Leo Strauss and Carl Schmitt:
an unfair appraisal


    Heinrich Meier, Carl Schmitt and Leo Strauss, Chicago, 1995.

Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political, translation and notes by  George Schwab, comments by Leo Strauss, Rutgers, 1976.



Let me start off by saying that I think that, to a degree, the neocons have gotten a bum rap. The idea that they advocate lying is highly exaggerated. Everyone active in politics knows that you can’t say the same thing to everyone you talk to, and that no matter how successful you are, you’re sure to end up disappointing some of your supporters. Partly this is because the various groups of citizens make various kinds of unreasonable demands, and partly it’s just from the difficulty of communicating fairly complex ideas quickly to large, diverse groups under conditions of great uncertainty. Even Lincoln and Gandhi lied.  Furthermore, in the context of recent American history, the neocons’  geopolitical and militarist ventures -- though I disagree with them --  are also quite ordinary. PNAC is just a small upgrade, American Imperialism 4.3 or so.

Nonetheless, I find the Leo Strauss of the Schmitt/Strauss dialogue to be completely repellent. It does not seem to me that Germany in 1932 was the right time or place to engage in a deep and thoroughgoing critique of liberalism. (Liberalism here is broadly defined in the European style, according to which Milton Friedman is more liberal than a  liberal Democrat is). What little I know about the last days of the Weimar Republic tells me that the Germany of that time was torn by two savagely illiberal groups, left and right, and that the centrist supporters of the Republic were weak and unenthusiastic. Given what we know about subsequent history, it seems that the lesson there should have been that both the illiberal forces were monstrous, and that the liberal forces (mostly Social Democrats) deserved support. But to Strauss and many  other learned Germans (Schmitt, Heidegger, Adorno) the lesson was that liberalism had failed.  Shouldn’t the conclusion have been that it was Germany which had failed -- mostly because of the illiberalism of the Germans, especially the intelligentsia?

Schmitt is a piece of work. As I reconstruct his argument, it goes something like this: Liberalism is value-neutral and the liberal state mostly tries to satisfy the various private demands of its citizens. In a liberal regime, differences are dealt with by negotiation and compromise, rather than by the imposition of the right solution. Thus, fundamental values are absent from a liberal regime. If fundamental values arise, then non-negotiable differences arise too, and so there is then violent struggle and killing. Once there is killing, then there is the possibility of ethics and seriousness. Thus war and killing are the source of all ethics. (Schmitt had an apparent horror of peace, happiness, and equality, all of which make people less serious.)[i]

So what is Strauss’s response? Basically, Strauss says that Schmitt’s critique of liberalism should have been more radical. First, he explains that Schmitt misread Hobbes, who was really a liberal. Second, he explains that Schmitt’s misreading of Hobbes ends up making it impossible for him to escape from liberalism, so that Schmitt’s critique of liberalism was still itself liberal.  Finally, Strauss differentiates his purely philosophical critique of liberalism from Schmitt's theological critique.

In 1932, couldn’t Strauss simply have at least said that liberalism was better than the actually available alternatives?[ii] Couldn’t he have criticized the Nazi-to-be Schmitt a bit more sharply? (As I understand The Concept of the Political, there was no way that Schmitt would not have become a Nazi). Couldn’t Strauss have said that Schmitt  was egregiously stacking the cards and begging the question when he proved to his own satisfaction that without  killing and war (the friend-enemy distinction) there can be no ethics or values? In Schmitt’s terminology, shouldn’t Strauss have been willing to make an Enemy out of Schmitt, instead of discreetly and respectfully critiquing him?[iii]

Granted, Strauss needed Schmitt’s recommendation to escape Germany, but he kept sending letters to Schmitt after he’d escaped. He seemed baffled that his letters were not answered by the Nazi Schmitt; it may well be that he was not yet aware that Schmitt had joined the party, but few others were surprised when Schmitt did so, and more than one person told Strauss not to try to contact Schmidt. (One of Strauss’s 1933 letters to Schmitt asks for an introduction to the French anti-Semite and rightist Charles Maurras, who ended up being condemned to death -- and then reprieved -- as a Nazi collaborator).

As with Adorno and even Wittgenstein[iv], the Germanness of Schmitt and Strauss jump out at me. In Schmitt you hear the whining of the poor Germans who’d been abused by the mean, self-righteous, pacifist, humanitarian, internationalist, liberal Allies. (Strauss, also a German but an anti-Nazi by accident of birth, doesn’t argue).  Both in Schmitt and in Strauss you can hear the “seriousness” sanctified by Prussian and Austrian military castes: Duty and Struggle and Suffering and Death and so on. In Schmitt you also have the same old metaphysics whereby any difference becomes an “opposition” to be resolved by a death-struggle.[v]

If "Tthe Fundamental" comprises original sin, the state of nature, war, and killing, and if seriousness can only be found in facing death and killing your enemies, perhaps seriousness and The Fundamental are things to avoid to the extent possible. Perhaps the best philosophies and governments are the unserious, liberal, pragmatic ones which keep the fundamental at a distance and use various expedients and patches to postpone Armageddon for as long they can. (As Prigogine has shown, all life here on earth is just a transient -- a far-from-equilibrium state which will ultimately be erased in in heat death of the universe.)

My criticism hits Schmitt more sharply than Strauss, but from the evidence it seems clear that in 1932-4 Strauss was also dead serious in his determination to reach The Fundamental and to transcend liberalism. It doesn’t seem that his respect for liberalism increased much, either, when a liberal society (i.e. "regime") saved his life. At one point during his American career he did profess a great admiration for Abraham Lincoln, but I think that there are good reasons why he did not do an exegesis of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. There is just no way that “Government of the people, by the people, and for the people” can be translated into Straussian.

I've wondered whether these two books might not be a good place to begin for those who don't understand yet what the problem is with seriousness, deep thinking, and the quest for The Fundamental. I suppose not.  I was already well along that path when I picked them up, and they  they merely reinforced my existing inclination to devote myself to the study of obscure, decadent, frivolous French minor poets.


Alan Wolfe on Schmitt

Xenos’ piece about Strauss

Schmitt as Inquisitor

Interview with Drury (“The bitch from Calgary”) about her Strauss book

Piccone (a leftist) defends Schmitt in Telos

The weirdness of Telos

Mark Lilla NYRB links: two 2004 Strauss reviews ($$$)

Questia: articles on Leo Strauss

[i] At one point Schmitt rather improbably interprets First Thessalonians 5:2-3 as saying that peace and security are bad things. (Meier, p. 55 fn 57).

[ii] When put on the spot in the 50s or 60s, living in an irremediably liberal society, Strauss finally did say something like that. By  that time, however, almost all actual states were liberal, communist, or  colonial-feudal, so Strauss (as per Straussian principles) was able to blandly evade the question as to what kind of regime he actually preferred.  Liberalism was only the best actually-existing regime.

[iii] One of Meier’s points is that Strauss’s critique of Schmitt was telling enough that some of the major changes Schmitt made in the 1933 edition of his essay can be shown to have been responses to it. This doesn’t really strike me as something to brag about – Schmitt’s other revisions were responses to Hitler’s critique. 

[iv] The inhumaneness of the following passage from Wittgenstein startled me; it actually sounds like Heidegger at his worst:

 “The hysterical fear over the atom bomb being experienced, or at any rate expressed, by the public almost suggests that at last something really salutaryhas been invented. The fright at least gives the impression of a really effective bitter medicine. I can’t help thinking: If this didn’t have something good about it the philistines wouldn’t be making an outcry. But perhaps this too is a childish idea. Because really all I can mean is that the bomb offers a prospect of the end, the destruction, of an evil, - our disgusting soapy water science (ekelhaften seifenwäßrigen wissenschaft). And certainly that’s not an unpleasant thought, but who can say what would come after this destruction? The people making speeches against producing the bomb are undoubtedly the scum of the intellectuals, but even that does not prove beyond question that what they abominate is to be welcomed.” (Culture and Value, tr. Winch, Chicago, 1988, p 48-9, 1946).

[v] Schmitt (pp.26-27) jumps from "distinction" to "other" to "stranger" to "alien" to "negation" to "enemy" -- the last term being the one he needs. He makes a point of saying that the political enemy need not be evil and the political friend need not be good. (How this fits in with his assertion elsewhere that ethics can only be founded on war and killing, I don't know; the amount of ill-intended question-begging here is stunning).

If he had seen a formerly-white house being painted red, Schmitt presumably would have described the event as a death-struggle ending in the annihilation of  whiteness.

I am emersonj at gmail dot com.

Original materials copyright John J Emerson

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