The French term commandement unifies a set of related meanings that remain obscured when one is forced to choose between its English equivalents “command” or “commandment”. Commandement signifies a range of meanings; from commanding, to governing and ruling over men, to bringing into order; it also makes apparent a biblical reference to the decalogue—the ten commandments—which is largely absent when one uses the English “command”. It was for this reason that the translators of Achille Mbembe’s On The Postcolony (2001), one of few recent texts to investigate together the political and theological dimensions of command, opted to preserve this field of relations by leaving commandement untranslated throughout.
Despite the intertwining of religion and politics embodied in these terms, seldom have the ten commandments or command, as such, served as objects of interest in political theology. Given the significance of the ten commandments for Christian theology and their ethico-legal and political objectives, the absence of an explicit political-theological commentary is surprising. Instead, following Carl Schmitt, political theology largely focuses on the counterpart to command, authority — that quality, right or power that guarantees that a command will be obeyed. Schmitt’s influence has resulted in a decisionist orientation to much political theology — that is, a focus on the moment of “decision” in which sovereign interventions, or decisions on a state of exception, are analogous to divine miracles insofar as they mark a break with the normal laws of nature. Where Schmitt does discuss command, he understands it largely as a particular mandate or task, a mission to be completed by a subordinate, rather than a general ethical or legal imperative like the decalogue: “thou shalt…”.
Is there a distinct political theology of command or the commandments? In the following, I draw together a few works that suggest the importance of command and commandments for political theology, including Hobbes’s Leviathan, theologies of law, and Agamben’s critique of the divine command. Through this survey, I suggest that command/commandment emerges as a key category for understanding the intertwining of modern politics and the history of Christianity.
One exception to the general political theological silence on the command/commandment is Giorgio Agamben’s recently published lecture, “What is a Command?”, which, he notes, is merely a preliminary piece of a larger, yet to be completed, archaeology of command. “What is a Command?” opens with a discussion of the equivocity of the ancient Greek term archē, a word meaning both “origin, principle” and “command, order.” Agamben notes that the book of Genesis plays on these two meanings by beginning en archē, that is, with the imperative, the command, “let there be light.” He argues that this famous opening should not be translated “in the beginning was the word” but instead “in command — that is, in the form of a command — was the word.” For Agamben, the influence of the origin, its imperative force as both beginning and command, is characteristic not only of theology and scripture, which are always seeking to return to the original and hence most commanding words of Christ, but also of the entire Western “philosophical tradition and the human sciences.”
If true, this might explain the constant return in political theory (and political theology) to the works of Thomas Hobbes, arguably the original theorist of the modern state form. Hobbes’ Leviathan offers a curious, but often neglected, political interpretation of the ten commandments. In Chapter 30, Hobbes interprets the decalogue as a set of general political principles which form the “natural and fundamental laws” of sovereignty. He draws connections between different religious traditions (Roman-Pagan, Judaic and Christian), equating the central theme of the pagan myth of the daughters of Pelias with the biblical first commandment, “thou shalt have no other gods.” Both, according to Hobbes, teach the principle that the sovereign must dictate the religion of a state: cuius regio eius religio (“whose realm, their religion”). But Hobbes insists that these political principles given to Christians in the ten commandments are not specific to Judeo-Christian faiths or necessarily derived from divine revelation. Instead he claims they are universal principles that can be grasped simply by “industrious mediation.” For instance, the fourth commandment, “remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy,” Hobbes generalizes into a universal principle of politico-legal education. From the particular Judaic practice of abstaining from work to study the Torah (Judaic Law), Hobbes derives a model for the fundamental pedagogical practice to be promoted by the sovereign: abstaining from work to learn the laws of the commonwealth. Effective education in politico-religious matters requires a break with the prosaic concerns of daily life. The minds and actions of subjects must be cultivated on the sabbath through learning the law of the commonwealth and their duty of obedience to the sovereign.
An alternative political interpretation of the commandments was developed by the German theologian Albrecht Alt, who describes the decalogue as a distinctive innovation of the Israelites. In an influential essay, first published in 1934, Alt distinguishes the apodeictic form of Israelite Law (exemplified in the thou shalt… form of the decalogue) from the casuistic form of other ancient Near-East legal codes, which used an if… then… structure. Alt claims that the if… then… form was common to other groups such as the Babylonians, Assyrians and Hittites. The decisive Israelite innovation was the use of the second-person pronoun, which is preserved in the English “thou”. Anticipating aspects of Althusser’s theory of interpellation, Alt argues that this direct address of the commandment calls to the individuals of the congregation and solicits a response, an “amen” through which they take the “curse upon themselves.” Through this call and response they recognize themselves as the subject, the “thou” addressed by the commandment, and hence as part of a unified people or nation who are united as the “mouthpiece of Yahweh.” The commandment form is thus linked with monotheistic (or even nationalist) modes of religion that aimed to control all aspects of the life of the congregation.
However, Alt’s historical context—Germany in 1934—casts an ominous shadow over the nationalist elements of his account, in particular his description of the “democratic” enforcement of Israelite law though “stoning, carried out with the active participation of every member of the community present, as representatives of the whole nation.” Carl Schmitt similarly drew on the participatory “amen” in order to theorize an “authoritarian democracy” in 1920s texts such as Constitutional Theory. Although Schmitt’s theory also focuses on the response from the congregation, the congregational “amen” is not prompted by a prior address by commandment. Instead, the cry of “amen” functions as an “acclamation” in which participation itself, the performance of assent, brings into existence a democratic polity.
Putting aside the acclamation of “amen,” Agamben focuses on the performative dimensions of the command itself. Taking as an example the imperative linguistic form “Walk!”, he notes that the command is non-apophantic — it does not describe a matter of fact or state of the world. He claims it is complete, or self-contained in its utterance as a command, in the sense that it is independent of any pre-existing fact or state of the world, i.e., it is a command whether it is obeyed or not. The utterance of a command, in its bare performance, produces its own effect in the world. The utterance changes the world by adding to it a particular imperative. Drawing on Emil Benveniste, Agamben argues that the imperative blurs the distinction between language and world. Rather than offering a disconnected description of “being,” or what exists, given from a disinterested sphere of objectivity typical of modern science, the imperative intervenes like a command: “Be!”. He insists that the command embodies an alternative performative ontology, one shared by law, religion and magic. For instance, in religion not only does God give us the commandments, but even our prayers to God take the form of commands: “Give us today our daily bread! Deliver us from evil!” The foundational concept for this ontology is the will, a postulate or apparatus that, Agamben notes, links us to the divine, but importantly, makes possible the whole logic of command, both over others and over the self.
Echoing Agamben’s doubled ontology, Achille Mbembe describes the mode of colonial rule that he calls commandement as a way of exercising power that is itself productive of the reality it describes. Re-enacting God’s command in the colonial self-imaginary, the colonial political potentate claimed to bring into being the civilized-world with the words: “Let there be enlightenment.” Mbembe’s use of commandement constantly plays on the theological resonances of the term. For instance, the self-assigned right to rule of the colonial sovereign is inseparable from its “omnipotence.” According to the governmental rationality of the colony, the colonial potentate alone takes on God’s role “to judge what is good and truly useful to itself.” Founded on violence, colonial commands appear entirely arbitrary and without purpose (ends). They dispense with common law or principles of generality/equality. Mbembe constructs an antithesis between the logic of colonial commandement and that of liberal politics, which parallels Albrecht Alt’s contrast between monotheism and polytheism. The colonial commandement rejects liberal universalism, but also the liberal divisions between public and private or, alternatively, the spheres of the social, the economic and the political. In each case, these are collapsed into a quasi-monotheistic totality. In the colonial imaginary, there is thus no independent “civil society.” Instead the colonizer takes the role of transcendent shepherd over the supposedly “animal” native. The colonial flock is to be simultaneously ruled and civilized by commandements.
Mbembe’s demonstration of the complex interrelations of western modernity and the colony, while concerned largely with the rationality of the Enlightenment and western hegemony, can also be transposed to an explicitly political-theological register. In the latter Mbembe could be said to show how the modern state form itself is inextricable from the commandement, not just as an emblem for sovereignty in Schmitt’s sense, but also because the exemplary political form of modernity, the nation-state, has racist and exclusionary tendencies that can be understood as political-theological transfers of monotheistic principles.
Moreover, Mbembe’s account of the violence of the colony clearly returns us to the origins of the modern-state form in Hobbes, for whom agreements obtained by force (even by threat of death) and commonwealths formed through conquest deserve fidelity and obedience. In fact, the legitimacy of omnipotence, maintained by Hobbes and criticized by Mbembe, forms the basis of the monotheistic model out of which the nation-state system was formed. Thus a critical political theology commensurate with contemporary hopes for political-cosmopolitanism demands that we grasp the role of Moses and the commandments as the decisive marker separating polytheism from monotheistic forms of religio-politics. The works surveyed here serve to highlight the continued neglect of the commandement in recent political theology and demonstrate its relevance to multiple contemporary debates.
Agamben, Giorgio. “What Is a Command?” in Creation and Anarchy: The Work of Art and the Religion of Capitalism, translated by Adam Kotsko, 51–65. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2019.
Agamben is one of the few thinkers to begin to delve into the command as a problem within political theology. While his linguistic approach to the command is at times idiosyncratic and his insistence on the self-contained nature of the command (independent of authority) may be questionable, it remains a useful starting point for any investigation.
Mbembe, Achille. On the Postcolony. University of California Press, 2001.
One of the most influential postcolonial thinkers today, Mbembe’s account of power, command and violence in the colonial context breaks the Eurocentric complacency that persists in much political theory.
Alt, Albrecht. “The Origins of Israelite Law.” In Essays on Old Testament History and Religion, translated by R. A. Wilson, 79–132. Oxford: Basil Blackwell Oxford, 1966.
Despite certain criticisms of the work, Alt’s essay remains one of the most significant attempts to understand the specificity of the biblical commandments and their relation to law. In particular, the work is worth reading for his distinction between monotheism and polytheism, which anticipates more recent ideas developed by Egyptologist Jan Assman and philosopher Peter Sloterdijk.