Y100B: Political Theology

Carl Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty (University of Chicago Press 2005 (1922), 116pgs.)

It has been a decade since I last sat down with Political Theology, one of Carl Schmitt’s most cited and misunderstood works. Or, maybe I should say, contentious works to the extent that hundreds of readers (most of whom are academics) have put forward interpretations of mixed plausibility concerning what Schmitt is “really saying” in the text. Most infamously, Heinrich Meier — a German “Straussian” — argued that the text is the launching point for a literal political theology which privileges revelation over reason in the ordering of human affairs. All of life, according to Meier’s reading of Schmitt, comes down to a decision: “Am I with God or am I with Satan?” Granted, you won’t find this question formulated anywhere in the text; Meier has to draw it out from not only a selective reading of Political Theology, but an even more selective reading of the Schmittian corpus, including the jurist’s private reflections. Not surprisingly, Meier’s interpretation has drawn a great deal of criticism, particularly from the cabal of Left-leaning theorists who, for reasons which remain more than a bit obscure, find Schmitt’s theories of the state, legality, and the political congenial to their own pet ideological projects.

To be frank, most of Political Theology is a bore. Originally published in 1922, Schmitt’s immediate concern was to attack certain liberal theories of law in vogue during that time by highlighting the importance of the “state of exception” (or “emergency”). Moreover, Schmitt also introduces, or rather reminds his audience, of the secularization of theological concepts in modern jurisprudence. It is a sociological insight made long before Schmitt walked the earth, though largely forgotten about in the “post-theological” environment of early 20th C. legal thought. Where Political Theology turns interesting is in the last chapter, which confronts the counter-revolutionary thinking of Bonald, Maistre, and Cortes. Here, in the midst of interpreting these three men, Schmitt comes the closest to making an absolute theological claim on the necessity of deciding between man’s goodness or wickedness before proceeding with any theory of the state. Such a decision cannot be informed by a legal theory, and perhaps the defective state of human reason eliminates the possibility of answering the question philosophically. Only theology, rooted in a concrete revelation from Above, can provide a sure answer.

How much Schmitt believed this himself will likely remain an irresolvable question for as long as people bother to read him. Although it is doubtful that Schmitt shared Cortes’s radically pessimistic view of human nature, a good case can be made that he often doubted man’s intentions and certainly had no time for the liberal presumption of man’s goodness. Regardless, Political Theology — for better or worse — remains the most influential text Schmitt ever produced and has inadvertently given legs to “political theology” as a distinct intellectual and moral endeavor. Given how many Christians today, including Christian readers of Schmitt, embrace the liberal presumptions that Schmitt abhorred is no small irony. In fact, by Schmittian lights, it’s a catastrophe.

2 comments

  1. I’m not sure that Liberalism necessarily entails a positive view of human nature and human decision-making capacities; certainly Locke and Hobbes have different appraisals of this.

    1. “Positive” to the extent of “teachable” or “correctable,” and liberalism can provide the means. Certain liberalism carries a far more positive appraisal of human nature than any of the three counter-revolutionary thinkers mentioned, particularly Cortes who saw mankind as lower than lizards.

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