Evil and Political Theology: William Desmond Introduces PT 16.2 (Pt. II)


I would not shoe-horn the following contributions into the terms of the remarks posted yesterday, yet there is a familial space where kindred concerns find different expression with these authors. Christoph Schmidt focuses on Rene Girard’s defense of Christianity in encounter with Nietzsche in terms of Nietzsche’s antithesis between Christ and Dionysius. Girard identifies this as the antithesis of modernity as such.

This is the second half of William Desmond’s introductory editorial for the new issue of Political Theology, on “Evil and Political Theology.”

I would not shoe-horn the following contributions into the terms of the remarks posted yesterday, yet there is a familial space where kindred concerns find different expression with these authors. Christoph Schmidt focuses on Rene Girard’s defense of Christianity in encounter with Nietzsche in terms of Nietzsche’s antithesis between Christ and Dionysius. Girard identifies this as the antithesis of modernity as such. One recalls also Nietzsche self-nomination as the anti-Christ, and here we see a crucial manifestation of the issue of the counterfeit double, since the anti-Christ and Christ are (almost) indiscernible, and how we tell the difference is not always easy to say. Schmidt pays close attention to Girard’s “I saw the Devil fall like Lightning” and he is not unsympathetic to Girard. Yet he does take issue with Girard’s own alliance with Carl Schmitt by adopting himself a Trinitarian point of view which he holds throws light on the issues of political theology. While sympathetic to Girard’s aim to defend Christianity he proposes that Erik Peterson’s Trinitarian critique of Carl Schmitt’s political theology of sovereignty more truly fulfills Girard’s aim. The doctrine of the Trinity signals the “closure of any political theology” oriented towards sovereignty in terms of myth and power. The martyr witnesses to the actuality of divine community that cannot be reduced to the sovereignty of immanent will to power. The erotics of Nietzschean will to power are energized by mythic violence about which Nietzsche reveals a remarkable frankness, not always honored by his admirers.  If Nietzsche is caught in a logic of counterfeit doubles, it is interesting to note how in madness he signed himself as both Dionysus and the Crucified. Caught in the promiscuous circulation of counterfeit doubles, Nietzsche becomes incapable of discerning the difference of Dionysus and Christ. If Peterson is right, there is a Trinitarian community of divine mimetics, of desire and love beyond all counterfeit doubles.

Péter Losonczi treats of the themes of humanization, hominization, eschatology, and theodicy with special reference to the work of Johannes Metz and Carl Schmitt. Echoing Heinrich Meier’s thesis of the “hidden nexus” or dialogue between Leo Strauss and Carl Schmitt, he asks about a similar nexus between Schmitt and Metz.  The modern humanization of the world is double-edged, since paradoxically it can lead to a de-humanization (going with “hominization”), as well as to a deeper access to what it means to be human. The future-oriented attitudes of modernity need attention. This theme is pursued in both historical and conceptual terms and both thinkers are illuminated in their convergences and divergences. While ambiguities in stresses between hominization and humanization are pursued, Losonczi focuses on their common concern for what is taken to be a mistaken modern reconfiguration of eschatology in utopian terms. Here the notion of counterfeit doubles arises in so far as certain utopian ways of thinking misleadingly mimic the idea of eschatology.  Inevitably the issue of theodicy has to be faced and Losonzci particularly makes use of the later work of Metz dealing with the memoria passionis where the eschatological theme is further rethought. Metz is presented as reversing the logic of the traditional forms of theodicy.  Could one finesse these to be more true to the passio essendi of the human and the compassio essendi of the divine? I think so. The passio of the agapeic servant reveals a divine compassio that exceeds every economy of sovereign will to power, and keeps alive a memory not only of what was and is, but of what is to be. There is no eschatology of the mortal god.

Mika Luoma-aho also makes use of Heinrich Meier, in this instance his dichotomy between political theology and political philosophy. Political philosophy is said to be concerned with human wisdom, and he examines the Hobbesian social contract in light of five propositions that make up what he calls the onto-political set. He argues that for a political philosophy to make rational sense the truth of all five propositions of the onto-political set must be believed. If any of them cannot be held true, the onto-political will collapse and the rational justification and political legitimacy of the modern Leviathan will be seen not to meet the measure of human wisdom. Luoma-aho draws on the reflections of analytic philosophers on God, evil and theodicy, among whom the traditional question of evil has been diversely pursued with the search for more precise argument in mind. He offers insights from philosophers like Plantinga and others in connection with some of the traditional theodicies outlined above. Luoma-aho argues that if the modern Leviathan fails in terms of human wisdom, we are left then with political theology (understood here, I take it, in Meier’s terms). Here too it seems the question comes back: Is there finally no theodicy, and no eschatology of the mortal god?

In his contribution dealing with the Enlightenment and the problem of evil Michael Marder calls attention to the image of fire in terms of the provocative name of “pyropolitics.” His argument addresses the ideal of rationality that we find in the European Enlightenment where we find a separation of the light of reason from heat. There is a cold light that does not do justice to the warmth of life. By contrast, from ancient times light and heat were conjoined.  With Irigaray he reaches back to these classical sources, reading Plato and Origin, among others, as helpful companions in a different appreciation of light that not only illumes but also nourishes all growing with the warmth of its fire. As the cited Bernard of Clairvaux put it: “To shine only is useless, and to burn only is insufficient; but to burn and to shine—that is perfection.” The outcome for the Enlightenment amounts to heat without light. By contrast with some prior views, evil is defined by the effort to absolutely separate these two aspects of life-giving fire. Marder draws our attention to how the sterile light of the political and philosophical Enlightenment labels its disavowed other as “evil.” Of course, one recalls that fire is also dangerous. And indeed the image of the stealing of fire, long associated with Prometheus, the thieving Titan, is also connected with the origin of evil. This is the Aryan, masculine account of the origin of evil rather than the Semitic, feminine account of Genesis, as Nietzsche puts it in the Birth of Tragedy. The later Nietzsche wanted to be a great “yea-sayer.” But to what was he saying “yes”? What is the warmth, where is the warmth, in his fiery “yes”? If we go by the icy solitude of Zarathustra’s Nachtlied, it is hard to know what warmth could come from the cold suns and stars circling in the void spaces.Not surprisingly, many before Nietzsche in modernity and after him in post-modernity find it difficult to reecho the affirmation of the God of Genesis: it is good.  This is not Nietzsche’s “yes.”

A “yes” can mimic a “yes,” and yet one “yes” will be warm with love of what it affirms, while the other will be cold. Is the cold “yes” the counterfeit double of the warm?  For that matter, how can light mimic light? One recalls the name of “the shining one, the morning star”: Lucifer – bearer of the light. This is an important part of the problem of the counterfeit double. It is perhaps a variation on the way fear of death can mimic love of life. While Enlightenment seems unimpeachable in terms of its advocacy of light, there is also, as we know, such as a thing as light pollution.

Nietzsche uses a striking phrase which captures and occludes some of the deepest issues at stake with political theology: “A Roman Caesar with the soul of Christ.” We might take the Roman Caesar as the epitome of political sovereignty and the soul of Christ as the solicitation and witness of agapeic service. In the way Nietzsche formulates it, we see the silhouette of a certain kind of political theology. For finally it is the Roman Caesar who qualifies the conjunction with the soul of Christ, the Roman Caesar who arches over the difference between the two, and transfigures himself by taking the soul of Christ. This would be the outcome if we were to follow what Nietzsche means by will to power which always, in the first instance, in the last instance, is self-affirming.

This will to power – and this is even true of the “gift-giving virtue” about which Zarathustra discourses –  is not released for the other as other, in an agapeic letting that gives beyond itself, allowing most deeply the endowed freedom of the other. Agapeic freeing would be merely servility for Nietzsche. Rather we are led to a form of what I call erotic sovereignty, in so far as power comes to self-affirmation in and through the others who serve as the media of its own fuller and fuller self-manifestation. By contrast, the soul of Christ, the agapeic servant, releases goodness beyond itself, in an allowing radiance that makes a way, that makes the way, for the others to come to their true good. If Caesar were to have the soul of Christ he would no longer be Caesar. If Caesar were to insist that the soul of Christ be appropriate(d) to him, it would no longer be the soul of Christ.

Apropos the secretion of counterfeit doubles, it is remarkable that Nietzsche named his “auto-biography” Ecce Homo. This is not an Augustinian Confession before God, but a mocking gesture of showing, borrowed from the mocking Pilate. Before whom is Nietzsche displaying himself, exposing himself? Ecce homo are the words of Pilate as he shows Christ, the innocent criminal, to the crowd, before Christ is given over to sacrificial violence. Is Nietzsche changing places with the criminal God, as he gives himself over to sacrifice and self-divinization? Ecce Homo: the new myth, now mythologizing Nietzsche himself as the scapegoat of the Dionysian god?

The point about political theology is not that the difference of Caesar and Christ is a necessary hostility, for there can be excellences of the erotic sovereign, when a just ruler intermediates a political order which circulates social power for the good of a human community. For the agapeic servant no hostility is necessary; for the political sovereign perhaps well. I take this again as witness to the asymmetrical priority of the good. If there is a difference of the two, it is not a univocal separation either; for the generosity of the agapeic servant can pass incognito along the sometimes muddy and turbulent ways of immanent power.  It is a matter of a delicate threshold of the political and the trans-political, and how to pass along this. For at one moment this threshold might ask that the field of the erotic sovereign be leavened from within with yeast beyond political power. And at another moment the threshold might ask that the field of erotic sovereignty be transcended, for the locusts of immanent power have devoured the harvest, and we must pass into a space of agapeic fertility beyond this waste. Traversing the threshold between the political and the trans-politic cannot be determined in accord with an a priori rule. The beyond of politics yet can have an intimate effect in politics: there is an “in-and-beyond” character to it that cannot be defined either by any univocal dualistic opposition, or by any dialectical holism, not matter how totalizing. If you like the memoria passionis keeps alive this “in-and-beyond” character. It reveals a kind of metaxu, a between. Interestingly, the word “meta” also has this double meaning of being “in the midst” as well as being “beyond,” or “over and above.”

One is tempted to say: There is a political theology of erotic sovereignty, but there is no political theology of erotic sovereignty. In an important sense, the community of agapeic service is beyond every political theology – if by the latter we mean to suggest any divine endorsement of a particular order of political power. The transcendence of God as agapeic is the beyond of political theology. It is a “beyond” that cannot be fully incarnated in an immanent political order. Yet this is not to say that particular political orders may not participate in, most often in an incognito or unknowing way, in something of the gift of agapeic service, and hence the divine is there too. “Immanent” now names the transforming power – the mustard seed of the kingdom. Of course, the doubleness of the equivocal haunts us still: for it is true that monstrous social and political forms also begin their life as seeds. Fascism and totalitarian communism are such monstrous growths whose sources are in the idiotic intimacy of seeds. This is true of capitalism too.  The wheat and the darnel grow together. The project of political theology emerges from their growth together, their concrescence. And while there is no political theology of the agapeic God, there is always political theology at work in this concrescent doubleness in the sublunary world, in whose time of groaning the darnel and the wheat are twisted together.

Here is the full Table of Contents of vol. 16.2:

On Evil and Political Theology

William Desmond

From Dionysus to the Anti-Christ

Christoph Schmidt

Humanization, Eschatology, Theodicy

PéTer Losonczi

Protection — Evil

Mika Luoma-Aho

The Enlightenment, Pyropolitics, and the Problem of Evil

Michael Marder

The Sacred Stays Central

Rosco Williamson

Rancière, Derrida, and Egalitarian Politics in Pseudo-Dionysius

Dave Mesing

Book Reviews  190-200


William Desmond is a Professor at the Institute of Philosophy, KU-Leuven, and the Department of Philosophy, Villanova University.

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