, can only destroy it. And while the monastic cenoby is conceived as lasting forever, here, after only five months, the four libertines, who have sacrificed the life of their objects of pleasure, hastily abandon the by now half-empty castle to return to Paris.

1.4. It can appear surprising that the monastic ideal, born as an individual and solitary flight from the world, should have given origin to a model of total communitarian life. Nevertheless, as soon as Pachomius resolutely put aside the anchorite model, the term monasterium was equivalent in use to cenoby and the etymology that refers to the solitary life was dismissed to such a point that, in the Rule of the Master, monasteriale can be put forward as a translation of cenobite, and is glossed as militans sub regula vel abbate ("serving under a rule and an abbot"; Vogüé 2, 1, pp. 328/105). The rule of Basil was already on guard against the perils and egotism of the solitary life, which "the doctrine of charity does not permit" (machomenon toi tes agapes nomoi; Basil, Regulae fusius tractatae, chap. 7). "It is impossible, indeed," adds Basil, "to rejoice with him who receives an honor or to sympathize with him who suffers when, by reason of their being separated from one another, each person cannot, in all likelihood, be kept informed about the affairs of his neighbor" (ibid.). In the community of life (en tei tes zoes koinoniai), by contrast, the gift of each becomes common to those who live together with him (sympoliteuomenon) and the activity (energeia) of the Holy Spirit in each is communicated to all the others (ibid.). On the contrary, "he who lives alone ... and has, perhaps, one gift renders it ineffectual through inoperativity (dia tes argias), since it lies buried within him (katoryxas en eautoi)" (ibid.). If to advise against solitude, "the desolation of the desert and the terror of various monsters" are invoked at the beginning of the Rule of the Four Fathers, immediately afterward cenoby is founded, through scriptural references, in the joy and unanimity of the common life: volumus ergo fratres unianimes in domo cum iocunditate habitare ("therefore we desire that the brothers live harmoniously in a house pleasantly"; Vogüé 1, 1, pp. 182/17). The temporary suspension of common life (excommunicatio; ibid., pp. 202/31) is the punishment par excellence, while leaving the monastery (ex communione discedere) is equivalent, in the Regula Macharii, to choosing the infernal darkness (in exteriores ibunt tenebras; Vogüé 1, 1, p. 386). Even in Theodore the Studite, cenoby is compared to paradise (paradeisos tes koinobiakes zoes), and leaving it is equivalent to the sin of Adam. "My son," he admonishes a monk who wants to retire to the solitary life, "how has Satan the Evil One driven you out of the paradise of the common life, precisely like Adam who was seduced by the counsel of the serpent?" (Epistle 1, p. 938).

The theme of the common life had its paradigm in the Book of Acts, where the life of the apostles and of those who "devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching" (Acts 2:42) is described in terms of "unanimity" and communism: "All who believed were together and had all things in common.... Day by day, as they persevered unanimously [homothymadon] in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and sincere hearts" (Acts 2:44— 46); "the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and one soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common" (Acts 4:32). It is in reference to this ideal that Augustine's rule defines as the first goal of the monastic life "that you dwell in unity in the house, and that you have but one soul and one heart in God" (primum propter quod in unum estis congregati, ut unanimes habitetis in domo et sit vobis anima una et cor unum in Deo; Augustine, Regula ad servos Dei, pp. 1377/17). And Jerome, who in 404 translated the rule of Pachomius from a Greek version, in an epistle refers explicitly to the Coptic term that, in the original, defined those who lived in community: coenobitae, quod illi "sauses" gentili lingua vocant, nos "in commune viventes" possumus appellare ("There are the cenobites, whom they call in their foreign tongue sauses; we may describe them as those who live in a community"; Epistle 22.34).


Excerpted from THE HIGHEST POVERTY by Giorgio Agamben. Copyright © 2013 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. 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.
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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. His most recent book available in English from Stanford University Press is The Kingdom and the Glory (2011).

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