*Special note: As stated in my Christmas post, these four posts on the ontology of clothes are likely not every reader’s cup of tea. They are one essay and pretty dense. Usually, writings I post are meant to be intellectual but accessible. I hope they are! However, this essay was written for academics and will appear in a university volume of essays (SUNY, 2018) devoted to the thought of American theorist, D. G. Leahy. Though it honours the brilliant mind of Dave Leahy I think he has helped me develop some original thoughts about clothes.
To wonder about the ontology of clothes sounds very post-modern. Don’t clothes lack seriousness and don’t post-modernists love to play with the frivolous, a way to poke the “oh, so serious” tradition in the eye? Aristotle’s Categories is one of the founding documents of the West’s metaphysical tradition and the tenth and final category of being he discusses is habiliment: clothes, weapons, ornament. For both Leahy and Agamben, clothes go to the heart of the problem of sovereignty.
This essay is a commentary on Leahy’s formulation: “In the mind of God the creature exists absolutely. In the mind of the creature God exists absolutely” (Foundation, 579). A summation of Leahy’s thinking these sentences assume his distinctive accounts of revelation and identity. To be a citizen of Rome or a subject of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II is both to have an identity and be a discrete manifestation of sovereignty. Clothing is also about revelation and identity and thus it is no surprise that Leahy’s dispute with Agamben about sovereignty culminates in a dispute about vanity.
I know of only one Catholic work in the twentieth century that rivals D. G. Leahy’s Beyond Sovereignty for complexity: Analogia Entis (1932) by the Jesuit Erich Przywara. Both books are hard to read inquiries into faith and reason, and yet both astonish with vivid language and insight.
I want to use the key claim of Przywara (1889-1972) – a proper accounting of the relationship between creature and Creator (sovereign) must defer to analogy – to explore sovereignty in Leahy and Agamben. A theory that argues that the sovereign has no continuity with things natural, customary, or human is not analogical but equivocal (Agamben). A theory that argues that the sovereign is in strict continuity with things natural, customary, and human is univocal (Leahy). For Agamben, the sovereign is the modern corrosive state, its law malforming because out of all symmetry with things natural, customary, and human. He rejects the sovereign (equivocity). For Leahy, God is sovereign but so utter is this sovereignty that customary or national law is suspended in the unity of action, divine and human. Indeed, so fused are divine and human action that sovereign is each and every discrete act (univocity). Whether beyond sovereignty equivocally or univocally, national or civil law is not really law at all.
The Przywarian analogical alternative will emerge below as I detail further both the dispute between Leahy and Agamben and why they are critical of sovereignty.
What makes D. G. Leahy’s 2010 Beyond Sovereignty: A New Global Ethics and Morality so dense is its metaphysical rigour. But why is Beyond Sovereignty metaphysical at all? Is there a necessary relationship between moral reflection and metaphysics? One of the greatest Catholic moral and political theorists of the twentieth century, Aurel Kolnai, mostly eschews metaphysics.
What type of ethical theory relies so extensively on metaphysics? Natural law. Natural law is not especially popular today, not even in Catholic theology. Seldom is it mentioned in university textbooks on philosophy of law or moral theory. For the secular academy, it is thought too theistic and too traditional, running counter to progressivism’s interest in abortion, gay marriage, and sexual identity. The American Jesuit John Courtney Murray quips that philosophers congratulate themselves on burying natural law only to discover they have buried the wrong body. Leahy’s natural law theory is a case in point: it is so unexpected, so original.
Some theorists defend natural law as an account of rationality, as a set of inferences from rational axioms. I have always been more persuaded by Saint John Paul the Great’s treatment of natural law as a metaphysical and value account of the body. The rationalists minimize the embodied inclinations that Thomas appears to make important in his theory. John Paul II takes natural law to be a theory of desire, as I have tried to show. Leahy does not develop his theory obviously from either reason or desire but, like John Paul II, the emphasis is firmly on a metaphysics of the body, thinking of flesh startlingly as a sort of Angelic greeting (133).
Like Thomistic natural law, Leahy deploys his version as a political ethics, and does so amidst a sustained treatment of the important contemporary Italian philosopher, Giorgio Agamben (b. 1942). For all his admiration, Leahy (1937-2014) seeks to correct Agamben’s account of vanity. This account is somewhat unusual in rather cleverly glossing the emptiness of vanity as free potency, a sort of leisured ableness. Agamben casts vanity as inoperativity, i.e. the human released from work, released from commodities, released from the state’s micromanagement. Vanity, suspending action, suspends the state’s sovereignty, dedicated as it is to busy management of populations as economic materiel.
Continued at Ontology of Clothes II
 D. G. Leahy, Foundation: Matter the Body Itself (SUNY, 1996).
 D. G. Leahy, Beyond Sovereignty: A New Global Ethics and Morality (The Davies Group, 2010): = free-standing page numbers in the text.
 E. Przywara, Analogia Entis, trans. J. Betz & D. Bentley Hart (Eerdmans, 2014) = AE.
 A. Kolnai, Politics, Values, and National Socialism (Transaction, 2013).
 J. Courtney Murray, S. J., We Hold These Truths (Sheed & Ward, 1960), p. 298.
 G. J. McAleer, Ecstatic Morality and Sexual Politics: A Catholic and Antitotalitarian Theory of the Body (Fordham, 2005).