Varro distinguished three kinds of acting - making, acting, and a third that he identified with the verb gerere . The distinction between making and acting, Agamben notes ( Opus Dei: An Archaeology of Duty , 82-3), is ultimately from Aristotle’s distinction between praxis and poiesis , between doing and making, according to which “making aims at an end distinct from the act of making, whereas in doing the end cannot be other than the act itself.”

But gerere names a third type of action, which, in political contexts means “to govern, administer, carry out an office”: “While for Aristotle the paradigm of political action is praxis, gerere designates . . . the specifically Roman concept of the activity of the one who is invested with a public function of governance.” The realm of gerere is the realm of officium .

The full development of this “third form” isn’t found in Roman but in Christian thought, in the liturgically-colored concept of officium that is first developed by Ambrose in the work that, imitating Cicero, is entitled de Officiis .

Ambrose follows Cicero point by point, but rejects classical exempla in favor of biblical ones. The result is that “the pagan officia become Christian, the Stoic virtues Christian virtues, the decorum of the Roman senator and magistrate the dignity and verecundia of Christian ministers . . . . it is a matter of transferring Cicero’s officium point-by-point into the Church” in the account of priestly practice (79).

By this combination of Roman and Christian influences, the sphere of officium becomes also the sphere of command. One who commands, Varro says, “neither acts nor does” - that is, performs neither praxis nor poiesis. For Agamben, this carves out a distinct sphere not only in the theory of action, but a distinct ontological sphere, which overlaps with the liturgical sphere.

There is no empirical difference between an action carried out voluntarily and one carried out at the command of another; one who is out for a walk for his own pleasure and one who is walking because commanded to walk are both doing the same thing - walking. Yet the ontology of the two acts are different. And the ontology of the commander and of the liturgist have the same structure:: “Both the one who executes an order and the one who carries out a liturgical act neither simply are nor simply act , but are determined in their being by their acting and vice versa. The official - like the officiant - is what he has to do and has to do what he is: he is a being of command.” Agamben argues that this “transformation of being into having-to-be,” the introduction of imperative into ontology, “defines the ethics as much as the ontology and politics of modernity” (84). And, he argues, is arises from the the chemical reaction taking place when the Roman notion of officium is reworked in a Christian context.

More on: Classics, Philosophy

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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