The Kingdom and the Garden
Series: The Italian List
- ISBN: 9780857427861
- Published By: Seagull Books
- Published: August 2020
Giorgio Agamben begins The Kingdom and the Garden with the assertion that “not only is it not possible to separate the garden from the Kingdom, but they are on the contrary so frequently and so intimately intertwined that it is likely that precisely a study of their intersections and their divergences would wind up reshaping to a significant extent the cartography of Western power” (3-4). Thus, while often overlooked by scholars as blurry and mythic, and therefore theologically and politically “non-essential,” for Agamben the images of Garden and Kingdom are theo-political anchors that situate more obviously political concepts such as “sin,” “human nature,” and “salvation.” Agamben employs a careful reading of Ambrose’s explication of the prelapsarian paradise, noting the beginnings of the movement in Western theology “that will lead paradise to become . . . nothing but the ambiguous backdrop of sin and corruption” (14).
The trajectory from “originary justice” to an ambiguous backdrop for theological dogma is fully developed in chapter 2 (“The Sin of Nature”). Tracing a line of thinking from Augustine of Hippo to later medieval theologians, Agamben suggests that what became of the Garden in the canonically received tradition of Western theology was its reduction to little more than an “ambiguous backdrop”—or a setting to expose the original corruption of humanity and to point beyond itself to the salvific economy of the Kingdom. Agamben registers a chief concern with such an understanding of the Garden: that it situates the mass of human political participants as a mass of perdition, which “insofar as it by definition cannot be liberated by itself, but only through a divine intervention, falls necessarily into the hands of leaders and parties that make use of it for their own ends” (44). For Agamben the totalitarian movements of the 20th century can be understood as resulting from a theological heritage in which the people are forever suspended from their original state of grace, forever awaiting higher ordering unto salvation by each successive political messiah.
In chapter 3 (“Man Has Never Yet Been In Paradise”) Agamben examines alternate “authors and moments in the history of medieval thoughts in which the Garden presents a very different image” and thereby offers a mode of conceiving of the Garden and the Kingdom as more than mere ahistorical settings for the economy of salvation (51). In particular he examines the work of Scotus Eriugena and Dante Alighieri. In this analysis, the Garden represents not an original state from which we are forever removed, but the state of human beatitude which by grace has always been on offer and which has, simultaneously, not yet fully been entered into: “the heavenly paradise, which is not distinguished from the earth one, into which man has not yet penetrated, coincides with the return to the originary nature that, untouched impure awaits all humanity from the beginning of time” (74).
Agamben limns the recurring image of the forest in Dante’s Comedia (The Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso, trans. John d. Sinclair, Oxford University Press, 1939) in order to draw an allegorical parallel between the woods and the image of the Garden. This commentary on the image of the forest in Dante and its relation to the Garden of Western theology and politics makes up the bulk of chapter 4 (“The Divine Forest”). Agamben sees in the figure of Beatrice “a theory of redemption that . . . attributes to the incarnation of the Son a complete restitution of human nature in its original dignity” (92). Therefore, Agamben can conclude that “[f]reedom and happiness are indissolubly connected in human nature —in origin and, thanks to the incarnation of Christ, even now” (95). The Garden then is restored as the site of earthly delight and human justice. And Agamben conceives of the Kingdom as the historical realization of the purposes of the Garden.
Chapter 5 (“Paradise and Human Nature”) critiques the “split that is between nature and grace” (107). Again invoking Dante and Eriugena, Agamben works to argue that what is corrupted in humanity is not “human nature” but rather bad “human actions.” The Kingdom becomes the focus of the sixth and final chapter (“The Kingdom and the Garden”) where Agamben identifies it as summing up in itself the politics of “restoring human nature to its original integrity” (139). Agamben rejects the attempts of theologians who claim that “the Kingdom is emptied of all political significance” (145-6). If rendered as post-historical or pre-historical, the Kingdom and the Garden become emptied of their political force to draw us to the beatitude of human flourishing. And it is precisely towards human beatitude that Agamben argues the Kingdom and the Garden beckon us.
While a compelling contribution to the growing body of scholarship which acknowledges the political nature of theology, the book does suffer on two counts. The first is the presence of typos in the manuscript; these are minor and, apart from the few places where they might cause some confusion (like the misnumbering of chapter six on 128), can be easily forgiven. The second is less minor. Agamben’s treatment of Augustine and the latter inheritors of that theological vision may strike even the most sympathetic of readers as lacking, if not ultimately reductive. In a desire to rehabilitate the implications of the Garden and the Kingdom along the lines of classic Pelagianism, Agamben makes claims that do not seem to follow from the texts themselves. One such example is Agamben’s claim that Dante’s belief that the incarnation of Christ restored to human natureits original dignity was “an absolutely new theology” (92-3). As much of a recent trend in Augustine scholarship suggests (see, for example Rowan Williams, On Augustine, Bloomsbury, 2016) one need not choose between a robust Augustinian orthodoxy and the fulsome vision of human beatitude that one gets when one receives the Kingdom and the Garden as present political images. Was it not Augustine, after all, who defined the Kingdom as the place of enjoyment and of justice rendered among neighbors (Augustine: Political Writings, trans. Michael W. Tkacz and Douglas Kries (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1994, 158)? Despite these limitations, Agamben’s text provides a compelling analysis of the way in which the relationship between the twin theological images of “Kingdom” and “Garden” have carried and continue to carry vast political import.
Mark Brians is the rector at All Saints Anglican Church, Honolulu, Hawaii.Mark BriansDate Of Review:May 2, 2022