Carl Schmitt is one of the most controversial and influential political philosophers and political jurists of the 20th century. His works have influenced everyone from the New Left, including the likes of Derrida and Foucault, and those on the Right, most notably Leo Strauss. Schmitt, among other things, is generally credited with establishing the sub-discipline of political theology within political philosophy. In this post we will examine what Schmitt means, and doesn’t mean, by “political theology.”
Schmitt’s four essays on sovereignty, combined in the compendium called Political Theology, is a short but insightful and important work – and is a companion to his larger essay The Concept of the Political. The main content of the four essays revolve around the themes of sovereignty, political power, decision theory (decisionism), the “state of exception” (or emergency), and how all of these concepts common in political theory have their roots in ancient theology – even more modern forms of political theory, like “Enlightenment constitutional theory,” he argues, is itself a derivation of theological thought (in this specific case, he links it to Deism).
While I will examine his first essay on sovereignty in a later post, we will principally examine his third essay in this post which deals, explicitly and specifically, with what Schmitt means by “political theology.” First, I want to note that while Schmitt is credited with the formation of the discipline, he is not the first “political theologian” so to speak. Schmitt found political theology, in the manner in which he describes, as first found in Hobbes, then carried forth through Locke and the 19th century political theory from Mill to Marx. As he says:
All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts not only because of their historical development—in which they were transferred from theology to the theory of the state, whereby, for example, the omnipotent God became the omnipotent lawgiver—but also because of their systematic structure, the recognition of which is necessary for sociological consideration of these concepts. The exception in jurisprudence is analogous to the miracle in theology. Only by being aware of this analogy can we appreciate the manner in which the philosophical ideas of the state developed in the last centuries.
Political theology is not “faith-informed politics” as an uninitiated person might think when the term is used, especially as used by academics. Political theology, according to Schmitt, is the view that theology served as the original basis for law, structure, organization. For instance, the idea that the “law is sovereign” is a secularization of how the ultimate lawgiver (God) is sovereign. The idea that the state is all-powerful, as Schmitt highlights in his opening paragraph, is rooted in the concept that God is all-powerful. (This idea is also something developed further in Hegel, whom Schmitt also draws on.) The idea of the state as a force for order against chaos, especially as it appears in the writings of Thomas Hobbes, is an even older notion (pre-dating Christianity) that there is a struggle between the land god (the god of order) vs. the sea god (the god of chaos). The idea of History and Utopia are secularized concepts of Salvation History, and so forth.
Schmitt also claims, in this, as was also developed by the likes of Johann Herder and Hegel, among others in German philosophy in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, is the view that theology was the first systematic intellectual enterprise of humans. Thus, being both intellectual and systematic, as Schmitt said in his opening paragraph, early political theories inherited the spirit of inquiry and systematic (theological) thought of theology in systematizing their own theorems about the state, politics, and political order. Because theology was the first systematic form of human thought, which laid the foundations for civilization, in the end, all civilizational structures and systems therefore have roots in theology.
The problem with a systematic (historical) thinker like Schmitt is that he assumes his readers are knowledgeable in all of these areas. Thus, I’m here to try and parse out the most important concepts that he makes reference to that many readers don’t realize he’s making reference to. But the basic academic enterprise known as political theology is the study of theological concepts and how they have come to influence political ideas, structures, and ideology.
Part of the argument of the third essay is contemporary concepts of the political are rooted in competing theologies; namely ancient (conservative) vs. modern (progressive/liberal). This is an important realization the reader of Schmitt needs to recognize, for it is not the most readily visible. After defining political theology, Schmitt discusses Deism and modern constitutional theory. He argues that the idea of a Deistic God (detached, who sets the laws of the universe in motion but never breaks the laws he has established – hence the “watchmaker” analogy) is what modern constitutional theory portends itself to be. Namely, that the Law is established and subject to its own establishment. This is the same argument to be found in Deism: God establishes the laws of the universe, but in establishing those laws, cannot break those laws. (Hume famously describes natural theology in this manner.)
This view contrasts with the view of a God of miracles, who can, as crude people argue today, “suspend the laws of nature” (“violate the laws of nature”) for some miraculous end. Schmitt, a Catholic become Atheist, is not making theological apologetics throughout this work. He does, however, for reasons I am about to discuss, think that the ancient view (derided as “superstitious”) is, in fact, more rational than the “rationalist” modern view which – as he later claims, dissolves into irrational views about history (specifically looking at liberalism and Marxism).
Schmitt isn’t concerned with whether miracles can or cannot happen. What he is saying is that since ancient theology believed in miracles, and ancient theology is ultimately the root of the state and the political when all said and done, it is the ancient model that needs to be known to understand the political in its historical and natural form. For instance, the Deist view of politics means that there cannot be any “state of emergencies” or “state of exceptions” where the State takes on its God-like power and suspends the civil law for the good of the people. This is what modern constitutional theory claims for itself. But Schmitt claims that this is a farce. The State, of course, has that power because it is not really rooted in the Deist view of God, it is rooted in the miraculous view of God. The greatest miracle being creation itself: creatio ex nihilo (creation from nothing). The state of exception, or emergency, is the State acting like God at the beginning of creation – stepping into the void and establishing order.
In essence, Schmitt is claiming that “progressives” are not being honest about themselves, or the view of the political they portend to advocate. They claim to be offering a benign, “rule of law” system of politics, where everyone – including the State – is subject to civil law. In reality, the State is wholly other. The State exists apart from “everyone else.” The State is God on earth, in other words. That means the State really is all-powerful.
Moreover, Schmitt understands the traditional view of the God of the Hebrew Bible. Stern and warlike, yes, but stern and warlike because he loves his people (Israel). Thus, the State exists for its people and no one else’s. The problem with the “Enlightenment” view, as he claims, is that the State becomes detached from its people in its hyper-rationalism and claimed commitment to law. When disaster strikes the liberal State claims it cannot violate the laws already established – thus leaving its people to languish. But Schmitt, again, thinks this view is demonstrably false. The liberal State acts in disaster mode, suspending laws, and acting like the all-powerful Leviathan that it really is. But this occurs only at the crisis point. Schmitt argues in favor of a benign paternalism, in essence, whereby the authentic state is – basically – always in the state of exception mode on behalf of the will of the people.
Schmitt also argues that the hyper-rationalism of modern theology (read: modern politics) exhausts itself in irrationality. It takes on a vitalistic and progressive view of history claiming that all things have to go according to a specific way. (Read into how determinist theology also influences this idea, which, incidentally, received a major revival with the emergence of deterministic science in Newton.) But we know this to not be the case from history and experience. “Accidents” happen. Things “don’t go according to plan.” It is in these moments of exception where liberalism and Marxism fail. People become shocked at the inevitable triumph they expected (a form of hard eschatological soteriology) not coming true. Meanwhile it is those who hold to the ancient view, knowing that – pardon my language – shit hits the fan all the time, and are thereby better suited to respond in these moments of exception.
This is the issue of immanence from Hegel’s philosophy which liberals and leftists (the “Left-Hegelians”) took but, in politicizing it (which Hegel was already doing in some way), they became blind to the fact that immanence is a theological and eschatological concept. Human “will”, in other words, can never achieve that utopia of the post-apocalypse. There is no “heaven coming to earth” in other words. But the Left-Hegelians trumpeted the inevitable triumph of their cause. This was definitely theological in its origins. However, when it failed to materialize, they were left depressed, saddened, and angered.
(There is also embedded anthropological issues here which I don’t want to get into for the sake of brevity – Schmitt more visibly addresses these issues in the Concept of the Political. In short: is man violent and “corrupt,” or is man benign and “pure”? Which one is said, today, to be “irrational” and the other “rational” – but what does the testimony of history seem to indicate? So who is really being “irrational”?)
The issue of rational vs. irrational is a Hegelian concept. Hegel famously said that the “rational alone is real.” Thus, the rational is that which corresponds with nature (or reality). Reasonableness is not the same as rational. Anything can be reasonable based on its founding premises. However, founding premises can be wrong. Schmitt is basically saying that modern “rationalism” of the Enlightenment is very reasonable indeed – if its starting assumptions are true. But Schmitt thinks those starting assumptions are not true. Hence why the hyper rationalism of liberalism and Marxism (e.g. materialism) fail. They fail, in time, because they are, in fact, not based in reality – hence, the rationalism they claim to embody becomes irrational in these moments of exception.
Throughout the text, Schmitt argues that irrationalist views of history tend to emerge from those who claimed the banner of rationalism, science, and progress. This is because their claimed rationalism (which was never true to begin with) forced them to make “rationalist” arguments about history which always turned out to be false. They turned out to be false because they were premised on false beliefs from the beginning. Hence, despite their outward “reasonableness” they prove themselves false in the long run when true reality rears its ugly head.
Schmitt is assuming his readers have a deep knowledge of theology, is arguing that the ancients were the more rational. They knew, based from their dogmas, that “the end of history” was truly theological. Hence conservatives never bandy about “the end of history” or “universal utopia” because they know that man is, essentially, corrupt, has the capacity for despotism and evil, and that the real end of history is entirely up to God. Thus, the claims and grand metanarratives of “historical progress” are the irrationalized secularized forms of salvific history. But as the Biblical writers say, “we know not the time of the [Second] Coming” whereas, with hyper rationalism and science, people started getting very specific with the “end of history.” (What is more irrational than claiming specific “revelation” as to the end of history and how it will look?)
History, then, according to Schmitt, are secularized theologies (of salvation) made political. History is the pursuit of the millennial kingdom of God to be made manifest on earth. The “pursuit of progress” or the Whig View of History are, then, but secularized variations of Salvation History devoid of any visible theological orientation. As Schmitt says, the nineteenth century progress ideologies and their utopian end-goals were predicated on the inheritance (albeit “secularized”) of the theology of immanence, “Everything in the nineteenth century was increasingly governed by conceptions of immanence.”
For instance, the Marxist reading of History as unfolding toward a particular end with a certain group triumphing over another (the proletariat triumphing over the capitalists) is basically a secularized inversion of the Judeo-Christian account of eschatology and soteriology. The same is true for liberalism’s vision of progress unfolding to greater “freedom” and ending in utopia. Schmitt anticipates, very keenly, more modern incarnations of what he is describing. The idea of a “Right Side of History” and that “History will judge us” is nothing more than a secularization of God as Judge and bringing judgment upon man. The idea of a “Wrong Side to History” is akin to being the unbelievers, the “sinners” (e.g. the “racists” or “xenophobes” or whatever-phobe), who are judged harshly by God but in our more “enlightened” society are judged by “History.” And so on and so forth. Indeed, the entire idea of “History” for Schmitt is an irrational theology. (History takes over for God but everything else plays out the same.)
Historical Immenance replaced the transcendent God of ancient and orthodox Catholic (and Lutheran) theology. God’s Final Judgement was replaced by the Judgement of History, the coming utopia that was just over the horizon. The most hyper rationalistic people, ironically for Schmitt, became the most irrational people as they were chasing after the millennium to make a literal kingdom of heaven on earth.
Schmitt, like Weber before him, argues that secularization is the elimination of the transcendent (disenchantment); therefore, secularization for Schmitt (and for most philosophers) is the temporalization of initially transcendent concepts. Because the transcendent, historically speaking in theology and philosophy, is what classical rationalism is, then secularization is irrational because it kills off true rationality (the universal transcendent) and relativizes everything. Thus, all the ancient theologies about God become the basis for the State. That is what is real. Thus, the ancient theologies are more “real” than modern theologies who deny their foundations but cannot escape from it. Additionally, secularization is the “immanence” of the transcendent whereby the transcendent becomes the purely worldly.
Schmitt’s commentary on Rousseau and the anti-Jacobin “Counter Revolutionaries” in France is deeply interesting and engaging. For Schmitt, Rousseau’s “general will” conferred to the masses the creative revolutionary myth of creation. We all know that God creates from nothing (creatio ex nihilo in Christian theology). For Rousseau, according to Schmitt, this principle of creation from nothing is transferred to the instinctive wisdom of the people. Just as Wisdom created from nothing in Christianity, wisdom (now in the form of the masses) creates from nothing. The masses can create that “good world” from the book of Genesis; they can create that perfect Garden of Eden.
Paradoxically for Schmitt, the opponents of the French Revolution (despite their outward pretensions to be defending traditional Catholicism) were actually defenders of panentheism or Deism. Those who were defending the monarchy as the “sole sovereign” were actually defending a panentheistic political theology: That God (in the form of the sovereign king or prince) was both inside and outside the juridical order much like how God in panentheism is understood. Creation is not yet complete but a continuous and ongoing act of creation like the kingdom. The sovereign, through his laws and decrees, continuously builds the world just as is found in panentheistic creation theology.
Conversely there is also the post-Cartesian deist political theology that was also being defended by those who were promoting the “rule of law.” As Schmitt writes, “The sovereign, who in the deistic view of the world, even if conceived as residing outside the world, had remained the engineer of the great machine, has been radically pushed aside. The machine now runs itself. The metaphysical proposition that God enunciates only general and not particular decisions of will governed the metaphysics of Leibniz and Nicholas Melabranche.” Despite the overthrow of the king, the “push[ing] aside” of God in Deism, the counter revolutionaries were defending the machine that God (the king) had created (the ancien régime). The counter revolutionaries were not so much, in Schmitt’s view, motivated by a defense of the now dead (pushed aside) king but were defending that machine (the ancien régime).
Thus we see the revolutionary impetus as transferring basic theological ideas like creation from nothing, the wisdom of God in creation, and the “good world” of God’s creation, as residing in the heart of revolutionary politics. The people are the wisdom, the people in their wisdom can create from nothing, and the people in their wisdom and creating from nothing can create a (new) good world (e.g. the utopia).
The Counter Revolutionaries, for Schmitt – somewhat ironically – were not that “conservative” in the sense of being defenders of traditional theology. Instead they were fairly modernist themselves, defending the “divine right of the king” as a panentheistic political theology of continuous creation but one in which the sovereign king (or prince) remains at the helm and is a state of continuous creation but one that builds from what has already been established (ergo there is no “miracle” of breaking the established laws, it is like the energy moving in the path already prescribed from the first principles). The other side that emerged after the execution of King Louis XVI was a Deistic counter-revolutionary movement in which the king (God) despite having been cast aside had created that machine (the ancien régime) and these counter revolutionaries are better understood to be defending the clock that God (the now deceased king) had created (the ancien régime and estates) moreover than actually being interested in restoring God (e.g. restoring the king or prince).
This is why, to take an aside, most political philosophers and political theologians (in the Schmittian tradition) see revolutionary politics as deeply theological and religious in nature. It is heretical to be sure, but virtually all of its ideas are captured first in theological concepts and principles. As Bertrand Russell wrote of Marxism in his book History of Western Philosophy:
To understand Marx psychologically, one should use the following dictionary:
Yahweh = Dialectial Materialism; The Messiah = Marx; The Elect = The Proletariat; The Church = The Communist Party; The Second Coming = The Revolution; Hell = Punishment of the Capitalists; The Millennium = The Communist Commonwealth.
Thus Schmitt applied creation theology to the politics of revolutionaries: God creates from nothing (the people create from nothing); God creates in Wisdom (the people create because they are wise); God created a good world from nothing (the people can create a good world in their wisdom). The revolutionary impetus is seeing man as God, displacing and overthrowing God in the process in order to become God. It is not only a replay of the War in Heaven in Catholic theology (Lucifer’s rebellion), it is the manifestation of secular theology even if people regard themselves as atheists they are deeply theological without realizing it.
In this midst of this crisis of secularization, which is the death of traditional legitimacy as Schmitt claims towards to the end of the third essay, a new concept of the political must emerge. We cannot go back as Schmitt claims (or as “reactionaries” romanticize about). Thus, we can only embrace the form of the political that is most like ancient theology: An all-powerful God, a God who creates from nothing, a God who acts only in the interest of his people, a God that is miraculous (steps over the “laws” he himself established), a God that is warlike and wrestles with the gods of chaos. In the end, Schmitt concludes, with much controversy and debate, that that form of the political is dictatorship. Because we live in an irrational age. Because we live in a chaotic age. Because we live in an age where people don’t care to be political anymore. We need a State that will make the decisions for us. We need a State that will confront chaos. And we need a State that is honest about itself – that it is, in fact, all-powerful and can do whatever it wants.
Lastly, Schmitt is saying that all political philosophy is really political theology once you dig deep enough. As you begin to understand political theory you begin to recognize all the theology that undergirds it. That is what is meant by “political theology.” Because of the deepness of religion and theology upon humanity and human institutions, you can’t really “get rid” of theology or religion despite what ignorant otherwise say. Our understanding of politics, political concepts themselves, institutions and their importance to us, and our ability to transform the world (or not), are all derivations of originally theological concepts. Therefore, if one is not knowledgeable on theological matters, one will never be truly knowledgeable on political matters.