Icarus’s Lost Paradise
When you think of philosophy in the early half of the twentieth century, those who are aware of its history will tell you that there were three schools of thought, famous during that period; Liberalism, Marxism and Fascism. All of these ideas were about to shape the coming century, but none was more controversial and revolutionary than the rising tide of Nazism in Germany and Fascism in Italy. One, anti-democracy and the other, anti-parliamentary.
Discussing these subjects are seen as somewhat of a taboo in today’s day and age, as these ideologies were responsible for the deaths of millions of innocent people all around the world. Today, we see such ideas being followed, mostly, by skinheads wearing leather jackets and on motorcycles. So how did we come to this?
As Walter Benjamin once said, “behind every fascism there is a failed revolution”.
Amongst the creators of this revolution was a man, whose ideas still work as an undercurrent of the extreme right and left-wing politics. Owing to his past, he is not fully appreciated but nevertheless, cannot be entirely ignored in modern-day philosophy. Carl Schmitt, a German philosopher and professor, was a card-carrying member of the Nazi party. He supported the Jewish book burnings, concentration camps, and until his death in 1985, refused to go through denazification. This is the reason for his loss in oblivion.
His ideas were an amalgamation of theology, philosophy, and political theory. He is considered to represent both the thesis and antithesis of western thought; like his preached ideology, he is seen as a mixture of the Roman legend of Icarus who, with his wings of wax, flew too close to the sun and died, and the embodiment of Satan from John Milton’s Paradise Lost. The fallen angel who would not accept the creation of man and thus, was banished to the depths of Tartarus, only here, his pandemonium (Satan’s castle) is not built of glass, but of ideas.
So now comes the important question, was Schmitt an angel, like Lucifer, who thought he was wronged and hence, it is okay to completely overlook this problem-child of a philosophy and leave him in the shadows of history? Or, should his tale be a lesson for us all and help understand the good, bad, and ugly that are present in his ideology; to find out, like in the tale of Icarus, if the lesson is not to go too close to the sun, or is it to make your wings so strong, that they don’t get burned.
Schmitt and Political Theology
Image Credits: The National Interest/ warstore.co.uk
In the beginning of the twentieth century, people started finding alternatives to liberal politics, the most famous school of thought, from the period of the Enlightenment. In many of his lectures after the Great War, Schmitt started to see the impotency of a liberal discourse and criticised it from multiple viewpoints. He had started to identify the flaws of this idea in his book on Political Romanticism and later, explained it further in his book, Political Theology, which was published after the Second World War. This was a kind of prefix for his work but showed his leanings.
He said that liberalism is a political theatre which is played for gaining the trust of people but, in truth, is not effective. The reason he believed more radical action needed to be taken was that after the first War Germany, Schmitt’s homeland, was under huge debt and had lost large amounts of its land and wealth. This is where we can see the emergence of a disdain towards this school of thought building in the eyes of common people as well. Many thought that a radical approach was required and Liberalism, in Schmitt’s eye, did not give a sufficient solution to the problem. It was merely fooling people into believing that everything was okay, when the entire country was on fire.
His worldview was very similar to Thomas Hobbes’s, who is considered one of the founding fathers of modern philosophy and civil society. Hobbes faced a similar problem after the British civil war in 1639 and later, in his book Leviathan he famously said, “ life in its natural state is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. He believed that a civil society and a stable, organised authority, can hold together the wearing down tendencies of the catholic society. This is the pessimistic worldview that helps Schmitt to build on his ideas which he discussed in his book The Leviathan in the State Theory of Thomas Hobbes helped him create the term “Political Theology”. According to him, all political judgments were theology, pretending to be a solution to all the problems in a society.
This is the reason he is seen as a post-liberal intellectual. As he started to create an ideology, influenced by the ideas and structures created by people like Saint Augustine and other missionaries of the Christian churches. He thought that in the new philosophy of the Western Canon, there was no clear division of sin and purity and are in a state of limbo because of this, he divided his theology into two parts: the first, was called Public Theology, which was the basic doctrine one is about to preach; the second, Political Theology, where people from all parts of society- trade unions, activists and politicians, needed to join hands to spread one message and give definition to what they are battling against.
For him, liberalism was just putting a false mask of democracy on people, preaching everyone is equal and because of this, people are completely cut off and disinterested in the process of the political; they are relaxed, without having a sense of distrust against the government, which is necessary. Even after the French Revolution, there was a rise of a dictatorship under Napoleon, to create stability. When Schmitt wrote this during that time, the majority of countries were under some form of dictatorship and he thought this was the way to go. But his ideas were also seen by many as an antithesis of Christian philosophy as it tended to scapegoat other people rather than welcoming them into the community.
The Concept of the Political
Till now, all these ideas that Schmitt talked about form the foundation on which his pandemonium stood and from there on, turned into the kind of monster we know today. Schmitt realised that there are three major components that helps a country grow and all three of them are the part of the Political: conflict and inequality; distinction between friends and enemies; and sovereignty
First, he talked about how humans are inherently evil. He completely agreed with Thomas Hobbes’s analysis that without social structures, society would collapse. Many Liberals and Marxists also agreed with this analysis, but the difference came when Marxists suggested that these class structures needed to be broken down for the creation of a just utopia or liberalism suggesting that the government needs to improve their daily lives step by step. Schmitt said that it would be foolish to even attempt this as things will always remain the same and it would miss the whole point of the political. A government's job is not to change these situations but to use them to fill people up with what is necessary which, in his eyes, is nationalism and survival instincts, so they can create much stronger nations and identities. As British poet Alfred Tennyson wrote in The Charge of the Light Brigade, ‘Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do and die’. Which explains this view of national identity as so essential, as it was in the eyes of Schmitt, for everyone to have.
The second part of this inferno, for Schmitt, is the clear distinction between friends and enemies. According to him, if there is no rivalry, it would lead the society to the brink of a civil war and to maintain this social order, there needs to be a scapegoat through which people can show a sense of comradeship, which is a necessity. As he once said, “Show me your enemies and l will tell you the kind of person you are”.
Think of the image which Cervantes wrote about in his epic Don Quixote when Don and his sidekick Sancho were riding on a horse towards the windmills thinking they were giant monsters, to show their chivalry, and turning into a complete and ludicrous mockery of the idea. But when it takes darker turns, we also see how, in Germany this scapegoating spread in the most erudite groups of people. More than half of all the German physicians became early joiners of the Nazi Party, surpassing the party enrollments of all other professions.
In an article by Ashley k. Fernandes on Why did doctors become nazis? she says, “the German Medical Society played the most instrumental role in the Nazi medical program.
A key component of Nazi thought was to rid Germany of those deemed economic drains on the State, a fear rooted in the bitter economic experience after the First World War, having little to do with contemporary debates about science, medicine, or technology. Nazi ideological and historical rationalizations (beliefs about Social Darwinism, eugenics, and the social organism as sacred)”.
Carl Schmitt (right) and Ernst Jünger at Lake Rambouillet (1941)
Image Credits: stopptdierechten.at
Everything was up for grabs and nobody wanted to miss this tectonic shift which was being driven by the concept of the other. Even poets like T.S Eliot in The Waste Land, showed sympathy for this cause. Ezra Pound, in his epic poem collection of Cantos poem 81,
“pull down my vanity”, talked about a capitalist system being controlled by a Jewish upper class.
Now, one might think, how did people not realise how harmful and evil this idea was and why they still followed it?
To solve this problem, we can look at the famous theory given by Hannah Arendt after seeing the trail of Adolf Eichmann for being a part of the “final solution”. She said that he was being unoriginal, and if we follow Eichmann’s defence, he confesses to merely have followed orders in the spirit of the laws he carried out, as the legislator would approve. In Kant's formulation of the Categorical Imperative, the legislator is the moral self, and all people are legislators; in Eichmann's formulation, the legislator was Hitler. Eichmann claimed that this changed when he was charged with carrying out the Final Solution, at which point Arendt claims "he had ceased to live according to Kantian principles, that he had known it, and that he had consoled himself with the thoughts that he no longer 'was master of his own deeds,' that he was unable 'to change anything'. Arendt in her thesis says that Eichmann was not really a fanatic or a sociopath, but instead an extremely average and mundane person who relied on clichéd defenses rather than thinking for himself, was motivated by professional promotion rather than ideology, and believed in success which he considered the chief standard of "good society”. It does not suggest that he wasn’t evil, but he got used to the situation so much that he didn’t think too much into the morality of it. This is called “the banality of evil” and later, Stanley Milgram, in his famous The Milgram Experiment, proved again that once the subjects got used to following orders and were ready to do what is asked of them, it showed that ordinary people could commit horrible acts of causing pain to others.
Finally, all this was being done to achieve the goal of sovereignty in which ultimate power would lay in the hands of authorities or a figure which would lead the ideas of the Political,
so there is a strong sense of stability and unity in the society. He writes in broad strokes, but makes it quite clear of his fondness for dictatorships. He believed that even the biggest democratic institutions use special powers to take complete control in a state of emergency and it is necessary to take control of a country which is on the brink of extinction like Germany.
In the classic Russian novel, The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky, there is a chapter called ‘The Grand Inquisitor’ where Christ comes back to Earth, in Seville, at the time of the Inquisition. He performs a number of miracles (echoing miracles from the Gospel). The people recognize him and adore him at the Seville cathedral, but he is arrested by Inquisition leaders and sentenced to be burnt to death the next day. The Grand inquisitor visits him in his cell to tell him that the Church no longer needs him. The main portion of the text is devoted to the Inquisitor explaining to Jesus, why his return would interfere with the mission of the Church. The Inquisitor thus implies that Jesus, in giving humans the freedom to choose for themselves, has excluded the majority of humanity from redemption and doomed it to suffer. This is the kind of social structure Schmitt claimed he was trying to break and yet, in his work, he criticised the liberal discourse for being nothing but a fantasy. In turn, he created an ideology where the main mission was based on the division of authority which has one mission- to always create the factor of the “other” in the minds of the people, no matter what happens, so the wheels keep turning.
It almost reminds one of Shakespeare’s play Coriolanus, which incidentally was taught in literature classes in Nazi Germany, about a Roman general who united Italy in battle and helped as a chief architect of the Roman Empire, but hated democracy. The people he protects tell the senate that they are allowing ‘crows to peck the eagles'.
So l see his ideology as a fugu fish which is a very poisonous Japanese dish. One needs a bit of training to eat it but is very nutritious if eaten in a proper manner. We can see the bad that Schmitt’s ideas brought upon the world, but must also look at the various factors he touched upon in a world becoming more sectarian. It is important to study the works which are at its undercurrent.
By Vishesh Chaudhary
Vishesh Chaudhary is a first year student of sociology who is a resident of the city of Ghaziabad, He is interested in politics and our society. He wishes to understand how this society is functioning in today’s time which he views as a spider web.