From Theological to Historical Apocatastasis: Notes on Benjamin’s ‘Theologico-Political Fragment’

Strength of hatred in Marx.
Fighting spirit of the working class.
Interlay revolutionary destruction and the idea of redemption.
— Walter Benjamin, ‘Notes on the Concept of History,’ (1939)

1. To have repudiated with the utmost vehemence the political significance of Millenarianism is the cardinal merit of Benjamin’s Theologico-Political Fragment

One of the cardinal epistemic virtues of Walter Benjamin’s ‘Theological-Political Fragment’ (1921) is its assertion, and defense of, the incommensurable division between Messianic and Historical Time. With respect to the former, what is at issue is a form of time that redeems humanity from its fall from grace (and thereby anticipates a future whereby humanity is reconnected to its prelapsarian form of living). Hence, Benjamin writes, “Only the Messiah…consummates all history…For this reason nothing historical can relate itself on its own account to anything Messianic.” That is to say, historical phenomena maintains a certain non-relation to the Messianic precisely because, according to this theological form of time, it is of the nature of History to be without the means of rectifying its own past. According to Messianic time, history (and humanity) can only be redeemed by something outside itself (i.e. the Messiah); that is, the time of History refers to the object upon which the Messiah acts, creates, and completes. And yet, despite their incommensurability, writes Benjamin, the nature of the exclusive disjunct between the Messianic (Theological) and the Historical (Profane): “…is the precondition of a mystical conception of history, containing a problem that can be represented figuratively. If one arrow points to the goal toward which the profane [historical] dynamic acts, and another marks the direction of Messianic intensity, then certainly the quest to free humanity for happiness runs counter to the Messianic direction; but just as a force can…increase another that is acting in the opposite direction, so the order of the profane assists, through being profane, the coming of the Messianic Kingdom.” In other words, just as the order of the Profane (History) exists independently of Messianic time insofar as it is deprived of any internal resource in order to redeem itself, the order of the Profane is conditioned by Messianic time for its existence (precisely because of this impotence).

2. Happiness is the GROUND of History while Catastrophe (or Emergency) is its NORM.

“The order of the profane should be erected on the idea of happiness […] The profane, therefore, although not itself a category of this Kingdom, is a decisive category of its quietest approach. For in happiness all that is earthly seeks its downfall, and only in good fortune is its downfall destined to find it. Whereas, admittedly, the immediate Messianic intensity of the heart, of the inner man in isolation, passes through misfortune, as suffering. To the spiritual restitutio in integrum, which introduces immortality, corresponds a worldly restitution that leads to the eternity of downfall, and the rhythm of this eternally transient worldly existence, transient in its totality, in its spatial but also in its temporal totality, the rhythm of Messianic nature, is happiness. For nature is Messianic by reason of its eternal and total passing away.”

It is worth nothing at this juncture the manner in which Benjamin speaks of happiness, understood as humanity’s collective striving for emancipation, as the ground and foundation of History (i.e. order of the Profane). This notion of happiness as the ground of History; as that which conditions and determines History; will eventually disappear from Benjamin’s analysis of the nature and structure of this order of the Profane in his 1940 text, ‘On the Concept of History.’ In its place, one finds a discussion, not of grounds but of norms; a discussion the content of which are nothing other than the history of catastrophe and crisis. Moreover, the various states of emergency found throughout history are no longer exceptions to its rules, but are the very norm of History itself. As Benjamin writes, “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the “emergency situation” in which we live is the rule. We must arrive at a concept of history which corresponds to this. Then it will become clear that the task before us is the introduction of a real state of emergency; and our position in the struggle against Fascism will thereby improve.” That said, while Benjamin’s 1937 fragment identifies the ground of History –happiness as the ground upon which the order of the Profane ought to be erected–it is only in ‘On The Concept of History’ that Benjamin discovers the norm of History in the form of catastrophe, or one prolonged state of emergency.

Given this continuity that binds Benjamin’s earlier Fragment to his final text, what is the relationship between happiness and states of emergency; between the ground of History and its norm? In acknowledging the primacy of happiness as ground, does Benjamin establish a relationship wherein happiness (ground) serves as the originary determination while states of emergency (norm) give form to the desire for emancipation? Or do the norms of History regulate the consequences of “the worldly restitution that leads to the eternity of downfall”, which renders eternally transient totality as such? And to what extent does Benjamin privilege, both logically and historico-politically, the ground of History over its norm

3. The Profane order cannot relate itself to anything Messianic; the Kingdom of God cannot be set as a goal of the political sphere, only as an end.

As Agamben notes in his 2019 lecture on the Theologico-Political Fragment, Benjamin’s notion of happiness, which serves as the ground of the order of the Profane, is tantamount to the “eternal and total passing away” of the worldly condition of “misfortune” and “suffering.” Hence, Benjamin’s claim that alongside the vantage point of divine judgement, which views worldly existence as the realm of immorality, corresponds a “worldly restitution,” which the order of the Profane views as a form of redemption whose content is the total abolition of the present state of affairs; for it is this thirst for abolition and the “eternity of downfall,” that Benjamin’s notion of “happiness” corresponds. However, to define happiness as a worldly restitution whose form is the abolition (eternal and total passing away) of suffering and immorality clarifies very little the reasons for why Benjamin views happiness as the legitimate foundations for the order of the Profane. Why is happiness-as-abolition the ground and not the goal or aim of History? 

For Agamben, the answer to this question is to be found in Benjamin’s reworking of the theological category of apocatastasis and the restitutio in integrum; in his reformulation of the theological ideas regarding the restoration of all that exists [Being] to its “original condition/state,” via the final judgement of God (“the judgement of God marks the end [termination] of history”). Against a theological apocatastasis where the end of time is realized via the final judgement of God — wherein this divine restitution of all beings (including Satan and all the fallen angels) in the present to their originary condition — Benjamin asserts that it is actually the past that “must be recovered in the present as a sort of historical apocatastasis.”  Thus, while the order of the Profane and the Kingdom of God are both characterized by their shared attribute of abolition, History and Messianism persist in their non-relation to one another since to each order corresponds qualitatively different temporal structures to the process of abolition as such: theological apocatastasis redeems existence by returning Being to an originary condition in the past while historical apocatastasis redeems the past by abolishing the present state of affairs. This is how we must understand Benjamin when he writes, in ‘On the Concept of History,’  

To articulate what is past does not mean to recognize “how it really was.” It means to take control of a memory, as it flashes in a moment of danger…[T]he danger threatens the stock of tradition as much as its recipients. For both it is one and the same: handing itself over as the tool of the ruling classes. In every epoch, the attempt must be made to deliver tradition anew from the conformism which is on the point of overwhelming it. For the Messiah arrives not merely as the Redeemer; he also arrives as the vanquisher of the Anti-Christ. The only writer of history with the gift of setting alight the sparks of hope in the past, is the one who is convinced of this: that not even the dead will be safe from the enemy, if he is victorious. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.

To redeem the past is not to restore that which is no longer to its original state; it does not mean the reconstitution and recomposition of how things actually were (‘To articulate what is past does not mean to recognize “how it really was”). Rather, for the historical materialist, it is the Messiah as figure of historical apocatastasis who “arrives as the vanquisher of the Anti-Christ,” in light of the understanding that what threatened previous and the current generation is the persisting victory of the ruling classes. 

It is for these reasons, then, that happiness cannot serve as the goal or telos of History since “the great error and failure of all modern ideologies consists precisely in flattening the Messianic order onto the Historical one.” In other words, and as Agamben is quick to remind, we must conceive of political ideals such classless society or revolution, not as a goal that is to be realized in some distant future, but as an end to the political and economic organization that conditions everyday life in the present [Jetztzeit], just as God’s Final Judgement terminates and completes history, thus marking its end, its completion. Implied in this distinction between goal and end is the claim that ideals such as revolution or classless society “cannot be posited as goals without losing their force and nature”. And if revolution cannot be posited as a goal, it is not because it is no longer desirable, nor is it because Benjamin believes that messianic categories must remain ineffective within the order of the Profane. Rather, it is because the process of realization/actualization [Verwirklichung] demonstrates that what is achieved through historical restitution or a revolution is neither History nor revolution but a state of affairs that excludes either term.

For Agamben, it is due to the peculiarities of the logic of abolition that neither happiness, nor revolution, nor a classless society, can serve as a legitimate goal/aim of collective action since each term would exhaust itself in the process of its realization; a process whose product or outcome would be a qualitatively different state of affairs. Thus, it should come as no surprise that we find an alternative formulation of historical apocatastasis as a restitution in the present and of the past in his 1940 text, ‘On the Concept of History’:

[T]he class struggle…is a fight for the crude and material things without which no refined and spiritual thing could exist. Nevertheless, it is not in the form of the spoils which fall to the victor that the latter make their presence felt in the class struggle. They manifest themselves in this struggle as courage, humor, cunning, and fortitude. 

To treat the task of abolition in all its seriousness is the challenge posed to both theory and praxis, since it obliges us to acknowledge that the means of abolishing the present state of things; the means for achieving what Marx called human emancipation; is a means for putting an end to the norm (state of emergency) that has regulated and governed History as such. And it is precisely because the means of abolition terminate emergency as History’s normative regime of power that abolition cannot also serve as a goal or aim. What is realized/actualized through abolition is not abolition itself but, as Benjamin points out, the spoils of class struggle: courage, humor, cunning, and fortitude. In other words, the product of the process of abolition is a mode, a tenor, by which class struggle is waged in the present, and a mode of struggle that is bound to be rediscovered once again by the struggles to come. Happiness, then, as the self-abolition of the present state of worldly affairs, and historical apocatastasis as the restitutio in integrum proper to the order of the Profane, form the ground and consequence of the Profane order of History. 

4. Realization. Actualization. Verwirklichung

We will leave the discussion on the logic of realization/abolition for a later post, which concerns two groups of passages. First are those comprising descriptions and articulations of abolition and its figure:

(i) “Just as he who is called is crucified with the Messiah and dies to the old world (Romans 6:6) in order to be resuscitated to a new life (Romans 8:11), so too is the proletariat only able to liberate itself through autosuppression. The “complete loss” of man coincides with his complete redemption. (From this perspective, the fact that the proletariat ends up being identified over time with a determinate social class–the working class that claims prerogatives and rights for itself–is the worst misunderstanding of Marxian thought. What for Marx served as a strategic identification–the working class as klesis and as historical figure contingent on the proletariat–becomes, to the opposite end, a true and proper substantial social identity that necessarily ends in losing its revolutionary vocation).” [Agamben, The Time That Remains, 31]; (ii) “In the formulation of a class with radical chains, a class of civil society which is not a class of civil society, an estate which is the dissolution of all estates, a sphere which has a universal character by its universal suffering and claims no particular right because no particular wrong, but wrong generally, is perpetuated against it; which can invoke no historical, but only human, title… a sphere, finally, which cannot emancipate itself without emancipating itself from all other spheres of society and thereby emancipating all other spheres of society, which, in a word, is the complete loss of man and hence can win itself only through the complete re-winning of man. This dissolution of society as a particular estate is the proletariat.” [Marx, ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right’]; (iii) “Philosophy cannot realize itself without the transcendence [Aufhebung] of the proletariat, and the proletariat cannot transcend itself without the realization [Verwirklichung] of philosophy” [‘A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right’].

Second, are those comprising the generic and general character of abolition: (i)The messianic vocation is the revocation of every vocation” [The Time That Remains, 23]; (ii) “The messianic concept of the remnant undoubtedly permits more than one analogy to be made with the Marxian proletariat…which underwent “no particular wrong but wrong absolutely [das Unrecht schlechtin]” [Ibid, 57]. For it is among these passages where we will discover what is specific to Benjamin’s and Agamben’s, respective, understanding of the Profane logic of abolition.

One thought on “From Theological to Historical Apocatastasis: Notes on Benjamin’s ‘Theologico-Political Fragment’

  1. Wow, thanks for this. Benjamin. Is so important now at least for me. I appreciate your analysis. I printed trl already and already read half. Thanks. Solidarity, Chris

    “We are so lightly here. It is in love that we are made. In love we disappear.” Leonard Cohen


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