The oath just isn’t what it used to be.
Here’s the lede that recently landed in my inbox (albeit against my own will-to-unsubscribe): “On Wednesday, Trump confirmed he treats his oath to serve the United States faithfully with the same contempt he’s given to his wedding vows and business contracts.” You will likely recall seeing similar sentiments expressed across the mediasphere. Again and again, we are told that a once solid, sacred commitment to truth and justice has succumbed to a pervasive culture of lying, deceit, and betrayal. The oath used to mean something. It used to ensure the rectitude of our politics and the integrity of our law. It used to be the guarantee of our words as well as the sign of our sincerity. Not too long ago, maybe just last Tuesday, the oath was the thing that made faith possible. Faith in the good intentions of doctors, faith in the judgment of jurors, faith in the testimony of witnesses, faith in the loyalty of new American citizens, faith in the love of spouses, and, yes, faith in the honesty of government officials. The question for today, the question for, say, Thursday, is this: Has the oath become irrelevant?
Certainly, you may find yourself quibbling with the details. At very least, you think, one should date the demise of the oath back to that specific oath uttered on January 20, 2017. But it is possible that this deep dive into the past fails to accurately assess the history of the oath’s decline. Over two decades ago, for instance, the late philosopher Anne Dufourmantelle chose to push the dating back a little further by asking: “Does a possible oath exist after the Shoah?” The Holocaust, so Dufourmantelle thought, was the first time that “speech has not only served to justify rationally the extermination of a people, but to destroy the very meaning of the oath, of the word given to the other, of the sacredness it carries in human language.” Never before in the West, she added, had “the very possibility of the dimension of the promise and the oath . . . been mutilated in this way.” Hannah Arendt, for her part, took a slightly different perspective on the oath and its banalization. Though, she, too, could hardly avoid the link with Nazism. In her 1963 report on the Eichmann Trial, she cites the defendant’s clownish vacillation between a renunciation of all oaths and a continued adherence to them: “What could one do with a man who first declared, with great emphasis, that the one thing he had learned in an ill-spent life was that one should never take an oath . . . and then, after being told explicitly that if he wished to testify in his own defense he ‘might do so under oath or without an oath,’ declared without further ado that he would prefer to testify under oath?” Arendt was also pretty sure that Adolf Eichmann’s casual relationship to the oath was no mere exception, noting, shortly later, that under the Third Reich only a few people “still took an oath seriously and preferred, for example, to renounce an academic career rather than swear by Hitler’s name.”
For better or worse, then, the oath seems to have become a punchline, a laughable anachronism, whose persistence and apparent efficacy in the present only belies its substantive vacuity, fundamental frailty, and diminished consequence. It is, ironically enough, something that one can already glimpse in the constitutional formula for the US presidential oath of office, which, instead of insisting on the irrevocable necessity of the oath, gives its speakers the parenthetical option to solemnly “affirm” rather than solemnly “swear” to its faithful execution. The slippage is subtle and rarely invoked. But the choice may point to a legacy of ambivalence that precedes the twentieth and twenty-first centuries and could mark an epochal shift in that hazy movement known as secularization. Immanuel Kant presents it as an antinomy. On the one hand, the oath is a primitive superstition. On the other hand, a “handy” if lamentable feature of the modern juridical system. More contemporary scholarship, meanwhile, has agreed that the continued presence of the oath in legal institutions is an “atavistic survival” of an “ancient ritual” of self-cursing: a threat of punishment meant to secure the performance of a promise. Somewhere in between the archaic past and the enlightened future there is also Jesus’s critical contribution to oath-taking and its ends: “But I say to you, do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one” [Matthew 5:34-37].
Be it elegiac or optimistic, the discourse on the oath is a discourse on its loss and coming irrelevance. The oath is of the past. Either something to be retrieved or something to be buried. But in both cases, the fact is that we seem to have entered a post-oath society. We are now witnessing, says Giorgio Agamben, nothing less than “the irreversible decline of the oath in our time.” This is not the “age of the oath.” It is the “age of the eclipse of the oath,” where nothing remains to guarantee the union of words and things, language and life, speech and action. Agamben calls it the “age of blasphemy” because in it the possibility of benediction (speaking correctly) has been replaced by the proliferation of malediction (speaking badly), the telling of truth by vain and empty chatter. The waning of the oath—and this is Agamben’s summary argument—is the curse of an age that no longer bears responsibility for its speech and no longer knows how to assume its place within language.
So there you have it. The oath is in decline, has always been in decline, and until today still threatens one final decline into absolute irrelevance. But before I leave you to your mourning rites or memorial celebrations, let me offer one other formulation, one other translation, of the relevance and irrelevance, persistence and declension of the oath in “our time.” A preliminary version of the sentence could read like this: The oath declines relevance. It is a lesson that comes from William Shakespeare, by way of Jacques Derrida, who reminds us in one of his many reflections on the topic that Shakespeare was in fact “a great thinker and poet of the oath.” And this probably nowhere more so than in The Merchant of Venice. If you have read the play, or seen it performed, you know that oath-taking and oath-breaking traverse the various filiations, contracts, and bonds that make up its plot. In one famous scene, Shylock demands that the court of justice in Venice uphold the terms of his loan to Antonio: repayment in three thousand ducats or a pound of flesh. Those present at court try their best to dissuade Shylock from executing his strict interpretation of the agreement. They offer him alternative forms of remuneration and repeatedly implore him for leniency. Most eloquent is Portia, who gives an impassioned speech on the divine “quality of mercy”:
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.
Shylock listens and responds to Portia’s thoughts on justice with his own theological-political reflections. Not mercy, he says, but “an oath, an oath, I have an oath in heaven: / Shall I lay perjury upon my soul? / No, not for Venice.”
Portia and Shylock. Christian and Jew. Two appeals to heaven, two definitions of God, and two calls for justice. As Derrida observes in his extended reading of this exchange, the dueling languages of mercy and oath end up echoing one another. Both place something “above human language in human language, beyond the human order in the human order, beyond human rights and duties in human law.” Portia wants to save Shylock from his literal-minded legalism. Her petition is a prayer for relief or, in Derrida’s French translation, relevance: a plea for the elevation and sublimation, interiorization and spiritualization of justice. Mercy is relevant because it at once cancels and preserves the law, exalts it and negates its, lifts it up and translates it, as Derrida puts it, “toward a height higher than the crown, the sceptre, and power that is royal, human, earthly, and so on.” Through an appeal to Christian grace, that is, Portia seeks to relieve justice from the violence of an all-too carnal, all-too-Jewish exegesis. Shylock plays the role well. He suspects that Portia’s interest in sovereign debt forgiveness is little more than another form of violence, a ruse to destroy the body of the law, incite perjury, and dispossess him of his word. His answer to the relevance of mercy is the oath. It binds him like a hostage to a divine justice which, far from by-passing the law, can only come through the letter of the law. Shylock’s “oath in heaven” is thus a staunch repudiation of Portia’s ultimatum: “Then must the Jew be merciful.” At the risk of losing everything, Shylock rejects mercy for the sake of fidelity. He balks at the chance to translate body into spirit and turns down the protocols of Christian justice. He swears by his contract and insists on his pound of flesh.
It is a theater of cruelty, to be sure. Shylock’s part in this is no doubt obvious. Portia’s less so. Which is why Derrida seeks to turn the tables on Shakespeare’s discourse and recognize the parallel “evil” at work in the play’s “semantics of mercy.” After all, Portia’s lofty sermon on the virtues of forgiveness rehearses all the codes of a Christian tradition that has long attempted to assert its relevance by making others irrelevant. This is what Shylock’s allegiance to the oath represents. His brutal intransigence lodges him in a superseded past. In his opposition to any form of sublimation, translation, or conversion, he turns himself into an obsolescent survival of a pre-Christian age. His oath is a fetish, a perversion, and a regression. But here, too, a kind of resistance. An unyielding obstinacy that chooses to read Portia’s “gentle rain” of mercy as a raging storm of progress. More and less than a decline into irrelevance, Shylock’s oath declines relevance. Shylock pursues a strategy that is nothing less than antirelevant. It is a tenuous, downright dangerous position. And one that ultimately leads him to ruin. Still, as Derrida suggests, it may also be the trace of an impossible ethics: the absolute refusal of relevance.
Or perhaps even a will-to-unsubscribe.