Paul: Nihilist or Overman?

This was his Damascene moment: [ ...] that the idea of ‘hell’ could master even Rome.

(Nietzsche 2005: 62)

This chapter engages with the Paul debate in modern philosophy, specifically with the question of how Paul stands with regard to nihilism. Interpretations of Paul in modern philosophy, starting with Nietzsche, could hardly be more divergent, but they are all illuminating. Understanding what is at stake in these different readings is best accomplished through the categories of nihilism as understood by Nietzsche. As we have seen, modern nihilism, for Nietzsche, is the nothingness that results from the devaluation of the highest values, values that are themselves the result of that ancient nihilism which posits values higher than life – the true world. This other world is present in all ascetic ideals which embody the will to nothingness and which give to reactive forces their force, even when that force finally expresses itself as no will at all (Deleuze 1983: 171). For the nothingness of the will characteristic of the last man is but the outworking of the ancient will to nothingness. In Deleuze’s summation (1983: 151), the journey of nihilism for Nietzsche runs from God (the first, active nihilism), to God’s murderer (reactive nihilism), to the last man (passive nihilism):

Previously life was depreciated from the height of the higher values [. . .] Here, on the contrary, only life remains, but it is still a depreciated life which now continues in a world without values, stripped of meaning and purpose, sliding ever further towards its nothingness. (Deleuze 1983: 147)

How one relates to this history of nihilism is, for Nietzsche, the decisive question. What is not in doubt is that the death of God is not an answer to nihilism but only its outworking, for the reactive life ‘secretes its own atheism’ (Deleuze 1983: 154). God dies of his own pity – the reactive man turns the weapon that he gets from God against God (Deleuze 1983: 150). This is why God’s murderer, as the prototype of the man of ressentiment who is only capable of rejecting God’s pity, is the Ugliest Man in Zarathustra.

Who then is Nietzsche’s Overman that can have done with all this ressentiment? Unlike the reactive man, who can only say no to God and thus remains world denying, the Overman affirms the world without God. The Overman’s affirmation is actually a second affirmation (this is the affirmation of the affirmation rather than the negation of the negation!), since all that he affirms is the primary affirmation that is becoming. Zarathustra, as he who announces the Overman, is the high noon of the coincidence of being and becoming because he is the first to affirm that becoming is, the first ‘To impress upon becoming the character of being’ (Nietzsche 2003: 138). Deleuze (1983: 187) puts it like this: ‘The Dionysian [primary] affirmation demands another affirmation which takes it as its object. Dionysian becoming is being, eternity, but only insofar as the corresponding affirmation is itself affirmed.’ This world, as a world of Dionysian becoming, is like ‘a wedding mirror which awaits the soul capable of admiring herself there’. Becoming only has being insofar as its affirmation is itself affirmed. Zarathustra’s affirmation alone is what gives ‘unity to multiplicity, necessity to chance’ (Deleuze 1983: 188). It thus becomes clear why Deleuze claims that Nietzsche’s eternal return selects only that which is different to return.1 There can be no return of the negative, of that which is not creation, because being is only affirmation, the affirmation of becoming. As Deleuze (1983: 190) summarizes this thought beautifully: ‘the negative expires at the gates of being’.

In a passage in his Late Notebooks from the autumn of 1887, Nietzsche (2003: 146–7) places active and passive nihilism in a different order from that which appears in his history of nihilism (where it is a matter of the active nihilism of the great slave revolt of Christianity giving way to the passive nihilism of the last man in modernity). In this note, active nihilism is treated as an intermediary stage between passive nihilism and the overcoming of nihilism. Treating nihilism this time conceptually rather than genealogically, Nietzsche admits that nihilism as the condition under which ‘the highest values are devalued’ is, in itself, ‘ambiguous’. To be sure, nihilism can be a sign of weakness and weariness at life, of the ‘decline and retreat of the spirit’s power’. Such passive nihilism, finding that traditional values have become inoperative, seeks solace in benumbing balms such as religion and morality. But there is an active nihilism, too. This nihilism is rather ‘a sign of the increased power of the spirit’, of strength, in that it does not passively find itself lacking the old values, but rather actively outgrows them. Active nihilism is not yet strong enough to proactively posit new goals or beliefs, in which case it would no longer be nihilism at all. It thus remains a ‘pathological intermediate state’ in which the inference that there is no meaning at all always threatens and in which: ‘It achieves its maximum of relative force as a violent force of destruction: as active nihilism. The opposite would be the weary nihilism that no longer attacks: its most celebrated form Buddhism, as passivist [sic] nihilism.’

Nonetheless, as the second sentence of this entry hints, active nihilism, despite its incompleteness and its dangers, remains an intermediate, and therefore necessary, stage in the overcoming of nihilism. As Nietzsche (2003: 141) had admitted a short time before in a note from the summer of 1887, hatred of a world in which we suffer takes the form of the imagination of a different and valuable world, and here ‘ressentiment towards the real is creative’. Indeed, in a note from that spring, Nietzsche (2003: 140) even considered giving ontological primacy to active nihilism:

Every drive that wants to be satisfied expresses its dissatisfaction with the present state of things – what? Might the whole be composed entirely of dissatisfied parts, all of which have their heads full of what’s desirable? Might the ‘course of things’ be precisely the ‘Away from here! Away from reality!’, be eternal discontent itself? Might desirability itself be the driving force? Might it be – deus?


Nietzsche’s three modes of relation to nihilism – reactive nihilism, active nihilism and the post-nihilistic, affirmative, Overman – frame nicely three of the most significant philosophical readings of Paul that we have: Nietzsche’s own (where Paul is viewed as a reactive nihilist); Jacob Taubes’s (where Paul is seen more in terms of Nietzsche’s primary nihilism: as an active, even revolutionary, nihilist driven by an eschatological nihilism); and Alain Badiou’s (where Paul is something of an Overman in his positing of new values, specifically the value of universalism).

Yet while they position Paul very differently in relation to nihilism, all three of these readings thereby continue to tie Paul to the problem of nihilism. That is, even if Taubes and Badiou release Paul from Nietzsche’s charge of reactive nihilism, they continue to insist that Paul should be understood in relation to the transvaluation of values itself, whether this is the destruction of old values (Taubes) or the creation of new ones (Badiou). Even in the latter case – the creation of new values as in Badiou’s reading – there must still first be a devaluation of the old values.

What values does Paul negate, then? There is general agreement with Nietzsche from both Taubes and Badiou that Paul is the great devaluer of the highest values of Antiquity. First, Paul devalues hierarchy as an essential difference between freemen and slaves. Paul either inverts this hierarchy – as in Nietzsche’s charge that the Christianity that Paul invents is history’s great slave revolt – or transcends it – as in Badiou’s account of Paul’s universalism, where those who are one in Christ are no longer defined as slaves or freemen (Gal. 3.28). The spurious universalism of ancient cosmopolitanism is for Badiou exposed (as also its modern variants) by Paul’s egalitarian version. Cosmopolitanism is a hierarchical universalism which remains imperial, as in the figure of Marcus Aurelius, at once Roman Emperor and Stoic citizen of the world. Taubes, too, sees Paul as first and foremost an anti-imperial figure whose nihilistic eschatological theology is also deeply political.

Second, Paul devalues communalism as an essential difference between Jews and Greeks. Nietzsche argues (2011: 51) that communalism is overcome by Paul as the ‘first Christian’ of the first non-national religion, just as he bemoans the loss of these national gods (Nietzsche 2005: 14). Badiou, who rather celebrates this accomplishment, agrees that the form of Paul’s universalism, being that of a universalizable singularity (the resurrection), belongs to everyone and therefore to no-one in particular. Taubes and Badiou also concur that communalism is overturned in Paul by his repeated emphasis on the pas, the ‘all’, in contradistinction to those Jewish Christians who sought in some way to preserve Israel’s special election, if only through the continuation of Jewish customs and rites such as circumcision (Taubes 2004: 24–5; Badiou 2003: 19–23).

Third, Paul devalues law as the ordering principle of the cosmos. Paul’s critique of law in Taubes’s view attacks not just specific forms of law, for example pharisaical Jewish law, but, as we saw, the generalized ‘apotheosis of nomos’ characteristic of Paul’s Antiquity (Taubes 2004: 23). Badiou (2003: 87) concurs that Paul’s deactivation of law is very profound, proposing nothing other than a trans- or non-literal law of love where it is a matter of subjective fidelity to truths rather than being bound to objective norms (the laws of nature or of the universe). This is an assault on the Greek cosmos itself in that it substitutes the law as that which is due (hence the law’s particular and partial character) for its opposite: that grace which comes freely, without being due (in other words: universally or for all) (Badiou 2003: 77). Wholly other than law, the event of the resurrection is incalculable; nothing leads up to it – it happened, pure and simple. While the wise man, knowing the order of the world, has nothing to decide, the subject of the event will rather have to roll the dice. Paul wagers on the resurrection and nothing is the same thereafter. Indeed, a breaking of the history of the world in two (something Nietzsche himself attempted but, in falling short of, was broken by) results from this irruption of the resurrection in a previously static cosmos (Badiou 2003: 208; Taubes 2004: 80).

Thus, fourth, in devaluing law, Paul also devalues cosmos; and this indeed could serve as a heading for the first three devaluations named above. As we have seen, cosmos is the conviction (recalling the etymology that would take cosmos back to the verb kosmein: to order or arrange) that the order of things is an everlasting totality.2 Against this, Taubes’s Paul is a Gnostic-apocalyptic who expects the imminent end of ‘the present form of this world’ (1 Cor. 7.29–31). Badiou’s Paul, meanwhile, establishes the event of the resurrection as a world-historical rupture with the allotting of places and orders characteristic of cosmos. It is the egalitarian ‘for all’ of the resurrection, rather than ‘the One’ of cosmos, where the latter is a matter of adapting oneself to the totality by knowing one’s place in it (and that the ‘One is not’ is also the central claim of Badiou’s secular ontology – the multiple without One) (Badiou 2003: 108). The devaluation of cosmos is therefore intimately linked to the overcoming of hierarchy, communalism and law, which also work, can only work, by finding distinctions (recalling that nomos derives from nemo, which is to divide or to assign).

In sum, although they evaluate Paul’s rupture with the highest values of Antiquity differently, both Taubes and Badiou, following Nietzsche, agree that Paul is a break with everything that the ancients held to be most true – that Paul’s teaching of the cross of foolishness (1 Cor. 1.20) ‘equals a slap in the face of the noble ethos of Antiquity’ (Taubes 2010: 77).3 In this sense all concur on one theme: inasmuch as he seeks a new world-order, Paul is a thoroughgoing nihilist.

Having established this much, we can now see the significance of the messianic Paul offered by Agamben. Only Agamben’s Paul escapes the charge of nihilism – neither devaluing the world as he finds it nor pronouncing a new one (the latter which, to repeat, first requires this same devaluation), but rather opening up his world for use. This messianic Paul would also deal in critique of the old and hope for the new, but this would not take the form of a linear operation in time but rather a mode of relation to the present. Such a messianic time sees its opportunity in the time of the now (ho nyn kairos), rather than receiving openness from the future to come. To be sure, even this messianic vocation in Agamben’s Paul requires that the world be passing away (hence the importance of the negation of the figures of this world, as in Paul’s use of the formulation hos me, ‘as not’). However, Agamben denies that this negation implies the nihilistic idea of another, better world in Paul, arguing that nothing in Paul’s messianic vocation tends towards the elsewhere.

If we accept Nietzsche’s history of nihilism, then there is no way out of its predicament, no way of seizing its opportunity, other than via the Overman, who is the other side of the rope over the abyss of nothingness that is man in his dangerous crossing over from his animal origins (Nietzsche 2006: 7). Only this joyfully creative creature, this bringer of new values, can be an answer to the nothing; and he will be a long time coming. But if Agamben is right that the Pauline messianic vocation enables a creative new relation to the present time and to the subjectivities that we already find there, must we wait? Indeed, must we understand our predicament in terms of the need for Dionysian destruction–creation at all?

The reactive Paul

Nietzsche gets on to Paul in the first book of his mature work, Dawn (1881), where he identifies him as the founder of Christianity, as the ‘first Christian’ (since, without Paul, Jesus would have remained the property of an obscure Jewish sect). Nietzsche seeks to portray Paul as tormented and self-lacerating, but also as cunning and ambitious. The source of this deformed character? That Paul, enforcer of the strict observance of Jewish law, found that he himself could not fulfil it, and thus came to hate it, seeking now for ways to destroy, rather than observe, the law. Paul’s vision on the road to Damascus is, for Nietzsche, the moment when Paul sees a way to revenge himself on law by identifying the risen Christ as law’s destroyer. From this moment, and Nietzsche cannot hide his jealousy, European history will revolve around Paul as the one who announces the death of law in life with Christ. The latter part of this equation, in Nietzsche’s eyes (2011: 51), is what reveals Paul’s true intentions: ‘with the idea of becoming-one [with Christ] every shame, every subordination, every barrier is removed from it [Paul’s soul], and the untameable will to lust for domination reveals itself as an anticipatory revelry in divine splendors’.

Nietzsche does not return to Paul until his last writings, where Paul is taken up again in his notebook of autumn 1887. Here Nietzsche (2003: 204) argues that ‘Paul’s genius’ was to have recognized that the Jewish diaspora’s naysaying to Roman power and magnificence was itself a form of power that could be exploited. Not long after this, Paul becomes the chief target of Nietzsche’s polemic in The Anti-Christ (written in the second half of 1888). As in his recent notebook entry, Nietzsche resumes where he left off in Dawn, arguing that Paul, as an archetype of ‘the priestly kind’, has an interest in ‘making humanity sick’ through the inversion of concepts such as good and evil, which now denigrate what is noble and strong and elevate that which is decadent and weak (Nietzsche 2005: 21). What is this interest? To ‘attain power’. Such power is attained – man is made sick – primarily through the deemphasizing of Christ’s teachings, which Nietzsche sees as preaching a guilt-free union between man and God in the here and now, and instead shifting the emphasis to Christ’s death, which is now interpreted as a guilt sacrifice the reward for which is eternal life in the hereafter (ibid.). Nietzsche’s claim is clear: Paul has devalued this world in the name of the world to come in the interests of establishing (his) priestly power. The driver of this will to power is, in Paul’s case, ressentiment; ‘Paul was the greatest of all apostles of revenge’ (Nietzsche 2005: 44):

You can see just what came to an end with the death on the Cross: a new, a completely original attempt at a Buddhistic peace movement, at an actual happiness on earth, not just a promissory one [. . .] On the heels of [these] glad tidings came the very worst ones of all: Paul’s. Paul epitomizes a type that is the antithesis of the ‘bringer of glad tidings’, the genius in hatred, in the vision of hatred, in the merciless logic of hatred. And how much this dysangelist sacrificed to hatred! Above all, the redeemer: he nailed him to his own cross. The life, example, teachings, death, meaning and rights of the whole evangel – nothing was left after this hatred-inspired counterfeiter realized what he and he alone could use. Not reality, not the historical truth! [. . .] What he needed was power .... (Nietzsche 2005: 38–9)4

Although the will to power undoubtedly burns brightly in Nietzsche’s Paul, it is important to see that the form that this will takes is one of ressentiment, and in this sense Paul’s nihilism is of a reactive, if not strictly passive, kind. This ressentiment is diagnosed by Nietzsche in The Anti-Christ (2005: 62) as a symptom both of personal weakness – Paul is made angry and revengeful at his impotence before the law – and also ‘national’ or political weakness – Paul is a member of a Jewish nation defined by its historical experience of exile and, in Paul’s day, by its subordination to the mighty Roman Empire: ‘This was his Damascene moment: he understood that he needed the belief in immortality to devalue “the world”, that the idea of “hell” could still gain control over Rome, – that the “beyond” could be used to kill life .... Nihilist and Christian: this rhymes [in German], it does more than just rhyme . . .’

The active Paul

Taubes was a philosopher of religion who’s Political Theology of Paul (taken from a series of lectures given in 1987, just before his death) was a significant spur to the recent Paul revival in philosophy. Taubes admitted (2004: 79) that Nietzsche was his greatest teacher on Paul. Yet for Taubes, Paul is not the reactive nihilist that Nietzsche describes, but an active, even revolutionary, opponent of imperial power: ‘my thesis is that ... the Epistle to the Romans is a political theology, a political declaration of war on the Caesar’ (2004: 16). The distinctly political ambition of this Paul is not a matter of seeking personal, priestly power by devaluing the values of the Roman world, as in Nietzsche, but rather to found and legitimate a new people of God (2004: 28). Taubes’s Paul is an active, ‘eschatological’ nihilist.

Taubes follows Nietzsche in identifying Paul’s nihilism towards the Roman Empire, but he evaluates this nihilism differently (2004: 72). Paul’s political theology of a world that is passing away is a redemptive counter to Rome’s imperial pretentions of never passing away – to a political theology of empire. This equation of redemptive politics with nihilism is also Walter Benjamin’s, from the last line of his ‘Theological-Political Fragment’, but Taubes sees an ‘astonishing parallel’ between Benjamin’s text and chapters 8 and 13 of Paul’s letter to the Romans (ibid.). Benjamin (1986: 313) writes: ‘For nature is Messianic by reason of its eternal and total passing away. To strive after such passing, even for those stages of man that are nature, is the task of world politics, whose method must be called nihilism.’

Taubes finds evidence for his thesis that Paul’s Epistle to the Romans is nothing less than a political declaration of war on Rome from the letter’s opening salutation. Taubes seizes on Paul’s announcement of his ‘calling’, which asserts that he, Paul, is ‘called to proclaim the gospel of God’ since this gospel concerns God’s son, who ‘was descended from David according to the flesh’ (Rom. 1.1–3). Taubes asks: why this emphasis on Jesus as the son of David?, which is not repeated anywhere else in Paul’s letters. It is as the son of David that Jesus is elected to rule, which is a natural quality, but ‘Son of God’ is rather ascribed, as in Psalm 2, the Psalm of coronation. Taubes concludes (2004: 14) that this is an act of enthronement. ‘So we are dealing with a conscious emphasis of those attributes that are imperatorial, kingly, imperial. They are stressed before the congregation in Rome, where the imperator is himself present, and where the center of the cult of the emperor, the emperor religion, is located.’

Taubes returns three times to this theme over the course of his lectures, stressing that Paul’s Epistle to the Romans needs to be understood as a ‘political declaration of war’ and as carrying a ‘political charge’ which is ‘explosive to the highest degree’ (2004: 16, 24; see also 73). When a letter is introduced in these terms, here and nowhere else, and is to be read aloud to the congregation too, a challenge is being laid down. This is a piece of anti-Caesarism that is being made eminently public, and the Romans have censors who are not idiots.

Taubes then moves from philological reflections to a much broader thesis that the central function of law in Romans (recalling that, in this letter, Paul seeks to describe law as somehow deactivated or rendered inoperative in Christ) is itself a piece of political theology, since the concept of law is being used by Paul as ‘a compromise formula for the Imperium Romanum’ (2004: 23). In a memorable phrase that we have encountered already, Taubes describes Paul’s period of Antiquity as suffused with an aura of ‘an apotheosis of nomos’ (ibid.). This Hellenistic nomos-aura could take a Greek, Roman, or Jewish form, but, while each understood law in his own way, all participated equally in generalized nomos theology (ibid.). Taubes believes that Paul himself reflects this aura, such that ‘law’ for Paul is not simply the Torah, nor the law of the universe, nor natural law, but ‘all of these in one’ (2004: 24). But while Paul’s sense of ‘law’ echoes his context, his treatment of law is anything but contemporary. For Taubes, Paul ‘clambers out’ of the nomos consensus of his day and in this sense is a fanatic, a zealot whose protest against ‘law’ proposes an incredible transvaluation of values:

It isn’t nomos but rather the one who was nailed to a cross by nomos who is the imperator! This is incredible, and compared to this all the little revolutionaries are nothing. This transvaluation turns Jewish-Roman-Hellenistic upper-class theology on its head, the whole mishmash of Hellenism. Sure, Paul is also universal, but by virtue of the ‘eye of the needle’ of the crucified one, which means: transvaluation of all the values of this world. This is nothing like nomos as summum bonum. (ibid.)

Taubes’s Paul, like Nietzsche’s, is a nihilist. But where Nietzsche’s Paul is reactively bent on exploiting existing resentment at Rome for his own, destructive, purposes, Taubes’s Paul actively creates opposition to the Roman Empire almost out of nothing. And he does so for that most constructive of political motives – to found a new people. That this people, occupying a demonic world structure that is passing away (1 Cor. 7.29), should in no way seek a revolutionary confrontation with its equally transitory Imperial superstructure does not make Paul’s intentions, or his methods, any less radical (2004: 54). To the contrary, they indicate just how nihilistic Paul really is with regard to this world (Gold 2006: 155). Neither Taubes’s Paul, nor Taubes himself, see anything in history other than crisis. Historical time is distress, and therefore Benjamin is right in seeing politics, ‘whose method must be called nihilism’, as capable only of destroying the old order (Taubes 2010: 110; Gold 2006: 145–6; Benjamin 1986: 313). For a Paul capable of traversing such destruction, giving values necessary not only for a new people but a truth for the whole world, we must turn to Badiou.

Paul the Overman

He who demanded Dionysian affirmation, him who, like Paul, believed himself to be breaking the history of the world in two, and to be everywhere substituting life’s ‘yes’ for nihilism’s ‘no’, would have found better inspiration by citing this passage: ‘For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we preached among you [. . .] was not Yes and No; but in him it is always Yes’ (2 Cor. 1.19).

(Badiou 2003: 71)

For Badiou, nothing in Nietzsche’s attack on Paul fits its target. Paul does not detest Rome, being on the contrary proud of his Roman citizenship (ibid.). Neither does he condemn this life, since ‘the world’ that is crucified with Paul’s Jesus is nothing other than the Greek cosmos as a totality that puts everyone in his place (ibid.). He does not even mention hell (2003: 71 and 96). Nietzsche’s hate-filled nihilist who preaches eternal life hereafter as a curse on life is more accurately described as completely uninterested in immortality, emphasizing rather the trinity of affirmation, life and the new man (‘the Overman?’) over negation, death and the old man (2003: 71). Where Nietzsche criticizes Paul for the falsification of the gospel accounts of Jesus, saying that Paul wants only Christ’s death and ‘something in addition’, Badiou points out that this ‘something’, the resurrection, is in fact Paul’s entire focus (2003: 61). It is Nietzsche who is falsifying Paul, argues Badiou, since in shifting attention from the life of Christ to his death and resurrection, Paul is not nihilistically moving the centre of gravity from this life to the nothingness of the beyond, as Nietzsche claims, but rather is teaching ‘a principle of overexistence on the basis of which life, affirmative life, was restored and refounded for all’ (ibid., emphasis added). Badiou’s Paul thus shifts the centre of gravity in a direction opposite to that of Nietzsche’s, from death to life – from life in the flesh, which perishes and dies, to life in the spirit, which takes revenge on death by enabling us to live affirmatively here and now; and from life under the law, which kills, to a life of grace, which knows nothing of death (2003: 45, 62, 73). Against Nietzsche’s judgement that Paul would seek to ‘kill life’, Badiou (2003: 71) has a simple rejoinder from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (15.5): ‘O death, where is thy victory?’

Badiou’s Paul is a figure of absolute affirmation: after the Event, anything is possible. Indeed, such is Badiou’s estimation of the Pauline ‘Yes’ that he makes of it the embodiment of an affirmative logic – what Badiou (2013) calls ‘affirmative dialectics’. The Hegelian dialectic, as the negation of the negation, remains, in Badiou’s terms, too negative.5 While Hegelian logic can account for change, it is unable to think the radical, creative rupture that is the Event. For this New to be thinkable, what is required is affirmation as the first term of dialectical logic rather than negation. Subjects of the Event, following Paul, affirm the affirmation – in Paul’s case the resurrection – rather than negating the negation. This is why Paul, in Badiou’s view, has little interest in saying ‘No’ to Rome. Paul’s ‘Christ is risen!’ provides a rupture with the old order without in any way negating it. As Badiou points out, Paul’s affirmation of the resurrection does not change the Roman Empire, it simply opens a new, indeed infinite, possibility within it, a possibility by which the places and orders of imperial cosmos become a matter of indifference. Paul does not negate Rome, he simply transcends its stations (freemen, slaves) in the yes in Christ.6 The negation of the negation here gives way to the creation of genuine novelties – truths – by which we can start again, and infinitely so.7

Paul’s hope is a subjective principle of fidelity to the event of the resurrection, not a vengeful hope for future retribution. Paul says that hope does not disappoint (Rom. 5.5) because we gives ourselves hope rather than waiting, passively, for it to come. The temporality of hope ‘has nothing to do with the future’ but ‘is a figure of the present subject’: ‘Hope is not hope in an objective victory. On the contrary, it is subjective victory that produces hope’ (Badiou 2003: 97, 95). Pauline hope is overcoming oneself in fidelity to a truth, not overcoming one’s enemies. There is no ressentiment in Badiou’s Paul.

Given all of this, Badiou (2003: 61) thinks that Nietzsche should in fact have seen Paul as his ally, rather than his opponent, in the overcoming of ‘contemporary nihilist decadence’. For if Nietzsche were to have been successful in such an overcoming, he would have had to echo (which he in fact did), rather than to oppose, the three themes ‘of which Paul is the inventor’, namely: ‘that of the self-legitimating subjective declaration (the character of Zarathustra), the breaking of History in two (“grand politics”), and the new man as the end of guilty slavery and affirmation of life (the Overman). If Nietzsche is so violent toward Paul, it is because he is his rival far more than his opponent’ (2003: 61).

For Badiou (2003: 62), we can only understand Nietzsche’s hatred of Paul if we see how much Nietzsche loathes universalism. Indeed, Paul is where the bug gets into aristocratic history for Nietzsche, such that nobility is transferred into weakness, with all the democratic ‘levelling’ that results (Taubes 2004: 78). For Badiou, too, Paul is undoubtedly the one who devalues ancient hierarchy, though Paul’s responsibility for this is even more direct in Badiou’s account than it is in Nietzsche’s – Paul is, quite literally, the ‘inventor’ of universalism in the sense that, until Paul, the thought of the universal remains only implicit. What Paul manages to think explicitly is the idea of the indifference to difference of every truth, of a truth’s being true for all – and this is the very being of universalism.

If Paul is indeed the founder of universalism, then this act of foundation gives us a better, or at least a more psychologically pertinent, explanation for Nietzsche’s hatred of Paul than Badiou’s second argument (which focuses on Paul’s universalism). In accordance with Badiou’s first argument, it could more plausibly be claimed that Nietzsche is simply jealous of Paul’s status as the Overman of Antiquity who succeeds not only in devaluing the values of the ancient world (which, as nihilism, is all that Nietzsche will allow him) but also in posting new values (which, in his jealousy of such overcoming, Nietzsche is not able to admit).

In one sense, Badiou’s Paul is simply Nietzsche’s, with the difference that Badiou pronounces Paul’s breaking of history into two, namely his devaluation of the highest values of Antiquity, to be a positive, rather than a catastrophic, event. Badiou celebrates what he sees as Paul’s novel exclusion of communalism, of the ‘national gods’, the passing of which Nietzsche rather laments. Badiou sees this break as possible because, at the level of thought, Paul understands that the event (which for Paul, though not for Badiou, is the resurrection) is that which, being indifferently for all, breaks with the conjoined themes of law and cosmos, with the assigning of places and the order of things respectively. Badiou’s Paul, in short, enacts a rupture with ancient particularisms in the name of a singular universal. This Paul is the first to see that the universal has the structure of an absolutely unique event which finds no differences in the ‘all’ it addresses, and that genuine universalism therefore cannot be the universalization of any particularity, which is ultimately what the ‘One’ of cosmopolitanism (of the Pax Romana in Paul’s case and global capital in ours) consists of.

Throughout Badiou’s account, we get a strong sense of Paul as a creative (rather than cunning) genius. Thus we read that, contra identitarian communalism, ‘Paul is, strictly speaking, the inventor’ of ‘a subject devoid of all identity’ (2003: 5, emphasis added); that, to those who ‘know the rules of the ancient world’, Paul’s statement to the Galatians (3.28) that there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, is ‘genuinely stupefying’ (2003: 9); and that, in deploying the underlying structure of Paul’s thought, which is its universalism, we should give ‘credit to him who, deciding that none was free from what a truth demands and disjoining the true from the Law, provoked – entirely alone – a cultural revolution upon which we still depend’ (2003: 15). As Badiou himself hints on a couple of occasions, should we not see Paul as an Overman?

However, if we adopt this perspective then, although we release Paul from Nietzsche’s charges of passive or reactive nihilism, we continue to tie Paul to the problem of nihilism itself. And this is something that Badiou’s reading lends itself to, given that, for Badiou, it is true, first, that nihilism is the figure both of Paul’s age and of our own, and, second, that Paul, who overcomes the nihilism of his own age, is our contemporary (hence the title of chapter 1: ‘Paul: Our contemporary’) (2003: 7).8 Though the nihilism of the Roman Empire is different from our ‘capitalist-parliamentarian’ nihilism, it shares the same form of depoliticization; and though Paul’s passage through nihilism (the resurrection) cannot be our passage, its form (the truth of the event, addressed universally) remains the only way to confront nihilism in our own time (2003: 7).9 In his book on ethics, Badiou (2001b: 38–9) puts it like this: ‘Every age [. . .] has its own figure of nihilism. The name changes, but always under these names [. . .] we find [. . .] an obscure desire for catastrophe. It is only by [. . .] affirming truths against the desire for nothingness, that we tear ourselves away from nihilism.’

Nevertheless, if Paul is Badiou’s model in the creative overcoming of nihilism, it is important to be precise that this is not in the Dionysian sense of Nietzsche’s destruction-creation. Nietzsche’s answer to nihilism, as Deleuze (1983: 174–5) reconstructs it, involves the will to nothingness breaking its alliance with reactive forces. As Zarathustra announces (Nietzsche 2006: 8), in place of the passivity of the last man the Overman will affirm the ‘joy of annihilation’ by destroying himself actively:

I love the one whose soul squanders itself, who wants no thanks and gives none back: for he always gives and does not want to preserve himself.

I love the one who is ashamed when the dice fall to his fortune and who then asks: am I a cheater? – For he wants to perish.

I love the one who casts golden words before his deeds and always does even more than he promises: for he wants his going under.

I love the one who justifies people of the future and redeems those of the past: for he wants to perish of those in the present.

I love the one who chastises his god, because he loves his god: for he must perish of the wrath of his god.10

In The Century, Badiou (2007b: 64–5) concedes that such ‘terroristic nihilism’ of the destructive–creative kind has a creative, rather than a consenting, relation to the nothing, and is thereby preferable to the passive nihilism that abounds today, where the best that can be hoped for is the avoidance of evil. As Badiou points out, this contemporary ‘humanitarian’ nihilism, in ideologically refusing any contact with the nothing, collapses even deeper into it. In other words, having suppressed the ‘terrorism’ of active nihilism, we do not escape nihilism itself, since we have only substituted its reactive for its active form (ibid.). But in more recent works, starting with Being and Event (2007a), Badiou has offered a self-criticism of his earlier emphasis (e.g. in Theory of the Subject [2009b]) on destruction, which he now identifies as too close to a ‘blind imperative’ to purify (2007b: 54–7). In place of the terroristic charms of destruction–creation, Badiou now proffers subtraction–creation, where subtraction thinks the nothing or negativity as a gap rather than as primordial identity. This shift in emphasis, Badiou suggests, avoids the pitfall of the search for authenticity (exemplified in the case of Heidegger), which loses itself in the destructive quest for the origin (Being). Although many things do indeed deserve to be destroyed, this passion for destruction can never be fulfilled since purification is fated to remain incomplete (2007b: 56).11 Subtraction, by contrast, is committed to the construction of a ‘minimal difference’ from the nothing, which is what a truth procedure does by providing its own axiomatic (ibid.). While destruction–creation can never actually begin creating (since the destructive project of purification will always recede over the horizon), subtraction–creation knows it must invent content and is therefore the only true passion for the new. The ‘new man’ is produced rather than restored in his Heideggerian authenticity (2007b: 65).12

The difference between destruction and subtraction notwithstanding, Badiou continues to tie Paul to the question of nihilism – as Nietzsche understood it – by making him the first prophet of the possibility of ‘new worlds’ (truth procedures that, in pronouncing the event, break with the order of things). It is rather in Agamben that we find the most sustained attempt to write a non-nihilistic Paul, although it will be interesting to see that Badiou’s passion for the ‘minimal difference’, which is his own attempt to exit the cycle of destruction–creation, is close to the ‘messianic vocation’ that Agamben finds invaluable in Paul.13

The messianic vocation

‘Making use’ here names the deponent power of the Christian’s form of life, which renders destitute ‘the figure of this world’.

(Agamben 2016: 274)

It is no omission that leads Agamben (2005) to make only passing reference to Nietzsche in his book on Paul. Agamben’s Paul, precisely because he is a thinker of the messianic vocation, cannot be grasped through the categories of Nietzsche’s nihilism – he is neither the giver of new vocations nor the one who tears down the old vocations, but rather the one who announces the possibility of using existing vocations.14 The messianic vocation, which is the deactivation of law, is thus neither a militant revolutionism with regard to this world nor a nihilistic iconoclasm, but a profaning of worldly identities which enables them to be used without in any way transcending them in some beyond. This world remains in place, but is no longer experienced as it was before. The ‘before’ is therefore not temporal in the sense of the experience of chronological time, but rather an existential experience of closure, to be replaced in the ‘after’ of messianic time by the negation (the Pauline hos me, ‘as not’) which enables these same worldly vocations to be experienced as open by those who live messianically.

For Agamben, the small but all-important difference between negation as the ‘as not’ and the ‘as if’ is the difference between messianic redemption as already realized eschatology and as merely a point of view on another possible world. Redemption is not a remedy for fallen creatures but really what makes creaturely creation possible. Redemption comes ‘before’ any creation (Agamben 2009: 229). The ‘as if’, which reduces this ‘always already’ of an available redemption to a mere point of view is, in Agamben’s view (2005: 38), characteristic of Adorno’s negative dialectics, which Agamben sees as ‘an absolutely non-messianic form of thought’. The messianic vocation, as far as Agamben (2005: 41–2) is concerned, does not give us a viewpoint on another, redeemed, world. The ‘as not’ is not an ideal in the way that the ‘as if’ is, and is indeed the latter’s abolition, in the sense of its realization. Crucially, the ‘as if’ (presumably inasmuch as it assumes the uselessness of existing vocations) is also an outcome of every nihilism, a point which draws Agamben (2005: 37) into one of his few references in his Paul text to Nietzsche, this time in explicit agreement with him. The messianic subject, on the other hand,

no longer knows the as if [. . .]. He knows that in messianic time the saved world coincides with the world that is irretrievably lost, and that, to use Bonhoeffer’s words, he must now really live in a world without God. This means that he must not disguise this world’s being-without-God in any way. The saving God is the God who abandons him, and the fact of representations (the fact of the as if) cannot pretend to save the appearance of salvation. The messianic subject does not contemplate the world as if it were saved. In Benjamin’s words, he contemplates salvation only to the extent that he loses himself in what cannot be saved; this is how difficult it is to dwell in the calling. (2005: 42)15

The tensions with Nietzsche’s thought of the death of God here are striking. In Agamben’s version, the realization that this world is all there is tempts us nihilistically to opt for the ‘as if’ where we should rather attempt messianically to maintain ourselves in the ‘as not’. The ‘as not’ is itself clearly a form of negation of the world, but it is not a nihilistic one in the sense that it neither seeks, nor even contemplates, some beyond. On this radicalized reading, even if one refrains from positing another world, but rather, as with Nietzsche’s artist, creates new forms, one is still caught up in nihilism (2005: 37). Messianic life, in stark contrast to Nietzsche’s artistic life, is assimilation to the world even to the extent of involving those it has called in becoming ‘like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things’ (1 Cor. 4.13) (2005: 41).16 Nietzsche too, of course, sought the utmost affirmation of everything that has been with his ‘abyssal’ thought of eternal recurrence, his amor fati. Yet Agamben’s messianic vocation (with strong echoes of Deleuze’s reading of Nietzsche’s eternal return as the return of difference, of that which differs from itself) does not want the return of the same – how could anyone love Auschwitz as destiny (Agamben 1999b: 100)? Rather, redemption, though it is firmly of this world, is this world rendered graspable and therefore used ever anew. The hos me is what offers up this world for use.

For Agamben, this ‘as not’ is therefore the fundamental messianic term in Paul (2005: 23).17 This hos me is not a matter of ‘eschatological indifference’ (the world is ending; what does it matter!), nor does it have any specific content. We remain as we were when we were called (1 Cor. 7.20). The nullification wrought by the hos me therefore attaches itself to that which is, it ‘does not tend towards an elsewhere’ (2005: 24). But since it neither induces a fatalistic indifference towards that which it nullifies, what exactly does it do? It deposes the social and biological conditions in which it finds itself thrown in the very same gesture that it maintains itself and dwells in them. In deactivating its worldly vocations it lives in them; the messianic vocation coincides completely with living a life, with use (2016: 277).

Living a life is using its time. Worldly vocations can be used because they are always passing away. Agamben highlights Paul’s conclusion to his passage on the hos me, which declares that ‘the present form of this world is passing away’ (1 Cor. 7.31). In accordance with this passage, which Agamben (ibid.) translates somewhat differently as ‘passing away is the figure, the way of being, of this world’, the hos me itself is what makes the figure of this world pass by preparing its end. ‘This is not another figure or another world: it is the passing of the figure of this world’ (2005: 24–5). The hos me is negation, not dialectics, where the latter, in sublating that which is negated in a universal and teleological process, tends towards the elsewhere, the other world.18 Politically, this means revealing the fundamental contingency, the arbitrariness, of each and every social condition or identity (2005: 30–1).19 Given that it is law that apportions these identities, this revelation is at once an unveiling of underlying lawlessness and of the powers that hide this lawlessness.20 Unveiling is what the messianic vocation does: ‘bringing to light the inoperativity of the law and the substantial illegitimacy of each and every power in messianic time’ (2005: 111). In the precise sense of anarchy as an-arche, that which is without origin, the messianic vocation is anarchistic – showing the absence of foundation beneath all profane power without in any way offering the foundation for a new, redeemed power (ibid.).21

Agamben finds further support for his thesis that the messianic vocation negates this world without positing a world to come (or, more precisely, that in negation the world to come is already here) in the Pauline notion of messianic time. Agamben argues (2005: 62) that messianic time is neither this eon (world) nor the coming eon; neither chronological time nor the apocalyptic time of the eschaton (the end of time). Messianic time is rather an ‘operational time’, ‘the time that time takes to come to an end’ (2005: 65, 67). It is seized kairos (occasion or opportune moment), which is itself nothing other than seized chronos (sequential time), and this is its relation to the ‘as not’, which, as revocation, as deactivation, is nonetheless active, a vocation (2005: 69, 68). This operational time is not to be added as a supplement to chronological time (as, for example, in Marxism, which, following Hegel, views redemption as the final result of a historical process), which is why Paul’s parousia (presence) should not be understood as ‘second coming’ but rather as the relation of the Messiah to each instant of chronological time (2005: 76, 101, 70–1).22 This relation is one of recapitulation, as in Eph. 1.10, where Paul writes that ‘all things are recapitulated in him, things in heaven and things on earth’ (2005: 75). In this sense, suggests Agamben (2005: 77), messianism is wrongly described as future orientated, since it rather involves memory, a thoroughly un-nostalgic remembering which allows what was accomplished in the past to be unaccomplished and, conversely, what is unfulfilled in the present to be fulfilled. Paul’s messianic vocation is thus an immanent rather than an imminent transcendence, or, in Agamben’s own words, ‘a zone of indiscernability between immanence and transcendence, between this world and the future world’ (2005: 25).23 While this world is negated, it is brought thereby to fulfilment. There is no place for nihilism here in any of its Nietzschean moments: this world is neither a source of ressentiment, nor a target for destruction, nor an opportunity for overcoming.24 In place of all this otherworldliness there is use of the world. For if, as Benjamin claimed, the world is the highest good, then it cannot be appropriated but, rather, always already appropriates us. And the only possible experience of the inappropriable is use (Agamben 2016).

1For Deleuze (1994: 6, 41 and 299), Nietzsche’s eternal return is not some external order imposed upon the world’s chaos, it is only the internal identity of world and chaos – Chaosmos. This is why Nietzsche’s eternal return cannot be understood as a cycle, as if it is an idea content only to oppose linear time.

2See, for example, Mircea Eliade (1971).

3Taubes repeats this point in The Political Theology of Paul (2004: 10): the cross is a ‘total and monstrous inversion of the values of Roman and Jewish thought’.

4For all that Nietzsche criticizes Paul for fabricating the need for life to be redeemed, it is striking that Zarathustra (2006: 158) is also described as a redeemer, this time of chance. Since for Nietzsche life is chance, we are left with two redemptions of life – the Pauline and the Zarathustrian. Of course, the former (in Nietzsche’s reading anyway) is a redemption of this life in the life beyond, whereas the latter redeems life in the here and now. But the need for a redeemer is a constant. Nietzsche is explicit about this: Zarathustra wants to go to mankind and, among them, ‘to go under, dying I want to give them my richest gift’ (ibid.).

5Although, as Deleuze (1983: 158) says: ‘One dialectician cannot accuse another of standing on his head – it is the fundamental character of the dialectic itself’!

6But as we saw earlier, the Cynic, by contrast, does say no to the polis. Yet because he does not leave the polis, this negation, in opening new possibilities within the polis, has similar effects to Paul’s affirmation. Just as Paul’s ‘yes’ to the resurrection does not overcome Rome but opens Rome, so also the Cynic’s ‘no’ to the polis provides an opportunity within the polis rather than leading to its destruction. The Cynics thereby practice Pauline inoperativity (the making inoperative of worldly vocations without ever leaving them) in the form of a ‘no’ rather than a ‘yes’.

7For all that Badiou (2000) draws a strong contrast between his thought of the event and Deleuze’s, Deleuze (1994: 136) also holds that ‘The new, with its power of beginning and beginning again, remains forever new’.

8See also Badiou 2012: 55–6.

9Thus, elsewhere (2012: 60), Badiou outlines one of his maxims for anti-nihilism as ‘Exalt exceptions’.

10‘In the man who wants to perish, to be overcome, negation has broken everything which still held it back, it has defeated itself, it has become power of affirming, a power which is already superhuman’ (Deleuze 1983: 175).

11More recently, in Logics of Worlds (2009a: 396), Badiou has reaffirmed that destruction is an inevitable component of change. The event must destroy what linked a being to the transcendental of the world in which it appears in order for real transformation to occur: ‘The opening of a space of creation requires destruction.’

12Thus the ‘new man’ is free from all predicates such as family, property and nation: ‘Marx had already understood that the universal singularity of the proletariat derives from its bearing no predicate, possessing nothing, and in particular not having, in the strong sense of the term, any “fatherland”’ (2007b: 66).

13There is not space to explore it fully here, but Badiou’s ‘minimal difference’ (or creative relation to the nothing) nonetheless continues to differ from Agamben’s messianic vocation, which, as we shall see, turns on the (non-dialectical) power of negation of extant worldly vocations. For Badiou, on the contrary, a ‘creative excess can[not] be produced be negating ordinary life. No, there must already be an excess in place ... There is no alchemy that could change the sign of ordinary states’ in the absence of the passage called rebellion. ‘Rebellion’ here, then, ‘means that within the extremity experienced in negative excess abides the certainty that we can change its sign’ (Badiou 2007b: 142–3). In contrast, Agamben’s version of changing signs, which he calls recapitulation, does not find this messianic ‘excess’ as something separate from everyday life.

14Agamben no doubt follows Heidegger in eschewing discussion of values when speaking of nihilism. Conceiving of our fundamental concerns as values is nihilism, for Heidegger, who comes to see Nietzsche’s emphasis on will (the positing of values) as not the solution to, but indeed the culmination of, European nihilism. Values, considered as objects independent from us that we chose/posit can equally well be rejected/un-posited. No one dies for mere external values, but only for shared commitments by which he/she is always already gripped (Dreyfus 1993).

15Benjamin also expresses this idea as follows: ‘Justice is the striving to make the world into the highest good’ (cited in Jacobson 2010: 166).

16This section of Agamben’s discussion is no doubt indebted to Heidegger’s reading of Paul, which Agamben engages briefly. Agamben seeks to open up some space between himself and Heidegger by recalling that Heidegger’s version of assimilation to the world involves, in its authentic mode, the ‘appropriation’ of the improper. Agamben apparently sees this terminology as too caught up with traditional notions of subjectivity, and therefore prefers the term ‘use’ to ‘appropriation’, since the messianic subject (being nothing other than the ‘as not’ of existing subjectivities) is itself nullified, and so cannot seize either profane identities or even itself. What the messianic subject can seize is not itself as some self-same identity, but a certain time (Heidegger 2004; Agamben 2005: 33–4).

17See also The Kingdom and the Glory (2011: 248–9).

18Badiou agrees (2003: 65) that, contra the Hegelian appropriation of Christianity, the Pauline message is non-dialectical, though for Badiou it is not dependent on negation either. The event (which is the resurrection in Paul) ‘is affirmation without preliminary negation; it is what comes upon us in caesura of the law. It is pure and simple encounter’.

19As Blanton (2011: xvii) notes, Breton’s thought is similar here, where the cross in Breton’s Paul ‘signifies the pale void that renders inoperative the fullness of any ensemble or cultural form’. See Breton, The Word and the Cross (2002: Chapter 4, ‘The Cross and the Powers’).

20These powers, in Paul’s time the Roman Empire, is how Agamben (2005: 108–11) identifies Paul’s cryptic concept of the katechon in 2 Thess. 2.3–9. Agamben thus reads Paul’s katechon negatively as obfuscating the truth of lawlessness in messianic time in contrast to Carl Schmitt’s reactionary reading, which would rather celebrate the capacity of profane power to ‘hold back’ lawlessness (Schmitt 2003: 59–62). This difference between a revelatory and an obfuscatory relation to lawlessness is found also in Agamben’s treatment of biopolitics (Agamben 1998: 51). Biopolitical nihilism captures (i.e. uses while also hiding) the ‘nothing’ of bare life rather than messianically living in it. For a full discussion of the katechon in the context of contemporary nihilism, see Prozorov 2012.

21This point is reiterated in The Kingdom and the Glory (2011: 166), where Agamben claims that Pauline messianism must be understood ‘as a corrective to the demonic hypertrophy of angelic and human powers’.

22See also Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ (1968).

23This abstract understanding of messianism acquires a more concrete reading in Agamben’s study of monasticism, The Highest Poverty: Monastic Rules and Form-of-Life. Here Agamben (2013a: 48–51) explicitly links monastic ‘flight from the world’ to the possibility of new forms of life/community: ‘“Exile from the world” is first of all a political gesture that [. . .] is equivalent to the constitution of a new community.’

24Again, this characterization of messianism in its contradistinction to nihilism comes across clearly in The Highest Poverty. Agamben (2013a) identifies Franciscan monasticism (which he sees as eclipsing contemporary monastic orders and religious movements of the Middle Ages in its radicalism) with an anomic emphasis on poverty rather than office. Because early Franciscan community is thus defined by form-of-life rather than law, it knows nothing of the anticlericalism that defined contemporary movements. Francis could ‘give to the Church what is the Church’s without polemic, namely the administration of the officium that belongs to it’ (Agamben 2013a: 120). Although religious movements contemporary to Franciscanism also emphasized poverty, they did not succeed in disassociating themselves from institutions and law as the Franciscans did, something which is revealed in their always putting themselves forward as the true Church in opposition to Rome (2013a: 212).

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