Friday, 2 March 2018

The Metaphysics of Hierarchy #1 Giorgio Agamben's Angelology

Previously, I tried to show how the historical critique of bureaucratic forms of power had fallen into abeyance in the post-war era. I claimed this was in part owing to its misattribution to socialist or welfarist forms of organisation. Thus with the fall of the Berlin wall and the retreat of Europe's mass socialist parties, the problem of bureaucracy lost its immediate impetus. In examining this lost tradition of critique I ended upon the key significance of the concept of hierarchy for understanding bureaucratic forms of order. The origin of this concept within the corpus of an apocryphal 5th century writer known to us as Pseudo-Dionysius and its transmission and reception into common secular parlance in the modern era, will occupy us here.

It is in the work of Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben that the link between the divine government of creation and the secular government of the world has most recently been contended. In his The Kingdom and the Glory (2011) Agamben proposes a “theological-genealogy of economy and government" that would stand alongside inquiries of the likes of Carl Schmitt, the notorious German jurist, who with his studies of sovereignty practically inaugurated the modern field of political theology and coined the term. Agamben's approach to conceiving the legacy of the theological, however, is not entirely analogous with the Schmittian paradigm, insofar as it claims more than to merely chart the secularisation of theology into modern economic concepts in a unidirectional fashion. For economy to find its determining locus in theology implies, for Agamben, that theology itself from the beginning conceived divine life and the history of humanity as an oikonomia, that is, that theology is itself "economic" and did not simply become so at a later time through secularisation (1).
Pseudo-Dionysius' exposition of angelic and ecclesiastical hierarchy as a form of "divine government" during the patristic period is for Agamben a key example of this ambiguous relationship between theology and economy which persists to this day and hence a prime target for his genealogical analysis. However, an immediate challenge to this genealogy and my claims for the centrality of hierarchy for modern bureaucracy comes from the fact noted by Max Weber (2) and in David Graeber's recent work on bureaucracy (3), that social formations of a bureaucratic type have existed for thousands of years. Weber draws attention to the administration of the Egyptian pharaohs, while Graeber points to recent archaeological evidence that suggests bureaucratic techniques such as standardisation of products, storage, certification, record keeping and accounting were present in communities along the Tigris and Euphrates even before the emergence of the first cities (4).

While the evidence is lacking as to whether such techniques implied the existence of a specific class of "officeholders" who specialised in administration, it is undoubtedly the case that bureaucratic type organisation existed long before the Christian period. Consequently Agamben's statement that: "What is decisive, however, is that long before the terminology of civil administration and government was developed and fixed, it was already firmly constituted in angelology"- needs to be put into context (5).

Similarly problematic for defining the scope of enquiry is the ambiguity surrounding the concept of hierarchy itself. On the one hand, as emphasised by Hathaway (6), the apocryphal 5th century writer known to us as Pseudo-Dionysius is the virtual author of the term with the lexical meaning which it has possessed ever since. On the other hand, hierarchy has in the modern era come to designate a wide range of ranking systems few of which have much in common with its original iteration in angelology. As such I am suggesting that rather than searching for an all encompassing general theory of bureaucracy within the angelological schema (a possibility that seems foreclosed owing to the pre-Christian historical precedents for bureaucratic organisation) we should inquire into what unique contribution, if any, does angelology add to the history of the development of bureaucratic power.

My contention is that hierarchy as conceived by Pseudo-Dionysius is founded upon an ontology that in addition to formulating a powerful model of dynamic unifying order also implies a profound separation in praxis between means and ends, which is the defining characteristic of bureaucratic power in the modern era. This separation is affected in the theory of hierarchy by way of two differing iterations of Greek Law, Nomos and Thesmos. It is this scission, rather than the mere structural homologies between the orders of angels and modern bureaucracy, that Pseudo-Dionysius bequeathed to the West. The second part to this essay will deal specifically with these notions. Firstly I want to examine more closely Giorgio Agamben's treatment of Pseudo-Dionysius and point out what I think are some limitations to his analysis.

Both Marx and Weber noted the sacralizing character of bureaucracy. In his Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of the Law, Marx, after highlighting state bureaucracy's love of secrecy: "the hierarchy guards the mysteries of the state and acts like a closed corporation with regard to the outside world" (7), goes on to note that bureaucratic structures possess a "theological spirit" and give rise to a cult of authority: "authority is the basis of its knowledge, and the deification of authority is its conviction"(8). And in his Critique of Hegel's Doctrine of the State this knowledge (of state governance) is given a "bureaucratic baptism" in the examination for position of office holder; "the official recognition of the transubstantiation of profane knowledge into sacred knowledge"(9).  For Weber, sacralization appears in the displacement of loyalty to a person for ersatz "ideas of culture-values ...  such as state, church, community, party or enterprise"(10). These are deployed behind the more impersonal and functional concerns of the administration, providing "an ideological halo for the master"(11).

The Choir of Angels, Scivias of Hildegard Von Bingen 12th century.
This sacralizing aspect of bureaucratic power runs through Giorgio Agamben's analyses of angelology and provides the link to German theologian Erik Peterson's writing on angels. Indeed it is Peterson, notable for his refutation of Schmittian political-theology in 1935 (12), who ironically provides the justification for the "political" and "public" character of the Church, through its liturgical participation with the celestial city and its inhabitants the angels. The idea of participation and imitation of angels was a prominent feature throughout the middle ages and produced a rich body of literature on "angelic spirituality" (13). However, it's not this ethico-spiritual relation that Peterson emphasises but rather "a case of the politico-religious concept or, in other words, of the concept of order of a celestial hierarchy that the worship of the church issues in"(14)

Participation in this "concept of order" is achieved according to Peterson by joining the angels in the singing of praise and mutual glorification of God: "The celestial songs correspond to the songs of the Church, and the intimate life of the Church is articulated according to participation in the celestial song ... it follows that, through them [the angels], even the worship of the Church is necessarily related to the political sphere" (15). This identification between the glorious and mimetic quality of worship and the political fulfilment of the ekklesia is the novelty that for Agamben brings angelology, with its endless multiplications of triplicacies, into view as key for the practical articulation of divine government and therefore as a potential locus for the "signature" of secularisation. Or as he puts it: "The political vocation of man is an angelic vocation"(16).

The cadence of his interpretation of the Pseudo-Dionysian texts is set according to a brief run through some of the principle writings on angelology which emphasise the dual function of angels as both administering and contemplating (or assisting God). From Gregory the Great's Homelia in Evangelium, Alexander of Halles, Philip the Chancellor and Bonaventure, the same division in function is expressed with only relatively minor variations in conceptual terminology (For example Alexander of Halles describes the angels as possessing two "forces" [duplicem vim] (17)). This division in function and the ranking of angels according to the traditional Dionysian schema of triplicacies is also the subject of Thomas Aquinas's writings on divine government which are of special interest to Agamben and return repeatedly as a kind of interpretive key to the ultimate meaning of Pseudo-Dionysius.

Angels are compared by Aquinas to courtiers and provincial governors; "some remain always present to the king and hear his commands directly. And there are others (for example those in charge of the provincial administration) to whom the royal commands are announced by those present to the king" (18). And in the most striking comparison the Angelic Doctor compares the division of angels into three ranks - indeed the very concept of hierarchy itself - with the division of a city into upper, middle and lower classes, into which people of varied occupations and activities are ranked, since "while within the one city there are such classes, all are reducible to three, in the sense that any organised group is made up of a beginning, and middle and an end" (19). It is this governmentalized reading of angelology, which came to prominence during the high Medieval period, which I suggest Agamben projects back onto the Pseudo-Dionysian texts.

Two significant terms are isolated by Agamben in this regard as key to the understanding of hierarchy; thearchia and diakosmesis. The former is coined by Pseudo-Dionysius as expressing the Christianized Neo-Platonic formula for God together with his attributes. In its iteration in Proclus (whose writings Pseudo-Dionysius is heavily dependent upon) "every divine order has an internal unity of threefold origin, from its highest, its mean, and its last term" (20). As such the triadic form of the highest cause itself is also subject to ranking, the terms traditionally being placed in descending order of generality from Being, to Life and then Wisdom. In accordance with the Trinitarian dogma this triadic ranking of the first principle is flattened out in its Christianized form in Pseudo-Dionysius, although the terms still appear independently in his writing as divine names (ónomata) (21). The triadic form is of course replicated throughout the hierarchies, both celestial and ecclesiastical, not only in the ranking of angels and ecclesiastics themselves but also in the triadic form of hierarchic activity as purifying, illuminating and perfecting (22) and in the definition of hierarchy itself as an order (taxis), knowledge (epistêmê) and activity (energeia)(23).

Agamben's translation of thearchia as "divine power or government, a concept that is more powerful than the modern theocracy" (24), reads somewhat forced when compared with the distinctly emanative rather than active governmental tone of both Pseudo-Dionysius and the metaphysics of Proclus. Emanation is a form of analogical thinking common throughout Neo-Platonism and early Christian thought and traces can continue to be seen into the modern period. Broadly speaking it refers to the way in which spiritual principles, in particular God, His attributes and pagan concepts such as the One and henads exercise causality. Crucially for our understanding of the dynamic, unifying function of hierarchy, emanation has to do with the epistemological thesis that the finite must ascend to the infinite by way of intermediaries that only partially capture its essence. This notion in turn has consequences for the circular movement of emanation which is commonly described by the Neo-Platonic authors using the terms mone, proodos and epistrophe (Remaining, procession and return).

Of vital importance is that pagan Neo-Platonic authors viewed the threefold movement of emanation as a natural one and not linked to the action of any singular divine will. As such it is incompatible with much Christian theology. Indeed the near absence of divine will (not to mention the traditional account of creation) from the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius have been a point of controversy and scholarly dispute since late Antiquity. Similarly troubling for attributing a secular governmental modus to the metaphysics of hierarchy is the absence of a temporal element to Pseudo-Dionysius’ descriptions of hierarchic action. In its pagan form the emanations are eternal, whereas in Christian adaptations they occur in time linked to divine providence and the plan of salvation.

As with the absence of divine will in Pseudo-Dionysius writing there is similarly no temporal character to his descriptions of the workings of the hierarchy, whereas the typical Neo-Platonic metaphors for emanation are numerous.  The "processions (proodos) of the Godhead" are said to be an "out-pouring" (upercheousa) (25) towards creatures, playing on established Neo-Platonic terminology in which an effect is said to be "filled-up" (pleroun) with its cause, without that cause itself being at all diminished. The author makes this point repeatedly in at times almost flamboyant terms:

"And, in truth, it must be said too that the very cause of the universe in the beautiful, good superabundance of his benign yearning for all is also carried outside of himself in the loving care he has for everything. He is, as it were, beguiled by goodness, by love, and by yearning and is enticed away from his transcendent dwelling place and comes to abide within all things, and he does so by virtue of his supernatural and ecstatic capacity (ekstatike uperoysios dunamis) to remain, nevertheless, within himself (26).

In this passage we also see an instance of ekstasis (to be beside oneself) used as a metaphor to denote the causal effect of Gods activity. Later, as the metaphysics of emanation receded from Christian theology this term would remain an active concept within Christian spirituality, especially in relation to a personal experience of God or an Angel.

To return to the concept with which we began; the equality of attributes within the thearchy is characteristic of Pseudo-Dionysius' adaptation of the metaphysics of late Neo-Platonism into a Christian environment, but in itself does not account for the resolution of those metaphysics into a hierarchy of angels and humans striving for the light of divinity. Nor does it equate (at least in Pseudo-Dionysius) to a divine will or government as Agamben assumes. It is interesting to note that where the term appears in the modern period it is also interpreted within a governmental idiom, reflective of an apparent slippage between thearchy and theocracy, which is not supported etymologically. It is the case that the Greek term arche admits of an ambiguity between origin and command (as elsewhere Agamben has highlighted). However the "command" of Pseudo-Dionysius thearchy could only be an expression of natural necessity rather than one of will.

Similar issues arise with the second concept highlighted by Agamben, diakosmésis, a term drawn from Proclus and which Pseudo-Dionysius does not use, but which Agamben associates with oikonomia and government (27). The term itself can be translated as cosmic order or more simply ordered arrangement and carries with it associations of ornamentation. Diakosmeo would thus be the causal effect of ordering.  Here again the Neo-Platonic legacy of emanation and thus an unwilled, non-governmental action is felt strongly. The Italian philosopher draws our attention to propositions 144 and 151 in Proclus' Elements of Theology, illustrative, he claims, of the ordered "governmental" implications of diakosmesis. However in each of these propositions and others, diakosmésis and the downward "administering" function (administering insofar as we follow the twofold movement of Neo-Platonic proodos-epistrophe, as resolved into the governmental idiom) is identified with the causal sustaining of existents in being; i.e. it relates to ontology rather than praxis.

Detail from the baptistry in Florence showing Cherubim and Seraphim.
In proposition 145 the causal role of the subordinate orders is emphasised in near pantheistic terms: "For all things are dependent from the gods, some being irradiated by one god, some by another and the series extend downwards to the last orders of being. Some are linked with the gods immediately , others through a varying number of intermediate terms; but 'all things are full of gods', and from the gods each derives its natural attribute" (28). And again in proposition 148 the unifying causal chain is described: "Thus the entire rank (diakosmos) is one through the unifying potency of its first terms, through the connective function of the mean term, and through the reversion of the end upon the initial principle of procession"(29). Finally in Proposition 151 Proclus discusses the paternal (patrikou) quality of the orders of Gods. In language utterly irreconcilable with Christian theology he states that "Fathers differ in their degree of universality as do the divine orders themselves, in proportion to their causal efficacy; there are thus as many diverse fathers as there are entire processive orders of gods"(30)

Both thearchy and diakosmesis are inseparable from the Neo-Platonic metaphysics of emanation in which the causal activity of the first principle through the intermediate orders evinces an automatism that stands in opposition to the active governmental interpretation proposed by Agamben. Government is after all the action of one will upon another. Or, to use Michel Foucault's expression, government is the conduct of conduct. These concepts also lack the implied separation between being and praxis which Agamben argues again and again is characteristic of the economic-theological paradigm (31). Neither of these terms on their own account for the unique contribution of Pseudo-Dionysius in deploying hierarchy as a bridge between Neo-Platonic metaphysics and the Biblical environment. Though both terms do work together within a system of gradation and causal efficacy, both remain strictly ontological concepts without any direct governmental application.  That Pseudo-Dionysius adopts much of the Neo-Platonic language of emanation is undoubted. In addition to familiar expressions denoting emanation deriving from the Greek verb ῥεῐν (flow or stream, which Eriugena translates into refluere throughout his Latin version of the corpus) he utilises Proclus' metaphor of heat emanation to illustrate the participation of beings in the Goodness of God:

"Think of how it is with our sun. It exercises no rational process, no act of choice, and yet by the very fact of its existence it gives light to whatever is able to partake of its light, in its own way. So it is with the Good. Existing far above the sun, an archetype far superior to its dull image, it sends the rays of its undivided goodness to everything with the capacity, such as this may be, to receive it. These rays are responsible for all intelligible and intelligent beings, for every power and every activity" (32).

No rational process and no act of choice; this description does not denote either a God who is and a God who acts, or the workings of a governmental hierarchy as we commonly understand it. It conceives the "action" of the hierarchy as a naturally occurring, unwilled process in keeping with the view of late Neo-Platonism, thus leaving no room for the direct translation into a secular idiom that Agamben points to.

According to Agamben's reading of Pseudo-Dionysius, the barely concealed aim for the author is a general sacralisation of power. This is contentious, however, depending as it does on how one reads the unknown authors intentions in writing the corpus. Hathaway speculates that Pseudo-Dionysius, a "barely converted neo-Platonist" may have been attempting to reconcile Christianity with late Neo-Platonic thought at a time that the very existence of the latter was under threat from the authorities in Constantinople, i.e. the closing of the school at Athens by an edict of Justinian (33). Graeber however notes the enduring theme of a unifying rational cosmos from the writings of the Pythagoreans and its syncretism in Late Antiquity with aspects of Egyptian theology and Babylonian astrology (34).

All of these factors no doubt play a part in the overall form of the Dionysian scheme of “divine governance”, as indeed did the memory of the "global" government of Rome which by the late 4th century extended its administrative power out of Constantinople. The concepts of diakosmesis and thearchia and the overall system involving ordered ranks of agents/causes clearly show how Pseudo-Dionysius adapted Neo-Platonic thought into a Christian environment and framework. However the lingering predominance of the metaphysics of emanation and thus the lack of any account of will, either on behalf of God or his agents means that an analysis of the concept of hierarchy taking in only structural homologies with modern administration and bureaucracy lacks sufficient explanatory power. Ultimately Pseudo-Dionysius' hierarchy is a divine ontological machine, but not yet a governmental one.


-For the English translation of the works of Pseudo-Dionysius I used Paulist Press edition translated by Colm Luibheid: Paulist Press 1987, New Jersey, USA. The paragraph and line numbering follows that editions use of the Corderius edition in Migne. The abbreviations for the specific texts are as follows. DN=Divine Names, CH =Celestial Hierarchy, EC=Ecclesiastical Hierarchy.
-English translations of Proclus are from the excellent dual Greek/English edition of Proclus' Elements of Theology  published by Clarendon Press 2004.
-English translations of Aquinas are from the Cambridge University Press edition of Summa Theologiae 2006.

1. Agamben,Giorgio. 2011, The Kingdom and the Glory, (Stanford University Press, California), pg 3
2. Weber,Max. 1991, Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, (Routledge, Oxon), pg204
3. Graeber, David. 2016, The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy, (Melville House Publishing, London)
4. Ibid., pg176
5. Agamben,Giorgio. Ibid. pg158
6. Hathaway, Ronald F. 1969, Hierarchy and the Definition of Order in the Letters of Pseudo-Dionysius, (Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague), XXI
7. Marx,Karl. Collected Works Vol 3. pg47
8. Ibid
9. Marx,Karl. 1992, Early Writings, (Penguin Books, London). pg112
10. Weber,Max. Ibid., pg199
11. Ibid
12. Peterson,Erik. Monotheism as a Political Problem in Theological Tractates. 2011, (Stanford University Press, California)
13. A good recent collection of these writings can be found in Angelic Spirituality: Medieval Perspectives on the Ways of Angels, 2002, (Paulist Press, NJ, USA)
14. Peterson,Erik. Ibid., pg214
15. Ibid. pg230
16. Agamben,Giorgio. Ibid., pg147
17. Ibid. pg148
18. Ibid. pg151
19. Aquinas,Thomas. Summa Theologiae, 1a, q.108, a. 2
20. Proclus. Elements of Theology. Prop 148 (2004, Clarendon Press, Oxford)
21. For example, Pseudo-Dionysius. Divine Names. 596A and 709C
22. Pseudo-Dionysius. CH. 165B, EC. 532BC
23. Ibid., 164D
24. Agamben,Giorgio. Ibid., pg154
25. Pseudo-Dionysius., DN. 649B
26. Ibid., 712B
27. Agamben,Giorgio. Ibid., pg154
28. Proclus Elements of Theology, Prop 145
29. Ibid., Prop 148
30. Ibid., Prop 151
31. "Providence (the government) is that through which theology and philosophy try to come to terms with the splitting of classical ontology into two separate realities: being and praxis, transcendent and immanent good, theology and oikonomia. Providence presents itself as a machine aimed at joining back together the two fragments in the gubernatio dei, the divine government of the world". Agamben,Giorgio. Ibid, pg140.
32. Pseudo-Dionysius., DN 693B
33. Hathaway, Ronald F. Ibid.  pgs26-29
34. Graeber,David. Ibid, pg170

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