The theologico-political foundation of modernity as a political problem

Wissenschaftlicher Aufsatz, 2011

24 Seiten




1. Leo Strauss and the Theologico-Political Problem

2. Carl Schmitt: The Concept of Political Theology 11

3. The Background of Political Thinking in East Asia




This present period is often described as the period of change towards a multi-polar world. It signifies the end of a Western dominated world or world order, leading to the reshaping of the political, economic and social world that came into being over the last five hundred years. Behind this empirical, descriptive view about our present political, economical and social world are prevailing assumptions about this world that form the core of a theoretical understanding of it. Raymond Geuss defines this assumption as the model of “the democratic liberal state with a capitalist economy, and a commitment to a set of human rights for its citizens”.[1] He concludes that “there are five distinct elements here – liberalism, democracy, the state, the capitalist economy, the doctrine of human rights – but in much contemporary thinking about politics it is tacitly assumed that these five items form a more or less natural, or at any rate minimally consistent and practically coherent, set.”[2] To my view, there is another more implicit assumption: modern liberal society is characterized by the dualism of public and privat sphere and that politics and religion are separated distinctively in these two spheres: political things are public matters while religion and faith are private matters.

The basic concepts about politics and religion, the so called theologico-political problem, have to be rethought in the light of philosophical concepts that do not share the same cultural and historic background as those that developed in Western societies. My approach is not historical in the sense of a historical reconstruction of this conflict. I will rather try to look behind the empirical description and focus on the theoretical and cultural background which shapes it implicitly and has to be brought to light if we want to understand where this conflict comes from and how it is shaped by its own cultural history.

I will examine two main thinkers who articulated the theologico-political conflict as a major problem of politics and modern state: Leo Strauss and Carl Schmitt. Both were convinced that the liberal state has failed in its attempt to overcome this conflict; they maintain, on the contrary, that faith and religion, albeit in different ways, retain their influence on the public sphere of modern state. The monistic structure of religion, in particular, permeates the western political tradition. This monistic structure which comes from monotheistic religion heavily influenced Greek political philosophy as it was prior to its foundation. Astours notes that “long before Hellenism imposed itself over the ancient civilization of the East, Semitism had exercised no less an impact upon the young civilization of Greece. Hellenism became the epilogue of Oriental civilizations, but Semitism was the prologue of Greek civilization”.[3]

Firstly, I will examine Strauss concept of political philosophy because it brings this conflict into light. Through the distinction between natural law and natural right, Strauss is able to demonstrate how the conflict between politics and religion is at the core of Western political thinking. In following his approach of putting into question the modern concept of natural right, I want to rediscover the basis of the conflict between politics and religion in Western tradition.

Secondly, I will question Schmitt’s concept of political theology. Schmitt argues that all significant concepts on modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts. With Schmitt we may better understand the context of ethical-political monotheism in its secularized version a concept that is too often used by the peoples of the developing world to legitimize their political actions towards “developing countries”.

Thirdly, I will present the background of political thinking in East Asia. Here we find a concept of politics which did not develop in the framework of a monotheistic religion. Nonetheless, cosmology plays an important part in its political philosophy, the notion of heaven leads to a more open foundation of a political community where religions are part of such a community without creating a sharp contrast between politics and religion(s).

My argument is, that we can no longer base our concept of modernity simply on the experience of North America and Europe. Martin Jacques argues „that our understanding of modernity is changed and expanded by the emergence of new modernities“.[4] He makes the conclusion that the impact of Westernization in China is more limited than expected and that the Chinese modernity is individual and distinctive, rooted and shaped by its own history and culture. Moreover, China’s modernization has depended not simply or even mainly upon borrowing from the West, but on its ability to transform and modernize itself: the taproots of modernization are native rather than foreign.

A dialogue between Western and non Western political thinking may open the ground for further discussion about the major conflict between politics and religions. Such a discussion would bring to light the context of western formulation of that conflict and would expose the particularity of that context to refute those who claim universality for the western formulation. The concept of modernity has to be broadened if we want to understand the changes towards a multipolar world.

1. Leo Strauss and the Theologico-Political Problem

Leo Strauss idea of political philosophy is directly linked to what he calls the theolocio-political problem or the conflict between Athens and Jerusalem. Born in 1899 in Kirchhain, a small provincial town near Marburg in the heart of Germany, he observed as a German Jew the fall of the Weimar Republic. In the second half of the 1920s it already seemed that through the recognition of Jews as full citizens, the Weimar Republic had achieved the ideal of liberal democracy. Numerous intellectuals had celebrated the congenial resemblance between German and Jews, and the fruitful mingling of German and Jewish intellectual culture.[5] The main intention of the Enlightenment was realized: a society in accord with the principles of moral autonomy and the solution of the theologico-political problem by the clear distinction of public political order and privat religious faith. The division between citizen and bourgeois, public and privat, determined the solution to the problem of religion and politics. The Hobbesian model of modern state which takes religion and faith out of public life into the sphere of privat belief was the foundation of the liberal state. The state sponsored persecution of Jews which started immediately in 1933 when Hitler came to power. It proved that the project of the modern state was based on a false assumption. Liberal society, according to Strauss, was never able to eradicate discrimination against the Jews, and therefore could not succeed and cannot succeed in furnishing a totally satisfactory solution to the Jewish problem.[6] Although a liberal society may use the law to protect the individual’s public sphere, the liberal state cannot protect the individual against discrimination in the privat sphere. Furthermore, citizens of the liberal state are rooted in religious beliefs which influence their behaviour as public citizens. The modern liberal state, though it aims at the solution of the theologico-political problem, is nonetheless conditioned throughout by that very problem. To disclose this as the fundamental problem of politics, Strauss wants to rediscover the original meaning of political philosophy.

Strauss distinguishes political philosophy from political theology, social philosophy and political science. Political theology is teachings based on divine revelation. Social philosophy “conceives of the political association as a part of a larger whole which it designates by the term ‘society’”.[7] Political science designates “such investigations of political things as are guided by the model of natural science, and it designates the work which is being done by the members of political science departments”.[8] In contrast to that, political philosophy “is the attempt truly to know both the nature of political things and the right, or the good, political order”.[9] Jerusalem is for Strauss the city of righteousness, the faithful city. Athens is the city where the meaning of political philosophy came to light; here the philosophers endeavoured to supplant opinions about politics by political philosophy, a body of epistemic thought which directed towards a knowledge of the good: of the good life, or of the good society. Such an undertaking contains the quest for wisdom in the sense of the quest for universal knowledge, for the knowledge of the whole.[10] Opinions, which are always particular and partial (in both senses) must be replaced by the knowledge of the whole. Although we can never say what the whole really is the idea of the whole inspires the main line of questioning in political philosophy: What is the good society and What is the good life ? These questions transcend our knowledge about the society we live in and the life we know. They lead us to political philosophy which, according to Strauss, replaces “opinion about the nature of political things by knowledge of the nature of political things”.[11] In that regard political science is incompatible with political philosophy. Knowledge about political things does not concern merely the given political situation, but political life or human life as such. This idea about political philosophy coming from Athens is being destroyed by science and history. Strauss emphasizes that science in general wants to avoid evaluating its content. He rejects Max Weber’s postulate about the insolubility of all value conflicts. Such an assumption leads to relativism: political philosophy becomes political science when it rejects the idea of the good society or the good life . Historicism deepens even further this process by implementing the idea of the essentially historical character of society and of human thought. Political philosophy, for Strauss, is not a historical discipline. While political philosophy asks about the nature of political things and of the best, or the most just, political order, historicism, poses historical questions, concern individual groups, individual human beings, individual achievements, individual civilizations. Political philosophy in this regard is fundamentally different from the history of political philosophy itself.[12]

For Strauss, the turning point in modern history of philosophy is Hobbes. He, according to Strauss, justified law, right and morality without appealing to a transcendent order and argued that the state is accomplished on the basis of an anthropological deduction. Tanguay resumes that this is the reason why Strauss sees in Hobbes (and in Machiavelli) “the radical defender of an new morality”, the genuine father of modernity. “The anthropological interpretation is based on a certain understanding of what is first for man: neither Being, nature, nor science are first for him. What is truly first is the world of opinions, more specifically, opinions concerning happiness, justice, virtue, politics and morality”.[13] All modern political philosophy concerns basically the anthropological question and not the quest for knowledge about the good society and the good life . For classical political philosophy, virtue is the principle of political order. Hobbes reproached classical political philosophy for having aimed too high. He demanded that natural right be derived from the beginnings.[14] The desire of self-preservation or negatively expressed the fear of violent death is the one principle which is the basis of modern state. The government of the state, established on the basis of this fear, turns the fear of death into the fear of the government. In the state of nature, all life is in constant fear and productive work is pointless. In the absence of a common power inspiring awe and regulating violence, the state of nature is characterised as a constant state of war of every person against every other.[15] For Strauss the consequences of such an approach are clear: “one must lower the standards in order to make probable, if not certain, the actualization of the right or desirable social order or in order to conquer chance; one must effect a shift of emphasis from moral character to institutions”.[16] Leaving the idea of a transcendent order behind this method seeks to understand the political order by studying and understanding the (lowest) passion(s) of man.


[1] Geuss, 3.

[2] Geuss, 3.

[3] Astour, 361.

[4] Jacques (2009), 110f.

[5] Schulte.

[6] Tanguay, 15.

[7] Srauss (1959), 13.

[8] Strauss (1959), 13.

[9] Strauss (1959), 12.

[10] Strauss (1959), 11.

[11] Strauss (1959), 11f.

[12] Strauss (1959), 56.

[13] Tanguay, 104.

[14] Strauss (1959), 48.

[15] Kavka, 39.

[16] Strauss (1959), 47.

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The theologico-political foundation of modernity as a political problem
Columbia Universität New York
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ISBN (Buch)
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Lecture held at the Political Workshop, Columbia University New York, October 2010
Carl Schmitt, Leo Strauss, Chinese Philosophy, Political Thinking
Arbeit zitieren
Dr. phil. Andreas Heuer (Autor:in), 2011, The theologico-political foundation of modernity as a political problem, München, GRIN Verlag,


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