Carl Schmitt and Leo Strauss: The Hidden Dialogue

Carl Schmitt and Leo Strauss: The Hidden Dialogue

by Heinrich Meier

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Carl Schmitt was the most famous and controversial defender of political theology in the twentieth century. But in his best-known work, The Concept of the Political, issued in 1927, 1932, and 1933, political considerations led him to conceal the dependence of his political theory on his faith in divine revelation. In 1932 Leo Strauss published a critical


Carl Schmitt was the most famous and controversial defender of political theology in the twentieth century. But in his best-known work, The Concept of the Political, issued in 1927, 1932, and 1933, political considerations led him to conceal the dependence of his political theory on his faith in divine revelation. In 1932 Leo Strauss published a critical review of Concept that initiated an extremely subtle exchange between Schmitt and Strauss regarding Schmitt’s critique of liberalism. Although Schmitt never answered Strauss publicly, in the third edition of his book he changed a number of passages in response to Strauss’s criticisms. Now, in this elegant translation by J. Harvey Lomax, Heinrich Meier shows us what the remarkable dialogue between Schmitt and Strauss reveals about the development of these two seminal thinkers.

Meier contends that their exchange only ostensibly revolves around liberalism. At its heart, their “hidden dialogue” explores the fundamental conflict between political theology and political philosophy, between revelation and reason­and ultimately, the vital question of how human beings ought to live their lives.

“Heinrich Meier’s treatment of Schmitt’s writings is morally analytical without moralizing, a remarkable feat in view of Schmitt’s past. He wishes to understand what Schmitt was after rather than to dismiss him out of hand or bowdlerize his thoughts for contemporary political purposes.”—Mark Lilla, New York Review of Books 

Editorial Reviews

Looks at the subtle dialogue, in the form of book introductions and unacknowledged changes in text, between Schmitt and Strauss on politics and how it relates to the philosophical tradition and to modern society. Includes a new translation of Strauss's classic essay and the first English version of three letters to Schmitt from Strauss. For students of politics, political theory, and philosophy. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (

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Carl Schmitt & Leo Strauss: the Hidden Dialogue

Including Strauss's Notes on Schmitt's Concept of the Political & Three Letters from Strauss to Schmitt

By Heinrich Meier, J. Harvey Lomax

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1995 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-51889-3


Leo Strauss writes little about his contemporaries. With few does he expressly argue. He devotes detailed studies to only three theoreticians during their lifetimes; with only three does he enter into a public discourse or attempt to begin such a discourse — Alexandre Kojève, Martin Heidegger, and Carl Schmitt. Why Carl Schmitt? Why The Concept of the Political? What awakens, what kindles Strauss's special interest? Above all else, it is "the radical critique of liberalism that Schmitt strives for" (N26). It is a critique that Schmitt strives for, yet does not himself bring to a close. For the critique of liberalism that Schmitt undertakes is carried out and remains "in the horizon of liberalism." "His unliberal tendency" is obstructed "by the still unvanquished 'systematics of liberal thought'" (N35) — a systematics that, in Schmitt's own judgment, "despite all setbacks," has "still not been replaced by any other system in Europe today" (70). Put more precisely, what primarily interests Strauss in writing on the Concept of the Political is to complete the critique of liberalism.

This objective interest in the issue, which determines his entire confrontation with Schmitt's thought, leads Strauss not only to place himself into the orbit of Schmitt's strength but to make Schmitt's argument stronger at decisive points — and thus taken as a whole — than it really is. In face of the fundamental difficulty that besets Schmitt's undertaking in a liberal world, Strauss is glad to perform "the critic's duty to pay more attention to what distinguishes Schmitt from the prevailing view than to the respects in which he merely follows the prevailing view" (N6).

How strong Strauss makes Schmitt's position, and in what manner and with what intention he strengthens it, can be inferred from his interpreting Schmitt's theoretical approach as a whole and from the very beginning as an attempt to depart, in an original, logically rigorous, internally consistent way, from the liberal "philosophy of culture." Strauss explains Schmitt's point of departure — his understanding the question of the "essence of the political" (20, 45) from the outset as the question of what is specific to the political, and his demand for a characteristic trait, a criterion — not as resulting from indifference on Schmitt's part to the question of the genus within which the peculiarity of the political must be ascertained, but as deriving from a "deep suspicion of what is today the most obvious answer." Schmitt "pioneers a path to an original answer" "by using the phenomenon of the political to push the most obvious answer ad absurdum." But "what is still today, despite all challenges, the most obvious, genuinely liberal answer" tells us that this genus is "the 'culture,' that is, the totality of 'human thought and action,' which is divided into various, relatively independent domains' [26], into 'provinces of culture' (Natorp)" (N7). The criterion of the political Schmitt specifies as the distinction between friend and enemy, whereby he expressly denies the homogeneity or analogy of that distinction to the "ultimate" distinctions of good and evil "in the domain of the moral," of beautiful and ugly "in the aesthetic domain," of useful and harmful "in the economic domain" (26). Thus his break with the conception of the liberal "philosophy of culture" is by no means limited to a particular "region." By conceiving the political as "independent" but "not in the sense of having its own new domain" (27), he is calling into question, if we are to understand him rightly, the doctrine of autonomous "provinces of culture" or "relatively independent domains." What is implied here, as Strauss emphasizes, is "a fundamental critique of at least the prevailing concept of culture" (N7). It must be granted that Schmitt "does not express" this criticism "everywhere. He too, using the terminology of a whole literature, occasionally speaks of the 'various, relatively independent domains of human thought and action' [26]." Because Strauss literally cited Schmitt's "occasionally" occurring expression only a few lines before in his elucidation of the liberal concept of culture, the seemingly casual indication of a logical inconsistency in the "expression" calls the reader's — and primarily Schmitt's own — attention to Schmitt's lack of clarity on an important point regarding the extent of his undertaking. In the 1933 edition of the Concept of the Political, the "relatively independent domains" are no longer anywhere to be found. Instead, Schmitt emphasizes by means of italics that the distinction between friend and enemy is independent. And, already in the opening section, the political opposition is now expressly contrasted to the oppositions between good and evil, beautiful and ugly, etc., as the "far deeper opposition."

Strauss protects Schmitt from being misunderstood as "wanting, after liberalism has brought to recognition the autonomy of aesthetics, of morality, of science, of the economy, etc.," "now on his part to bring the autonomy of the political into recognition — in opposition to liberalism but nonetheless in continuation of the liberal aspirations for autonomy — the autonomy of the political." Although Schmitt expresses himself "in one passage" (71) in such a way "that a superficial reader" could get this impression, "the quotation marks that he places around the word 'autonomy' in the expression 'autonomy of the various domains of human life' already show how little the foregoing is Schmitt's opinion." "Schmitt's aloofness from the prevailing concept of culture becomes fully clear," according to Strauss, "in the following indirect characterization of the aesthetic: 'the path from the metaphysical and the moral to the economic traverses the aesthetic, and the path across aesthetic consumption and enjoyment, be they ever so sublime, is the surest and most comfortable path to the universal economization of spiritual life ...' [83]; for the prevailing concept of culture surely includes recognition of the autonomous value of the aesthetic — assuming that this concept is not altogether constituted precisely by that recognition" (N8). Schmitt answers this interpretation with slight alterations in the text, alterations that, slight as they are, signal assent no less clearly to his critic. In analogous fashion Schmitt immediately repeats five times, in the sentence that immediately follows the cited passage, the quotation marks that Strauss stressed at the beginning of his interpretation. Moreover, he adds a brief supplement that discernibly refers back to the statement with which Strauss closes: To liberalism it seems "altogether self-evident," Schmitt says in 1933, "that art is a 'daughter of freedom,' that aesthetic value-judgment is 'autonomous,' that artistic genius is 'sovereign,' and that the work of art, 'being unbiased,' has its 'purpose in itself.'"

One can speak of the sovereignty of artistic genius, and of the autonomy of the moral, the aesthetic, and the economic, as something self-evident only as long as the reality of the political is misunderstood, the opposition between friend and enemy is detoxified, and the exceptional case — which "here, as elsewhere," has a "significance that reveals the core of things" (35) — is made to fade from view. The peaceful coexistence of the "domains of human thought and action" is confounded by the "real possibility" of armed battle, a possibility that "belongs to the concept of the enemy" and constitutes the political (33). Though the individual may move in the various "provinces of culture" as a "free decision-maker," though he may seek or flee binding commitments there, consent to or disavow obligations, in the "sphere of the political" he encounters an objective, external force that affects him existentially, that makes a life-and-death claim upon him. He can "voluntarily die for whatever he wants to; that, like everything essential in an individualistic-liberal society, is altogether a 'private matter'" (49). On the other hand, the enemy, and war as the "most extreme realization of enmity" (33), confront him with a question that he cannot evade at will. They confront him with decisions in which he must decide about himself, in the face of which he is compelled to achieve clarity about his identity. For the political is located "not in fighting itself" but in a behavior that is oriented toward the real possibility of war, "in clear knowledge of one's own situation, defined by that possibility; and in the task of rightly distinguishing between friend and enemy" (37). In the face of war, the political question of rightly distinguishing between friend and enemy gains a gravity that raises the significance of that question far beyond the political. Strauss, in the following comment, expresses Schmitt's "unliberal tendency" with logical rigor: "War is not merely 'the most extreme political measure'; war is the dire emergency not merely within an 'autonomous' region — the region of the political — but for man, simply, because war has and retains a 'relationship to the real possibility of physical killing' [33]; this orientation, which is constitutive of the political, shows that the political is fundamental and not a 'relatively independent domain' alongside others. The political is the 'authoritative' [39]" (N9). In the very passage to which Strauss refers at the end of his formulation "The political is the authoritative," Schmitt in 1933 expands the text — in order to emphasize his opposition to the liberal "philosophy of culture" more pointedly than he had ever done before in the Concept of the Political: "The political unit," the text now reads, "is always, as long as it is present at all, the authoritative unit, total and sovereign. It is 'total' first because every matter can potentially be political and therefore can be affected by the political decision; and second because man is totally and existentially grasped in political participation. Politics is destiny."


The distance that Carl Schmitt covered on the way to the preceding statement was greater than a "superficial reader" of Strauss's essay might suppose. For Strauss also makes Schmitt's position appear stronger by avoiding any comment on the changes that Schmitt made between 1927 and 1932 in the conception of the Concept of the Political. If an attentive reader, induced by Strauss's single reference to a judgment by Schmitt on Thomas Hobbes that was modified in 1932, should acquire the first edition and look at it more closely, he will find, upon perusal of it, that not only a "superficial reader could get the impression" that Schmitt wants "to bring the autonomy of the political into recognition, in opposition to liberalism but nonetheless in continuation of the liberal aspirations for autonomy." The alert reader will notice that, in the "one passage" in the 1932 edition that Strauss discusses in order to show "how little the foregoing is Schmitt's opinion," Schmitt in the first edition neither places the term "autonomy" in quotation marks nor proceeds to any open criticism of the "independence of aesthetic values" (I, 30). Finally, and most important, this reader will clearly perceive that Schmitt not only "occasionally" speaks of the "relatively independent domains of human thought and action" but expressly defines the political itself as a domain, "as one domain among others" (I, 3, 4), a definition that he just as expressly denies five years later (27, 38). Strauss doubtless has good reasons to overlook Schmitt's changes and to pass over in silence the contradictions of the book, which are based upon "the history of its development." That Strauss nevertheless, as elegantly and discreetly as possible, calls attention to these things, is no less good a reason for us briefly to consider Schmitt's initial conception and to examine more closely what Strauss, in his interpretation, leaves undiscussed.

Schmitt begins his battle over the concept of the political on the defensive. Against the negation of the political by "the astonishingly consistent systematics of liberal thought, a systematics that, despite seeming setbacks, still definitely prevails today" (I, 29), he attempts to bring to bear the "proper objectivity and independence of the political" (I, 5). His effort to obtain for the political the recognition that "every independent domain" (I, 3, 4) can claim for itself and that liberalism does not deny to the "others" (I, 29, 30) is defensive. His assertion that the distinction between friend and enemy that is specific to the "domain of the political" can "exist theoretically and practically without moral, aesthetic, economic, or other distinctions being applied simultaneously" (I, 4), is defensive. Schmitt's answer to the central question of the characteristics of the political enemy — namely, that he is "plainly the other, the alien" and that "to describe his essence" it suffices "that he is in an especially intensive sense existentially something other and alien, so that in case of conflict he signifies the negation of one's own kind of existence and therefore is fended off or fought in battle in order to preserve one's own, proper kind of life" (I, 4) — is defensive. If for Schmitt the political is the thing to be defended in an age of neutralizations and depoliticizations, then politics, in Schmitt's rhetoric, essentially appears to be defense. He speaks very insistently of fending off the enemy, the "real" enemy, one's "own enemy" (I, 4, 9, 17, 29). The enemy constantly makes his appearance as an attacker; he never comes into sight, in the theoretical discussion, as the attacked. This perspective may distract the reader from the question of how the "real enemy" can be "known" and how one's "own, proper kind of life" is to be maintained without "other distinctions being applied," without "normative prescriptions," "rational ends," "ideal programs" coming into play. If the enemy attacks, the will to ward him off is "fully self-evident" (I, 29). The enemy defines himself as enemy by means of the attack; the reasons and motives of the enmity can then safely be neglected as secondary, or so it may seem from the viewpoint of the attacked. The rhetoric of the defensive, however, not only helps Schmitt conceal theoretical difficulties in his concept of the political. As a rhetoric of "pure politics," his defensive rhetoric gives him the double political advantage of shielding his own "purely political" position against all "normative" criticism and of simultaneously enabling him to attack, with the superior self-certainty of the morally indignant, any normative "intrusions" into and "encroachments" upon the region of "pure politics": The enemy who engages in politics in "an unpolitical and even antipolitical" guise violates the honesty and visibility of pure politics. He deceives. He does not even shrink, for the sake of his political advantage, from making himself guilty of "high political abuse." It is "something wholly self-evident" "that war is to be made only against a real enemy." The necessary physical fending off of a "real enemy in the proper meaning" is "politically sensible," though Schmitt does not hesitate to point out that this statement is "not a legitimation or justification" but has "a purely existential meaning" (I, 17). The situation is different as soon as the enemy leaves the sphere of "pure politics" and, "going beyond the political," depreciates "his enemy simultaneously in moral and other categories" and makes him into "an inhuman monster that must be not only fended off but definitively annihilated, and thus is no longer even an enemy that can be treated objectively" (I, 9). Here the "real battle against a real enemy" falls into the maelstrom "of ideal programs" or "normative prescriptions." However, as the moralist Schmitt knows, there is "no rational end, no norm however right, no program however ideal, no legitimacy or legality that could justify human beings' killing one another over it." The defender of pure politics continues: "If such a physical annihilation of human life does not occur out of the proper assertion of one's own form of existence against a likewise proper negation of this form, that annihilation plainly cannot be justified" (I, 17).


Excerpted from Carl Schmitt & Leo Strauss: the Hidden Dialogue by Heinrich Meier, J. Harvey Lomax. Copyright © 1995 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Meet the Author

Heinrich Meier has served since 1985 as director of the Carl Friedrich von Siemens Foundation in Munich, where he also teaches philosophy. He is the author of several books, including the acclaimed critical edition of Rousseau’s Second Discourse.

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