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Eric Voegelin Society Meeting 2009
"political theology" to "political religion":
Voegelin and Carl Schmitt
2009 Thierry Gontier
his book on Politics as Religions, Emilio
Gentile credits Eric Voegelin with the invention, if not of the term (of which
earlier occurrences can be found), of the concept of "political religions",
a concept which will be systematically used in the 1960s to describe
totalitarian regimes. We know that Voegelin himself was not particularly
attached to this expression, which he practically does not use in his
published work after 1938. He briefly explains himself in his Autobiographical
would no longer use the term "religions" because it is too vague and
already deforms the real problem of experiences by mixing them with the
further problem of dogma or doctrine.
term "religion" is therefore ambivalent. We mean by it a fundamental
experience that man makes of his existence and his participation to an order
that links the two levels of temporal and eternal: in this sense, every
politic, for Voegelin, has a religious dimension and, vice versa, every
religion has a function of structuring the social order. But by the term "religion"
we also mean a body of dogmas and doctrines. For Voegelin, this is a secondary
aspect of the problem. It is true that totalitarianisms (and maybe not only
totalitarianisms) have produced a form of religious propaganda. But what is
characteristic of totalitarianisms is not this instrumentalisation of
theology, which is only a concomitant phenomenon, but a spiritual perversion.
the sources that inspired his title, Voegelin quotes Louis Rougier and his Mystiques politiques. He also implicitly refers to French Christian
personalists (such as Jacques Maritain, Henri de Lubac or Joseph Vialatoux)
who, before him, had explained totalitarianisms less by their historical and
social context than by referring to a kind of spiritual disorder. But nowhere
does Voegelin quote Carl Schmitt's famous work, Political Theology, published in 1922. Carl Schmitt too had
invented, if not an expression (which was used at times from Varro to Bakunin),
at least a concept destined for a promising future. Both Schmitt and Voegelin's
books share at least one theme: they both put forward that every political
doctrine involves a relationship of man to the sacred -- even (and maybe
above all) the doctrines that claim to have severed this link.
did Voegelin leave out this reference even though he quoted Schmitt several
times in his earlier works? The obvious reason is that, in 1938, Carl Schmitt
was considered one of the major intellectual figures of Nazism. Surprisingly,
Voegelin appears to be virtually ignoring Schmitt's adherence in his 1936
work on the Authoritarian State,
referring only to the writings of Carl Schmitt of the early 1930s : only
a short footnote mentions the more recent developments in his thinking. It is
likely that, in 1938, Voegelin had a clearer idea of Schmitt's intellectual
project. This is probably why he seldom quoted him in his subsequent published
work. But this is not the only reason. Even in the years 1930-1936, when he
often discussed Carl Schmitt's theses, Voegelin's interest turned to legal
and political issues, such as constitutional law, forms of governance,
analysis of parliamentary democracy and its contemporary development, etc. But
the references to Carl Schmitt never concern, or only indirectly, Political
Theology, published in 1922.
I would like to highlight the existence of an implicit discussion between the
two authors, a dialogue that, in my view, points to one of the most important
alternatives of our time to consider the relationship between politics and
us take a look at Voegelin's writings of the 1930s. One may be sensitive to
the apparent points of consensus between the two writers, and in particular to
their common criticism of the vulnerability of parliamentary democracy when
confronted with the rise of radical anti-democratic parties, be it communist
and Nazi. In reality, this consensus is superficial, since the two
philosophers disagree on the metaphysical, ethical and theological foundations
of politics. This disagreement becomes obvious when it comes to the question
of decisionism. Voegelin is aware that Schmitt's doctrine cannot be reduced
to decisionism. Voegelin occasionally refers to the "catholic" period of
Schmitt's thought in the 1920s, as he also refers to the institutionalist
period of the mid-1930s
. But, more importantly, decisionism appears to him less as a
particular doctrine than as a general attitude in Schmitt's thinking.
Schmitt's attitude is the reflection of a form of pneumo-pathology that
explains his numerous changes of opinion, and in particular his opportunist
adherence to Nazism. In short, although Carl Schmitt was not always a
decisionist in the doctrinal sense, he remained for Voegelin a decisionist in
the sense of "an agnostic and unprincipled existentialist like Sartre",
that is to say a sort of nihilist.
of the clearest texts about Schmitt's decisionism can be found in Voegelin's
study on "National Types of Mind and the Limits to Interstate Relations",
wrote in the early 1930s. :
cannot accept Schmitt's decision. For who decides? Schmitt does not tell us;
he says that the State bears the decision within itself, thus avoiding naming
the subject […]. The essence of the nation-state, as of other type of
political existence, is belief, […] not decision (CW,
XXXII, p. 477-478).
decides?" This question brings to mind one of Hobbes': "Quis
judicavit? Quis interpretabitur?" This is also a recurring question for
Schmitt: who decides, that is, who is the actual authorized person that
embodies legal norm? Only the "ex nihilo" decision, hence purely
irrational, can give to the norm, which in itself has no more reality than an
ideal abstraction, a "visibility" in the public space. For Voegelin, the
question has quite a different meaning. For him, norm is never an abstract
idea, separate from concrete political reality. Each norm is an object of
representation in the human mind. Therefore, the norm always acts as a motive
of action. "Norms -- says Voegelin -- are components of reality
. So the question is no longer about the effective subject of
decision, but about the general nature of the will that makes decisions.
Decision, for Voegelin, is not an irrational act that brings to existence a
political order from a normative nihil.
It is the act of rational will, moved by a representation of the good. As
medieval Aristotelians used to say, "quidquid
appetitur, appetitur sub ratione boni" -- everything that is
desired, is desired under the aspect of good. The question thus shifts from
decision to the representation that motivates it, hence Voegelin's
conclusion: "The substance of the State, is belief, not […] decision".
Any decision thus presupposes a normative aim and a prior orientation of will
toward the good. This openness of the human mind toward the good is, for
Voegelin, both the fundamental experience that man makes of his existence, and
the substantial core of political order.
both authors therefore, political order structures itself around a core of
transcendence. But transcendence does not have the same meaning for Schmitt
and for Voegelin. For the former, it essentially means the radical heteronomy
of a decision vis-à-vis all forms of legal rationality. For Voegelin, it
refers to the subsumption of the legal order by a higher ethical and
metaphysical order in which it finds its meaning. The two political structures
are linked to two very different theological structures. Schmitt's
decisionist political structure fits with a theology of potentia
absoluta Dei, which finds its roots in late medieval Scotist or Ockhamist
theologies. As for Voegelin, he refers to a theology of a Platonic type, for
which the divine is not understood as radical otherness, but as the
transcendent good toward which the human soul is naturally open.
radicalisation of the transcendent characteristic of political power for Carl
Schmitt, and its comprehension under a fundamentally irrational theological
scheme, the origin of which is to be found in the Epicurean clinamen
of the atoms, paradoxically leads to the realization of the divine at an
intra-mundane level, and to the formation of what, precisely, Voegelin calls a
"political religion" in 1938. The similar reversal mechanism of a radical
theology of potentia absoluta Dei to
an immanent position of self-affirmation of man has been studied, in a
different context (the transition between the late Middle Ages and the
Renaissance), by Hans Blumenberg in his book on The Legitimacy of the Modern Ages, writing that "the provocation
of the transcendant absolute passes over at the point of its most extreme
radicalization into the uncovering of the immanent absolute"
Carl Schmitt severely criticizes Promethean thoughts of human self-poiesis, as
he does their political equivalent, the doctrines of the spontaneous formation
of the State by society. Nevertheless, he occasionally reveals some secret
fascination, as in his argument against Blumenberg at the end of his second Political
Theology of 1969. To this liberal optimism, he opposes the Christian
theology of original sin. But the problem lies in the meaning he gives to the
notion of original sin. In his Political
Theology of 1922, he underlines the heterodox nature of the conception of
original sin of the counterrevolution thinkers, such as Louis de Bonald,
Joseph de Maistre and Donoso Cortès, for whom the state of man after the sin
is a state of absolute abjection, preventing man not only from reaching the
good, but also from striving to reach it
. But in reality, Schmitt himself rallies towards this radical
pessimism. I quote the Notion of
politics of 1927: "All true political theories postulate a corrupt (böse) man, fully problematic, of a dangerous and dynamic nature"
. And, among these "true" (echt)
political theories (which exclude liberal political theories as "false"
theories), Schmitt quotes among others the names of Joseph de Maistre and of
Donoso Cortès : we may conclude that, for Carl Schmitt, "true"
political theories postulate a man deprived of the desire of God. The paradox
is that, however serious the fault may have been, it nevertheless gave man a
real chance, so that the sin appears to be a "felix culpa". Thanks to this
fault, hostility is preserved as the foundation of political identity -- I
mean an identity based on the seriousness of the human existence. If we remove
sin, and with it hostility, we find an economic and cultural society. This
society, as Leo Strauss summarized, of peace and recreation, but with no
possibility of sacrifice and therefore with no ethical dimension. Evil thus
becomes the foundation of an order, besides which there is nothing for man to
depriving man from momentum toward the divine, the Schmittean conception
meets, at least functionally, its antagonist, that is secularized liberalism
in its most extreme version, that of Bakunin's atheist anarchism. On a
number of occasions, Voegelin analyzed this paradoxical phenomenon in his
studies on Hobbes
. By removing the desire of God, Hobbes reduced the homo politicus to his mere libido
dominandi, and politics to a mere race for domination. To the transcendent
orientation of the Platonic-Christian Imperium
sacrum, Hobbes substituted a purely immanent orientation of secularized
politics. This rebellion of the soul against order constitutes, for Voegelin,
the ultimate foundation of totalitarianism. The distortion of the meaning of
transcendence into a radical heteronomy, with its corollary -- removing the
desire of God -- therefore paradoxically leads to the elevation of the
mundane political institution to a deified immanent reality. As Voegelin
summarized in his Political Religions,
"when God is invisible behind the word, the contents of the word will become
. In this context, Carl Schmitt's adherence to Nazism, as
opportunistic as it may have been, appears to be quite consistent with his
intellectual positions in the 1920s.
conclude, Voegelin's reflection on the relationships between religions and
politics (what we could call in a very specific sense "religious politics")
has nothing to do with "political theology" in Carl Schmitt's sense. By
"political theology", Carl Schmitt designates an analogy of structure
between two types of rationalities, both confronted with the problem of
visibility (that is of concreteness) and, therefore, with a certain form of
irrationality (revelation, dogma and miracles for theology, sovereign
authority for politics). Both rationalities, while similar, keep their
autonomy in their specific order. According to Voegelin, such autonomy does
not exist: the question of the relationship between theology and politics is
always presented in terms of direct relationship. The man who lives in society
is the same man who strives for a transcendent end. State and church, says
Voegelin in his course on Hitler and the
Germans, are not two different societies, but "the same societies, which
only have different representations, one temporal and one spiritual […].
There isn't, on the one side, the Churches and, on the other, political
people, but […] people are the same in both cases"
fact, political society can never acquire the full status of societas perfecta as it does for Schmitt. Voegelin's "religious
politics", if we can call it that, has a different meaning. It designates
the structuring presence of the religious experience at the heart of the
rational activity of man, and in particular of his communitarian activity.
This presence preserves the finitude of politics -- or what could be called a
zetetic of politics --, preventing its self-formation in a mundane
theology (be it republican, liberal or totalitarian). More generally, it
preserves the fundamental inquietude of the human soul and its openness to the
question of the transcendence of the foundation
 On the catholic period of Schmitt's thought, cf. the letter to Theo Morse of November 18 1953 (CW, XXX, p. 184). On the institutionalist period, cf. The Authoritarian State (CW, IV, p. 53) and, above all the review of Krupa's Carl Schmitt's Theorie des « Politischen » (1937 (CW, XIII, p. 109).
 CW, XIII, p. 109.
 Hans Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Ages, trad. L.M. Wallace, Cambridge (Mass.), MIT Press, 1983, p. 178.
 Carl Schmitt, Politische Theologie …, München und Leipzig, Duncher und Humblot, 1922, p. 51.
 Carl Schmitt, Der Begriff des Politischen, 1932, reed. Berlin, Duncker und Humblot, 1987, p. 61.
 There are many references to Hobbes' Leviathan as a step toward the formation of the modern state, of wich totalitarianism is the assumption, and above all in the Political Religions of 1938. However, one of the clearest text, to my view, is to be found in the letter to Robert Heilman of August 20 1959 (CW, XXX, p. 393).
 CW, V, p. 60.
the Germans, CW, XXI,
p. 156 and 175.
 This text is the summarized version of a longer article, which is to be published in French shortly : ‘De la théologie politique aux religions politiques : Voegelin et Carl Schmitt', in Th. Gontier & D. Weber, Eric Voegelin. Politique, religion et histoire, Paris, éd. du Cerf.