'The Kingdom and the Garden' by Giorgio Agamben: Excerpt

What happened to paradise after Adam and Eve were expelled? The question may sound like a theological quibble, or even a joke, but in The Kingdom and the Garden, Giorgio Agamben uses it as a starting point for an investigation of human nature and the prospects for political transformation.

Translated from the Italian by Adam Kotsko

An Excerpt

1.1. In 1947, Wilhelm Fraenger, a German scholar who was part of the group of intellectuals who assembled around the Dutch journal Castrum Peregrini, published a new interpretation of Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych in the Museo del Prado, known as The Garden of Earthly Delights. According to Fraenger, the meaning of the enigmatic triptych is clarified only if we return it to the theological context from which it arose: the heresy of the Free Spirit or of the homines intelligentiae, to which Jacob van Almaengien, who commissioned and inspired it, belonged. The brothers of the Free Spirit professed that spiritual perfection coincided with the advent of the Kingdom and the restoration of the Edenic innocence which humanity had enjoyed in the earthly paradise. Concluding his meticulous interpretation of the triptych’s figures, Fraenger writes:

The kingdom of the Spirit has been restored; the evangelium aeternum has become flesh and blood in countless awakened human beings who are already living in a state of paradisical innocence on earth. [ . . . ] The disciples of the Free Spirit were accustomed to call their devotional community life ‘Paradise’ and interpreted the word as signifying the ‘quintessence of love’. It is in this sense that the ‘Paradise’ of the central panel must be understood. What it shows is an idealized reality, a ‘today’ at once real and mystery, symbolic down to its most minute details. This instantaneity determines the whole composition of the triptych. Instead of the representation of a chronological sequence, in which the Garden of Eden—the beginning of all things—would have been separated from the ‘Paradise’ of the central panel—the future restoration of the original condition— we find here the perfect simultaneity of a single state of consciousness (Fränger 1951: 103–04).

It is not surprising, therefore, that Fraenger, precisely at the beginning of his investigation, discretely substitutes for the traditional title—The Garden of Earthly Delights—the unheard-of rubric ‘The Millennial Kingdom’ (das tausendjährige Reich): ‘The Millennial Kingdom, at Madrid, generally known as The Garden of Earthly Delights [ . . . ]’ (ibid.: 2). That a title that refers to a political-theological theme—the Kingdom—should be closely associated in this way with Adam’s dwelling place in the earthly paradise is nevertheless not something to be taken for granted.

It is of this theological paradigm—the Garden of Eden which, while it appears from the very beginning in an eminent position in theological reflection, has been tenaciously displaced to the margins of the tradition of Western thought—that the present study proposes to trace a brief genealogy. While the Kingdom, with its economic-trinitarian counterpart, has indeed never ceased to influence the forms and structures of profane power, the Garden, despite its constitutive political vocation (it was ‘planted’ in Eden for the happy habitation of humanity), has remained substantially alien to it. Even when, as has happened many times, groups of people have sought to draw from it the inspiration for a model of decisively heterodox community, the dominant strategy has always been vigilant to neutralize its political implications. And yet, as Fraenger’s hypothesis suggests, not only is it not possible to separate the Garden from the Kingdom, but they are on the contrary so frequently and so intimately intertwined that it is likely that precisely a study of their intersections and their divergences would wind up reshaping to a significant extent the cartography of Western power.

1.2. The history of the word ‘paradise’, which sounds so familiar to us, is a succession of loans from one language to another, as if the foreign term were for some reason always held to be untranslatable or else one wanted at every cost to avoid its obvious equivalent. The Greek term paradeisos, which Latin transcribes as paradisus and which appears for the first time in Xenophon, is in fact, according to the lexicons, a calque of the Avestic pairidaeza, which designates a spacious walled garden (pairi means ‘around’ and daeza ‘wall’). It is possible that, in recalquing the Iranian term instead of using the Greek word for ‘garden’, kēpos, Xenophon—as specialists still do today, when they leave untranslated exotic terms from the foreign language in which they are experts—meant to show off his knowledge of Persian affairs, which he seems to have cared a great deal about. It is certain, in any case, that he could not imagine that his Greek-Iranian neologism was destined to furnish to Christian theology one of its essential technical terms and to the imagination of the West one of its most persistent fantasies. In that sort of ethnographic novel that is the Cyropaedia, he calls paradeisos the garden in which Astyages, the grandfather of Cyrus, hunted wild animals. Having become king, Cyrus ordered his satraps to plant some paradeisoi, so that the nobles of his retinue, by going hunting, may train in combat, ‘for he considered hunting the best preparation for war [ . . . ] and every time he was constrained to remain in his palace, he would hunt the animals that were in his paradeisos’ (Cyropaedia 7.1.34–8). Even if we should not forget that, in its first appearance in the Greek language, paradise has to do with hunting and war, it is rather in the Oeconomicus, a work that had wide diffusion in Greek culture, that Xenophon describes a paradeisos more similar to what would become the Western paradigm of the Garden. As it is related by the Spartan Lysander, Cyrus the Younger had shown him his paradeisos in Sardis in which the trees were planted at uniform distances in perfectly straight lines, with such geometrical harmony and such ‘variety and sweetness of scents that accompanied them as they walked’ that Lysander had exclaimed: ‘I admire you, Cyrus, for so much beauty, but I admire even more the one who planned and arranged all this.’ ‘I planned and arranged all these trees,’ Cyrus responded to him, ‘and many of them I planted myself (ephyteusa autos)’ (Oeconomicus 4.20–23).

1.3. The event that is decisive in every sense for the history of the term was the choice of the Septuagint to translate with paradeisos the Hebrew gan in Genesis 2:8 (and eight other times in the following verses): Kai ephyteusen kyrios ho theos paradeison en Edem (‘And God planted a paradise in Eden’). The attempts to justify this choice (for example, by associating, as Jan N. Bremmer does with absolute arbitrarity, the expression paradeisos tēs tryphēs, ‘garden of delight’, in Genesis 3:23 with the names Tryphon and Tryphaena, from monarchs and princesses of Ptolemaic Egypt [Bremmer 2008: 53–4]) are completely inconsistent. One can only ascertain that, when they had to translate the Hebrew gan, they preferred to substitute for the common kēpos a word that was rarer, genealogically associated with an idea of royalty and prestige and with the presence of animals and water, which was better suited to a garden planted by God.

In any case, an examination of the occurrences of the term in the Septuagint outside of Genesis shows that it has a technical significance and always refers more or less explicitly to the ‘garden of God’. The relation is clear in Ezekiel 28:13: ‘a crown of beauty in the delight of the garden of God (en tē tryphē tou paradeisou tou theou)’, and 31:9: ‘all the trees of the garden of delight of God (tou paradeisou tēs tryphēs tou theou)’. Thus in Joel 2:3: ‘as the garden of delight is the land before you’, and in Numbers 24:6, in which paradise is associated (as in Genesis 2:10–14: from Eden there springs a river that divides into four branches, Pishon, Gihon, Tigris and Euphrates) with rivers: ‘like shaded woods and like gardens beside a river (osei paradeisoi epi potamoi)’. Particularly significant are two passages in which paradeisos is juxtaposed promiscuously to kēpos: in the first (Isaiah 1:29–30: ‘They will be ashamed of their gardens [epi tois kēpois autōn] which they have desired and the trees will be like terebinths thrown away and like a garden without water [hōs paradeisos hydor mē echōn]’), kēpos is a generic garden, which can also be deprived of water, while the paradeisos, the garden of God, by definition cannot be. No less instructive is the second passage, the famous invocation of Song of Songs 4:12–13: ‘You are an enclosed garden (kēpos kekleismenos), sister and spouse, an enclosed garden. [ . . . ] your buds a garden of rivers (paradeisos roōn) with fruits of tall trees.’ To the indelible image of the horus conclusus there is counterposed that of the paradise of delight, whose fruits are not only ‘beautiful to see’ (ōraion eis orasis) but also ‘good to eat’ (kalon eis brōsin) (Genesis 2:9).

1.4. No less significant is the gesture in which, apparently with no hesitation, Jerome decides to translate the term Eden from the Hebrew text with voluptas: plantavit autem paradisum voluptatis a principio, ‘God planted in the beginning a garden of delight.’

Eden deliciae interpretatur, he hastily writes in his Annotations to Genesis, putting forward as the sole argument for his choice Symmachus’ version in Greek, which is not even pertinent: pro quo Symmacus transtulit paradisum florentem (‘Eden means delight, for which reason Symmachus translates paradise as flower’) (Jerome 1959: 4). The nonchalance with which he alters the text of the Vetus latina (Et plantavit Deus paradisum in Eden ad orientem) is even more surprising in so far as, in the same passage, he takes care to justify his translation a principio, instead of ad orientem, by invoking the example of Aquila, Symmachus and Theodotion, and, above all, by giving it a theological motivation: ‘Hence it is proven in the most manifest way that before creating heaven and earth, God had made paradise (prius quam coelum et terram Deus faceret, paradisum ante condiderat)’ (ibid.).

It is possible that his decision was influenced by the fact, which is likewise not easily explainable, that the Septuagint, which in Genesis 2:8, 2:10 and 4:16 keeps Eden as a place name, elsewhere translates Eden with tryphē, ‘delight’. In any case, in the Latin Church’s translation, paradise was already associated with pleasure, locus voluptatis, as we read in the Vulgate of Genesis 2:10 (and such will it be still for Dante: delitiarum patria [De vulgari eloquentia 1.7.2]). Humanity was created by God for pleasure—which was created, in its turn, before heaven and earth—but was later driven out of it for their guilt.

1.5. The earliest treatises on paradise, like that of Ephrem among the Greek fathers or that of Ambrose among the Latins, open with fear and trembling, as if the theme necessarily exceeded their powers. ‘I was divided by a twofold affect,’ writes Ephrem. ‘On the one hand, the desire to know paradise, in order to explore its nature and properties, enraptured me; on the other, the terror of its difficulty and breadth drove me back’ (De paradiso Eden 1[6].2). And yet, ‘it is sweet to speak of paradise’ (ibid. 1[6].8), to describe its magnificence, which exceeds every faculty of speaking: ‘there sad February does not freeze, a glad temperance from heaven attenuates the strength of winter and the splendor of the sun trembles in a perpetual spring’ (ibid. 10[15].2). The twelve months of the year are compared to tender brides: ‘June there is like April, July mitigates its ardors with light breezes, and September spreads its copious dewdrops’ (ibid.); the fertile soil, similar to a ‘myrotheca of aromas and perfumes’ (ibid. 12[17].1), from its full bosom ‘pours forth its flowers all year’ (ibid. 10[15].3). What is decisive is that, in Ephrem, the earthly paradise is not yet divided from the celestial: ‘while you are living, make for yourself the key to paradise: that door desires you and gladly expects your arrival’ (ibid. 2[7].2).

For his part, Ambrose too, though articulating the problem technically in terms of the rhetorical tradition in which he had been educated (‘what paradise is, where and in what way it is’, quidam sit paradisus, et ubi qualisve sit [De paradiso 1.1]), betrays a ‘burning [aestum] apprehension’ before a theme of which not even Paul, who had been ecstatically enraptured there, had shown himself capable of speaking. The fact is that while the bishops were occupied almost exclusively in the councils with discussing the nature of God and the relations among the persons of the trinity, the problem of the nature and destiny of humanity remained decisively at the margins of theological discourse. It is on these margins that the theme of the earthly paradise intersects with that of human nature and its lot, until it finds some decades later with Augustine its classical locus in the doctrine of original sin.

This is evident in Ambrose. He inherits from Philo, probably through Origen’s mediation, an exegetical tradition that interprets paradise as an allegory of the human soul. ‘Paradise is a fertile land,’ he writes, ‘which is to say, the fruitful soul, planted in Eden, meaning in pleasure’ (Est ergo paradisus terra quaedam fertile, hoc est anima foecunda, in Eden plantata, hoc est in voluptate [De paradiso 3.12]). Developing Philo’s suggestion, Adam and Eve are the two faculties of the soul: intellect (nous) and sensation (aisthesis). The spring that waters the garden is Christ and the four rivers into which it is divided are the four cardinal virtues and, at the same time, the four ages of sacred history. The ultimate virtue, justice, which corresponds to the age of the Gospel, is the most important, because ‘nothing makes the human race happier than justice (hominum genus nullo magis quam iustitia et aequitate laetetur)’ (ibid. 3.18). The Gospel is ‘a figure of justice, because it is the virtue that works salvation in every believer’ (ibid. 3.22). And man, ‘who was in the earth in which he was molded’, was placed in paradise ‘so that it would be known that in this way he had received the divine spirit of virtue’ (ibid. 4.24). Consequently, Ambrose understands the passage from Genesis 2:15 (‘and he put him in the paradise of pleasure, so that he might work it and take care of it’) in the sense that it is humanity’s task to preserve ‘the gift of the perfect nature and the grace of full virtue,’ of which paradise is the figure (ibid. 4.25).

1.6. In this allegorical equation between paradise and human nature there appears in nuce what will become the specific theological content of the earthly paradise: the originary justice of the creature, its loss because of sin and its salvific recovery through Christ. In Ambrose, however, the sin of our progenitors is not a drama that irrevocably marks and breaks up human nature, but almost a stratagem that leads it towards salvation. Certainly Adam, even if he did not yet possess the knowledge of good and evil, transgressed the command that had been given to him and is therefore culpable. The tree of good and evil had, however, been placed at the centre of the garden so that man could know ‘the excellence of the good’ (supereminentiam boni): ‘how, in fact, if there was no knowledge of good and evil, could we discern good from evil?’ (ibid. 2.8). Even the devil was placed in the garden ‘so that we would know that the malice of the devil can also be helpful to the salvation of humanity’ (ibid. 2.9). The punishment that humanity receives does not involve its nature: ‘Consider that the man was not cursed, but the serpent, and neither was the earth cursed, but “cursed in your works” ’ (ibid. 15.77). And just as human nature is not yet divided, so in Ambrose paradise too—as is obvious in the spare title De paradiso—is not yet split, as will happen later, into an earthly paradise (forever lost) and a heavenly paradise, far off in the future.

Yet sin casts a shadow on human nature, such that Ambrose can define Adam’s life in the Garden as an umbra vitae (shadow of a life) and his immortality solely as the pledge of a future life:

Man was thus either in the shadow of a life because of the future life, because our life on earth now is a shadow (umbra est haec quae nunc nostra est vita in terra), or in a sort of pledge of life (in quodam pignore vitae), because he was given breath by God. He therefore has a pledge of immortality [ . . . ]. Even if he was not yet a sinner, his nature was nevertheless not incorrupt and inviolable; he was not yet a sinner, but as one who would have sinned later. He was for that reason in the shadow of life, as one who sins is in the shadow of death (ibid. 5.29).

Here begins the process that will lead paradise to become, from a place of delight and originary justice, nothing but the ambiguous backdrop of sin and corruption.

1.7. ‘And he drove out the man and set before the paradise of delight cherubim and flaming swords, to guard the entrance to the tree of life’ (Genesis 3:24). That what is decisive in the narration of Genesis is not so much the Garden as the expulsion from it—on this, the tradition, with some significant exceptions, is unanimous. Paradise is, certainly, the originary dwelling place of man (de loco hominis is the title of quaestio 102 of the Summa Theologica 1a, in which Aquinas responds positively to the question ‘whether paradise is the place that was appropriate to man in his originary state’), but what is essential is not so much his sojourn in the ‘abode of delights’ (sedes deliciarum) that was destined to him—of brief duration, after all, six hours according to the prevailing interpretation—as the fact that he has been driven out of it in istum miserarium locum (into this place of miseries). Man is the living being that has been expelled from his own dwelling place, who has lost his originary place. He is on earth doubly peregrinus: not only because his eternal life will be in the celestial paradise, but also and above all because he has been exiled from his Edenic homeland.

For this reason it has been possible to affirm that not paradise, but its loss constitutes the original mythologeme of Western culture, a sort of originary traumatism that has profoundly marked Christian and modern culture, condemning to failure every search for happiness on earth. 'A terrible metaphysical prohibition or a devastating psychological inhibition has made its mark on the imaginary of medieval and modern man, as if, at a certain moment of his history, a cataclysm had destroyed his hopes of a blessed life here and now, in the immediacy of his human condition’ (Braga 2004: 1).

‘Cataclysm’ and ‘devastating psychological inhibition’ remain metaphors as long as one does not attempt to reconstruct and comprehend the effective mechanisms and the strategic apparatuses by means of which Christian theology conceptually articulated the expulsion from paradise, in order to make of it the determinative event of the human condition and the foundation of its economy of salvation.