Peter Eli Gordon. Social Research. Volume 74, Issue 3. Fall 2007.
Introduction: Weimar Political Theology
Recent years have seen considerable debate over the concerns of political theology and the question as to how the concepts and categories that inform political association may have derived historically from, or logically depend upon, prior concepts of religion. Debates over this question are partly normative: Does politics require theology, in the sense that theological concepts furnish the only possible warrant for our political commitments? Or, by contrast, does politics only come into its own if theology is dismissed? But the debate is also historical: Did politics only emerge as a transformation or worldly application (“secularization” in the precise sense) of terms originally operative in a theological context (as Karl Löwith claimed)? Or does politics, especially in its modern form, only claim its legitimacy by virtue of its attempt (as Hans Blumenberg argued) to place modernity itself on entirely new foundations? These debates may seem especially urgent today given the resurgence of political movements, both East and West, that claim to derive their legitimacy from religious principles: Christian, Jewish, Hindu, and Islamic. But for intellectual reasons alone it seems worthwhile to revisit some of the foundational debates out of which the current discussion of political theology was born.
It is difficult to isolate one discrete historical moment since the attendant themes have an ancient lineage that stretches at least as far back as Saint Augustine’s reflections on the harmony or potential strife between the earthly city and the city of God. It is well known, however, that political theology underwent a dramatic resurgence of attention in Weimar Germany in the years following World War One. In those debates certain names recur with great frequency: Carl Schmitt, Leo Strauss, Franz Rosenzweig, Ernst Bloch, Ernst Kantorowicz. But in the specific context of Weimar political theology one name is almost never heard: Hannah Arendt. The question I would like to pose in this paper is admittedly strange because its form is negative: Why does Arendt’s conception of political life not conform to the terms of political theological debate? The beginnings of an answer-and a beginning is all I can attempt here-can only be found by revisiting some of the political-theological alternatives that appeared on the scene during Arendt’s formative years in Weimar Germany.
Leo Strauss and the Theologico-Political Problem
In 1962 the political philosopher Leo Strauss, now living in Hyde Park on the flanks of the University of Chicago, drafted a new preface to the English translation of his 1930 book, Die Religionskritik Spinozas. The preface begins by naming what Strauss considered the central problem of modern philosophy: “This study on Spinoza’s Theologico-political Treatise was written during the years 1925-28 in Germany,” Strauss writes. “The author was a young Jew born and raised in Germany who found himself in the grip of the theologico-political predicament” (Strauss, 1965:1).
Just what was the theologico-political predicament? While the details or possible merits of Straussian doctrine will not be my focus here, a general characterization seems crucial especially if we wish better to understand the general history of German-Jewish thought over the last century. For present purposes, we should first recall that Strauss himself was born in 1899, just seven years before Hannah Arendt, whose centennial we honored this past year. Both were German Jews steeped in classical and modern philosophy. And both found in Martin Heidegger an early inspiration for their own work, though it must also be noted that their initial phase of enthusiasm soon turned to disenchantment when Heidegger, like so many of his German contemporaries, moved to embrace National Socialism. Disenfranchised by their native government, both eventually sought refuge in the United States—Strauss in 1937, Arendt in 1941—where they took up teaching positions, at the University of Chicago and the New School for Social Research, and laid the foundations for two of the most enduring schools of political thought. A comparative study of these two German-Jewish refugees and their impact upon the understanding of politics in North America would no doubt prove instructive. Here let me note only that upon the most essential point the disagreement between them was profound: what Strauss termed the “theological-political predicament” appears to have left virtually no imprint upon Arendt’s thinking.
This absence sets Arendt apart not only from Strauss but also many others in the larger milieu of interwar German and Jewish philosophy. Within that stream it is striking to note just how many Weimar intellectuals were preoccupied by the relation between politics and religion. No doubt one formulation was provided by Carl Schmitt, whose 1922 essay Political Theology introduced the slogan that “[a]ll consequential political concepts are secularized theological concepts” (Schmitt, 2005: 36). Schmitt’s dictum implied a consonance between politics and theology; hence, according to his renovation of absolutist principles (traceable to Hobbes and Bodin), there must always be a sovereign even within a modern and secular legal framework whose decision is absolute for any “exception.” Just as a religious miracle serves as the ultimate authorization for the Gospels, an exception is the anomaly (literally, that which cannot be subsumed under law) which confirms the legal order. It followed for Schmitt that in a sense all politics is still theological, and incorrigibly so (Schmitt, 1985).
Altogether different was Strauss’s views on the theological-political predicament. The term itself suggests not continuity but a rupture—a conflict or near-incommensurability—between two radically distinct modes of experience. The basic thought is that while theology is open to revelation and therefore grants the human being’s dependency upon a nonhuman source of moral-political instruction, modern philosophy as it developed with Hobbes and Spinoza dispenses with any external supports and declares reason’s independent capacity for building a just human order. On Strauss’s view this conflict has remained unresolved throughout the philosophical modernity of the West. Modern philosophy claims to abjure all faith. Yet insofar as it places its own faith in reason alone, modern philosophy thereby must merely presume without being able to prove the impossibility of revelation. Modern philosophy cannot refute theology, nor can theology refute philosophy. The situation of religion is likewise perturbed: modern theology has retreated from its prior office as the source of moral-political instruction and has become instead a merely decorative pendant to human culture, or at most, a merely private experience without bearing on the social world. Modern philosophy, meanwhile, radicalizes its own task of dissolvent criticism, a task first born in its historical antipathy to all supposedly mythical notions of religious consolation. But in the single-minded exercise of unconstrained criticism it is eventually forced toward the nihilistic conclusion that human life has no security whatsoever and our moral-political principles no foundation besides arbitrary human decision. Thus on Strauss’s view, the conflict between reason and revelation has ended in a practical stalemate and normative crisis (Strauss, 1965, esp. 74-5).
Much of this argument is familiar. Far less understood is Strauss’s suggestion that the crisis between revelation and philosophy was most pronounced in modern Jewish philosophy, especially the modern Jewish philosophy that came to fruition in the Weimar era. It is instructive to recall that Strauss dedicated his study of Spinoza to Franz Rosenzweig, who had died in the winter of 1929 just prior to the book’s publication and shortly before the economic and political crisis that culminated in the dissolution of the Weimar republic. The life and work of Franz Rosenzweig was for many years in eclipse; but thanks especially to the efforts of recent scholars in Germany, Israel, and North America, he is recognized today as the last of the great German-Jewish religious philosophers. For Strauss, who knew him personally and even taught at Frankfurt’s Judisches Lehrhaus, Rosenzweig represented the final and most dramatic attempt to surmount the theological-political predicament by drafting a new and more cooperative synthesis between philosophy and revelation. This synthesis-which Rosenzweig termed “the new thinking”-gained a great many adherents from within the German-Jewish world and it proved especially attractive to the younger generation of Weimar intellectuals who were close contemporaries to Strauss, Arendt, and many others. If we wish better to appreciate both the Straussian conception of political-theological conflict and Arendt’s alternative conception of non-theological politics, it is instructive to look more closely into the explicitly “apolitical” terms of Weimar Jewish theology as Rosenzweig conceived it.
Judaism, Politics, Utopia
Rosenzweig’s 1921 masterpiece, The Star of Redemption [Der Stern der Erlösung] was a powerful inspiration to Strauss and it has an important if sometimes misunderstood place in the canon of modern political theology. First composed on military stationary posted from the Eastern front, is perhaps best characterized as an exercise in existential theology. The entire span of philosophy from Parmenides to Hegel stands condemned of denying the finitude and mortality of individual human life. It seeks after concepts and essences beyond the bounds of worldly experience rather than honoring what Rosenzweig called “the earthly path of revelation” (Erdenweg der Offenbarung) (Rosenzweig, 1984:155).
Rosenzweig was not an orthodox Jew but an acculturated German of Jewish faith. He was steeped in the literature of Goethe and the music of Beethoven: as a student of Friedrich Meinecke he had previously authored a massive study of Hegel’s political thought. Yet although he abandoned the constraints of the university and dedicated the remainder of his short life to Jewish renewal, his single most enduring contribution to modern Jewish philosophy bears a strong resemblance to the systems of German Idealism. Structurally, and according to a self-proclaimed logic, it begins by shattering the cosmos into its three fundamental constituents—world, human being, and God—and then attempts in stepwise fashion to reconstruct the unified religious experience of being-in-the-world by describing the temporal commerce among its elements. The resounding conclusion of the book is that redemption must be sought not through otherworldly transcendence but instead within the bounds of human life.
Rosenzweig summarized his book as a “system of philosophy” (Rosenzweig, 1984: 140). And he insisted it should not be received as exclusively Jewish in character since it devotes nearly equal attention alongside Judaism to Christianity and Islam. But the Star is nonetheless of special significance for its unusual portrait of the Jewish condition.
That the Jewish condition as Rosenzweig describes it is simply “outside of history” as many have suggested is an enormous understatement. The Star presents the Jewish people as uniquely equipped to live in a condition of perpetual peace: their collective life, punctuated by the liturgical calendar, obeys a cyclical temporality, and knows neither progress nor ruin. Placing their complete faith in God and their hopes upon the future, they anticipate the “not-yet” of the messianic kingdom with such devotion that their lives are wholly emptied of present historical meaning. The Jewish people, writes Rosenzweig, “lebt in seiner eignen Erlosung:” it “lives in its own redemption” (Rosenzweig, 1993: 364 [SE]; 1985: 328 [E]). In a certain sense, it does not live in history at all, though it does live in time. But, Rosenzweig continues, “the meaning of its life in time in that the years come and go, one after the other as a sequence of waiting, or perhaps wandering, but not of growth … Eternity is just this: that time no longer has a right to a place between the present moment and consummation, and that the whole future is to be grasped today.” And so, “the eternal people must forget the world’s growth, must cease to think of it,” and it must instead, “look upon the world, its own world, as complete.” Furthermore, Rosenzweig explains, “The Jew finds in his people the perfect fusion [Eingehn] of the world of his own, and to achieve this fusion himself, he need not sacrifice even the smallest sense of his particularity [seiner Eigenart]” (Rosenzweig, 1993: 365 [SE]; 1985: 329 [E]).
In this portrait of the Jewish condition, there is much that is remarkable and much that might be disputed. Let me note only two features. First, there is its negative background, or what one might call the disenchanted vision of politics. “War and Revolution,” writes Rosenzweig, “are the only reality known to the state.” The state can therefore “never lay down the sword.” The state must “brandish it again and at every instant” so as “to cut the Gordian knot of the nation’s life, that contradiction between the past and future which the nation fails to resolve in its natural being…” (Rosenzweig, 1993: 371 [SE]; 1985: 334 [E]). The peculiar suggestion is that nation-states cannot help but engage in struggle, since they can imagine no other persistence save that of military victory. For the nations of the world, Rosenzweig writes, “the idea of election is really that of a love for one’s own people, mixed with the bittersweet premonition that at some distant future date it will no longer exist.” And this gives to the conduct of war a peculiar cast, since what is at stake in war is the people’s very existence: “The more seriously a people has consummated in itself the identification of salus and fides, of its own existence,” and “its own sense of the world, the more enigmatic [rätselhofter] appears to it the possibility which war discloses to it: the possibility of decline [die Möglichkeit des Untergangs]” (Rosenzweig, 1993: 366 [SE]; 1985: 330 [E]).
It is perhaps unsurprising that Rosenzweig esteemed Oswald Spengler “the greatest philosopher of history since Hegel.” But in Rosenzweig’s own historical vision, the inevitability of political decline does not lead to pessimism. Instead, military victory seems the only solution to a nation-state’s disappearance, and so “war begins to occupy the central place in its life. [rückt ihm der Krieg in den Mittelpunkt seines Lebens.]” Here, Rosenzweig explains, “there arises the peculiar notion of the ‘Holy War,'” of “war as a religious act, which for the Jews was war against the “‘seven nations’ of Canaan,” and was to be sharply distinguished from war against a “very distant” people, i.e., a war conducted according to the normal rules of state-conflict. However, for the Christian era and the nations of the world, this distinction vanishes. “Holy War and political war which in Jewish law were constitutionally distinguished, are here blended in one.” For in keeping with the spirit of Christianity, which admits of no boundaries, there are for it no “very distant” peoples. For the nations of the world, “precisely because they are not really God’s people,” and because “they are still only in the process of so becoming” this distinction is unintelligible. “They simply cannot know how far war is holy war, and in how far merely a secular war. But in any case they know that God’s will somehow realizes itself in the military fortunes of their state. Somehow-it remains enigmatic how … Only war … decides this.” The consequence is a compulsion to absolutize political struggle as the sole ground of identity. Accordingly, for the nations of the world, not only some war, but all war as such is seen as holy war—a Glaubenskrieg. All war is regarded as a war unto death; that is, all war is an existential war that proves and does not merely preserve the life of the nation.
Rosenzweig’s vision of stateconduct owed more than a little to the philosophy of Hobbes, for whom nature and war were identical. If followed, however, that The Star can sustain only the most attenuated hope for the realization of peace through history, and it must seek true peace elsewhere than history, in a rarefied and supernatural existence. The Star thus introduced a second principle, which offers a glimpse of redemption beyond the vale of disenchantment. But this second principle found its realization only in the Jews. As illustration, consider the following section of the book, entitled “World Peace”:
As against the life of the nations of the world, constantly involved in a holy war, the Jewish people has left its holy war behind in its mythical antiquity. Hence, whatever wars it experiences are purely political wars. But since the concept of a holy war is engrained in it, it cannot take these wars seriously [so fomn es sie nicht … ernst nehmen] as against the peoples of antiquity, to whom such a concept was alien. In the whole Christian world [which is the modern world], the Jew is actually the sole human being who cannot take war seriously [and, therefore] this makes him the only genuine pacifist. [It follows that] he experiences the perfection of community in his spiritual year [and remains apart from] the worldly measurement of time [weltliche Zeitrechnung] which is accepted as the principle common to the world at large. [The Jew alone] does not wait for world history to unroll its long course to let him gain what he feels he already possesses in the circuit of every year: the event [Eretgnis] of the “immediacy [of God] in the perfect community of all with God [die Unmittelbarkeit aller Einzelnen zu Gott in der vollkommenen Gemeinschaft Aller mit Gott] (Rosenzweig, 1993: 368 [SE]; 1985: 331 [E]).
At the core of Rosenzweig’s philosophy we find the striking juxtaposition of two principles:
1) First, politics presents a spectacle of mere violence and ruin. The nation-state is that political being for which its very being is always at issue. Since it is prone to corruption and decline, it is always on the verge of vanishing into nothingness. It therefore stakes its very existence in war and cannot help but indulge the fantasy that martial victory will be a sign of divine election. All politics is falsely construed as theological politics.
2) Yet, second, in Judaism we find the embodiment of eternal peace. The Jewish collective is a nonpolitical being, an essence for which its existence is always at issue but eternally assured. As the beloved of God, the Jewish nation enjoys the gift of authentic election: it experiences God as proximity and with an “immediacy” that sets it apart from its historical surroundings. It is unlike all other nations in that it can sustain within its bounds a mode of temporality that anticipates the end of history and is distinct from the temporality of the world. “The Jewish people,” writes Rosenzweig, “has already reached the goal toward which the nations are still moving” (Rosenzweig, 1993: 368-9 [SE]; 1985: 331-2 [E]). It alone bears within itself “that inner unity of faith and life which, while Augustine may ascribe it to the Church in the form of the unity between fides and solus, is still no more than a dream to the nations within the Church” (Rosenzweig, 1993: [SE]; 1985: 331-2 [E]).
These are the two defining principles of Rosenzweig’s political theology, juxtaposed, starkly distinct, perhaps even incommensurable. But they are both necessary, since the second gains its very meaning in contrast to the first. As Rosenzweig explains, the Jewish nation alone, since it already possesses that unity, can exist, as it were, “outside of the world for which that unity remains only a dream.” It lives in a condition of “eternal peace” but “outside of a time agitated by war.” Because “it has reached the goal which it anticipates in hope, it cannot belong to the procession of those who approach that goal through the labor of centuries. For the Jewish soul, which lives “replete with the vision granted by hope,” “the labor, the deed, and the struggle for the sake of the world has died off.” The holiness of the Jewish nation “incapacitates it from devotion to a still-unholy world” (Rosenzweig, 1993: 368 [SE]; 1985: 332 [E]).
Rosenzweig’s portrait of the Jewish condition is admittedly both mystifying and unfamiliar. We are far more accustomed to looking upon Judaism as a religion immersed in historical time. The Hebrew Bible is a record of ongoing struggle, politically between the Jewish people and their neighbors, and theologically between the Jewish people and God. Both of these struggles assume the form of a narrative that unfolds through history. And the driving assumption of this entire narrative is that history is a theater for the realization on earth of divine justice. This assumption emerges to prominence in the story of Exodus, and it is presented with great rhetorical force in the books of the prophets. Of course, the rabbis later developed a doctrine of exile as a condition of watchful passivity—a life without action, a life of patient expectation for the messianic age. But Rosenzweig made exile constitutive without apparent qualification: the Jews are in their very being, he argues, unhetmlich, or not-at-home. In this sense, exile ceased to be a moment in the Jewish religious narrative. In fact, Rosenzweig is tempted to look upon any concession to theological history as a denial of genuine theology. He feared it will lead to historicism, a mode of thinking which contextualizes and thereby destroys the actuality and immediacy of biblical revelation. Consequently, for Rosenzweig history is evacuated of genuinely theological significance, and against the traditional understanding of the Jews as a people bound to God who acts within history Rosenzweig asserts the modernist vision of history as void of redemptive significance, and casts the Jewish devotion to God as a suprohistoricol condition of complete inaction. “The Jewish people” writes Rosenzweig, “must deny itself active and full participation in the life of the world with its daily, conclusive solving of all contradictions, since any such recognition in the contradictions of today would render it untrue to that ultimate resolution” to which it has pledged itself as the unique and holy community. But for Rosenzweig history is violence and death. The Jewish people, therefore, precisely “in order to keep unharmed the vision of the ultimate community,” “must deny itself the satisfaction which the peoples of the world constantly enjoy in the functioning of their state” (Rosenzweig, 1993: 368-9 [SE]; 1985: 332 [E]).
The structure of Rosenzweig’s argument therefore led him to imagine the stark contrast between historical danger and religious safety. The historical world is one of Hobbesian disorder, while the Jewish religious world is the preserve-in-time of the peace that other nations seek in history, but that will only come to them with history’s end. Of course, it was only natural that those living in danger would resent those who live in safety. “The true eternity of the eternal people,” wrote Rosenzweig, “must always be alien and vexing to the state, and to the history of the world.” But this resentment only validated the Jews’ retreat from politics. It is true that Rosenzweig conceived a marginal role for nation-state violence in the progress toward peace. “In the epochs of world history,” he wrote, “the state wields its sharp sword and carves hours of eternity in the bark of the growing tree of life.” But it carved only upon the bark of this tree, and the carvings are mere hours. By contrast, “the eternal people, untroubled and untouched [unbekummert und unberuhrt], year after year adds ring upon ring to the stem of its eternal life” (Rosenzweig, 1993: 371-2 [SE]; 1985: 334-5 [E]).
It is worth noting that Rosenzweig did not believe this was in any sense an easy condition for the Jews to endure. What is truly significant about their apolitical existence is that on Rosenzweig’s view it left the Jews in a predicament not of radical insularity, but of radical exposure: they were prone to both resentment and persecution, and, because of this exposure, they must discipline themselves to sustain a truth all other nations deny. This qualification is of immense significance, since it underscores the discipline that is required to sustain one’s apolitical faith despite all the currents of political change. As I suggested earlier, Rosenzweig believed that redemption for the Jews is not a political achievement. But it was nonetheless a practice in the midst of political history. It was a mode of life, of ritual and liturgy, that informs a distinctive temporal existence and thereby permits the community to draw back from history without ever effecting a metaphysical departure. It is an attitude of political indifference, an attitude taken toward historical life by human beings who are themselves historical in a deeper sense, since their existence, too, is in life and time. Their distinctive charge, however, is the remain calm in the midst of the disorder:
The power of world history breaks against this quiet life which looks to neither side. [An diesem stillen, ganz seitenblicklosen Leben bncht sich die Macht der Weltgeschichte.] World history may claim, again and again, that its newest eternity is the true eternal. But, over and against all such claims, we see the calm and silent image of our existence [das ruhige, stumme BM unsres Daseins] (Rosenzweig, 1993: 371-2 [SE]; 1985: 334-5 [E]).
This concludes my summary of The Star and its image of Jewish life. Whether this portrait can ultimately be harmonized with traditional Judaism or whether it stands in starkest contradiction to Judaism’s most basic principles is not a question I want to pursue here. Instead, I would like only to note that The Star furnishes a vivid illustration of the contrast between revelation and reason that Strauss later called the “theologico-political predicament.” The contrast implies that political and religious norms are deeply and perhaps incorrigibly opposed. In the ongoing effort by historians, political theorists, and philosophers to pay homage to the vanished world of German Jewry before the Holocaust, there is an understandable desire to elevate them to a status of moral perfection and to assign our protagonists in retrospect only those values we consider most humane. Yet the truth about Rosenzweig’s philosophy is that it denies to Jews any deep responsibility for the broader world. The charge of Jewish life is to announce peace to the nations, not through action but through inaction. The spirit of Utopia, which Rosenzweig, like Ernst Bloch, Walter Benjamin, and so many other German Jews of his generation was seeking in Jewish sources, was in Rosenzweig’s philosophy not a Utopia of politics, but a Utopia without politics.
The Reprisal of Stoicism in Weimar Thought
It may seem uncontroversial to rank Rosenzweig among the most important thinkers in the Jewish tradition of modernist political theology. One may be prompted to ask, however, whether Rosenzweig’s account of the Jewish condition can actually be harmonized with the more ancient impulse toward political responsibility that seems so central to the Jewish historical narrative and the tradition of Jewish political and ethical reasoning articulated by the prophets and in the Talmud. Whether it can or cannot would be a matter for theologians more confident than this author about the proper definitions of the Jewish tradition. But it should perhaps come as no surprise that much of what Rosenzweig ascribed to Judaism in particular in fact bears a striking resemblance to certain principles in Hellenistic philosophy—especially to the ideal of self-possession and freedom from disturbance first articulated by the ancient Stoics.
The comparison will hardly seem exotic or adventitious once we consider that Rosenzweig developed his own concept of the “apolitical” precisely in that moment of theological and political crisis at the beginning of the twentieth century when so many philosophers and social theorists across Central Europe were seized by the new mood of political disenchantment and a new longing for redemption from the staid principles of bourgeois liberalism. This new tenor in both philosophy and politics was not confined to only one end of the political spectrum and its practical-political consequences were not always readily apparent. Indeed, many of these thinkers came to believe that because all prior metaphysical foundations for the political realm were destroyed, the only proper response was a wholesale withdrawal from the political as such. It was in this context that there developed in interwar political philosophy a phenomenon that is perhaps best described as a reprisal of Stoicism. Max Weber believed that an unblinking recognition of the value-relativism and cosmic emptiness of the modern condition demanded of the sociologist a certain kind of personal and intellectual fortitude, a refusal to embrace any of the political ideologies on offer, and, significantly, the strength to resist the consolations of religion as well. Martin Heidegger claimed that humanity is constitutively in flight from the recognition of its own fallenness and that only a courageous confrontation with one’s being-toward-death can bring the individual into his authentic “resoluteness” and thereby save him from his immersion in the public world of chatter (the word Gerede was borrowed from Kierkegaard, whose philosophy enjoyed a new fashion at this time). Carl Schmitt’s theory of sovereignty, too, a decisionism grounded in “nothingness,” reflects the larger neo-Stoic pattern of thought with its characteristic constrast between individual self-possession and public disorder. And a similar contrast can be found in the writings of the young Leo Strauss, whose nascent political theory was born from the political traumas of the Weimar Republic.
Let us recall that Strauss, who did so much to champion the return to classical political philosophy in the later twentieth century, dedicated his 1930 Spinoza’s Critique of Religion, to the memory Franz Rosenzweig. It is therefore surprising to find in the first chapter that Strauss traces the origins of a critique of religion not to Jewish sources but to the Stoic and Epicurean ideal of tranquility. Cleanthes the Stoic, Strauss writes, believed that religion is born from fear of calamity, such as lightening, earthquakes, comets, and so forth. And Lucretius believed we can be freed of fear if we trace such phenomena to their natural causes. According to Strauss, ataraxia is therefore the ancient foundation for modern atheism. It is “originally defined by opposition to religion,” since religion is opposed for the sake of human peace of mind. But, between the ancient ideal and its modern expression, Strauss argues, the Stoic ideal of tranquility underwent a strange metamorphosis: the calm once located in the contemplation of nature is now extinguished, so ataraxia for the modernist is merely strength in the face of nothingness. This was the moral lesson embedded, for example, in Heidegger’s 1929 lecture “Was istMetaphysik.” And although Strauss declared himself an unremitting opponent of such nihilistic currents, his work shares with Weimar political theology the deeper assumption-that politics and philosophy stand incorrigibly opposed and that the political is a realm of danger necessarily subordinate to philosophical insight or religious-metaphysical knowledge. Indeed, it is this distinction that characterizes so many of the exponents of Weimar-era political theology. But we must not neglect to notice its defining paradox: that this tradition of political theology rests upon a profound apoliticism, animated by the reality of, or at least the memory of, religion.
Arendt and the Critique of Apoliticism
How are we to assess this inheritance today? A possible attraction of this philosophy is that it allows us to sustain in thought a momentary detachment from all claims to sovereignty. The Hebraic conviction that only God is sovereign becomes the liberal conviction that all worldly monarchs should be regarded with suspicion. The apolitical concept of utopia would therefore seem a precondition for political resistance. One danger of this philosophy, however, is that all of the important distinctions we are customarily required to make within political reality-between political justice and injustice, between just and unjust war-are rendered null and void from the Jewish point of view. We lose sight of what Michael Walzer has called “the moral reality of war,” since that moral reality is supplanted by the cold realism that tells us to abandon all hope, since war is a truth beyond differential judgment. Rosenzweig’s theological hope, in other words, appears to have as its precondition the thoroughgoing collapse of hope in politics.
When Rosenzweig died in 1929, he did not know that, for Germany and for its Jewish population, as for all of Europe, the possibility of sustaining a moral distinction between just and unjust war would remain one of the most irresistible of historical responsibilities. Rosenzweig, however, drafted an apolitical theology that sees in politics only ruin and seeks redemption wholly otherwise than politics. It is unclear, however, whether this sort of redemption is really a solution to political nihilism or merely presupposes its validity.
To be sure, there are many ways to insist upon the priority of the “apolitical.” Not all of them appeal-overtly, at least-to theological images of an apolitical Utopia. The Weimar-era turn against politics could also manifest itself as a mandarin retreat into “culture” (for example, Thomas Mann’s conservative manifesto of 1918, Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen) or high-aestheticism (the GeorgeKreis), not to mention the paradoxically “antipolitical” character of National Socialism itself, which Peter Viereck memorably if somewhat tendentiously termed “metapolitics” (Viereck, 1941). But one could argue that such modes of Utopian antipolitics share a common root in the need to establish distinctions (Kultur and Zivilisation; Kunst and Alltag; Freund and Feind) all of which recapitulate, and (if we believe Durkheim) preserve the logic of, the ancient distinction between sacred and profane. And in this logic lies the strange contradiction, that Weimar political theology first emerged out of a profound fear of, and contempt for, politics.
To this apolitical inheritance Arendt’s political theory offers a dramatic alternative. No doubt her response to Weimar political theology drew its greatest inspiration from Heidegger and his so-called destruction of “onto-theology”: the metaphysical doctrine that ascribed both the highest reality and the highest good to a supersensible entity (such as God, Platonic Forms, and so forth). In her introductory remarks to The Life of the Mind she explained in a Heideggerian vein that, after Nietzsche’s proclamation of the “death of God” it was no longer possible to sustain the metaphysical subordination of sensory to supersensory truths: “What is ‘dead’ is not only the localization of such ‘eternal truths’ but also the distinction itself” (Arendt, 1977: 10; quoted in Villa, 2001: 283). But whereas Heidegger turned away from publicity as a sphere dominated by the anonymity of social conformity and ontological “forgetting,” Arendt developed a distinctively nonmetaphysical account of the public world. As many critics as diverse as Leo Strauss and Jacques Derrida have observed, Heidegger’s own distinction between social inauthenticity and authentic “being-one’s-Self” unwittingly recapitulates the metaphysics of higher and lower orders his philosophy was supposed to vanquish. Arendt’s theory of the political (notwithstanding its troublesome features, such as the notorious subordination of labor to speech) seems to have emerged from her conscious rejection of any such quasi-theological distinctions.
The beginnings of this recognition can be discovered as early as Arendt’s 1929 dissertation on Saint Augustine’s concept of love, which issues in the frustrated conclusion that neighborly love (cantos) for Augustine is never wholly accepted since however necessary it may be for the earthly city, the love of one’s neighbor is never “for his own sake” since it remains “a mere passage for the direct relation to God himself” (Arendt, 1996: 111). Here one can already discern the beginnings of Arendt’s turn away from the doctrines of theological immediacy and Stoic withdrawal that so captivated her contemporaries, both Jewish and Christian. An unqualified devotion to the human inhabitants of “this world” seemed to demand the eclipse of theological love and its correlative principle that there is a higher “knowledge” to which worldly affairs remain subordinate. With this conclusion, Arendt could not accept the cardinal distinction of Weimar political theology between the City of God and the City of Man. For what distinguished Arendt from Strauss was her cardinal belief that politics could only come into its own once it abandoned the philosophical search for eternal verities and embraced without regret the realm of doxa and appearance. With the end of onto-theology-thus Arendt from a 1954 lecture—”the philosopher left behind him the claim to being ‘wise’ and knowing eternal standards for the perishable affairs of the City of Man.” Far from regarding this condition as a tragedy, however, Arendt welcomed the collapse of religion and its entire metaphysical structure as an absolute prerequisite for authentic political action.
It is not surprising that so much of Arendt’s mature political theory-especially The Human Condition-articulates a vigorous protest against the philosophical-theological traditions (both Stoic and Christian) that elevated “apolitia” to a privileged ranking as the only precinct from which to behold metaphysical absolutes. As Arendt explained, “the philosopher’s experience of the eternal … can occur only outside the realm of human affairs.” It followed that, since “to die is the same as to ‘cease to be among men,'” then “experience of the eternal is a kind of death” (Arendt, 1958: 20). The paradoxical insight that governs Arendt’s rejoinder to political theology is that if God is truly dead then so, too, is the authoritative philosopher who claims to speak of divine truths. Politics is alive only when “the eternal” ceases to have political meaning.
A similar argument runs through the somewhat earlier manuscript first drafted in 1954 and published posthumously under the title “Philosophy and Politics” (Arendt, 1990). It would not be wrong to consider this lecture a key to Arendt’s political theory overall. Here again one encounters the distinction (familiar to both Rosenzweig and Strauss) between religious-philosophical certitude and public life. But the order of priority is now reversed. The public realm is no longer judged from the perspective of the unworldly philosopher (for which Plato serves as archtype) whose business is the contemplation of “eternal things.” Instead, Arendt insists that the political is necessarily and properly a space of opinion (doxa) and the proper mode of political discourse is persuasion rather than metaphysical knowledge. The Platonist wrongly expects that eternal truths be somehow manifest in politics and when they do not he is tempted to condemn politics as a space of darkness and ignorance, the shadow world of the cave. But this conclusion follows only if one shares the Straussian expectation that politics be infused with religious-philosophical insight. Nothing is more characteristic of Arendt’s antimetaphysical manner of thinking about public life than her rejection of this guiding premise of political theology:
Absolute truth, which would be the same for all men and therefore unrelated, independent of each man’s existence, cannot exist for mortals. For mortals the important thing is to make doxa truthful, to see in every doxa truth and to speak in such a way that the truth of one’s opinion reveals itself to oneself and to others. On this level, the Socratic “I know that I do not know” means no more than: I know that I do not have the truth for everybody, I cannot know the other fellow’s truth except by asking him and thereby learning his doxa, which reveals itself to him in distinction from all others (Arendt, 1990: 85).
To the question-“by what higher measure is politics to be judged?”Arendt’s response was to insist that this was a question mal posée in so far as we should instead come to recognize the modern polis as a space of appearances with its own wholly secular norms of justice-norms, that is, no longer contrasted to an ostensibly higher theologico-philosophical reality. Feeling no need to invoke the voice of God, Arendt was content to say that “conscience” was itself a wholly mundane phenomenon generated in and through human relations:
For the problem of conscience, in a purely secular context, without faith in an all-knowing and all-caring God who will pass a final judgment on life on earth, this question is indeed decisive. It is the question whether conscience can exist in a secular society and play a role in secular politics. And it is also the question whether morality as such has an earthly reality. Socrates’ answer is contained in his frequently reported advice: “Be as you would like to appear to others,” that is, appear to yourself as you would want to appear if seen by others” (Arendt, 1990: 87).
One might be tempted to conclude that Arendt considered the voice of conscience as a secular analogue to the “voice of God.” But we should take care to acknowledge that her political theory aims to emancipate politics as a space of appearances and to deny vigorously its need for any and all metaphysical supports.
The legacy of Weimar political theology as articulated by Strauss (and Rosenzweig, though his influence on Strauss is only infrequently noted) continues to exert a powerful hold on modern political theory, and especially so in recent years. But it is rare that readers of Arendt’s political theory recognize how consciously and consistently she rejected the political-theological legacy of her German-Jewish contemporaries. Strauss feared that when humanity was faced with a loss of normative foundation, the inevitable consequence would be political nihilism. But this fear, as Arendt recognized, was born from the expectation that politics requires an absolute ground. And this expectation itself, Arendt implied, is only intelligible as an inheritance of religion.
It is only given this theological background that the disappointment of theological certitude is experienced as a cosmic trauma: the revelation that God is dead. Among Arendt’s most salutary insights was that political theology only holds us in its grip if we bring to politics an expectation of metaphysical or “eternal” peace of a sort that worldly politics seems forever unable to satisfy. That such hopes have a powerful history-from Augustine’s city of God to Rosenzweig’s redeemed community-seems undeniable. And Strauss, notwithstanding his personal atheism, persisted in speaking of a theologico-political predicament only because he believed philosophers strive through reason for the same sort of foundational certitude as religious believers receive from divine instruction. For Arendt, however, the political could only come into its own if it denied the possibility of political appeals to absolute certainty. To follow Arendt in this precept would seem to require that we dissolve the theologico-political predicament by leaving behind the theological requirement of absolute standards upon which it depends. But we can only do so if we come to accept-without fear-a public world without metaphysical revelation. And only then can we at last embrace what Arendt called the political as the highest realization of the human condition.