Matthias Riedl and I designed this course, “Political Theology—Ancient and Modern,” for MA students in History and Medieval Studies at the Central European University. There is also a Religious Studies Program, and the course is mandatory for them. It will be the fourth time this coming academic year that we offer the course. Usually about 15-20 students take the class.
Our teaching objective was to explain the historical background and foundations of the Carl Schmitt – Erik Peterson debate (and to some extent its aftermath). The 12 week long semester (2×50 min classes per week) offers some room for a more detailed historical approach. We begin with a first dip into the conceptual issues (the issues of political form, legitimacy, cosmic analogy, acclamations, secularization) by reading the third chapter of Schmitt’s Political Theology. Then we move on to show that grounding “political form” (Schmitt) by embedding it into a cosmic structure has been an issue at least from the Hellenistic period (if not before). The decisive Western ideas arise from the Christian reaction to, and re-modelling of, both the Hellenistic and the Biblical (Jewish) conceptions of rulership. The inherent tension between empire and theocracy (Josephus) gives rise to two competing Christian theologies of power, a pro-empire (Origen and Eusebius) and an anti-empire (Apocalypse of John, Augustine) school of thought (in rough terms). The Augustinian analysis of the Earthly City and the Heavenly City and the mixed society of the Church offer a matrix in which many of the medieval developments can be analysed. With Machiavelli and then the Tudor lawyers (as shown by Kantorowicz) a new approach sets in, leading to the secularization of formerly theological concepts. This development is then followed out via Hobbes, Rousseau etc., as can be gathered from the syllabus.
Since most of our students come with a historical interest, our approach was not alien for them. In fact, they have appreciated it over the years rather well. In the student evaluation we consistently received grades over 9 (out of 10 grades). One student wrote: “I particularly liked the structure of the course – the gradual form of topics from Eusebius to Hobbes. It really made me understand what was Carl Schmitt writing about in his Political Theology.” Another comment said: “This was a very interesting course, a daring project trying to trace the lineage of ‘political theology’ from ancient philosophical and theological disputes to Schmitt’s modern development of the concept. The argument that the connections are worth investigating [was successful].”
We introduced “class journals”, requiring the students to write weekly summaries of the readings, the problems discussed in class, and questions arising from the discussions. These had to be submitted before the next class, so follow-up questions could be addressed in this next class. This helped students to keep up with the pace and be prepared, and it helped them to write the short term paper. Another student remarked: “I think the form of class protocols helps to ‘digest’.”
Our experience is that the success of this historical introduction largely depends on the clarity of explanations. Since this course by its nature has to adopt the “history of ideas” approach, much depends on the selection of relevant texts and historical examples (the manifestation of the ideas in their legal and institutional aspects). Again, it is unlikely that such a course can be a “one-man-show.” Many historical settings, legal, institutional, and theological issues need to be explained in a short, incisive way, which is the reason why we decided to join our somewhat different fields of expertise. (Our different takes also implies discussion / comments between us, which is enjoyed by the students.)
While we think that the course is quite successful, we are modifying and adjusting the reading list every year. We try to improve the selection by finding shorter and more poignant texts. Again, we plan to include in the final class more of the recent discussions – which would remain, however, not readily understandable if the historical foundations are missing.
György Geréby is Associate Professor of Medieval Studies at Central European University and Keeley Visiting Fellow at Wadham College, Oxford.