The Time of Economy

In his The Kingdom and the Glory, Giorgio Agamben demonstrates that the key distinction at play in the theological thinking on economy is that between monarchy and economy; between God’s being and activity. To put it another way, the question that necessitates the elaboration of an economy is that of how to account for simultaneous unity and multiplicity in God; a simultaneity that is later worked out in philosophical elaboration on the doctrine of the trinity.

“Oikonomia,” the Greek reader will remember, “means ‘administration of the house.’”[1] And so, the distinction between politics and economy is founded in (pseudo-)Aristotle’s treatise on economy in the distinction between the city and the household:

…it is important not to forget that the oikos is not the modern single-family house or simply the extended family, but a complex organism composed of heterogenous relations, entwined with each other, which Aristotle divides into three groups: ‘despotic’ relations between masters and slaves […]; ‘paternal’ relations between parents and children; ‘gamic’ relations between husband and wife. These ‘economic’ relations are linked by a paradigm we could define as ‘administrative’ and not epistemic: in other words, it is a matter of an activity that is not bound to a system of rules, and does not constitute a science in the proper sense. This activity rather implies decisions and orders that cope with problems that are each time specific and concern the functional order of the different parts of the oikos.[2]

Once this concept is transposed into theological language it has been generally assumed to acquire the meaning of a ‘divine plan of salvation.’ Agamben argues that this reading is a projection into the ‘sense’ of the word what is in fact simply an extension of the same sense into different denotative fields. It’s not that economy takes on a ‘technical’ theological sense, but instead what occurs is “a displacement of its denotation onto the theological field, which is progressively misunderstood and perceived as a new meaning.”[3]

The bulk of the second book in the pseudo-Aristotelian Economics is devoted to a series of anecdotes on the generation of monetary revenue: a sort of catalogue of governmental money-making schemes. Kings, city leaders, and property owners are recorded as engaged in any number of management paradigms wherein they increase their monetary wealth by variously dispensing the productive relations under their power; manipulating taxes, temple offerings, celebrations, etc., in order to encourage increases in production and tax revenue. What is of interest is the improvisational nature of these unscientific tactics: each is undertaken in order to deal with some contingent circumstance that the monarchic ruler wishes to approach. Often, this circumstance is the need to pay soldiers for war, but in any case what is at stake is the acquisition of commodities which embody a use-value for the ruler. That common law of household economics maintains a constant force: “that the expenditure must not exceed the income.”[4] In Marxian language, the classical origins of economy never exceed the strict temporality of the C-M-C relation: a commodity’s exchange-value is alienated by a seller, who gains money for it, money which is then alienated in favor of a new commodity which embodies for the buyer a use-value. And so, at one moment the monarchic economic actor has at his disposal exchange-value; at another, money; at the last, use-value to be expended for the monarch’s aims. The entrance of credit and debt into this equation do nothing to effect the strict linearity of this economic ‘time:’ what the monarch has in his possession at any given moment strictly limits the possibility of his economic action.

The temporality of the divine economy, however, is not constrained by this linearity. We can perhaps see this most clearly in the mechanism of recapitulation. According to this logic, what is necessary to cancel the debt that humanity has incurred is a sort of return to the original point of sale: from the point of view of this reenactment, which corrects the original retrospectively, the status of the original act of debt changes, appearing no longer as a theft or removal, but as a step in a chain towards the gratuitous redemption of humanity by God. According to the logic or recapitulation, this earlier ineffectiveness of the divine economy can be transmuted into an effective step into that economy. Anselm conceives of the recapitulation by Christ of Adam’s sin in terms of a two-moment motif borrowed from Irenaeus: if the problem of sin is opened by Eve and then universalized in Adam, then it is fitting that repetition and correction of Adam’s transmission of sin to humanity would be accompanied by a recapitulation of Eve’s original act; and so the pair Mary-Jesus comes to echo that of Eve-Adam.

According to the linearity of a C-M-C economy, however, this presents a paradox: how is it that Mary, who is still under the sin of Adam, can recapitulate Eve? What is required is a certain economic futurity: the future of the economy must be able to meaningfully recondition the present. And so, “that Virgin from whom the man about whom we are speaking was one of those who, before his birth were cleansed of sins through him, and he received from her in the state of cleanness which was hers.”[5] In the logic of recapitulation, the temporality of speculation (which, while not absent from Aristotle’s time is clearly delineated from the notion of economy as such) becomes the basic temporality of the divine economy, now freed from the former constraints of linear finitude.


[1] Agamben, The Kingdom and the Glory, 17.
[2] Ibid., 17-18.
[3] Ibid., 21.
[4] Aristotle, Economics, II.1.14-16 (2135)
[5] Anselm of Canterbury, Cur Deus Homo in The Major Works, II:16, 340.