Carl Schmitt’s “Concept of the Political”: Human Nature and the Purpose of Politics

“[F]or it is a fact that the entire life of a human being is a struggle and every human being symbolically a combatant. The friend, enemy, and combat concepts receive their real meaning precisely because they refer to the real possibility of physical killing. War follows from enmity. War is the existential negation of the enemy.”  These are the famous words of Carl Schmitt in one of his essential classics, The Concept of the Political.  We have already examined Schmitt’s friend-enemy distinction and his critique of liberalism within the pages of that famous text, but now we turn to a fuller understanding of human nature within this work of deep insight, confusion, and derision.

As mentioned earlier, Schmitt sees man as a political animal meaning that he is a social animal that seeks community and understands himself in dialectical contrast with the Other.  Man’s impulse to conflict, the negation of the enemy, is about his will to survive.  Schmitt, influenced by St. Augustine, was a political voluntarist.  That is, the life or death of the community was predicated on its willingness to sacrifice, to fight, to even die, and to kill.  “[C]oncepts receive their real meaning precisely because they refer to the real possibility of physical killing.”  For Schmitt, the conflict is essential to nature and understanding ourselves for without the confrontation – the very real possibility of mortal confrontation – we are nothing (we are nihilists).

This ties into Schmitt’s critique of liberalism which we examined in the previous post.  Part of the façade of liberalism is that it portends to universal peace, claims to be rational, and seeks non-harm; but in reality, liberalism needs to eradicate all opposition to achieve its goal.  In order for universal peace all must agree to abide by the same laws or governing authority, thus eliminating all other forms of law and sovereign authorities that have grown over the course of thousands of years.  Liberalism’s claim to rationality is a linguistic and sophistic ploy to present itself as the morally and rationally superior alternative to its competitors.  And to achieve non-harm, all must agree to play by the same rules which effectively neuters all difference.  As a result, homogenization is what follows.  Liberals speak of “diversity,” what they really seek is homogenization.  Liberals speak of universal peace, what they’re really engaged in is conflict by any other name.  Human nature is predicated on conflict because man is a fallen and sinful creature, striving to survive in a harsh world, and constantly threatened by other tribes (communities) and the environ in which he finds himself.  Without the struggle man accepts death.  Thus, all struggle is mortal.  All struggle is inevitable.

The more pertinent claim to Schmitt’s conception of human nature, however, is how human nature is itself defined by the enemy (the Other).  For Schmitt, the agon may be a metaphysical foundational to life, but humans are only existentially aware of themselves within the context of the Other.  “Us” vs. “Them.”  “Friend vs. Enemy.”  “German vs. English.”  “Midwesterner vs. East Coaster.”  “Catholic vs. Muslim.”  And so on and so forth.  The opposite is what gives one understanding and meaning in life.  Without the Other I do not fully understand who I am.  For it is through the Other that I come to more fully know who, and what, I am (in relationship to the Other who is not me).

Schmitt’s human falls within the tradition of existentialism which reaches back to Christianity and forward through German Romanticism.  Part of the human endeavor is to understand oneself.  Who am I?  What am I doing?  Where am I going?

The essence of Schmitt’s communitarian existentialism is the logical outcome of his Hegelian inheritance (for instance, the knowledge of myself through the Other is deeply and essentially dialectic).  For Hegel, in the Philosophy of Right, outlined how the synthesis of conflict produces the universal abstract of ethics which then become particularized and concretized in community (or national) life.  Ethics bond with the duties of citizenry is the concrete manifestation of ethics.  Thus, ethics is primarily discharged to my fellow citizens above all others persons.

This is the most immediate understanding of man in Schmitt.  In being a social and communitarian animal, man is defined and understood and understands himself in contrast to the Other.  Just as there is beautiful and ugly, good and evil, and so forth, so too does man only begin to understand himself through an ontology of opposites.  This friend-enemy distinction which is necessary for man to understand himself also means that man’s nature is predicated toward conflict and dialectic.

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Additionally, Schmitt extends his analysis of the political to human nature itself: the age old question as to whether humans are evil or good.  “One could test all theories of state and political ideas according to their anthropology and thereby classify these as to whether they consciously or unconsciously presuppose man to be by nature evil or by nature good.”  As Schmitt makes clear, the liberals are those who believe man to be good (or can be formed into a state of goodness).  This anthropology leads to unbounded universality since man, benign in his nature, should not be restricted in his actions because man can be trusted in his goodness.  The view that man is good leads him down the path of atomistic nihilism.  It denies the human-state relationship and therefore man has nothing greater to live for than himself.

As such, man ultimately is unable to commit himself to sacrifice because he only cares (loves) himself and no one else: not his neighbor, not his countrymen, not his community, not his country.  Any self-sacrifice is a harm imposed onto the self.  And any such harm is bad.

The converse is found in authoritarian political theories wherein man is viewed as evil or viewed with tremendous suspicion and therefore needs limitations placed on him so as not to harm himself and others.  These limitations and laws help govern or guide man so as not to be evil in his actions which threaten the orderly community as much as one’s evil actions also threaten himself.  Though authoritarian, the view that man is evil also leads to anti-positivist outlooks concerning state theory.  The state cannot transform human nature or direct humans to whatever the state might otherwise decide for us.  The authoritarianism of viewing man as evil is actually quite benign – man needs structure and governance this is true, but man remains perpetually skeptical of grand social engineering and positivist political ideologies which actually grant far more power to the state in order to achieve the dream of its positivistic or utopian ends.  The authoritarian view is not imposing on man and telling him to do X, Y, or Z.  It is the establishment of laws and structures of guidance which will bear down on man if he violates restrictions which are established to maintain the public good and common order that is needed for society to flourish.

This is somewhat counter intuitive to liberals who have been fed liberal propaganda.  If man’s nature is malleable or formable, then what prevents the State, or any organization, from socially engineering the “perfect man” and, as a result, the “perfect society”?  If man has a definitive nature no State, or organization, or other men, can change that nature.  If man has no definitive nature then anything is possible, and if anything is possible – and man’s nature really is bad even if liberals are blind to this reality – then the worst possible outcome is probably going to be the road we embark on.

The end result of the view that man is good, Schmitt remarks, is the complete depoliticization of man, his uprootedness from community and his being aimless in life.  The result of the idea of universal human goodness is the end of plurality, the end of “national being,” and the end of conflict itself.  Humans sink into the abyss of hedonism and nihilism because they have nothing to fight or strive for.  They live only for themselves and they see all others as themselves (Rousseau’s moi commun).  For Schmitt, in a moment of fitting philosophical irony, the “good man” is not even an ethical man.  For the true manifestation of ethics is in citizenship which is defined in opposition to not holding commonality with persons who do not share national being (citizenship) with you.  By detaching everyone from each other, the good man ends up minding his own business and does little to help his neighbor or fellow citizen in any concrete ways.

Schmitt takes as a given that man is evil or has the propensity for evil.  The having the propensity for evil is Schmitt’s proper view, as he lets us know in footnote 33 in quoting St. Irenaeus.  Schmitt follows the Catholic understanding of man.  Man is free in his rationality to align with the Good (God) or evil (negation of the good) in his fallen state.  As such, man is not by nature good or evil.  But man always has the capacity to choose evil.  Thus, when philosophers claim that man is evil, what they really mean is that man always has the capacity to become evil or do evil.  This is what we must always be on guard against.

And because man is weak man needs authority.  Because man needs authority and is weak, he needs a community for protection and guidance.  The highest manifestation of this community is the nation-state.

Thus: (1) Man is good, he needs no guidance or structures in life; (2) man is evil or can always choose evil, thus he needs guidance and structures in his life to avoid evil.  (1) Guideless man lives for nothing except for himself; (2) guided man lives for something more than himself.  (1) The idea that man is good will inevitably bring about the destruction of a community that has become infected with that idea because human nature is the opposite – it is rooted in conflict and the ability to kill and man does kill; (2) thus the guided man who lives in a guided community is the community that is most likely to survive which means the individual also survives through the survival of the community.

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To wrap up Schmitt’s Concept of the Political, especially as it relates to human nature is this: first, man is a social and thereby communitarian animal.  Second, man understands himself and his duties and responsibilities through the Other (this is a logical necessity if man is a communitarian animal because other men associate in their communities and your community is not the same as the Other’s community).  Third, man has the propensity for evil and therefore needs guidance and structure in his life.  The highest manifestation of the community that man places himself in, and finds himself guided by, is the community and constitutions (laws) of a particular nation-state.   The most immediate and concrete manifestations of our lives, and of human nature, unfolds within these nation-states.

Summarizing the highlights of Schmitt’s classical work on political theory and man’s political nature, we can identify several insightful and cold analyses which undergird his outlook on politics that we must necessarily grapple with:

First is his assertion that all politics is necessarily dialectical: Friend-Enemy.  The friend-enemy distinction exists both within and without the political order.  Politics is necessarily tribal.

Second is how humans understand themselves through the Other.  This is especially true in matters political (e.g. confrontational); “American vs. Chinese,” “Briton vs. German,” “Christian vs. Muslim,” “Atheist vs. Religious,” etc.  We really do understand ourselves in contrast to the not-I.  (These first two points are residues of Schmitt’s Hegelianism.)

Third is how governing structure is legitimate and necessary, given man’s tendency to commit evil or engage in base actions without juridical order.  For those skeptical of this point, or perhaps not wanting to accept this assertion, just look at the nature of rioting spikes in violent assaults and other crimes in zones of anarchy when law and order dissipate.

Fourth is his analysis of liberalism as a de-politicizing force that suppresses human nature and veils its own warlike quest for domination (within the friend-enemy distinction) which shatters man’s will to survive (e.g. fight for his survival and continuation).  Liberalism, making men soft and weak, does not provide anything to rally the troops – so to speak – when it encounters a threat to its existence (especially external threats).  In other words, liberalism cannot confront the problems facing nations and communities effectively because people have become materially obsessed and risk-averse.

The final thing to be reminded of from Schmitt’s work, and this continues from Schmitt’s analysis of liberalism, is how liberalism is a totalizing, homogenizing, and universal force that must overcome the bonds of nationality, culture, history, and religion, etc., in order to consummate itself.  Therefore, liberalism is fundamentally incompatible with authentic pluralism, that is: real differences and distinctions among peoples and nations.

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