The Cult of Carl Schmitt

Richard Wolin

As a political thinker, the German philosopher Carl Schmitt was enamored of symbols and myths. His biographer has shown that during the 1930s Schmitt was convinced that providing National Socialism with a rational justification was self-contradictory and self-defeating. The alternative that was conceived by Schmitt, a conservative who was an eminent member of the Nazi Party, was to establish the Third Reich’s legitimacy by means of symbolism and imagery culled from the realms of religion and myth. Schmitt’s attraction to symbols and myths stemmed from his skepticism about the value of “concepts,” which he viewed only instrumentally, as Kampfbegriffe or weapons of struggle. As Schmitt explained, about reading Hobbes’ Leviathan, “we learn how concepts can become weapons.” “Every political concept,” he claimed, “is a polemical concept,” a statement that reflects the essential bellicosity of his thought.

When it came to fathoming the mysteries of human existence, Schmitt insisted that the cognitive value of symbols and myths was far superior to the meager results of conceptual knowledge. This deep mistrust of reason was related to his veneration of “political theology,” which Schmitt introduced into the mainstream of modern political thought. Schmitt’s devaluation of secular knowledge was exemplified by his well-known dictum that “all modern political concepts are secularized theological concepts,” an assertion that reflected his disdain for the legacy of Enlightenment rationalism. That disdain is what has given Schmitt’s thought new life in our own bleak and inflamed times.

Schmitt was born in 1888 and died in 1985. He was a constitutional theorist who wrote brilliant polemics against parliamentary democracy and on behalf of dictatorial rule. He played a prominent role in providing a pseudo-legal justification for the Nazi seizure of power and was a virulent anti-Semite. During the early 1920s, the myth that captured Schmitt’s imagination was the “myth of the nation,” a trope that Mussolini had refashioned into a core precept of Italian fascism. Schmitt explored this theme in 1923 in the concluding pages of The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy. His unabashedly enthusiastic treatment of unreason offers an important clue with respect to his future political allegiances…..