Highest Poverty

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  • Book: Giorgio Agamben. The Highest Poverty.


Extended review and discussion by Nathan Schneider:

"Empire is empire, after all, then and now. It wasn’t an accident that Christian monasticism started right as the Roman Empire was becoming, or claiming to become, Christian. Women and men—sometimes bending gender in the process—fled to the wilderness of Egypt and Turkey and Syria where they could live out the more demanding parts of their religion, with one another’s company and encouragement, apart from the commerce of the cities and the temptations of a society built on hypocrisy and domination.

Strategies for making this drastic flight are the subject of Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s The Highest Poverty, which appeared in English earlier this year thanks to a translation by Adam Kotsko, an influential young professor who writes about political theology and popular culture.Editor’s note: Dr. Kotsko occasionally writes for The New Inquiry The book is a careful, if idiosyncratic, study of monastic texts in search of the radical politics lurking between the lines. This kind of turn to the religious past for clues to the secular future has been a trend in recent Continental thought; Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek have both been writing about the apostle Paul, for instance, as has Agamben. And it makes good sense, considering the fact that Christianity did wind up conquering the Roman Empire, and — if Gibbon is to be believed — bringing it down.

The Highest Poverty is part of Agamben’s several-volume inquiry into the logic of sovereignty and law, and into better kinds of thinking about organizing ourselves. Politics in the West, his earlier volumes tell us, rests on a callous dominion over human life. What makes the law the law is its power to deem the destruction of certain lives legitimate. What makes the state sovereign is its ability to break its social contracts in an emergency. Agamben’s more political books, trickling out as they have during the post-Cold War pax Americana, suggest that the torture chambers of Abu Ghraib and the NSA’s aspirations to omniscience are not momentary failures of the system, but examples of its basic function. For the sake of order, we ransom parts of our humanity—but perhaps we don’t need to.

The Highest Poverty examines two medieval Christian attempts, in the name of eternal life, to live this life beyond the reach of ordinary politics: several centuries of monasticism, and then the brief and momentous epiphany in the movement founded by Francis of Assisi. Each, according to Agamben, fails in revealing ways.

A short monastic poem, found in a 12th-century French manuscript, reports the responses of God, the devil, and the abbot to a monk who fell asleep during nighttime prayers. The devil is optimistic. The abbot asks for help from God, who declines to intervene in such a minor incident. No one takes the matter so seriously as the monk himself, who expresses his regret in gruesome form: “Sooner would I have my head cut off,” he declares, “than fall asleep again.” Jean Leclercq remarks upon the origins and original Latin of the poem in an appendix to his sublimely titled classic study The Love of Learning and the Desire for God.

More recent psychology might cause us to shudder at the rapacity of this fellow’s superego, yet a straightforward reading of the poem can’t miss the mercy in it; the abbot fears for his “lamb,” and God rates the nap as no big deal. Rather than from any external authority, human or divine, the sternest reproach comes from the monk’s own ambitions for holiness — not from law, but from a rule he had promised himself he’d enact.

This is the monastic strategy. Nuns and monks depart the imperial world, foregoing its law to live in community with an agreed-upon rule. The rule doesn’t govern life; it is a means for transforming life, for living the gospel more fully. Its adherents wear habits, which set them apart, together. Aspiring to “pray constantly,” as Paul suggested, they recite psalms so regularly as to make the words indistinguishable from their own thoughts. They obey the instructions of an abbot, whom they typically elect, not for fear of punishment, but in pursuit of the freedom to be found on the far side of obedience. As it was for the dozing monk, their own desire for God is their chief taskmaster.

Monastic rules originated in the third and fourth centuries as collections of advice and anecdote from the most impressive desert hermits; they could be followed or not followed as one wished. These were eventually formalized into more structured documents, such as the Rule of St. Benedict, which describes itself as merely “a little rule for beginners.” Agamben documents how these rules sought to insulate monastic life from the Roman legal tradition that governed the world and church outside the cloister. The rules were never meant to be solely texts or sayings; the truest rule is simply a Christ-like life, embodied. “The rule is not applied to life,” Agamben stresses, “but produces it and at the same time is produced in it.”

The monastery strives for an especially orderly kind of anarchy—to be a place where souls can live out the radical single-mindedness that Christ modeled, free from the kind of social order that eventually did Christ in.

The law, however, tends to get its way eventually. By the later Middle Ages, monasteries became firmly enmeshed in the feudal system. Their land holdings put them in a tug-of-war between local aristocrats and the distant papacy. Various orders underwent cycles of ease and strictness, but one way or another they were co-opted.

To aid in this process, monastic rules became less distinguishable from legal codes. Liturgical prayer, meant to be a vehicle of self-formation, became more and more a means of social control. (Noticing this process led Agamben to write an additional book-length tangent, Opus Dei: An Archaeology of Duty, which traces the path from the Divine Office of Christian liturgy to the banal, uncapitalized office of secular modernity.) The decadence of the monasteries, however, made way for a purer kind of Christian anarchy.


As Francis of Assisi wandered shoeless around the 13th-century Italian countryside, he defined what he and his followers were striving for as the “highest poverty” that Christ had modeled—possessing nothing, needing nothing, proclaiming the kingdom of God. In the midst of church institutions that gave the impression of being especially corrupt, including monasteries, Francis’s example exploded into a popular movement. Everyone wanted a piece of his poverty.

The Franciscan emphasis on poverty, for Agamben, represents a critical extension of the monastic rules. Clare of Assisi, who led the female branch of the Franciscan movement, insisted that Francis had given her not a rule at all but merely a “form of life.” He taught his followers by example and by preaching, eschewing the decrees one might hear from a monastery’s abbot. When his followers failed to listen, he didn’t police or punish. “I do not want to become a persecutor to pursue and frustrate them, like the power of this world,” Francis reportedly said.

Rather than isolating himself in a monastery and relying on scripted liturgies, Francis lived in the world but not of it. He discovered, by trying to follow the example of Christ, that poverty could liberate one from the world’s principalities and powers even more completely than a cloister. He stressed that his brothers should wear the simplest of clothes, and eat what is placed before them, and claim ownership over nothing. They should never handle money. As one Latin formula put it, he aspired to “the abdication of every right,” a life entirely outside the law and the legal economy.

The cover of Highest Poverty shows Giotto’s famous picture of Francis preaching to birds; “even toward little worms he glowed with exceeding love,” it was said. Even today, the annual Feast of Saint Francis is when people bring their pets to church to have them blessed. But for Francis the birds were not pets; he referred to animals as his siblings not just out of affection but because, before the law, he sought to be equally exempt.

As the Franciscan movement grew in influence, church rulers became determined to contain it. Francis deferred to their authority for the sake of humility, but still a good portion of his life (and Clare’s) was spent in a series of negotiations with popes to protect the movement from becoming folded into the church’s power structure. The struggle continued well after his death.

Agamben focuses especially on one debate that held the “highest poverty” in the balance — the question of whether Franciscan communities would have to hold property, even if individual friars couldn’t. Franciscan scholars developed sophisticated legal arguments (as Francis himself never bothered doing) to insist that the friars could have use of necessities like food and clothing without actually owning them. It’s an intriguing and dangerous notion, alluding as it does to the possibility of life without private ownership. They cited the economy of the Garden of Eden to this effect, a state of nature in which “all things are everyone’s.”

When you see a Franciscan friar for a couples’ therapy session nowadays, however, you’ll receive a bill at the end. The empire won out. In 1322, Pope John XXII rejected the distinction between ownership and use; the Franciscans would be expected to hold property, and property would doom them to bureaucracy. Agamben blames the eclipse of Francis’s vision on the choice to defend the movement’s lawlessness in the court of imperial law, with legal terminology, where poverty never stands a chance. The friars made a negative case for their form of life, he argues, when they should have focused on making a positive one.

At the end, Agamben puts the burden of articulating the positive side of the Franciscan project on us (and on a final volume to come): What can life look like outside the law? How can our communities provide us with what we need without the theft of ownership?" (http://thenewinquiry.com/essays/commies-for-christ/)