On Agamben, Arendt, Christianity, and the Dark Arts of Civilization

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Peter Iver Kaufman
  • New York: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , October
     160 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


How ought one, particularly a Christ-follower, respond to a corrupt, unjust, broken political regime? Peter Iver Kaufman aims to address this question through a historical-theological-philosophical conversation in On Agamben, Arendt, Christianity, and the Dark Arts of Civilization. Kaufman’s entry in the "Reading Augustine" series sets out a table and invites Augustine, Giorgio Agamben, and Hannah Arendt over for a nice meal to discuss the political theology of alternative communities.

Augustine is a common intellectual well for Agamben and Arendt in varying respects. Kaufman plays off the symbolic chord of Augustine’s pilgrim, Agamben’s refugee, and Arendt’s pariah. Kaufman’s central thesis is laid out in his penultimate sentence: they “hav[e] alerted us to the need for radical innovations and hav[e] identified and savaged the specialties, selfishness, prejudices, and lusts that make meaningful renovation impractical” (147). The clearest example of this radical “renovation” being Augustine’s monastic tradition and political critiques in relation to the Roman Empire. Though, contra Agamben, Augustine saw some civic virtues of Rome as being a “foundation on which Christian virtues might construct and consecrate more humane terrestrial cities,” Augustine’s Christianity “mandate[es] a strategic withdrawal […], a decathect […] from the world that […] was being consumed by corruption” (95).

 Kaufman envisions his work as resting on the “conceit” of “draw[ing] Arendt and Agamben into conversation with Augustine’s political theology” (x). For two-thirds of the work, Augustine is the primary conversant. Kaufman blends a historical-thematic approach to recounting Augustine’s thought and biography in relation to politics, drawing from epistles, philosophical and theological treatises, historical context, etc. In these sections, Agamben is introduced to help conceptually frame some Augustinian passages that need a discussant to draw out Kaufman’s desired implications.

The third section is dedicated to Hannah Arendt as well as her readings of Augustine. Kaufman favors Arendt over Agamben due to her more frequent and deep engagement with Augustine, e.g., her dissertation Love and Saint Augustine. Kaufman additionally sees a sympathetic conversation being written out by Arendt regarding Augustine. Early in her career, Arendt was fascinated by Augustine’s role of love in politics and relationships, but she found his philosophical project to be too self-renouncing and otherworldly. Kaufman does break from some Arendtian scholarship regarding her perception of Augustine in her late works. Kaufman sees her interest in translating and editing her dissertation, alongside her remarks to Karl Jaspers, as a sign of an implicit change of critical opinion on her part. Kaufman’s commitment to this implicit change is to find a charitable way of bringing her mid-career thought on forgiveness and pariahs as constructive discussants alongside Augustine’s political-theology rather than critiques.

To clarify, the historical and biographical elements are primarily of Arendt and Augustine after they assume vocational positions in academia or the pastorate respectively. Kaufman emphasizes the thinkers’ intellectual biographies and their immediate historical context, though Arendt and Augustine’s past refugee lives still feature in his text despite not being the center. Kaufman is interested in their dynamically developing philosophies, whereas James K.A. Smith’s On The Road With Saint Augustine (Brazos Press, 2019) would serve as a strong companion (or introduction), proposing a similar thesis from the narrative of a lived biographies as refugees.

The strengths of Kaufman’s conversational conceit are most evident to two camps: (1) those well-versed and interested in Augustine as a political theologian through a historical lens and (2) those looking for a response to the “so what” question from Kaufman’s Redeeming Politics (Princeton University Press, 1992) that Kaufman explicitly states as inspiring this work (iix-ix). For those scholars, the conversational skeleton will present Augustine against a new lighting, allowing for new insights to be gleaned. Kaufman presents minimal commentary and tries to not repurpose Augustine for his own agenda, letting him speak for himself with different conversation partners.

I have some notes on Kaufman’s work regarding a broader audience. First, despite the title telegraphing Agamben and Arendt to prospective readers, the series title “Reading Augustine” is a more apt descriptor of this book. Arendt does get around 40 pages dedicated to her (at the very end of the book), and Agamben receives far fewer with less independence from Augustine. This book is concerned with Augustine despite what readers may initially infer from the volume’s titling.

Second, the thesis is incredibly minimal in its explicit forms that I mentioned. For those looking for Kaufman’s envisioning of alternative political-theological models, they will reach an anti-climactic conclusion, potentially responding with another “so what” of their own (ix). Further, Kaufman’s sub-theses are not well systematized, including the “Dark Arts of Civilization” motif from the title. The reader has to employ their own interpretive methodologies to Kaufman’s recounting of Augustine: such as drawing out this “Darks Arts” motif from the second chapter’s discussion of Augustine’s criticism of violent, Roman coliseum culture. This may welcome interested Augustinians but may intimidate others who would be otherwise interested.

In general though, Kaufman presents a rich, dense amount of quality content and context. I found new illuminating insights, quotations, and cross-references on most pages. However, the dense presentation made Kaufman’s intended train of thought difficult to follow as he jumped from theme, thinker, or historical event with sparse transition. He presents a lot of interesting concepts and diverse critical perspectives, from both primary and secondary texts, but could offer the reader a stronger unpacking of these ideas. This presentation is disadvantaged by a writing style that does not lend much clarity. Sentences are often lengthy and hard to follow, e.g., with superfluous commas or odd phrasings. A re-reading often clarifies Kaufman’s thought, but these stylistic features prevent me from recommending it to undergraduates, interested laypersons, or non-specialists.

Kaufman, via this work, awaits an interested reader to engage with him conversationally. I am interested in the historical interpretations or contemporary applications of alternative political-theological communities that this work may inspire. This book itself only lends substance to that line of inquiry without offering ready-made answers.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Michael Tofte is an independent scholar. 

Date of Review: 
July 15, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Peter Iver Kaufman is professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, USA, and holds the George Matthews and Virginia Brinkley Modlin Chair in Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond, USA.


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