Thomas Hobbes and Carl Schmitt: the Politics of Order and Myth

Here are some highlights from this 2013 book:

* In the years since World War II, the prevailing paradigm of politics has largely centred on the redistribution of resources. Hobbes and Schmitt, by contrast, help us appreciate two other conceptions of politics. Firstly, these thinkers averred that it is the problem of order not redistribution – which is the fundamental concern for any society. Secondly, both were acutely aware of the role played by myth: that is, how shared ideas – sometimes created for this very purpose – serve to promote order, social cohesion, and law-abiding behaviour.

* they actually provide a perspective that is quite different from that of the lion’s share of contemporary political thought.

* Future historians will perhaps consider the period between 1945 and, say, the 1990s as a historical parenthesis during which the problem of distributive justice over-shadowed other concerns in political thought. An influential – maybe even the – definition of politics in that epoch stated that politics was ‘the authoritative allocation of values for a society’ (Easton 1965, p. 50), that is, that it was essentially concerned with the distribution of goods.

* the most influential thinker of Anglo-Saxon academic political theory during that period, John Rawls, set
the agenda for the revival of normative inquiry precisely by addressing the question of who has and gets what as the essential problem of politics.

* But for Hobbes and Schmitt, the over-arching, perhaps overwhelming concern is the problem of war versus order. Politics is, then, primarily about controlling violence and maintaining order in the face of forces that undermine social cohesion and political authority.

* Max Weber’s famous definition of the state is precisely about this: the monopoly on violence is the essential property of the state.

* It could be argued that the perspective of order and violence is still under-represented not only in the social sciences – the sole exception being international relations – but also in contemporary political
philosophy. Moreover, it could be argued that recent developments, such as the rise of terrorism, violent political protests against ‘globalisation’, and the recurrent breakdown of order and social cohesion in many economically disadvantaged parts of the world, especially Africa, should inspire us to reorientate our inquiries toward the problem of order.

* For Hobbes, the fundamental problem is, famously, that ‘Nature [has made] men apt to invade, and destroy one another’, a problem that can only be solved by a sovereign wielding absolute power over them. And Schmitt, of course, says that a political community is not even political if it does not prohibit private revenge and retaliation, that is, maintain its monopoly on the political, at least in times of war.

* Hobbes’s implosive conception of consent, ‘every particular man is Author of all the Soveraigne doth’.

* If order is the fundamental concern for any political community, then it cannot keep violence and civil unrest at bay only by means of the police, the judiciary, and the military. The fabric of society is more fragile and at the same time more robust than that. According to a very old tradition in political thought, political communities need not only people policing them, but also a common ethos for which to strive. In short, they need what could be called a myth…a set of ideas that is created for political purposes, that gives meaning to
the world and provides people and communities with common beliefs and values.

* So ideas can in some cases be more powerful than firearms. Stalin once contemptuously asked how many divisions the pope had, implying that military force was what really counted; today, there is a new pope who still
possesses no divisions of men and women under arms, yet he is, arguably, more powerful than the heirs of Stalin.

* Oakeshott’s vision is a dandyesque and authoritarian society whose members regard one another with detached yet courteous interest, whereas Schmitt’s involves the total state maintaining unity by telling and enacting the tale of other people as enemies.

* The task of the intellectual historian, after all, is not to be a kind of schoolmaster and to hand out good or bad marks for right or wrong interpretations of classical texts – rather, he or she must ask what choices underlay certain interpretations (even those demonstrably false), and what purposes they might have served.

* Schmitt did not stop to argue about – or even just to refute or to accept – Hobbes’s central claim about the state as the outcome of a collective authorization…

* Two things strike the careful reader of On human conduct: on the one hand, the emphasis Oakeshott placed – in almost Millian, Tocquevillian or Burckhardtian manner – on energy, initiative, adventure, risk, confidence and
engagement. More energy seemed a value in itself, and confident enactment of an adventure – even if it resulted in failure – infinitely preferable than any secure achievement of ‘suburban pleasures’. Now, time and again this particular perspective was in turn strengthened and more fully expressed with religious allusions. One was the image of civil association as a civitas peregrina that Oakeshott memorably described as “an association, not of pilgrims traveling to a common destination, but of adventurers each responding as best he can to the ordeal of consciousness in a world composed of others of his kind, each the inheritor of the imaginative achievements
(moral and intellectual) of those who have gone before and some joined in a variety of prudential practices, but here partners in a practice of civility the rules of which are not devices for satisfying substantive wants and whose obligations create no symbiotic relationship.”

* On the one hand, Hobbes shares a strong war/crime distinction with Schmitt. On the other hand, Hobbes never suggests that lethal enmity gives a ‘meaningful’ tension to human life. Hobbes also describes the way feverish human minds may imagine enemies where none exist.

* In both Political Theology and Roman Catholicism, Schmitt suggests that a dangerous, unqualified belief in humanity’s natural goodness motivates a peculiarly modern agenda bent on tearing down all forms of authority.
According to this view, Schmitt writes, once individuals live in complete, unencumbered freedom, all problems will become technical or economic rather than political or moral. This belief finds its definitive home in Soviet Russia, which Schmitt views as a frightening amalgam of irrational Eastern Christianity, radical anarchism, and the basest form of socialist materialism. The Russian Revolution signifies, for Schmitt, nothing less than a rebellion against the theistic notion that good must be granted, encouraged, or at least partially imposed upon man from outside, that is, transcendentally by God.

* In Political Theology, Schmitt sympathized with the responses to anarchism and socialism launched by Catholic counterrevolutionaries, such as Maistre, Bonald, and especially Juan Donoso Cortés, who promulgated the
belief that man is evil – pure and simple – and that any authority, as such, is good.

* Two changes in circumstance seem to have profoundly affected his ideas between the publication of Roman Catholicism and the composition of The concept of the political. Personally, Schmitt had broken bitterly with the Catholic Church after an embarrassing divorce and remarriage. More generally, the drastic economic, social, and political effects of the surrender terms dictated to Germany by the Allies at Versailles in 1919 had become more painfully apparent. These two situations almost simultaneously removed the explicitly Catholic, moral foundation of Schmitt’s intellectual efforts and transformed Western liberalism into an enemy of the same magnitude as Eastern anarchosocialism. Interestingly, Schmitt did not yet adopt a more hostile attitude
toward Jews in this era. Indeed, The concept of the political is dedicated to a Jewish friend from Schmitt’s youth who died serving Germany in the Great War; some of the most respectful passages of the work are reserved for Leftists of Jewish descent, Marx and Lukács; and, in an important lecture appended to the work, Spinoza – no less a bête noire for many anti-Semites than Marx or Freud – is placed right alongside Schmitt’s intellectual idol, Hobbes, as a chief representative of ‘the heroic age of occidental rationalism’.

* Two points support those who insist that the instances of anti-Semitism expressed by Schmitt at this time were merely rhetorical efforts to better ingratiate himself with the Third Reich: firstly, he never expressed such
sentiments in his pre-Nazi career; and, secondly, Schmitt’s anti-Semitism seemed to emerge only when Schmitt came under suspicion as a late-arriving and inauthentic Nazi and then intensified once he was openly denounced by the SS in their publication Das schwarze Korps. Conversely, the main objections to the ‘opportunism’ thesis can be summed up as follows: Schmitt persisted in the deplorable denunciation of Jews and Judaism in his postwar
work; and his Nazi-era anti-Semitism was too fervent and too deeply entangled with the substance of his arguments to be considered merely cosmetic.

* Schmitt’s 1938 book The Leviathan in the state theory of Thomas Hobbes, an otherwise astounding interpretation of Hobbes’s use of symbolism, is a case in point. When explaining the collapse of the Hobbesian sovereign state,
what he considered to be the pinnacle of political theory and practice, Schmitt assigns to the ‘Jewish philosopher’, Spinoza, the central role in an esoteric passion play (LS, p. 55). Schmitt posits Hobbes’s absolutist state as a ‘mortal god’ that was betrayed by Spinoza on behalf of ‘his own Jewish people’ with dramatically detrimental consequences for Christians (LS, p. 60). The God-become-Man Leviathan state, who came to bring peace and security to humanity, was undermined by the ‘liberal Jew’, Spinoza; the latter used the
subjective freedom of conscience permitted by Hobbes to turn particularist societal forces against the unity of the state so as to benefit the interests of assimilating Jews (LS, p. 57). As Miguel Vatter brilliantly points out (2004, pp. 190–92), according to this narrative, Spinoza and the Jews effectively crucify divinity incarnate, the Leviathan state, on the cross of private conscience, unleashing chaos and disorder on the Christian world in the form of the Enlightenment, the age of revolutions, world wars, and even, at the deepest levels of the text, the mechanically oppressive and abusive Nazi state itself.

* Schmitt’s criticism of Weimar liberalism as a suicide pact closely tracked Hobbes’s argument that ‘those princes who permit factions, do as much as if they received an enemy within their walls: which is contrary to the subjects safety, and therefore also against the law of nature’ (Hobbes 1841, ch. xiii, §13, p. 176). Weimar Germany, forced to wear an off-the-shelf English suit (limited government) was an incoherent polity because ‘a multitude of men, enemies and subjects, living promiscuously together, cannot properly be termed a kingdom’ (Hobbes 1841, ch. xvii, §5, p. 256). This domestic incoherence, stoked by seditious domestic factions in league with foreign powers, redounded to the benefit of Germany’s mortal foes because of, to use Hobbes’s words, ‘Quarrels, Factions, and at last Warre’ (Hobbes 2005, ch. xviii, §15, p. 144). As a first step to solving this problem, the Tudor monarchy acted decisionistically…

* Arguing that constitutional limits on sovereign power could be crippling, especially in wartime, Hobbes compared constitutional government to playing tennis while being pushed around in a wheelbarrow by counselors who cannot agree among themselves.

* Liberalism can also cripple the state in confrontation with deadly enemies by a dogmatic adherence to freedom of trade. Hobbes and Schmitt agreed upon this basic idea as well. Private merchants can endanger national security by selling all manner of harmful technology to our enemies…

* Finally, liberalism can weaken the state and expose it to its enemies by cleaving dogmatically to the principle of publicity. Secrecy is essential for dealing with the enemy. This was one reason why Hobbes’s preferred monarchy to other forms of government: he associated ‘serious consultation’ with ‘Deliberations that ought to be kept secret’…

* It is difficult to imagine Hobbes being brought to nausea and despair by a peace treaty of any kind. He viewed the powerful psychological impact of group humiliation on the behavior of individuals as part of the human
comedy, not as a basis for his own political theory. Indeed, he was convinced that human beings would be better off if they could give less importance to enhancing their reputations and more importance to preserving their lives. This is why, in the end, Schmitt alleges that Hobbes had no serious concept of the enemy. Hobbes may have agreed that war was inevitable; but he never suggested that war made life meaningful and thrilling and serious. He did not imagine that facing an enemy would help degraded men escape a depoliticized social world. The
[awe-inspiring] state of Schmitt’s dreams, contrariwise, is not a peacekeeping state. Hobbes was morally attracted to the normal situation; Schmitt found normality boring.

* In his review of Mein Kampf, George Orwell said that capitalism and socialism offered people a good time, whereas Hitler offered people struggle, danger and death. Schmitt’s deadly conflict, shooting adrenaline through combatants’ veins, lifts them above the frivolity of consumerism. Schmitt even suggests that the value of life stems not from reasoning but rather emerges in a state of war where men inspirited by myths do battle.

* Hobbes calls himself ‘an enemy to Atheists’ (Hobbes 1841, ch. xiv, §19, p. 198, n. 2) not only because such an avowal is prudent exotericism, but also because he means it. True, Christianity’s principal contribution to political development has been religious civil war, a particularly virulent kind of bloodletting unknown to blood-drenched antiquity (Hobbes 1990, p. 63f). But religious sentiments and beliefs cannot be eliminated from human consciousness. It is therefore crucial to wrap secular authority in ‘the cloak of godliness’ (Hobbes 1990, p. 26), using mankind’s ‘Fear of things invisible’ (Hobbes 2005, ch. xi, §26, p. 86 and especially their ‘feare of damnation’ (Hobbes 1841, ch. vi, §11, p. 78) and ‘apprehension of everlasting torments’ (Hobbes 1841, ch. xxi, §5, p. 156) to discipline unruly subjects into obedience. If the sovereign does not lay hold of superstition and use it to master the reason of his subjects, then his rivals will. That is the thinking behind Hobbes’s important principle: ‘the authority of interpreting God’s Word, … belongs not to any foreign person
whatsoever’ (Hobbes 1841, xvii, §27, p. 293). He acts upon this principle himself, giving his own sovereignty-friendly interpretations of Holy Scripture – the hermeneutical equivalent of seizing the outworks from which ‘the enemy’ might otherwise impugn the civil power.

* In Behemoth, Hobbes wrote that Christian ecclesiastics gain sway over the minds of young men by making them feel guilty for their perfectly natural sexual desires.

* the Hobbesian ‘enemy’ is not simply chosen by the sovereign without any reference to a norm. Instead, the enemy, for Hobbes, is precisely the individual who violates the fifth law of nature, namely, compleasance.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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