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Rule and Life in the ''Mirror for Magistrates''

Date: Friday, 5 September, 2014
Time: 4:00pm
Venue: Room 202A, Learning and Innovation Building, UQ St Lucia campus

Giorgio Agamben’s recent study The Highest Poverty concerns the relation between the written rules of medieval monasticism and the lives conducted within the monastery’s confines. According to Agamben, it is unclear whether the rule, which carefully articulates the hourly practices of prayer and labour that make up monastic life, prescribes the course of the monks’ lives in a legalistic manner, or whether it simply reflects the life they lead according to their own collective will and purpose. This confusion points towards an ambiguity at the heart of monastic life: “What is a rule if it seems to be mixed up with a life without remainder? And what is a human life, if it can no longer be distinguished from the rule?” Within the monastery, rule and life become so closely entwined that they are ultimately indistinguishable, coalescing into what the Franciscans called forma vitae or “form of life,” “a life that is linked so closely to its form that it proves inseparable from it.” Agamben’s analysis, a part of his larger project on the relation between life and sovereign power, has implications well beyond the space of the monastery. Philosophers have long held that human experience has a normative character, that we necessarily conduct our lives within a framework of rules, standards, and values that provide us with direction and meaning. But to speak of rules and values at all is to presuppose some form of collective life in which they may be established. To escape a vicious circle, we must recognize something like the Franciscan forma vitae: a
life that does not merely follow but actively embodies its rules and values.

This paper will consider the Mirror for Magistrates, a sixteenth century collection of exemplary poems, as an illustration of the coincidence of rule and life. The Mirror represents historical lives in a regularized and moralized form, offering them as models to be imitated or cautionary examples to be shunned. Like the monastic rule, it is both an image of life and a pattern for living, suggesting the inseparability of our ways of life and the rules that guide them. It also demonstrates the special role of exemplary literature as a representational mode of instruction, a role that confounds our usual distinctions between the mimetic and the didactic, the descriptive and the normative. Exemplary literature, we might say, stands at the border between “ought” and “is.”

Ross Knecht is post-doctoral research fellow in the Centre for the History of Emotions at The University of Queensland. His research focuses on Shakespeare and early modern literature, with a special interest in the early modern discourse of the passions, the philosophy of language, and the history of pedagogy. He is currently at work on a manuscript concerning the intersection of passion, grammar, and schooling in sixteenth century literary texts.