What Is a Minister?: Toward a Theory of the Instrumental Cause
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What Is a Minister?
Toward a Theory of the Instrumental Cause

I

The problem of the relationship between politics and religion in modernity, Michel Foucault once suggested, is not the problem of the relationship between the emperor and the pope (the political-theological problem of Caesaropapism); it is the problem of that ambiguous figure who, significantly enough, retains the same name across both spheres: the figure of the minister (Foucault 2007, 191–92). Within the context of Foucault’s own oeuvre, this curious remark, which seems to present almost the key to his reflections on “pastoral power” (and hence, by extension, to the larger genealogy of “governmentality,” of which the former is but a part), remained entirely without continuation. Uniquely concerned with constructing the passage that led from the pastoral government of souls to the political government of men, and with tracing the emergence of the population-wealth [End Page 135] dyad that would in turn become the privileged object of the new governmental reason—what, starting from Antoine de Montchrestien, would come to be termed, however incongruously, “political economy”—the problem of the minister was left completely unelaborated and even unexamined. Its appearance in effect coincided with its disappearance.

That the relationship between politics and religion in modernity might be concentrated in the figure of the minister is, by contrast, one of the central contentions of Giorgio Agamben’s recent incursion into this terrain in the express wake of Foucault’s investigations. Already in the sequence immediately following that cited above, Foucault himself had observed how, in giving to the set of techniques and procedures characteristic of what he termed the pastorate, the remarkable name of oikonomia psychōn (economy of souls), the Cappadocian Fathers had invested the typically Greek notion of economy, such as it had appeared above all in Aristotle (where it referred to the effective management of the household), with a “completely different dimension” and a “completely different field of references” (Foucault 2007, 192).1 A “completely different dimension” because, far from being limited to the restricted sphere of the household, the Christian oikonomia would encompass, if not the whole of humanity, then at least the whole of Christendom; a “completely different field of references” because, far from being limited to securing the wealth and prosperity of the individual family, it would be entrusted with a distinctly soteriological function. According to Agamben’s significant reappraisal of Foucault’s observation, however—a reappraisal that is patiently reconstructed in great detail in the course of his longest and most important book to date (Agamben 2011)—it is not simply the case that the term oikonomia itself was invested with a different dimension and a different set of references. The converse is also true: it is that different dimension and that different set of references—which comprises nothing less than the entire providential schema of human history, from the beginning right up until the end of the world—that, starting from a certain point, begins to be administered and regulated in accordance with the principles that had governed the ancient Greek household.

With respect to the latter, the Christian oikonomia nonetheless maintained a very specific difference. It is Agamben’s significant achievement [End Page 136] to have demonstrated, through his recuperation of the paradigm of what he calls “economic theology,” that the earliest patristic appropriation of this vocabulary particular to the domestic sphere in fact responded to an exigency much more fundamental than that to which Foucault himself had referred (Agamben 2011, 17–52). In effect, it was what served to suture together, even while maintaining their very separateness, the three distinct persons of the Trinity. Confronted with a strong resistance internal to the Church itself that the nascent Trinitarian doctrine entailed a lapse into polytheism, the early fathers, doubtless encouraged by its appearance at several decisive points in scripture, had sought to appropriate none other than this curious term to mount the case for its defense. The plurality of divine figures, they argued, is a plurality without division: in terms of his “being” and his “substance,” God is most certainly one; only in terms of his “economy” will he instead be considered triple. It is...