What Is Political Theology, Exactly?

Auctoritas non veritas facit legem. Notoriously, this pick-up line was enough to start Carl Schmitt’s lifelong infatuation with Thomas Hobbes. Auctoritas is a personal quality; more than legal or constitutional authority, it signifies cloutAuctoritas is the unimpeachable nobility of the heroic age. It is unquestionable; one can struggle against auctoritas but never impeach it. The sovereignty of ancient Rome was vested in the auctoritas of the Senate. The reality of auctoritas distinguishes Schmitt’s juridical views from the legal positivism of his rival, Hans Kelsen. In Carl Schmitt: The End of Law, William Scheuerman makes the dictinction:

Although Schmitt’s critique of legal positivism at first seems to share many of the concerns of natural-law based jurisprudence, his argument is thus ultimately quite distinct: because core elements of political experience are supranormative, legitimacy ultimately can refer to nothing more than the efficacy of a particular set of political power holders or decision makers. Here, legitimacy is essentially a question of power. (68)

Schmitt’s juridical theory is positivism plus auctoritas. Unlike the Roman Senate, modern liberals identify auctoritas with the interpreters of law — the courts — rather than the makers of law.  In Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution, she proposes that Hamilton, Madison, and the framers of the United States Constitution made a conscious decision to invest the judiciary rather than the United States Senate with auctoritas. The demise of unquestionable auctoritas in the modern age has inundated the political. Agonistic combat has been replaced by the constant questioning of the clase discutadora. A deadly combination of politeness and police has atrophied the political. Pierre Manent begs to differ in his new book Metamorphoses of the City: “In reality, a representative democracy, a parliamentary regime that functions, constitutes an admirable articulation of actions on words.” (10)

Schmitt is well-known as the contemporary figure who coins the now-popular term “political theology”, but it can be confusing to connect his wider juridical project to his famous dictum that modern political concepts are secularized theological ones. I have spent a long time thinking about Schmitt backwards. Political theology is an attempt to resurrect Schmitt’s political. It is not a justification of theological politics, like an argument for liberation theology or Catholic social teaching. Political theology can be understood by moderns so long as divine authority functions as a metaphor for auctoritas. Political theology is a postliberal exploration of the sources of authoritas, a domain of myth and metaphor. In Politics Without Vision, Tracy Strong explains the connection:

It is central to Schmitt’s understanding of political theology that the experience of politics requires a theology to be viable — that is, politics must rely on a source of authority that has the quality of being beyond question. I do not mean that people may not resist it — but that is different than calling it into question. For something to be beyond question means that one must find that authority in oneself such that one can do no other than acknowledge its claims. We live, however, in an age for which a transcendental source of authority is not available. The unquestionable must, thus, be this-worldly. To speak in these circumstances of a political theology thus means to speak of a politics in which it is held that problems cannot be resolved by universally agreed-on procedures. The justification of a policy cannot be made in person-neutral terms; it must and can only be made authoritatively. If the liberal dream is the rule of law and not of men, then political theology says this is a vain dream. A central question of a political theology must be, therefore, the status of the authority on the basis of which decisions are taken. (225)



One response to “What Is Political Theology, Exactly?

  1. Very interesting. It seems that Schmitt’s political theology also has to do with the political subject. In the final chapter of *PT* he argues that every political theory is built upon (at times covertly theological) assumptions about human nature. He sees the clash between anarchism and authoritarianism as a sort of distorted modern spin on the Pelagian-Augustinian debate. Simon Critchley takes up this aspect of Schmitt’s project in *The Faith of the Faithless.*

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