revisits scholarly investigations, conducted over twenty years ago, of the interwar writings of Carl Schmitt and Leo Strauss; writings in which ‘theology’ played a major role in Schmitt’s and Strauss’s criticisms of Weimar’s liberal democracy, and their respective critiques of Enlightenment politics, more generally. Two decades ago, many progressive scholars, myself included, feared that, in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1989, a resurgent radical right in Europe might enlist religion as a crucial component in their authoritarian causes. But we never imagined that these authoritarian threats would themselves become— as they have to a remarkable extent—genuinely and thoroughly theocratic . I mention as just three examples: right-wing Christian movements in the US, politically active Orthodox Judaism in Israel, and radical forms of Islam in Europe and the Middle East. After more than twenty years’ reflection on the Schmitt-Strauss exchange, I believe that I now somewhat better understand the stakes that ‘political theology’ raises for the theocratic challenge to liberal democracy today. In this spirit, this chapter reflects a personal-political enlightenment that I hope is worth sharing with others.
The conservative, and eventual National Socialist, jurist, Carl Schmitt, famously asserts, in The Concept of the Political, that all genuine political philosophies are pessimistic concerning human nature. By relying extensively on Thomas Hobbes, a political thinker who strikingly illustrated the violent behaviour of man to man in the absence of authority, Schmitt clearly assumes that he has grounded his state theory on a sufficiently pessimistic conception of human beings. Indeed, what could be more pessimistic than a theory like Schmitt’s ‘friend/enemy thesis’, which insists on the centrality of enmity to political life?
Yet, in his widely celebrated contemporary commentary on Schmitt’s 1932 book, the young Leo Strauss insists that Hobbes’s notion of man as dangerous but educable — a notion that Schmitt never fully rejects — is not sufficiently pessimistic to justify the kind of political philosophy that both Schmitt and Strauss seek as an alternative to liberalism. I will argue that Strauss, in the 1920s and early 1930s, sought a functional equivalent to traditional theocracy — a Biblical atheism, as it were—that might serve as a foundation of political authority in a simultaneously post-theistic and post-Enlightenment age. 4 Schmitt, as we know, sought an appropriately fascist (if not yet Nazi) solution to what he deemed to be liberal theory’s hopelessly contradictory principles, and liberal practice’s painfully obvious inability to resolve the near civil war circumstances of the late Weimar Republic.
According to both Schmitt and Strauss, even though Hobbes deems man ‘dangerous’ in circumstances where authority is absent, the Malmesbury philosopher affords the subjects of his Leviathan state significant freedom of thought and action on the assumption that individuals, when governed by a sufficiently strong state, can be prudent, educable, and capable of rational, cost-benefit calculations that may prove conducive to public peace and stability. Schmitt thinks he can correct these flaws in the Hobbesian state by refounding it on collective—rather than individual— grounds.
Strauss retorts that Schmitt’s reformulation still permits too much freedom of conscience and behaviour for state subjects. In relying on Hobbes, Schmitt may affirm the importance of ‘sovereignty’, but he eschews the necessity of, in Strauss’s word, ‘dominion’. If Schmitt were to understand human evil in terms of ‘moral baseness’ or ‘sinfulness’, then, Strauss suggests, Schmitt would elaborate a more comprehensive notion of ‘ruling’ than Hobbes countenanced or Schmitt himself articulates. Rather than correcting addressable flaws in Hobbes’ system, Schmitt, by not clarifying his own view of human nature, still allows essentially liberal freedoms to persist as dire threats to both the stability of his neo-Leviathan state, and to any substantive notion of the good life.
Given the sinful, morally base character of human evil, Strauss insists that public order requires an authority more intrusive than the sovereign state—an authority that imposes a substantive vision of the good life that cannot be derived from modern sources, whether they be early-modern notions of natural right, or what he calls elsewhere ‘the execrable principles of 1789’. Strauss suspects that Schmitt, a renowned Roman Catholic critic of liberalism, fundamentally agrees with him; despite what he appears to say to the contrary, Schmitt must believe that human beings are inherently sinful.
A perspective that understands sinfulness as moral baseness asserts that humans are driven to do wrong not by material deprivation or by the desire to satisfy bodily appetites, as liberals would have us believe. Rather, human beings take fiendish pleasure in doing precisely what they know to be wrong; they take supreme gratification by committing evil, as such. Statutory law associated with the modern Rechtsstaat cannot tame humanity’s inherent sinfulness; nor can it cultivate the natural human intuition of goodness that necessarily accompanies the base human de- sire to violate it.
This chapter explores the place of educable versus sinful evil in the respective efforts of Schmitt and Strauss to develop genuinely ‘authoritarian’ alternatives to liberal state theory in interwar Germany. Specifically, it addresses several of Strauss’s readings of Schmitt on the moral cum theological status of the political: his assumptions concerning the extent to which Schmitt actually endorses a notion of human evil as sinfulness or moral baseness; his assertion that Schmitt deliberately hides the moral dimensions of the political; and his mischaracterization of what Schmitt deems to be the ultimate danger confronting the political in their age— that is, whether Schmitt fears that the political will disappear altogether or merely that it will be practiced ‘dishonestly’.
Much more than his disciples claim, Strauss shared deep affinities with Schmitt’s agenda in The Concept of the Political. By affirming ‘the political’, Schmitt celebrated the return of enmity as a harbinger of the reassertion of authority, the prospect that, in the present moment, a new postliberal world order might arise afresh. Only a few years before, in 1929, Strauss had expressed similar exhilaration at the return of sharp distinctions among different groups of neighbours: the demise of the commitment to ‘love thy neighbour’ at the heart of Enlightenment philosophy, spelled, for Strauss, the return of moral affirmation and a revival of quasi-Biblical authority. However, rather than a self-critical, quasi- universal, Biblical tradition affiliated with the Hebrew prophets, Strauss exclaims, somewhat alarmingly, ‘we must ask ourselves seriously whether perhaps the kings were right’. Strauss turns to the Biblical legacy to reaffirm the harsh necessities of warfare and rule, rather than the universal morality philosophically developed by the assimilating liberals of the German-Jewish Enlightenment.
Schmitt’s endorsement of National Socialism in 1933 makes clear the kind of authoritarianism he sought as a replacement of liberalism — again, a suitable, if not first choice, alternative for the conservative jurist.Strauss’ position, as conveyed by his writings of this era, is more elusive.I will therefore try to sketch out the kind of authoritarian alternative toliberalism, the kind of revived premodern, ‘regime as regimen’, thatStrauss was formulating in his writings before his emigration to the Unit-ed States.