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The highest poverty – monastic rules and form of life – Giorgio Agamben (trans. Kotsko)

Giorgio Agamben

translated by Adam Kotsko

The highest poverty – monastic rules and form of life

ISBN: 9780 8047 8406 1

Stamford University Press, Ca. 2013, 184 pp, £11.99

This is not a book for the beginner, nor indeed for the faint-hearted!  It requires not only familiarity with different languages and their nuances (though in many cases translations are given) but some knowledge of monastic history, and also a capacity to move through meanings of less familiar words such as ‘scansion’ or infelicitous conflations like ‘undesirability’. Having noted these, the book ‘works’; and if we begin with a bit of a plod, the whole is redeemed by a refreshing chapter on Franciscanism at the end.

Lesser questions aside, the author applies himself to the relationship of life and rule. As he puts it, the individual does not promise to obey particular ‘rules’ but to live a life under Rule, in toto, so to speak. It is a shift from the level of practice to the idea of living it – a state of indistinction between rules and life, not a confusion but a new dimension of life – a ‘form of life’. It is, as Agamben says, not merely that the first Franciscans walked barefoot and did not accept or carry money; these do not imply ascetic or mortifying practices but are an indispensable part of a life professed with joy. To quote, ‘This is a form of life in which rule and life must be held in reciprocal tension, or as in Bonaventure who followed Francis, the rule of the Friars Minor is not in disharmony with their way of life.  So the term, “form of life” acquires in Franciscanism a technical meaning: a living that in following Christ gives itself and makes itself a form.” Thus ‘use’ (the way we live) and ‘necessity’ (what must be in some cases) define the Franciscan way of life, which Francis called not according to the church or to a rule but ‘according to the holy gospel’. To do so involves use but not ownership, and the responsibility of taking care – of treating things – and indeed life itself – as though belonging to someone else.

Elizabeth CSF