A Review of “The Weimar Moment: Liberalism, Political Theology, and Law” (Part 2)

What brought Strauss into conversation with Schmitt was their mutual disillusionment not just with the political liberalism of the Weimar Republic but with post-Enlightenment liberalism in general. For theoretical solutions on how to ground political authority in something more substantial than Enlightenment rationalism, they both turned to aspects of pre-modern traditionalism – for Schmitt, an authoritarian Catholic political theology, for Strauss the recovery of ancient political philosophy and its medieval transmitters. On the practical plane, they both thought that parliamentary democracy was utterly unequipped to cope with the various crises afflicting postwar Europe. As a Jew, however, Strauss had no chance of signing on with the various authoritarian options on offer during the 1930s, since they invariably included anti-Semitism as part of their program and ideology. Both men shared ambivalent relations with their respective religious traditions and have even been suspected of covert atheism. In the end, Schmitt’s Catholicism, however episodic and selective, seems to have been more integral to his thinking than Strauss’ ancestral Judaism was to his.

[Below is Part 2 of a review of “The Weimar Moment.” It deals mainly with conference papers on Leo Strauss and Carl Schmitt. Part 1, which appeared on Monday, March 5, dealt mainly with papers on Karl Barth.]

Besides Barth, other figures who received significant attention at the conference and in the published proceedings include Schmitt, Leo Strauss, Hannah Arendt (these three have already been mentioned), Walter Benjamin, Franz Rosenzweig, Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, and Martin Heidegger. For Walter Benjamin, I must point particularly to Michael Jennings’ fascinating analysis of Benjamin’s religio-political “filiations” from 1922 to 1925, a period Jennings apostrophizes as “the pre-history of the Frankfurt School” (109).  Of Rosenzweig and Rosenstock-Huessy, two fundamental modern Jewish thinkers, I cannot say anything because of the limits of my own knowledge. Of Heidegger I could say more though I find the subject so dispiriting that I’d prefer not to – Samuel Moyn’s paper, co-authored with Azzan Yadin-Israel, deals with the abstruse topic of Heidegger’s “theological” (in quotes because the author concedes that Heidegger was not truly theological at all) critique of Kant in Heidegger’s book Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics, an analysis that a little confusingly is set in the context of the long dichotomy in western Christian anthropology between “optimistic” and “pessimistic” models of human being, and competing visions of human “perfectibility” and “abasement”.

On Schmitt and Strauss: forced after 1932 into a life of professional and national itinerancy after his academic career in Germany stalled, Strauss came to the U.S. in 1937. Here he did most of the scholarly work that cemented his reputation as one of the great – and most controversial – political thinkers of the twentieth century. But he was long read mostly by a devoted, not to say cultish, conservative following. His name recently became prominent when some of the American advocates of the Iraq invasion of 2003 were said to be influenced by his ideas (I do not have an opinion whether this was in fact true). Prior to his immigration to the U.S., however, Strauss was just one of numerous talented but frustrated Jewish academics, a remarkable number of whom studied with Heidegger at one time or another. While still a relative unknown, Strauss engaged in a mostly one-sided exchange of ideas with Carl Schmitt, an exchange ably introduced to contemporary readers by the German political philosopher Heinrich Meier, who has also written an excellent and influential interpretation of Schmitt himself.

What brought Strauss into conversation with Schmitt was their mutual disillusionment not just with the political liberalism of the Weimar Republic but with post-Enlightenment liberalism in general. For theoretical solutions on how to ground political authority in something more substantial than Enlightenment rationalism, they both turned to aspects of pre-modern traditionalism – for Schmitt, an authoritarian Catholic political theology, for Strauss the recovery of ancient political philosophy and its medieval transmitters. On the practical plane, they both thought that parliamentary democracy was utterly unequipped to cope with the various crises afflicting postwar Europe. As a Jew, however, Strauss had no chance of signing on with the various authoritarian options on offer during the 1930s, since they invariably included anti-Semitism as part of their program and ideology. Both men shared ambivalent relations with their respective religious traditions and have even been suspected of covert atheism. In the end, Schmitt’s Catholicism, however episodic and selective, seems to have been more integral to his thinking than Strauss’ ancestral Judaism was to his.

The exchange in the early 1930s between these two arch-conservatives is the subject of John McCormick’s interesting paper, which describes it as a contest between “political theology and Biblical atheism”. In his analysis, both men thought that human beings were driven by base passions and could only be ruled effectively by fear. The dilemma each faced was to find a convincing basis for such authority. For Schmitt this involved recognizing at least a divine-like sovereignty in the ruler, who could resolve otherwise unresolvable political and moral conflicts, a transcendent source of that sovereignty, and a collectivity grounded in enough common qualities to cement fellow-feeling and loyalty (to a student of Germany in this period, that echoes contemporary calls – not just among the National Socialists – for a Volksgemeinschaft, a community based on ethnic solidarity). At this very early stage of his career, Strauss lacked the doctrine of a hermetic political-philosophical tradition that he would develop later. Here he relied mainly on a valorization of early modern atheism – he called it “biblical” – that he thought undergirded early modern (pre-Enlightenment) state theorists, whose unapologetic demands for obedience reminded him of the divine commands of the Hebrew prophets. The unrelievedly grim character of both diagnoses, in McCormick’s reading, may not warm the hearts of readers. But they can’t seem totally unfamiliar to us, who also live in an age marked by fear of existential threat and anxiety over the loss of community.

A more differentiated view of Strauss (reflecting the fact that it looks at Strauss from a later point in his career) is found in the paper by David Novak, in which he discusses Strauss’s critique of the liberal legal theorist Hans Kelsen.  Kelsen, who was also one of Carl Schmitt’s chief bugbears, was one of Austria and Germany’s foremost defenders of a purely normativist conception of law. For Kelsen the Neo-Kantian rejection of natural law meant that the ground of the law was in the formal legal order as such and nothing more — certainly not in a divinely-willed natural order. Writing after World War II and the horrors of Nazism (and with an equally tyrannical Communist order arising in its stead), Leo Strauss indicted what he called Kelsen’s “historicism” as tantamount to nihilism. Kelsen, he said, offered no purchase on judging tyranny, since all law was merely the positive enactment of the legislator. Devastatingly, Strauss pointed out how Kelsen in his pre-Nazi scholarship had conceded that dictatorship too could be its own legal order — but then had omitted the admission in postwar English translation of his work in the U.S. (395, referring to Strauss’s 1953 book Natural Right and History).

Novak correctly pointed out that Strauss’s own concept of natural right (not “law”) is not exactly the same as natural law, but rather Strauss’s conscious aversion to the classical (i.e. not Jewish or Christian) conception of natural justice, of nature as simply the “given”, so to speak — but not itself a divinely-instituted law-giver. And Novak concedes that such a doctrine falls short of theistic conceptions of natural law as believers in the creator God of the Bible would understand it — a deficit Novak discreetly attributed to Strauss’s unwillingness to take this more theological route “at least publicly.”

I hope I’ve offered enough incentive here to encourage readers to peek into the book to look for whatever may appeal to their specific interests or programs. We all know that history doesn’t repeat itself and that there won’t be another “Weimar moment” of the precise contours that marked the epoch between World War I and the Third Reich. But no more than the thinkers and actors of that crisis-ridden period can we afford to pretend neutrality or indifference to fundamental questions of legitimacy, law, and God. I say that as someone who feels a degree of political sympathy with liberal neutrality on ultimate questions. For others like me, Hans Kelsen’s dilemma, so brutally exposed in David Novak’s paper, is a reminder of the limits of liberal neutrality – on which, again, see Paul Kahn’s fine new book, or, for a totally different critique from a theological standpoint, the fiercely eschatological politics of Erik Peterson, a translation of whose theological papers I published last fall. (One last plug: my own paper in The Weimar Moment studies Peterson and the Catholic cultural historian and philosopher Alois Dempf [1891-1982] – both men were firmly anti-liberal Catholics who nevertheless also roundly rejected Carl Schmitt’s surrender to the political ultimacy of National Socialism.)

Michael Hollerich
University of St. Thomas

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