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

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

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

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

Synopsis

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?

Excerpt

The object of this study is the attempt—by means of an investigation of 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 from 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. What is at stake is not so much—or not only—the task 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 cenoby constituted itself as a “regular life” in order to achieve salvation from sin and from the world. Rather, it is first of all a matter of understanding the dialectic that thus comes to be established between the two terms rule and life. This dialectic is indeed 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 (“life or rule”), according to the preamble of the Rule of the Fathers, or in the words of Francis’s Regula non bullata, haec est regula et vita fratrum minorum … (“The rule and life of the Friars Minor is this … ”). Here it is preferable, 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 . . .

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