In Leo Strauss’ critique of Carl Schmitt’s Concept of the Political, Strauss takes aim at what Schmitt sees as the fundamental truth underlying politics: the question of the political arises simply because human beings are hardwired for group conflict. And this is so because the mere existence of other people poses a potential threat to one’s own life. Therefore, according to Schmitt, all political discourse is polemical (that is, aimed at one’s friends or enemies) because the political as such is constituted by an amoral state of war between groups. Thus, the political is defined by the potential for war; if the potential for war does not exist, then the situation in question cannot be, strictly speaking, political. From this, Schmitt contends that the basic distinction in politics is friend versus enemy. He derives this from what he believes is a dispassionate examination of human nature and history, and so it is a thesis which does not purport to rest on any normative or moral claims. Put simply, politics is the natural state of man in which he finds himself amongst friend and foe in a world where war is a genuine possibility.
The allure of such a perspective cannot be easily dismissed. That politics can be reduced to an amoral battleground is a notion that certainly has an intuitive ring of truth. It is not difficult to witness the media-driven political divisiveness today and wonder whether anyone really has a grasp on what they are fighting for, fanatical rhetoric notwithstanding. This feeling is palpable particularly to those who have had the sense that something has gone wrong since the political idealism of the 1960s. Indeed, the strange marriage between liberal moralizing and its obsession with method over substance is a heady brew that is more than enough to give one pause over the motives of political action. One is hard pressed to resist the sneaking suspicion that if one looks closely enough, one can see lying behind the zealotry a faint image of a technocratic political regime playing the activist’s passions like a well-strung marionette doll.
But to a growing number of dissenters of various political backgrounds, the modern political paradigm seems to be faltering, perhaps under the weight of its own assumptions. Accordingly, the modern liberal state, which was founded upon the Enlightenment view of the political, seems to be struggling to maintain its hegemony amidst internal pressures and global challengers. Before heading back to Schmitt, it would be prudent to examine the logic of the liberal political paradigm in order to understand what he was reacting to, and how the liberal tradition can be suffocating for modern political thought. The reason for this can be seen as twofold: firstly, the liberal consensus underlying the modern state presumes that the hard work of deriving first principles is complete, that civilization has long since awoken from its Dark Age slumber and therefore the only challenge before us is the technical problem of how to extend the Enlightenment gospel across the globe. It is on this basis that American political scientist Francis Fukayama declared the “end of history” in 1992. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, the foundations of the liberal state rest on a political concept that is fundamentally agnostic towards the things that are of first order; that is, the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. While it is doubtful whether it is possible to construct a system of thought that does not implicitly presuppose these categories, since the time of Thomas Hobbes the political has taken on a pretense of neutrality with regards to the ultimate questions. Taken together, what we have is an all-encompassing political paradigm that sees the ultimate fulfillment of man consisting in the rejection of transcendent truths which have given meaning to human existence from time immemorial.
The modern view of politics and state was conceived in reaction to the religious wars of Europe in the 17th century. Overcome by the violence and destruction of the age, political theorists such as Thomas Hobbes and John Locke sought a vision of the political that reimagined the traditional view of the state. This traditional view saw the cultivation of virtue and the protection of spiritual wisdom as the chief ends of the state. The new conception of the state, the liberal state, envisioned the primary goal of government to be the enforcement of natural rights which would promote peaceful relations, stable commerce, and the pursuit of individual interest. From this perspective, strong convictions about God and the Good were inherently prone to violence, so it seemed more practical to focus on the material concerns that all men share. Thus, while Locke grounded his natural rights theory in God, the purpose of the liberal state from its inception was not to provide an answer to the ultimate questions, but to provide a safe space for individuals to peacefully pursue whatever they please. Questions about what is true, what is good, and what is beautiful gave way to questions about how to best protect property rights, increase individual freedom and increase the material wealth of a nation. This new conception of the political saw the state as an impartial arbiter between competing individual interests and as morally and politically neutral between different ways of living.
But what of liberal moralizing? If the purpose of the state is understood to be a neutral protector of peace and prosperity, on what grounds is tolerance toward different modes of living delimited? The answer is that there is, of course, an ethic that underlies the liberal state, hiding behind its formal neutrality: that which Strauss called “humanitarian-pacifism.” In short, that which is peaceful and agreeable is considered good or at least permissible. From here we get the values of liberty, tolerance, and equality-necessary ingredients for a neutral state based upon the will of the individual. Thus, any view of the world that entails the potential for conflict is bad, for violence by its very nature is incompatible with the right to self-preservation and liberty. What began as agnosticism towards traditional conceptions of the Good took on a life of its own as a guiding ethic for a new kind of civilization. In modern times, we can see this view springing up in contemporary political debates when one sees critics of secularism or globalism being attacked as “divisive,” or when questioning gender ideology is equated with committing violence against a person.
Now let’s get back to Schmitt. In The Concept of the Political, Schmitt wants to assert the reality of the political, understood as man’s natural inclination to identify and fight as a member of a group, over and against the pacifist ideal underlying the liberal state. He sees Thomas Hobbes’ view of the state, conceived as a negation of man’s status naturalis-that is, the state of war-as a misguided negation of the political itself. Strauss, with his unfailing gift for keen observation, notices that Schmitt’s critique of the depoliticization of man is actually rooted in what Schmitt sees as liberalism’s tendency to trivialize that which brings meaning and seriousness to human life. It is liberalism’s pretense of neutrality, the relegating of the moral to private opinion, combined with its penchant for moralizing that Schmitt finds so objectionable. Yet despite this, Schmitt follows this same line of thinking when he describes his concept of politics purely in analytic terms. Schmitt is absolutely convinced that amoral power politics has primacy over morals in human nature because politics is rooted in the concrete reality of survival. This is why he contends that moral prescriptions in liberal societies are ultimately at the service of political considerations just as much as anywhere else. It is also behind his observation that liberal societies must give up their views on peace and tolerance when confronted by groups whom they deem to be dangerous and intolerant. But on the other hand, Schmitt clearly has a preference for what Strauss calls “warlike” morals, and it is this preference that is ultimately guiding his critique of the liberal state.
Therefore, if we accept Schmitt’s pretension to methodological neutrality, we are forced to conclude that he affirms the man of danger and seriousness irrespective of the moral content of what he is fighting for. It is at this point that Strauss has his mic-drop moment: Schmitt is a liberal in wolf’s clothing. For “He who affirms the political as such respects all who want to fight; he is just as tolerant as the liberals-but with the opposite intention: whereas the liberal respects and tolerates all ‘honest’ convictions so long as they merely acknowledge the legal order, peace, as sacrosanct, he who affirms the political as such respects and tolerates all ‘serious’ convictions, that is, all decisions oriented to the real possibility of war. Thus, the affirmation of the political as such proves to be a liberalism with the opposite polarity. And therewith Schmitt’s statement that ‘the astonishingly consistent . . .systematics of liberal thought’ has ‘still not been replaced in Europe today by any other system’ proves to be true.” In revealing Schmitt’s moral critique underlying his concept of the political, Strauss reveals Schmitt’s latent liberalism hidden in his attempted concealment. Schmitt’s feigned neutrality in service of his moral ideals makes him a liberal despite himself.
The implications of Leo Strauss’ critique of Schmitt are significant both for those who are interested in critiquing the foundations of liberalism and for those who wish to understand the nature of politics as such, regardless of political orientation. For Strauss teaches us that the affirmation of either agnostic peace or amoral conflict must both be transcended in order to understand the true nature of the political. Politics begins because of disagreement over what is right; that is, over the disagreement about the nature of the Good. In other words, the grouping of individuals into friends and enemies occurs because there is something valuable worth fighting for. It is not enough to want peace or freedom or to fight against a perceived political enemy, for the question in every case must be asked, for what purpose do we seek peace, agreement, freedom, or war? This is the question of ends rather than means.
According to Leo Strauss, those like Schmitt who are skeptical of liberal agnosticism must make a positive case for the ontological reality of good and evil, rather than merely pointing out the system’s shortcomings and inconsistencies. This is because the liberal state is based on the Hobbesian notion of evil which sees evil as merely animal and therefore innocent and remediable. A politics based on moral realism would place upon the individual a set of moral obligations that would be primary, meaning that they would exist prior to the individual’s right to personal freedom. To have it the other way around, as the modern world does, is to conceive of moral obligation as a fundamental restriction on human flourishing as opposed to a necessary precondition that enables it. Of course, this view of politics would not reject individual freedom altogether, but it would see freedom as one good made possible only after other more fundamental goods have been established.
Looking at the view of moral realism as it relates to politics, questions naturally arise about the specific nature of the Good and how this relates to nationhood. What vision of the Good should we as Americans seek and what does this mean for American identity? Is it possible to reconcile the American constitutional framework with a politics founded upon moral duties that transcend individual liberty? And which moral duties? These kinds of foundational questions are the questions that our chaotic times dictate we answer, as Americans and as those living in the West more broadly. To begin answering them, I would put forward that we must look to our history and religious traditions. But if we want to truly rediscover who we are, we must also go back to where it all started rather than merely rediscovering our traditions that have been lost. We must return to those who began asking the questions of fundamental importance in the first place, that is, we must return to Plato.