The most recent thing keeping me from this blog was a paper for the medieval studies conference at Kalamazoo last weekend. It was another small step in my still-undefined quest to work through various theories of property and its relations—this time, a paper on Bonaventure’s theology of evangelical poverty. I called it “Voluntary Poverty and Political Theology: The Case of Bonaventure.” If anyone’s interested in seeing a copy, email me.
The paper’s central argument is exegetical: that Bonaventure’s thought on poverty pulls in opposing directions, that it’s marked by equally profound but contradictory logics. On the one side, Bonaventure tries to resist the idea that the Franciscan commitment to absolute poverty has any of the political implications it’s sometimes accused of. It implies no superiority to the church qua institution, no condemnation of the new economy, no intrinsic problem with ownership. He develops a fairly sophisticated theological rationale to deal with those objections—what I call in the paper the logic of conciliation. On the other side, when Bonaventure sets in to advocate evangelical poverty, to say why it’s integral to perfection, he roots his defense in a theological anthropology and ontology that does tend towards the universalization of poverty, and hints at some structural moral defect in the very institution of private property—what I call the logic of perfection. This tension within Bonaventure’s thought reflects the tension seen to exist in the Franciscan Order as a whole, and specifies it intellectually.
One of the most enjoyable things about Bonaventure, for me, is his speculative tendency, his impulse to reduce everything to first philosophy. When questions with obvious political bearing—like the relation between states of life in the church, or the ethical status of ownership—get answered metaphysically, as these do, you get some fascinating examples of other forms political theology might take.
Some of my favorite bits of scholastic writing come when these ordinarily stoic and irenic men lose their temper and let fly a bit of sarcastic rhetoric. It doesn’t happen often, but both Thomas and Bonaventure understandably succumb to the temptation while responding to those questioning the whole mendicant way of life, the life of voluntary poverty and begging. Here’s an example from Bonaventure’s Disputed questions on evangelical perfection (II.2, reply to objections 14).
Begging, per se, does not pertain to perfection unless perfection presupposes the total renunciation of everything—which is indeed in accord with God’s counsel, in which the Lord told the young man that if he would fulfill that counsel, by that very fact he would come to the pinnacle of perfection. For he said: “If you want to be perfect, go and sell everything.” He does not add: Hand it over to me, so that I may put it into my money box and all things may be held in common. Rather he says: “Give it to the poor.” He does not add: Go and buy your food through the work of your hands, but rather: “Come follow me.”
Or even better, from his direct replies to William of St Amour’s criticisms in the same question:
You say that he was begging out of politeness? Christ didn’t accept poverty to teach manners, did he? Did he choose to become needy and poor in order to teach social manners? Did he call himself a teacher of etiquette rather than a teacher of humility?
One of my consistent frustrations with secondary sources on medieval thinkers is how extraordinarily pietistic most of them are, and I’ve discovered recently that this is especially true of Bonaventure. There is a positive side to this phenomenon: it’s an expression of the enormous contextual difference between medieval and modern theology. With Bonaventure this contextual difference is exacerbated, since he’s obviously sympathetic with older monastic ways of thinking, and over the course of his career—especially after he leaves the University of Paris to become Minister General of the Franciscans—increasingly interested in Francis’s contemplative life. It makes sense that the spiritual orientation of medieval theology is one of the things that jumps out at people first in reading it, and that it would be one of the key aspects of that age that people might want to revive.
But it obscures so much! I don’t want to deny the importance of that orientation for a proper understanding of what they’re doing—that would actually be impossible for Bonaventure, who makes it part of his definition of theology as a “sapiential science.” What I want to deny is that everything that was written in that period is best understood as an extension of the medievals’ “spiritual theology.” Most treatments of Bonaventure’s commitment to voluntary poverty, for example, explicitly lay aside philosophical or political-economic considerations to get to the real, spiritual poverty that Bonaventure’s concerned with. And this despite the fact that Bonaventure’s commitment to voluntary poverty actually does have substantive philosophical ramifications (more than that through this semester), which is massively interesting.
One genuinely philosophical treatment of Bonaventure I’m looking forward to getting around to is a book called Saint Bonaventure et l’entrée de Dieu en théologie by Emmanuel Falque (1, 2). In its earlier draft, this was the dissertation he wrote under J.-L. Marion, taking Heidegger up on a little research program he noted in his dissertation on Scotus to read the medievals as phenomenologists. He’s since continued the project through phenomenological analyses of birth and resurrection, finitude, suffering, etc., all in close conversation with the patristics and the medievals. From what I remember from a lecture he gave at Notre Dame a few years ago, he could make an interesting addition to Andrew’s list in his own right, and I have high hopes that he’ll make a useful model for constructive philosophical engagement with these thinkers.
Posted by Brian Hamilton