“Because God Wills It” Agamben’s Genealogy of the Will from Aristotle to Kant

Giorgio Agamben has been on my mind recently. His new text, The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government is winter reading list material.

In going over my notes from my seminar with him at EGS this past summer, I realize that the second half of the seminar on the will from antiquity up to Kant was incredible. It has led me to think a lot about the idea of the will for the modern subject as one that is theologically interiorized. More of which I will develop below.

My curiosity in the will is in what grounds the will. We see a movement from God (Christian) – to the noumenal (Kant) – to superego (Freud) as the grounding basis of the law that dictates and commands the will. This genealogy is worth investigating, particularly up to Lacan and the emergence of the symbolic from an ex nihilo basis of commandment.

I would prefer not to

“I wold prefer not to” you’ll remember is what Melville’s character, Bartelby repeats and repeats. This becomes the basis of a new mode of ethics, for which I will develop below.

NOTE: what follows are rough notes from the seminar I took with Agamben. Please disregard any typos and or rough transitions. I am still working through it all.

The Will and Philosophy:
When the philosophical tradition seeks to tackle the commandment directly it conceives it as an act of will. But this is unsatisfactory as an explication, since the will is an even more obscure referent than commandment itself. Only crazy people try to give a definition of will! Nietzsche had a better idea when he tried to grasp will through commandment, will as that-which-commands. Nietzsche comments that “in every act of will there is a thought that commands.” A man who wants to command has something within himself that wants to obey and he believes in this obedience, as such every volition is always a question of commanding and obeying.

No one was ever able to define what to will means in classical Greek thought. If we follow the formation of will, we find an interesting fact that this term, “to will” graphs and develops from another concept “to can”. Will and can are modal verbs, which refers to contingency. This is the mode through which being gives itself. The concrete mode of being is split between what is possible, impossible, necessary, unnecessary.

The transition of modern man goes from potentiality to will – “to be able to” to “I will.” Modern man is a being of volition. One of the indicators of the transition from antiquity to modernity was the transition from “can” to “will”. “Will” is a verb known as modal, which means that it is voided, because it needs another verb follow it.

The Origin of the Will in Aristotle:
The will develops from the concept of potentiality. Aristotle’s Metaphysics develops three important concepts that concern modalities of being:

o Dynamis: to be possible
o Dynergia: to act
o Ergon: to work

Aristotle created these concepts to understand the status of human technology, and he points out how man can be distinguished from rational to irrational potentialities. In short he is seeking to answer how this child can become an architect, lawyer, etc. Aristotle laid emphasis on the potentiality of a subject who already has the power to build or not to build. It relates to an idea of possession. What interests Aristotle is when we already have this capability.

Aristotle claims that every dynamis is at the same time a adymana – every doing something also presents its capacity for not doing it. What happens to your capability not to play in the moment that you are not playing? The question is how can we pass through the act? In order to deal with this problem, Aristotle uses the concept of will:

As every rational potentiality is able to do a thing, and also not do this, it is therefore necessary that there will be a sovereign principle – a power that is other and we call this desire / appetite. If every potentiality is always already an inpotentiality then the concept to account for this is desire. Therefore, the thing will do what it desires most.

The capability of thinking will pass through the act when it will. This is used in order to avoid the problems of the impotentiality. There is no free subjectivity that decides in Aristotle. When thinking thinks something, in some way, it keeps some potentiality of thinking, and this is how it is able to think itself. When we pas through impotentiality we keep it with us and it allows us to keep it as such. This is related to the idea that even in a great work of art, you can see that there is still an impotentiality there.

The Christian Conception of the Will: A Debate Around Creation of the World and the Law
As we have seen, the will refers to how we cope with the problem of potentiality. i.e. there is something that separates what you can do, from what you do. It is here the concept of will occurs. A split of what one can and what one does – this is where the will appears in Christianity – referred to Paul’s letter to the Romans – 7:7, a passage that is largely cited as giving support for the will in relation to the law:

What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. Nay, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet.

Law has produced the scene – “you shall not desire” is what ends up creating desire – and this meant death. The effect of the commandment of the law is to produce the desire that it has prohibited. Also the commandment will divide the subject and separate potentiality from actuality. Paul says that the law is not the scene but it cannot produce the scene – we know that the law is spiritual but I am a carnal man. I do not know what I do, what I put into the world. I do what I hate. If I do what I don’t want to do, in some way I recognize that the law is good, but it is not me, it is the scene which inhabits me. I know that good does not dwell in my flesh because to be ready to do is in my possibility to put into the act, no. something has divided in Paul possibility and acting. If I do what I don’t want to do or are not ready to do, then to pass into it, the experience of splitting of potentiality and actuality, he is no longer ready to put into the act.

Origen, an early Church father points out that “all that exists on earth or heaven visible or invisible, in so far as it is realted to the nature of God, it does not exist. But if it is related to what the creator willed it to be, then it does exist.”

In Christian theology, we see that creation must come from pure will, and theologians seek to engulf nature with will. There is no link between God’s being and gratuitous creation of the world. The act of creation depends upon an act of will (in the sphere of anthropology), and this is something immediately constitutive of Christian theology. Essence and will must remain distinguished by God. If being and God were distinguished then God would be one thing at another moment, and this would be impossible. God is not obliged to create the earth – the act of creation is completely gratuitous and contingent.

Which leads to the formula for Christian conceptions of the will that an act of will is not based on necessity. The Christian act of creation occurs as an act of will, and this is precisely the reason why we can relate to Christian creation ex nihilo. Augustine comments on on why God created the earth, “Because he willed it.”

What did God do before he created the earth? Augustine replies: God was preparing sticks to beat the one that asked! St. Thomas remarks that “God asks not for the necessity of his being, but for the arbitrariness of his being.” He excludes necessity to show that the will is separated from nature. This differs from Aristotle, where nature is intimately connected to will.

What is the consequence of giving God freedom? “Man also has a free will, and he must will what he does. He has choice, and he is responsible for it.” Will becomes a way to ascribe action to a subject – to make him responsible for his actions. This also implies that man will be defined not by what he can, but what he wills. In the shift from potentiality to will, then we find a level of responsibility ascribed onto the subject.

The will becomes a disciplining device for Augustine, St. Paul, and Origen. Dons Scotus, the Franciscan Theologian, “The man who wills makes the experience of his not being able to will.”

There are two choices open to man, either the potentiality is determined through the action by itself (it cannot not act) or potentiality is not determined by itself, but it can do a thing and its opposite (Will potentiality).

Will becomes a name for ‘potentiality’ pushed to the extreme in the Christian conception of will. The will becomes a potentiality that is de-naturalized – and this is pushed to the extreme, developed up to the point of an absolute free will. If action results only from the free will, then that action is ascribed only to the agent/subject.

The will arises and appears, yet, where it originates, it happens in a division of potentiality delineating what you can do with respect to the passage of the act. Paul’s critique of the Torah – according to the coming of the Messiah in Torah, this includes an abolition of the law – the end of the law. An attempt to dis-activate the Torah. The term that he uses is Katargeo – making the law inoperative – the word abolish is too strong. This making inoperative of the law frees us from the letter of the law.

The Omnipotence of God:
The problem of the will in Christian theology rests on the point that if God is omnipotent, if nothing is impossible, then it follows that he could not have chosen to incarnate in Christ, but he could have chosen to incarnate in a dog, woman, etc. This aporia also leads to the point of question re: omnipotence. Scandals over whether God could lie, is able to commit evil, etc. were solved through the problem of will. Christian theologians distinguished in God an absolute potentiality – God can do everything, as well as an order, or commandment of potentiality through which God can only do what he wills. Once God he wills it, the omnipotence disappears.

This then leads to a linkage between will and potentiality whereby will is a site for the limitation of potentiality. The commandment of the will of God acts as a final willing, a closure of any further revision or potentiality. This argument gives support for Deism to a degree, in so far as there is not a denial of divine potentiality; they push it into the past.

In Aristotelian terms, what a man does and what he can do is separated. They do not communicate any longer. The comparison to Aristotle to Paul is not arbitrary, because Paul was a Greek. Aristotle says that it is the commandment that makes him see the division.

Aristotle remarks:

“If we posit the premise that all that is sweet must be tasted. It follows that the one that has the possibility that is not impeded will taste. But if there is another commandment that will prohibit one to taste, then the consequence will be that the desire will push you to taste not with the same deprivation.”

Paul points out how the opposition between potentiality and actuality is like a split of two commandments – “I do the evil that I would not like to do.” The duality is the law of reason/God, and the law of sin/body.

What we have in Paul is the splitting of actuality and potentiality, not the birth of the will. Augustine, in the Confession, describes his own experience in the same drama that Paul lived. He thinks he wills something, but he is unable to act. “I could will, but not act.” He interprets this as a fight between two wills. My soul commands to my body, and then my body obeys, but if my soul commands to myself, then it will not obey. There is a commandment to will, but the soul does not will, it will not obey.

Why do I experience in myself this monstrosity? The soul does not command fully, because it is not identical with its commandment. The monstrosity is therefore a disease of the soul, for which the soul is divided into two wills. What is divided is not the consciousness, but it is a division of will and potentiality. The reason for this division is that man is divided from what it can’t do.

Deleuze says that one of the ways that power acts on man is via this split between potentiality and actuality – the commandment is to divide men from what they can do. Today, power divides you from what you cannot do. The modern subject thinks that it can do anything, but what happens is that it loses the experience of what it cannot do. In the modern subject, you lose potentiality and become something based on the possibility of our own impotentiality.

The formation of modern subjectivity occurs precisely in this moment of extreme division – this inability to do what I am supposed to do.

Kant and the Moral Law
Kant in many ways made the moral law inoperable, yet something that the kingdom of ends is able to relate to via the categorical imperative. Our psychological conceptions of the will following Kant are theologically interiorized. What we find with Kant is the combining of three verbs into his ethics: “you must, can, will” – this, to Agamben represents a loss of the role of potentiality into a mode of the will.

But for Kant the self does not appear on the stage of his own action. Adorno locates Kantian self-freedom as its opposite, as self-enslavement, following a certain bourgeoisie ideology. The antinomy contained within Kant’s notion of freedom is the subject’s dependence on institutions to develop freedom. In order to be educated into freedom I already have to be free in a radically noumenal way. The Freudian name for this monstrous freedom is the death drive. As Kant articulates in What is Enlightenment?, human nature needs a master to discipline itself.

Kant moves from a will that is interior to a will that is exterior into the noumenal. The noumenal represents a sort of un-representable, but he creates a sort of duty to orient oneself to a universal law. This is the infamous categorical imperative.

Kant seeks to replace God with a natural law, what he refers to as the moral law. But the subject must correspond his will to a universal set of wills in the Kingdom of Ends. His conception of radical freedom is that which haunts the subject. Since there is a supreme good, but it remains un-representable in the noumenal realm, the soul is possessed by the possession of itself.

So might we see the Kingdom of Ends as a type of limitation of potentiality?

Agamben argues that the problem is the construction of an ethics that is not built around a concept of duty. Spinoza’s ethics is built without a concept of duty – as is Aristotle’s. Any fidelity which will deal with an absolute proposal, or an ideology is problematic in modernity because the ethical and the juridical become confused, blurred, conflated.

Is it possible to look for a third ethics outside of the can and the can’t? For this, Agamben argues that we have a model in Deleuze’s book on Spinoza’s Ethics, where he asks – “what can a body do?” Spinoza grounds everything on potentiality.

One Reply to ““Because God Wills It” Agamben’s Genealogy of the Will from Aristotle to Kant”

  1. A great article indeed, however, I would have liked the author to expatiate on Aristotle’s understanding of the concept ‘will’ and the significance of this concept in determining the strength of character on the subject that acts – put differently the ability of the moral agent to discern God’s will.

    Further it would have been interesting to thoroughly interogate Immanuel Kant’s usage of the concept “good will” in relation to that which God desires.

    Finally, I would like the author to elaborate on what do we mean by “God’s will?” and how do we really discern God’s will in our lives. I do not hope to get simplistic christian answers ‘because those are generally alienating to a person who is not too religious in that sense.’

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