Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Enmity and Tyranny part 2: political theology


       This comparatively brief second section of "Enmity and Tyranny" compares Schmitt and Strauss on what Strauss called the theological-political predicament – for him, the central aspect, though only referred to briefly, of long scholarly/political deliberation. See here for the first section. For Strauss and to some extent, for Plato, the esoteric or hidden meaning of political theology is the use of a god by a leader to put across authoritarian policies.  I have another long essay on this matter called “Politics and the God,” based in Strauss’s ecstatic unearthings of hidden meanings, sometimes genuine discoveries, in Plato and others, in his letters to Jacob Klein in 1938 which I will post when it is about to be published.  In those letters,  Strauss provides a paradigm for scholarly enthusiasm.  I also explore how one might interpret book x of Plato’s Laws as a subtle exercise in protecting a would-be Socrates, providing a seeming punishment of leading men walking with an atheist at night to counsel him for five years.  But Klinias the Cretan can’t entirely withstand the Athenian Stranger, whom Plato finds quite doubtful and expects his students to,  for a single day!.  

      In his 1922 Political Theeology,  Schmitt blazed a trail in regard to authoritarianism ("he is sovereign who makes the decision in the state of the exception" is how the essay begins. Esoterically, he suggested that authoritarianisms (fascist or later Nazi) mirrored a hidden Catholicism of Christ’s  miracle against the rigid “law” of the Jews.  As the most famous lawyer in Weimar and the Prussian State Councillor under the Nazis until 1936, Schmitt is paradoxical in his passion against the rule of law.

                                        2.  Strauss and Schmitt on“Political Theology”

         Schmitt’s Political Theology (1922) promotes a striking analogy: as God makes miracles, so a leader gives (exceptional or arbitrary) “laws.”  Implicitly, Schmitt relates the miracle of Christ opposed to the law of the Jews (theology) to the miracle of a leader acting against – or despite - the law (politics).  In 1922, Schmitt traces this idea to Hobbes and coins the term decisionism to celebrate authoritarianism.  In this first stage of Schmitt’s and Strauss’s confrontation with Hobbes, Strauss adopts Schmitt’s political vision, but fails to understand, for Schmitt, its theological counterpart.

      But Schmitt translates every alternative argument into a political “theology”:  

     De Maistre said that every government is necessarily absolute, and the anarchist says the same; but with the aid of his axiom of the good man and corrupt government, he draws the opposite practical conclusion, namely that all governments must be opposed for the reason  that every government is a dictatorship.  Every claim of a decision must be evil for the anarchist, because the right emerges of itself if not disturbed by such claims.  This radical antithesis forces him of course to decide against the decision; and this results in the odd paradox whereby Bakunin, the greatest anarchist of the nineteenth century, had to become in theory the theologian of the antitheological, and in practice the dictator of the antidictatorial.[i]

Earlier in that book, Schmitt suggests that all concepts of state are disguised theology and metaphysics.[ii]   One might say that Schmitt arbitrarily theologizes both the politics of his opponents and all politics.  Schmitt offers no argument for this affectation.[iii]  Oddly, for a lawyer, he fails to recognize self-defense against murder; demolishing Nazi genocide, for example, would be liberating and hardly a “hypocritical theology.” Further, Bakunin opposed God, the State and capitalism (“ni dieu ni maitre’); though parallel oppositions, what connects them?

         In addition, how does opposition to government as oppressive require an assumption that humans are “good”?  If a reactionary makes humans evil enough, the evils of government may seem to pale in comparison; otherwise the two objects of argument – the diverse potentials of human nature; the justice of government – have no strong connection.  Schmitt uses revelation to reshape others’ arguments.  Others are, for him, mirrors in which he sees himself. 

      Heinrich Meier has rightly insisted on Schmitt’s deliberately hidden Catholicism which Strauss, in Meier’s idiom a “political philosopher,” does not confront (Strauss’s Platonic suggestion about a legislator’s use of political theology – though reactionary and in part overlapping – is not, as we will see, Schmitt’s Catholic authoritarianism).  Schmitt ties the assertion of the dangerousness of man in politics – and hence, the need for enemies – to  original sin. But Schmitt’s decision about who thinks about “the political” also needs argument.   He tendentiously cuts out obviously political thinkers – even liberals and radicals who insist on revolutionary struggle do not qualify – according to the assumption of ineliminable dangerousness.  “Man” is only capable of violence, exploitation and destruction; no other potentials are visible, let alone politically feasible.  On this view, human potentials are not complex:

      What remains is the remarkable and for many, certainly disquieting diagnosis that all genuine political theories presuppose man to be evil, i.e., by no means an unproblematic but a dangerous and dynamic being.  This can be easily documented in the works of every specific political thinker.  Insofar as they reveal themselves as such they all agree on the idea of a problematic human nature, no matter how distinct they are in rank and prominence in history.  It suffices here to cite Machiavelli, Hobbes, Bossuet, Fichte (as soon as he forgets his humanitarian idealism), de Maistre, Donoso Cortes, H. Taine, Hegel who, to be sure, at times also shows his double face.[iv]

       The arrogant Schmitt knows how to “rank Hegel” alluding to his “double face” – perhaps Schmitt reacts against dialectical possibilities of slaves struggling for freedom and Hegel’s theory of the modern state as a regime realizing equal freedom of individuals rather than mere violence and war.  This simple, un-argued judgment is underpinned by a deliberately un-argued Catholicism:

        The connection of political theories with theological dogmas of sin which appear prominently in Bossuet, Maistre, Bonald, Donoso Cortes and Friedrich Julius Stahl, among others, is explained by the relationship of these necessary presuppositions.  The fundamental theological dogma of the evilness of the world and man leads, just as does the distinction of friend and enemy, to a categorization of man and makes impossible the undifferentiated optimism of a universal conception of man.[v]

Note that Schmitt subsequently has a horror of “the Jew Stahl-Jolson.” 

       Now politics has routinely involved war and revolution.  Yet Schmitt offers no further reasons for the necessity of mortal enemies, or for the original sin – confined, if one subtracts the Protestant Stahl, to a few Catholic reactionaries – which purportedly underpins it.[vi]  Once again, Schmitt cloaks this commitment in his discussion of politics as having an enemy because he believes there is no argument for revelation – one sees it or one does not. Supporting Hitler for Schmitt was a means.  The rise of secular and Protestant culture were important features of the modern “mechanical,” “impersonal”  rejection of Catholicism, but, for Schmitt, Jews were the anti-Christ.

         The SS forced Schmitt out of leadership positions in 1936.  In that sense, Schmitt, like Heidegger, did not participate directly in “the final solution.”  But as we will see, none of this affects his precise contributions to the climate of anti-semitism which inspired genocide. Schmitt’s notion of internal enmities, distaste for law, celebration of “the exception” and “decisionism” also helped shape Nazi torture and mass murder of partisans – “enemies” or in the Bush administration’s lingo, “enemy combatants” - whom they did not consider soldiers or prisoners of war on the Eastern front.[vii]

        According to Strauss’s exoteric interpretation of “the theological-political predicament,” revelation and reason have incommensurable starting points and reason cannot refute revelation.  But if that is true, no one could reasonably object to Schmitt’s Catholicism, and his furthering, in this world, of genocidal anti-semitism. Meier’s Leo Strauss and the Theological-Political Problem (2007) rightly introduces some doubts about whether Strauss believes this surface argument. [viii]  Exoteric argument, however, will do for an apology for Schmitt by some Straussian and many neoconservative readers. Serious conservatives like Scott Horton detest Schmitt, but the American “conservative” movement has become increasingly authoritarian; many are confused about these opposed alternatives.

         Mass murder is, however, mass murder, even if Schmitt were seeing “visions” of the Last Judgment and a muscular Christ hurling “Jews” and other sinners into oceans of fire.  If one wishes to see deeply into Schmitt’s political theology about Jews, for a few years at Nazism’s height, Hitler approximated Schmitt’s vision of Christ. [ix] One might think carefully before opting for Strauss’s exoteric conclusion that the choice of philosophy or science as opposed to revelation has no rational basis.

          Even Strauss’s naming of “the theological-political predicament,”[x] however, suggests another point of view: a philosophical or perhaps esoteric one.  If such a point of view were not primary, why isn’t this “the theological-philosophical problem”?  To put the issue in a non-Straussian idiom, Gilbert Harman analyzes ordinary and scientific reasoning as inductive inferences to the best explanation. To figure out anomalies, one assesses competing explanations, and the best one – often, a counterintuitive, surprising one – is that which best fits the evidence.   Differing or “incommensurable” starting points are not decisive, as in the exoteric “theological-political problem,” but rather the course of reasoning as a whole.  In explanation and often prediction,  science and philosophy strikingly outdo revelation.[xi]  Strauss himself, it should be underlined, never doubted specific scientific theories.

          More importantly, Strauss provides many reasons to doubt his surface presentation of “the predicament.”[xii]  First, as Strauss emphasizes, both Hobbes and Spinoza devastatingly criticize miracles (supposed “revelations”).[xiii]    Second, Strauss shared Plato’s vision of the “theological-political problem.”  For instance, in Strauss’s 1973 Action and Argument of Plato’s Laws, appeals to god are necessary for a tyrant to become a legislator and put over his laws among people who could not see their rationality.[xiv] Third, emulating mystics in this respect, Strauss recommends that his followers wear the garment of piety to cloak their ultimate beliefs and public purposes.  Here, he invokes Plato’s sophronisterion from book 10 of the Laws: a decent young atheist is put in prison and forced to walk at night for five years with members of the Nocturnal Council until he stops saying the wrong thing in public or is put to death.[xv]  Fourth, Strauss celebrates Al-Farabi as a Medieval Platonist who recommends the rule of the legislator-king-philosopher-imam. Al-Farabi suggests that some of Plato’s followers work gradually or “provisionally” to change the regime from a democracy into a philosopher-tyranny or in today’s idiom, authoritarianism:

       As an example of this, he mentioned the Athenians (his own people) and their ways of life.  He described how to abolish their laws and how to turn them away from them.  He described his view regarding the way in which they could be moved gradually, and he described the opinions and the laws toward which they should be moved after the abolition of their ways of life and laws.[xvi]

According to Strauss, both Plato and Farabi “presented what [they] regarded as the truth by means of ambiguous, allusive, misleading, and obscure speech.”[xvii]  On the surface as in the Seventh Letter, Plato avoided Athenian politics; Al-Farabi’s “misleading” interpretation  gestures to contemporary and future philosophers within Islam about what a Platonic politics means. 

             Fifth, in an April 22, 1957 letter to Kojeve, Strauss indicates the usefulness to a philosopher of rhetors, who appeal to the religious prejudices and fears of the people:

             I do not believe in the possibility of a conversation of Socrates with the people…the relation of the philosopher to the people is mediated by a certain kind of rhetoricians who arouse the fear of punishment after death; the philosopher can guide these rhetors but cannot do their work.[xviii]

These five aspects undercut the surface interpretation in Strauss of the “theological-political predicament” and  reveal a decisive meaning of Strauss’s “Platonism,” his profoundly authoritarian politics.


[i] Schmitt, Political Theology, p. 66.

[ii] Ibid, p. 36.

[iii] Nor does Heinrich Meier who celebrates it.   Lesson, ch. 1.

[iv] Schmitt, Political, p. 61.

[v] Ibid, pp. 64-65. 

[vi] For Hegel, Christianity is the religion of individual freedom because of the notion of original sin.  Philosophically, Hegel reinterprets this idea to suggest that freedom is not natural; instead, each individual must self-consciously realize her freedom in institutions consistent with the freedom of every other person.  In contrast, Catholic reactionaries fixate on the priestly meaning of original sin.

[vii] Scott Horton has emphasized an analogy of the Nazi’s Schmittian policies on the Eastern front and the Bush administration’s international empire of torture prisons for “enemy combatants” in the so-called “War on Terror.”  Ironically, given the influence of his ideas in murdering Russian partisans, Schmitt “On the Partisan” (1962), defends guerilla fighters against Alexandre Kojeve’s “universal and homogenous state.” His account includes Mao and Fidel, and has sometimes been taken up on the left.

[viii]  In this book, Meier suggests rightly that Strauss sided with political philosophy (see especially pp. 23-28).  But that argument undercuts Meier’s earlier “political theological” extenuations of Schmitt.

[ix] Ghopal Balakrishnan, The Enemy: an Intellectual Portrait,  pp. 253-55 rightly notes that at the end of the War, Schmitt condemned “planned killings and inhuman cruelties” toward Russians and Jews.   The German defeat and  his year and a half in prison at Nuremburg  plunged him into depression, however, and revivified his anti-Jewish prejudices.

[x] He uses this term in his “Preface” to Spinoza’s Critique of Religion,, p. 1.

[xi] Harman, “Inference to the Best Explanation.”  The Philosophical Review, 1965.

[xii] Strauss’s essay “Athens and Jerusalem” states the seeming problem in the way that Meier indicates. 

[xiii] Hobbes, Leviathan, ch.  26. 37, 42.

[xiv] Strauss, Action and Argument of Plato’s Laws, pp. 141-42.[cited hereafter as Action]  Strauss suggests that a sentence of Avicenna on the importance of the Laws, however, enabled him to understand Maimonides and Al-Farabi. What is Political Philosophy, p. 161.

[xv] “Those led into error by folly but not possessing a bad character are to be condemned to stay in the sophronisterion for no less than five years, during which time no citizen may visit them except the members of the Nocturnal Council who are to take care of their improvement; if after the lapse of the five years a man of this kind is thought to have come to his senses, he will be released; if he relapses, however, he will be punished with death.” Strauss, Action, p. 155.

[xvi] Al-Farabi, The Philosophy of Plato and Aristotle,  trans. Muhsin Mahdi, lines 22, 19-23, 10.  Plato’s Timeaus has the idea that a vanished but great Athens was ruled by a philosopher-king.  See my “Plato’s vision of Atlantis and the subversion of Athens,” http://democratic-individuality.blogspot.com/2009/06/platos-atlantis-and-subversion-of.html, June 17, 2009.

[xvii] Strauss,  What is Political Philosophy and other Essays (Illinois: The Free Press of Glencoe, 1959), pp. 154, 145,

[xviii] Tracy Strong, “Exile and the Demos: Leo Strauss in America,” American Political Science Association, 2007. emphasizes this letter.  According to Stanley Rosen, Strauss’s first student,  Strauss told him in the late 1950s: first, we will get students jobs in liberal arts colleges where they will be the “most knowledgeable” and “charismatic” faculty members.  They will then go on into receptive foundations and, as occasion arises, right-wing administrations. Rosen told Strong this story, and confirmed it to me by email.

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