Cover Page



Preface: The Hidden Dimension of Humanity

Sequence on Modern Ontology

1 From Theology to Philosophy

2 The Four Pillars of Modern Philosophy

3 Modern Philosophy: A Theological Critique

4 Analogy versus Univocity

5 Identity versus Representation

6 Intentionality and Embodiment

7 Intentionality and Selfhood

8 Reason and the Incarnation of the Logos

9 The Passivity of Modern Reason

10 The Baroque Simulation of Cosmic Order

11 Deconstructed Representation and Beyond

12 Passivity and Concursus

13 Representation in Philosophy

14 Actualism versus Possibilism

15 Influence versus Concurrence

16 Transition

Sequence on Political Ontology

1 Cosmos, Law and Morality

2 Metaphysics and Modern Politics

3 The Fate of the Rational Animal

4 The Irony of Representation

5 On Legal Concurrence

6 The Fate of the Social Animal

7 Representation and Mixed Government

8 Bureaucracy and the Formal Distinction

9 Form, Matter and Contract

10 The Antiquity of Historicism

11 The Sovereignty of the Artist

12 Eucharistic Creativity and Political Power

13 The Conundrum of Kingship

14 The Truth of Political Fiction

15 The Two Rival Constructions

16 Creativity and Mixed Government

17 Christological Constitutionalism

18 The Fate of the Fabricating Animal

19 The Fate of the Beast-Angel

20 The Death of Charity

21 Augustine’s Three Cities

22 Church as Cosmopolis

23 Aquinas and Kingship

24 The Theology of Ruling

25 The Ecumenico-Political Problem

26 Supernatural Charity and Global Order

27 Socialism Beyond the Left

28 Critique of All Materialisms


Praise for Beyond Secular Order :

‘Exploratory, daring, irritating and illuminating by turns, John Milbank cannot be compared with anything else in the intellectual life of our times. Whatever our conclusions on the positions he has defended, he has succeeded in posing the questions that have really mattered, so that those who have simply wished not to know, have risked being all too obviously granted their wish. Now in a work of synthesis he revisits his early modernity-criticism, enriching it with the reflections on ontology, politics and theology that have occupied him since. It will become the cardinal text for interpreting him and arguing with him.’

Oliver O’Donovan, University of Edinburgh


‘This rich and many-sided work documents the remoter origins of modern Western philosophy in the theological controversies of the later Middle Ages, arising out of the nominalist rebellion against Aquinas’ synthesis. But tracing this connection has much more than an antiquarian interest. Milbank goes on to show how we can understand the strains and tensions within modern philosophy, and the contemporary attempts at critique, in new and fruitful ways in the light of this history. And he extends these insights to our contemporary understanding of politics. New and exciting avenues of exploration open again and again in this richly suggestive work.’

Charles Taylor, McGill University

Illuminations: Theory and Religion

Series editors: Catherine Pickstock, John Milbank, and Graham Ward

Religion has a growing visibility in the world at large. Throughout the humanities there is a mounting realization that religion and culture lie so closely together that religion is an unavoidable and fundamental human reality. Consequently, the examination of religion and theology now stands at the centre of any questioning of our western identity, including the question of whether there is such a thing as ‘truth’.

Illuminations aims both to reflect the diverse elements of these developments and, from them, to produce creative new syntheses. It is unique in exploring the new interaction between theology, philosophy, religious studies, political theory, and cultural studies. Despite the theoretical convergence of certain trends they often in practice do not come together. The aim of Illuminations is to make this happen, and advance contemporary theoretical discussion.


Sacrifice and Community: Jewish Offering and Christian Eucharist
Matthew Levering

The Other Calling: Theology, Intellectual Vocation, and Truth
Andrew Shanks

The State of the University: Academic Knowledges and the Knowledge of God
Stanley Hauerwas

The End of Work: Theological Critiques of Capitalism
John Hughes

God and the Between
William Desmond

After Enlightenment: The Post-Secular Vision of J.G. Hamann
John R. Betz

The Theology of Food: Eating and the Eucharist
Angel F. Mendez Montoya

No God, No Science: Theology, Cosmology, Biology
Michael Hanby


In memory of my uncles and aunts


In the groves of their academy, at the end of every visto, you see nothing but the gallows.

            Edmund Burke, from Reflections on the Revolution in France


I am indebted to Conor Cunningham and Aaron Riches for the initial suggestion for this book – though in the end it has turned out very differently – and to my head of department, Simon Oliver, for his support while finishing it. Also to Sam Kimbriel for his comments on the project during this period. My other intellectual debts are now too numerous and deep to be readily recorded, but my thinking here has been profoundly informed by continual conversation with my wife Alison and my children Arabella and Sebastian. Also by frequent interchanges with my former student Catherine Pickstock of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and with her former student Adrian Pabst, now of the University of Kent. Finally, my great thanks go to Rebecca Harkin and Karen Raith at Wiley Blackwell for enabling this book quickly to appear in print, to Janet Moth, project manager, and to Eric Lee for compiling the index.


Preface: The Hidden Dimension of Humanity

This book is a successor volume to Theology and Social Theory, and seeks to deepen its analyses.1

Like that book, it is in part an exercise in tracing the roots of ‘the secular’. The first ‘sequence’ of the current book does so in terms of philosophy. A proposed sequel, On Divine Government, will further do so in terms of theology and the history of religion. The reason for this triple division we shall shortly see.

There is an intrinsic difficulty in any such genealogical endeavour. Human existence is split between actions and verbal or other symbolic performances on the one hand, and reflexive verbal theorisations (in whatever degree of abstraction) on the other. Apparently, we usually act without reflection and without reference to our theoretical assumptions. Equally, we often present our theoretical musings as if these arose from a void and were not intended as pragmatic interventions. Yet in reality all our actions assume a mythical, metaphoric, or rational framework, while all our theoretical utterances and writings are practical interventions in human history, whether deliberately so or not.

This means that both acting and thinking typically occur in the shadows, always with half-concealment. As a result, human history but rarely comes to the light of day and we remain unable clearly to see ourselves. The task of the genealogist is therefore to penetrate these shadows, and to reach a level where we can regard actions in the light of their presuppositions and theories in the light of their practical tendencies.

Yet precisely because this dimension of full daylight is hidden, to try to reach it can appear to be a further venture into the murk, a departure from the apparently clear evidence of events on the one hand, and the exegetical perusal of texts on the other. For the problem is that presuppositions have generally gone unsaid in actions, while practical contexts and implications have been obfuscated on the page. It follows that both mere empiricism and mere philology are self-defeating: in seeking to reach the objective, they fail to reach the real.

By contrast, the assumption of my genealogy is that there can be perspectives from which one can see the homology between human theory and human action. Yet this truly illuminating light is hidden under a divided bushel, and can be glimpsed but fleetingly, because what history most disguises through division into thought and event is the deepest substance of its own occurring. Hence, in the name of truth, one must run the risk that any claim to illuminate human history at depth will present conclusions that can seem excessively abstruse or even implausible. Yet it may be this very abstruseness that is the mark of their authenticity.

Such a circumstance is not a licence for guesswork, even if it reveals the unavoidable need for interpretative ‘abduction’ that necessarily goes (one hopes with caution and good judgement) ‘beyond the evidence’. Of course as much evidence as can be gleaned should be gleaned, yet the most relevant evidence here is the witness of elusive echo back and forth between the two registers of verba and pragmata.

Given my argued position therefore, it is not simply a matter of seeing whether or not these echoes can be traced. Rather, it is taken to be the case, for reasons of historical ontology, that a deep homology must exist, since specifically human action is theoretically informed and all human words have a performative dimension. Also, given the fact that human beings can communicate with each other in greater or lesser degrees, one must apply this principle at a more collective level: there will always be a shared hidden horizon of coincidence between act and meaning, whether at the level of a locality, a culture, or the entire human race – which undoubtedly shares, at some level, a single culture.

In consequence, the presupposition of this book is that there has to exist a concealed symmetry between the most rarefied expressions of modern thought in ‘philosophy’, on the one hand, and modernity’s collective ‘political’ deeds on the other. A further presupposition is that it is possible to take a short cut to locating this isomorphism by looking at specifically ‘political philosophy’ or ‘political theory’ in the broadest sense (as much of it is the work of jurists and not of philosophers). For it is likely that within this discourse metaphysical abstraction and lived events will theoretically come together in a markedly acute fashion

It should be noted that this is a different proposal from that of reading the history of political thought ‘contextually’, though that is involved and by no means disparaged. Instead, it is rather that political thought is taken to be a level of writing that begins to disclose a concealed, more ultimate ‘context’ that is itself theoretical as much as practical.

The focus of the present book is therefore on a certain homology between metaphysical philosophy, on the one hand, and political philosophy on the other. Within the scope of theory at least, it is intended to show how ideas about being coincide with ideas about human action. What is ‘seen’ corresponds to what is done or made, in accordance with the Aristotelian understanding that, while an ergon proceeds from an essence, an essence is something that always performs an ergon, such that a blinded eye is for Aristotle no longer an eye at all.2

These are the formal dimensions of my enquiry. Substantively, as in Theology and Social Theory, I shall try to show that what is apparently ‘secular’ in modern general ontology, and then in political ontology, in reality derives from specific currents of theology, questionable from the point of view of the most authentic Christian tradition. It is, ironically, certain particular modes of theology which first invent and encourage ‘secularisation’ and then, because of their unbelievability, invite an agnostic and atheist scepticism which eventually engenders nihilism as a kind of truncated theological via moderna.

More specifically, in the first sequence, ‘On Modern Ontology’, I identify four assumptions of modern philosophy, which all derive from late medieval, largely Franciscan-inspired currents, besides early modern scholasticism and Baroque Augustinianism which themselves lie within their slipstream. These are: (1) the univocity rather than analogy of being; (2) knowledge by representation rather than identity; (3) the priority of the possible over the actual; and (4) causality as ‘concurrence’ rather than ‘influence’. These assumptions are all profoundly linked to the equally important invention of a novel space of ‘pure nature’, independent of the human natural orientation to the supernatural as taught by the Church Fathers and the high Middle Ages, but then largely abandoned by late medieval and early modern theology.

In each instance we have a rationalist reduction of real mystery, which itself tends to render the real rationally problematic. In the first case, everything is now seen as unambiguously ‘the same’ or else, with equal unambiguity ‘different’; in the second case, to know something is seen as an unproblematic and, it is hoped, exact ‘copying’; in the third case, mystery is drained from actual depths since anything existent is seen as a mere instantiation of a logical or mathematically definable instance; in the fourth case, co-operating causes are seen as lying extrinsically side by side and not as obscurely interfering with each other. As to the notion of ‘pure nature’, it opens out the space of secular autonomy itself, within which all transcendent reference will eventually be denied.

These four aspects of modern ontology, as linked to the theology of natura pura, are traced in the first sequence of the book, along with their ramifications and several main developments. The alternative, more traditional, positions are also sketched out and defended, along with some initial suggestions for how these might be updated (for the criticisms of these positions are not always simply ‘wrong’ and cannot just be dismissed and ignored).

Already, however, of these four aspects it is ‘representation’ which is given the longest consideration, because modern ontology is so constituted that (not without contradiction) it gives primacy to the theory of knowledge rather than to the theory of being.

The second sequence, ‘On Political Ontology’, then traces the assumptions about, and recommendations for human action in the political field, in the case of both modern and pre-modern western thought. In the case of modern thought it is constantly indicated how there are correlations between the four general ontological assumptions and more specific political ones. The field of ‘pure nature’ is here adumbrated in terms of procedures at once univocally constructive according to a mathesis of human rational artifice and representationally mimetic both of a supposed human nature and of human society reduced to measurable quanta. Political power is defined as a reserve of potential that is enacted through will, rather than by an actualising ‘eruption’ of human society (as the Thomistically influenced John Fortescue put it in the late Middle Ages) that is already contingently actual, like an embryo with a heart that later gives rise to its own head.3 Finally, the formal and material aspects of human social existence are seen as concurrently coinciding, rather than as organically blended.

These correlations are, however, complex and overlapping, while ‘representation’, unsurprisingly, is, in political terms, a particularly crucial contested category. The importance of ‘representative’ democracy in the modern era is shown to correlate with the reign of epistemology in philosophy, while older, medieval notions of political representation are shown to correlate with an earlier ‘knowledge by identity’ in which the representation of being played a very different role. For medieval political thought, ‘representation by identity’ is the most crucial ontological category, but there is no equivalent domination of ‘identity’ over analogy, actuality and influence in the ontological field at large, precisely because in the pre-modern era ontology held unequivocal priority over the theory of understanding.

It is also the case that my perspective necessarily means that politics intrudes already in the first sequence, while the second often continues to expound the nature of general ontology, both pre-modern and modern. In the case of both sequences, I have tried to aid the reader by concentrating on essentials – referring frequently to some of my published articles for those in search of more details.

Since it is the case that in political theory the human ergon as at once envisaged and enacted comes particularly to view, the most crucial category of political thought can be considered to be the anthropological. So in this sequence a second theme of my theoretical symphony more clearly emerges, alongside the fourfold contrast of ontological perspectives. This second theme is the relation of humanity to animality.

Here the rationalisation and eventual secularisation of political ontology further surfaces in terms of (1) the sundering of human life from human reason; (2) the sundering of human nature from human society; (3) the sundering of human nature from human culture; and (4) the sundering of human nature from supernatural grace. There is a broad correspondence between these four categories of modern anthropology and the four categories of modern ontology plus the invention of natura pura, but not a one-to-one correlation.

By contrast, pre-modern Christian thought defined Man as a rational animal, as a social animal, as a fabricating animal (homo faber), and as destined to the beatific vision. In every case, I argue that one is dealing with an ‘addition’ that is seen as paradoxically essential: this is what I dub ‘trans-organicity’. It is such a realistic paradoxicality that modern rationalism, whether theological or secularist, is most of all unable to stomach.

All this can sound as if what I am proposing is a straightforward defence of the ancients against the moderns. But that is not exactly the case. Rather, what I wish to do is thoroughly to upset the usual duality of periodisation which sets a very recent modernity against all that has gone before in western human history, and perhaps human history in toto.

This revisionary perspective is articulated in the following ways:

1 The Christian-versus-pagan axis continues to be seen as fundamental for western history, right up to the present. In the first place, this is because Christianity ‘democratises’ the antique commitment to trans-organicity and virtue.
2 In the second place, antiquity by and large knew of no ‘pure nature’, but already referred the natural to the supernatural, albeit this was too confined to intra-cosmic terms. Thus, as Eric Voegelin intimated, any notion (even those sometimes entertained by the high Middle Ages themselves) that Christian revelation simply ‘added’ the supernatural to a ‘nature’ known to the pagans is historically too simple.4
3 In consequence, the ‘nature’ to which modern secularists appeal is a post-Christian phenomenon of dubious stature outside a Christian framework. For even if neo-scholastic theology falsely proclaimed the autonomy of a natural end, the self-contained coherence and the validity of this end still only made sense as something ordained by God. In purely secular terms there really can be no such regulated or self-regulating nature – only the randomness and contingency of matter and force. In this sense there is no ‘modern’ that one might care to defend, since it has always already been the ‘postmodern’ and always been prepared to accept, with Nietzsche, that without nature one might after all envisage matter as guided by a darkly supernatural, neo-pagan vitality.
4 The normal ‘Whig’ periodisation which sees a smooth transition from Renaissance to Enlightenment (still retained by Michael Allen Gillespie, even though he recognises the nominalist origins of modernity5) to the various modes of positivism, is false. I argue instead that some lines of the Christian Renaissance consummated medieval thinking (even though there were also nominalist humanist currents, to be fair to Gillespie), while the main line of modernity is derived from late medieval nominalist-voluntatist theology and from the quasi-Augustinian ‘Counter-Renaissance’ of the seventeenth century.
5 The Enlightenment (which is not treated in detail in this book) needs to be more diversely analysed in ‘long Renaissance’, ‘long Reformation’, and ‘long Counter-Renaissance’ perspectives. In this light it can be divided into (a) a Christian and sometimes post-Christian Ciceronian-Stoic reaction against the voluntarism of ‘modern Christian’ thought; (b) a perpetuation of Reformation and Counter-Renaissance currents in a more Unitarian, Arian-Newtonian idiom (most so-called ‘deists’ having actually been heterodox Christians) which was often also Masonic; (c) a ‘Radical Enlightenment’ which was Brunonian-Hermetic and Spinozistic and frequently likewise Masonic; (d) a fully atheist Enlightenment which broke with immanentist vitalism in favour of cosmic mechanism. Only the final and most minority branch is non-religious.6
6 By contrast, pre-Romanticism and early Romanticism (in Germany especially, but also in France and Britain) cannot at all be understood as a straightforward further extension of any of these modes of enlightenment. It rejected both the ‘disenchanted transcendence’ of (b) and the ‘enchanted immanence’ of (c) in favour of a newly enchanted transcendence which effectively reinstated medieval gothic and Renaissance currents in new poetic guise. Despite or even because of its syncretism which might reincorporate pagan elements, its impulse was fundamentally in the direction of orthodox Christianity, showing many intimations of what had been lost since the high Middle Ages.7 The later ‘dark’ Romanticism of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche was, by contrast, largely due to the renewed influence of the Enlightenment thinkers Kant and Goethe. It follows that, as Charles Taylor has suggested, our current modernity is the product of several competing Enlightenment visions, the tension between them and Romanticism, and finally the division within Romanticism itself.8 It is largely because my sympathies lie with the spirit of early Romanticism and its attempt considerably to re-envision Christian orthodoxy, that my position cannot be considered simply ‘reactionary’ or ‘nostalgic’.
7 Since modern philosophy is informed mainly by nominalism and the Counter-Renaissance, it does not, as is usually thought, favour the activity and the constructivism of the human intellect, save in a bastardised sense which I explain in this book.9 To the contrary, it is antique and medieval thought which truly envisages the activity of reason. So if such a perspective gets much extended by Renaissance and Romantic notions, this is in continuity with tradition and not in the name of anything modern – if modernity is paradigmatically understood in terms of the dominance of mathesis and techne over poesis. Perhaps this conclusion is what most of all upsets the usual contrast of the moderns with the ancients.
8 For related reasons, historicism cannot straightforwardly be considered as something specifically modern. To begin with, the sense of estranged distance from the past is initially the fruit of the Christian contrast between old and new covenants and with the pagan world. Even the Renaissance sense of a loss of pagan glories is not unanticipated by Patristic accounts of the general decline of the human race and the way that pagans often put contemporary Christians to shame. Partly for this reason, the first attempt to ‘re-gather’ pagan wisdom was made as early as the Anglo-Saxon period in England, and this impulse was then sustained through the influence of the Englishman Alcuin at Charlemagne’s court in the tenth century and in various monastic and cathedral schools in the twelfth. The sense faintly present later on in ‘the’ Renaissance and then more emphatically in the Enlightenment of a distance of the modern world from a superstitious and benighted past cannot be considered to be fully fledged historicism (as I am defining it) because it is more a celebration of a final exit from historicity. By contrast, true historicism from Herder onwards concerns the truth that we can never escape specific historical roots or presuppositions. As later elaborated by Søren Kierkegaard and Charles Péguy, it also implies (beyond any reductive sense that people are ‘confined by their epoch’) that the lived history of memory and non-identical repetition is truer to the reality of the past than the work of the academic historian.10 For if, as I have argued, enacted events have imaginative and theoretical horizons, then even the ‘facts’ of what has occurred only get clarified in the light of later re-enactments and later recallings. To say that these can ‘falsify’ is true, but superficial; more fundamentally they alone establish the truth of the occurrence of what has occurred. There can be no storming of the Bastille as a historical event (as opposed to a clashing of material atoms) without its annual commemoration, as Péguy famously concluded.11 It is indeed collective memory and re-enactment which get initially closer to ‘the hidden dimension of humanity’ where vision and act form a single essence-ergon. However, such memory always requires a re-purging, both at a popular and a critical academic level. The latter is part of what I am trying to undertake in the current book.
9 If such critical historicism is rooted in the organic and popular historicism of memory and non-identical repetition, then it becomes possible to see how the Middle Ages, both as a traditional culture and as a Christian culture rooted in a commemorated event of rupture with an older past, were latently historicist through their activist account of memory and thought. For this reason the early Romantic historicist predilection for the gothic was in a way a tautologous predilection for an incipiently historicist culture.
10 Even with respect to the truth that historicism involves an awareness that ‘humans make history’ and so that the human being is a fabricating, creative animal, I shall show, following Ernst Kantorowicz, that the root of this awareness lies in the pre-Renaissance gothic period.12 It arises not only under Christian auspices, but initially with specifically legal and political reference. Once more the idea of a ‘passive’ past and an ‘active and creative’ modernity is disturbed. For this contrast is used to conceal the way in which the modern dominance of techne is linked not with a Promethean pride in production, but with a falsely pious inflation of passive theory that exalts both the autonomy of a humanly available subjective a priori and an empiricist reduction of reality to manipulable ‘objectified’ items. In either case it is exactly ars, or creative activity envisaged as participating in the divine creation – and so as teleologically guided by the inspired vision of the emerging artefact itself – that is suppressed.
11 Conservatism, I contend, is just as modern a category as progressivism. Pre-modernity knew of neither. Thus to appeal, to some degree, to the pre-modern is no more a ‘conservative’ than it is a ‘progressive’ gesture. This can be explicated in terms of the fact that pre-modernity typically favoured in politics a ‘mixed constitution’ of ‘the One’, ‘the Few’, and ‘ the Many’, with the blend varying according to circumstance. But, as André de Muralt has pointed out, nominalism-voluntarism, founded on the univocity of being, cannot mediate the one with the many, any more than it can analogically mediate the same with the different.13 Accordingly, the role of the few – both the ‘aristocratic’ wise and what I call the ‘extended few’ which are the mediating institutions of the Christian era – is suppressed in modern times. Instead, one gets a battle between a ‘conservative’ and ‘right-wing’ advocacy of ‘the One’ and a ‘liberal’ and ‘left-wing’ advocacy of ‘the Many’ – even if Right and Left can sometimes change places in this respect. By contrast, as Jean-Claude Michéa and others have shown, ‘socialism’ was not originally situated on this spectrum at all.14 It rejected the ‘conservatism’ of advocates of a return to the entirely modern, unity-obsessed, technocratic and spectacular ancien régime, but also criticised the new tyranny of liberal industrial modernity. For this reason it tended indeed to appeal by contrast to the pre-modern, and to resurrect the role of ‘the Few’, even if it wished for a more radical and in a different, non-liberal, sense, a more ‘left-wing’ version of mixed constitution.

So what is it that this book then favours politically for the future? In keeping with a Christian socialist vision (where I want to insist on the co-belonging of both terms), a recovery but transformation of an antique medieval politically ontological vision. ‘Trans-organic’ humanity is also a humanity which needs freely to blend the life and implicit wisdom of the social many with the guidance of the virtuously rational few and the unifying artifice of the personal one, under the orientation of all to the transcendent Good and final vision of the Godhead. I consistently argue that the viability of democracy itself depends upon a continued constitutional commitment to ‘mixed government’. However, the Christian democratisation of virtue as charity implies a transfigured version of mixed government that newly promotes the creative flourishing of all and the combined shaping of an earthly city that might remotely image the eternal.

In the proposed sequel, On Divine Government, the perspective will shift and seek to penetrate further into the ‘hidden dimension’. This has to do with the final theme of the symphony which is ‘divine government’, already intimated towards the end of this volume. In the sequel, the second theme of ‘human animality’ will be continuously sustained, while the initial theme of the ‘four contrasting philosophical categories’, and especially the contrast of ‘representation as mirroring’ versus ‘representation as symbolic identity’ will echo throughout in the lower registers.

Political discourse displays, in a pale theoretical fashion, the homology of ontology with action. However, this isomorphism is displayed more directly, though with a double display, by religion – both religious discourse and religious ritual, which are of course intimately linked. It is in religious expression and liturgical performance that any given human society most of all admits and confesses ‘the hidden dimension’. But this may often be in a still obscure fashion, whose darkness may appear all too ‘advised’ from the point of view of detached critical suspicion, or alternatively, as authentically respectful of genuine mystery, for an inner-cultural understanding. This darkness is marked by the still twofold idiom: on the one hand religious discourse (mythical or theological) remains relatively theoretical, if less so than that of ontology, since it is more likely to acknowledge action and events at the level of primary reality. On the other hand, religious ritual, like political theory, has a relatively practical bent. Yet just as religious discourse speaks of divine performances, besides ‘the way things are’, so religious ritual steps beyond theoretical reflection upon social practice towards ideal, normative, or paradigmatic instantiations of such practice.

These observations, then, begin to suggest that religion is always the most fundamental domain of human history and specifically human experience. Here the hidden but assumed emerges partially into the light.

However, from a strictly critical and objective perspective, it turns out that not all religions are on the same level in this respect. Many human religions relate themselves, both theoretically and practically, to a cosmic level which they take to be less than ultimate – often marked by a mythically narrated violent ‘break’ which leaves a reserved space of mystery that is sometimes occupied by a posited but unknown ‘high god’. Effectively they deal with metonymic or synecdochic substitutes for this ultimacy.15 And just such ‘reservation’ can allow, as in the case of Greece and India, ‘philosophy’ to emerge as a discourse that does, often controversially, claim to deal with this ultimate level.

While philosophy usually remained linked to modes of ritual and ascesis, it nevertheless tended (especially to begin with) to reserve ‘being’ as a contemplated reality beyond and above ‘practice’. Insofar as it did so, however, this ‘being’ tended to be construed in immanentist terms, since the removal of ancient reserve initially coincided with a new boldness of myth itself that tended to identify the ‘high’ with the ‘all’ through concepts of the Macranthropos (or cosmic man – evidenced in ancient India, the ancient Near East and in ancient Greece) which allowed the transition from myth to philosophy – or from the rule of synecdoche and metonymy to that of a univocalist monism – to occur.16 The revision of myth nonetheless also generally involved a revision of mythical violence, since the finite cosmos as we know it was envisioned as the divine or titanic tearing apart of the cosmic man. Such violence was later rationalised in philosophical doctrines like that of the Stoic periodic conflagration and reconstitution of physical reality.

A complicating factor here is that the more ‘being’ was distinguished from ‘nature’ and so philosophy as ‘metaphysics’ (though the word was not yet used) from ‘physics’, then the more a level of transcendence that only an element of reconstrued original myth could invoke in terms of an independent ‘activity’ was appealed to – as by Socrates, Plato and Aristotle and to a degree also by the Upanishads and the traditions of the Vedanta. In this sense original philosophy was a monistic revolt against myth (whose impulse is sustained by Stoicism, with the same disconnect between normal ethical action and the indifference of being, to which one must just be resigned) whereas later more humanistic and political philosophies were ‘conservative’ hybrids of philosophy and mythology.17

By almost unique contrast with other cultures, the ancient Hebrews refused what they saw as the ‘idolatry’ of metonymic or synecdochic substitution. Instead, they risked an open-ended metaphoric tension with the ultimate, whereby figurative substitutions of finite for infinite had also to be suspiciously negated, since they were not simply of part for whole or effect for cause, but rather of obscure symbol for the obscurely symbolised. In consequence, new and more adequate substitutions had to be constantly sought and then negated in their turn. Thus neither the exclusive worship of the high god, nor the refusal of ‘idolatrous’ substitutions is what truly marks the novelty of Israel, but rather its invention of not just a mythos, but also a restrained cultus of the ultimate. The ark of the covenant may have been unspectacular and frail, but that was Israel’s crucial invention.

Precisely because its ritual referred to the one creator God, there developed in Israel no ‘philosophy’, since reflexivity was not here alienated to the level of abstraction. Instead, because it was retained at the level of linguistic tropes, reflexivity was also doubled, since the import of metaphorical rule is that the ultimate as ‘being’ lies both (as for philosophy) beyond action and contingency, and yet also (unlike philosophy) not beyond, since only in action and event is reality ever manifest.18 As Hebrew rituals peculiarly claimed to reach the absolute, the blend of representation of being with enacted norm proper to ritual was naturally never negated even in the projection of transcendence.

When, with Philo and others, the Jewish tradition met with Greek philosophy, it arrived at an explicit third moment of reflection beyond its own implicit double reflexivity from narrated action to being and back again to action. As it had so far tacitly taken God to be being (as in Exodus) and his law to be an ontology of the Creation (as in Numbers, Leviticus and the Wisdom literature), so now it openly proclaimed that Greek being was in fact God, and the Greek order of the cosmos a matter of divinely willed legality. Christian and later Islamic thought duly followed suit.

But as we have already intimated, this synthesis of nomos with ousia was only possible because Plato and Aristotle had already to some degree, by reinvoking a mythos of a transcendent realm ‘activated’ the ultimate ousia and in Plato’s case identified the ultimate more as the active source of radiating normativity than of ‘abiding’ being. This new note of peaceful donation of the cosmos contrasts both with the violent generative break with transcendence enshrined in earlier myth, and with the alternative myths of sacrificial partition of the cosmic man that continued to inflect the perspectives of the first immanentist philosophy. However, the new philosophical mythographers of transcendence had not quite arrived at the monotheistic sense of God as an outgoing will and self-deliberating intelligence.

For this reason, as Giorgio Agamben has argued in the wake of the remarkable twentieth-century Catholic theologian Eric Peterson, theology, as the dominant discourse of the west in the Christian era, is a kind of celestial fusion of metaphysical with political understanding.19 What political theory is, in a veiled way, to human history, theology is to the entire understanding of reality, but with a more perfect blending of universally theoretical with practical considerations.

For this reason one can say that the first sequence of the current book is about metaphysics, the second is about political theory, while On Divine Government will be about religion and theology – precisely insofar as one can define theology as the coincidence of political theory with metaphysics. Because of this coincidence it is changes traceable within theology, still more than those within philosophy or political theory, that tend to reveal the hidden genesis of modern theoretical perspectives.

But the turn to theology has also a practical equivalent. The immanent pride of place accorded to political action is dislodged by that of liturgical or ecclesial performance which extends far beyond church walls in an ambition (initially most shown by monasticism) to embrace the whole of human life on earth. One can say, following Eric Voegelin, that all human politics deliberately or reflectively ‘represents’ cosmic order, but Christian liturgy much more explicitly and continuously enunciates this, through a sustained effort (as, again, Agamben has argued) to fuse the practical performance of truth with the theoretically based transformation or ‘reforming’ (as Gerhart Ladner put it) of human society.20 Here the cult of the ultimate is taken to a new pitch which seeks to blend being and action in terms of the mediation of a truth that is no longer even ‘law’ because it is not ‘over against’ either action or being – not commanding the former, as a possibility seeking to master actuality, nor representing the latter at a mimetic remove from it.

Even though ‘law’ has been thereby downgraded or perhaps transfigured, the primacy of action remains or is even enhanced, since it is all the more personalised as intimate to the merely self-constrained subject – primarily divine, secondarily human. Such radicalism arguably prevents the reversal of priority between act and potential, besides the slippage of knowledge by identity towards knowledge by representation. By contrast, the intensified legalism of Islam (as compared even with Judaism) proved one seedbed for the first beginnings of such philosophical developments, which later infected the west, even if its own home-grown legalisations, from the twelfth century onwards, provided another important root. (Correspondingly it can be said that Sufism and the mystical currents of Shi’ism have at many times crucially tempered the more legal dispositions of Islamic faith and practice.21)

For the above reasons one can argue that all Christian theology is not so much ‘political theology’ as it is ‘politicised metaphysics’ or ‘metaphysical politics’. Whether or not this new degree of coincidence is revelatory or sinister, it opens up the claim that Christianity is not only ‘the most religious of religions’, but also the most human of specifically human processes. Therefore, to reject Christianity inevitably opens to view (as Agamben contends) ‘post-human’ perspectives. (Between Christianity and post-humanism, his own position is perhaps uncertainly located.) For even though it is true that Christianity secularised law, politics, language, science and artistic representation, it did not initially do so in the name of an autonomous secular space – this eventual upshot was only the result of the inauthentic doctrine of natura pura. Instead, this secularisation much more implied a negative qualification of any stable claims to capture the sacred, and at the same time a relativisation of the Durkheimian sacred/profane boundary (frequent in many cultures), with a consequent sacralisation of all nature as Creation and all culture as divinisable because human. In this way Christianity exalts and extends the religious (in keeping with its borrowing and redefinition of the Roman word ‘religio’ as now a seamless binding to the true God) precisely by making it more coincide with the human – which is also thereby elevated.

The third sequence will explore these issues consequent upon the idea of Christianity as a theory of ‘divine government’ which was central for several of the Church Fathers and later for Thomas Aquinas. It is equally a practice of divine government which seeks liturgically to enact and mediate it. This rule of God ranges over soul, city and cosmos. It extends also to human history, because the coincidence of being with action in God requires that metaphysics now become also a philosophy of history, an account of God’s actual providential supervision of human events, to the degree that this can be discerned. (Without any such attempt there would be no doctrine of Christ or of the Church.) Thus if political theory surreptitiously reflected and reinforced this empirical level of actual event, now, when articulating a theology, it must be directly engaged and even elevated to co-primacy with being on account of the doctrine of the Incarnation. For this doctrine resolves the aporia of an impossible yet necessary difference between the omnipresent God’s action ad intra and his action ad extra, thereby capping ‘the more religious because more coincident’ character of Christianity.

The two sequences of the present book continually raise the question of the secular as an internal corruption of the theological. In the sequel this question will also appear from the new angle of divine government. For one must now search, not just for a shift in the shared underlying assumptions of both theory and practice, but for a more superficial – and yet equally crucial – level where these assumptions are as much ritually enacted as they are expounded in theory: though in either case, not with entire obviousness. For an ‘assumption’ more fundamental than either theory or practice must perforce be also a meta-practice, an archetypally ‘commanding’ action, just as much as it is a paradigmatic theoretical command.22

Thus, for example, in On Divine Government the question will become less one of the peculiarities of the scholastic thought of the Franciscans as of the possible idiosyncrasies of their entire way of life: their ‘habit’ of being as well as of thinking. More generally, the question becomes one of whether the idea of a divine government through love eventually becomes perverted in the course of the wholly necessary attempt to incarnate it. In other words, as Ivan Illich asked, does an institutionalisation of the personal come to displace the personalisation of institutions?23

Such shifts might undergird the theoretical embrace of the mathesis of univocity, possibility, representation and concurrence. And one might either see this decadence as inevitably implied in the initial claimed coincidence of willed loving action and eternal state of being – as Agamben tends to do, though with complex qualifications – or instead as arising later and contingently, in various datable stages, as claimed by Illich and echoed by myself.

Yet if one espouses the latter position, the question remains as to how such drastic deviation, leading in the end to secular apostasy and dereliction of the sacred, within the very culture that uniquely claimed that God had become flesh, could have been possible. Here a ‘Romantic’ self-critique of Christianity can identify almost from its inception (for all that it newly pointed in the reverse direction) a still excessive bias towards abstraction, towards an ascetical world-refusal and towards action as stasis. These biases arguably left its defences too weak against rationalism and an eventual (late medieval and Baroque) idolatry of God as but ‘another’ ontic reality, however immense. Equally they left Christianity too little safeguarded against a tendency to secularise piously abandoned nature, accompanied by a failure to discern divine inspiration at work in the dynamism of life and the power of human creativity. Both tended in consequence to be handed over to immanentising construals.

It is notable that, by contrast, the modern restorers of the tradition (from the best of the Christian Renaissance – Cusanus, Mirandola – through the more poetic Christian Baroque – Thomas Browne, Thomas Traherne – to Christian Romanticism – Novalis, Friedrich Schlegel – and post-Romanticism – Félix Ravaisson, Charles Péguy)24 have tended to emphasise the priority of feeling over reason; a horizontal dilation towards the cosmos and the sexual other as not abandoned by a vertical dilation towards God; the continuity of humanity with a vitalised nature and the reworking of methexis in terms of the participation of natural and human creative powers in the Trinitarian emanation of Word and Spirit. It has been more acutely seen that thought and consciousness are lodged at once in our given embodiment and yet also in our ‘invention’ of language, while the mystery of the ability of imagination and symbol to conjure up truth in resonance with the real has gradually pointed towards a need to engage with the ‘suppressed orthodoxies’ of the Christian tradition – the more material and magical mysticisms of angel, daemon, star, element, tincture, flower, jewel, humour, letter and number, which echoes in the ‘mainline’ thinkers more than is often allowed.