Tag Archives: Critique

I have been revisiting some old writing lately. Some of it should be confined to the dustbin… some of it deserves more consideration. These thoughts on Agamben & Strauss I’d say deserve more thought. They were the focus of an old conference paper I once gave, and then never did anything with. Writing and reading is purely for pleasure now, so I’m not sure what I will do next, but these thoughts have some kernel of usefulness in them, I believe.  With the publication of Strauss’s lectures, and helpful volumes such as the recent collection on Strauss’s 1930s work (“Reorientation”), obviously the literature would need to be addressed anew. I’ve long thought that Strauss needs to supplement the arguments that Agamben makes in Homo Sacer, especially given that Agamben mentions him by name. What follows is the beginning of such an attempt. 

“What is Security?” Two answers from Strauss & Agambem

Strauss’s “Notes on Carl Schmitt” have been translated and published alongside Schmitt’s treatise since 1996, while the appearance of Homo Sacer in English in 1998—a book that takes up the debate on emergency powers between Schmitt and Walter Benjamin—shows readers that Strauss’s philosophy is one of the touchstones from which Agamben’s critique takes its bearings.  Agamben, while introducing his understanding of the distinction between zoe and bios says the following:  “The idea of an inner solidarity between democracy and totalitarianism…is obviously not (like Leo Strauss’s thesis concerning the secret convergence of the final goals of liberalism and communism) a historiographical claim, which would authorize the liquidation and leveling of the enormous differences that characterize their histories and rivalry” (Agamben 1998, 10).  That is, Strauss’s interpretation of the history of political philosophy in Agamben’s presentation is unable to “thematically interrogate the link between bare life and politics” and cannot “bring the political out of its concealment and, at the same time, return thought to its practical calling” (Agamben 1998, 4-5).  Agamben turns to Strauss again at the very conclusion of the work:

Every attempt to rethink the political space of the West must begin with the clear awareness that we no longer know anything of the classical distinction between zōe and bios, between private life and political existence, between man as a simple living being at home in the house and man’s political existence in the city.  This is why the restoration of classical political categories proposed by Leo Strauss and, in a different sense, by Hannah Arendt can have only a critical sense.  There is no return from the camps to classical politics. (1998, 187)

Agamben has picked a fine interlocutor, though it is unclear how aware Agamben is of this fact, as Strauss demonstrates a surprising ability to respond to Agamben’s challenges.[1]  Agamben mentions Strauss on other time in Homo Sacer, during his discussion of the distinction between physis [nature] and nomos [law/custom/convention].[2]  There, Agamben identifies the “classical natural right” teaching—by way of Strauss—to be the use of the “law of nature” to undermine the “Sophistic opposition” between nature and nomos (1998, 35).[3]

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One writes as one reads. Few are the things I like reading more than a great review. Take Samuel Moyn, recently, in the Boston Review on Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism:

Yet there is little insight in this book into how liberalism in the past half century has risked becoming illiberal precisely in response to external threats that, its political theorists insisted, demanded a return to basics. In response to Communism, Isaiah Berlin did not so much defend as deform the liberal tradition, which to that point had focused less on the fight against ideological enemies (except Christianity itself) than on the institutionalization of freedom and equality. Siedentop’s conviction that radical Islam prompts the West to respond with moral clarity about what it represents is the continuation of Berlin’s project: the reinterpretation of liberalism in the face of presumed enemies. Siedentop dallies in the Middle Ages in implausible reaction to anxiety and worry, distorting the history of liberalism and omitting how much further it had to go—still has to go—to take individual freedom and equality seriously.

That is an amazing paragraph. I think a good review should give the reader as sense of 1) the original text as it understands itself and 2) the unvarnished judgment of the reviewer. Judgment is the key, because often academic journals are littered with faint praise and faint criticism, or superficialities that teach us nothing. I don’t care if you liked the book, or hated it. How do you judge the work, in your capacity as a learned individual, with some expertise in the area?  This is what matters.  I don’t want compassionate reviewers but humane ones, who know who to praise and blame.  The modern ur-text here is Miguel Vatter’s review of Paul Kahn’s Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty:

First, I wish to say something about the book in terms of its exegesis of Schmitt. I don’t think Kahn is claiming to be saying anything “new” about Schmitt, either in general or on Political Theology in particular. Since there exist by now hundreds of books and articles on Schmitt and his political theology in German, French, Italian, Spanish (and, since the late 1980s, English), and since Kahn’s thin book lacks even a basic bibliographical treatment of this material and one that does not go beyond secondary literature in English, one would have to assume that this text is not really intended to contribute to the scholarly literature on Schmitt.

This is how you review a book.  If you have a better example I’d love to read it.

I haven’t paid enough attention to Chapter 46 of Hobbes’s Leviathan, in English or Latin. This series of remarks from the 14th Latin paragraph are otherworldly:

For after a year or two Pope Leo, in his correspondence, exhorted Emperor Charlemagne to establish universities throughout his dominions, where all letters and sciences would be taught. So he set up, in Paris, the first university; and afterwards other kings set up others, each in his own dominion, which, once the colleges had been set up and organized for study, where to be governed by laws, according to the discretion of the Roman pontiff. Finally, from masters such as Peter Lombard, Duns Scotus, and Thomas Aquinas, was born the theology which they call scholastic, a hodgepodge of Aristotle’s philosophy and Sacred Scripture. In the universities they teach Aristotle’s logic, his physics, his metaphysics, his ethics, and his politics, as if the whole of the sciences were in one man, who was then also the greatest father of the Church, Aristotle. But especially to establish among adolescents a demeanor of deference, they were exercised in public disputations and speeches, by which they could maintain and preach the dogmas of the Roman church. So by the sermons of ecclesiastics, sent from the universities into almost all the cities, towns and parishes of the Christian world, and by published writings, it was fixed inedibly in the minds of all Christians that there is no other rule of just and unjust except the dictates of the Roman church, that kings are not to be obeyed further than is permitted by the Roman church, and kings themselves ought to obey the Roman pontiff like sheep. And they accomplished what they set out to accomplish.

Emphasis mine, on the white-hot fire that Hobbes just threw at Aristotle. A “hodgepodge” of Aristotle and scripture has come to represent the entirety of the contest between philosophy and revelation, Athens and Jerusalem. This is somehow stronger than his justly famous English takedown: “And I believe that scarce anything can be more absurdly said in natural philosophy than that which now is called Aristotle’s Metaphysics; nor more repugnant to government than much of that he hath said in his Politics; nor more ignorantly than a great part of his Ethics. Perhaps the benefits of modern translation vs Olde English explain my impression of the Latin text, but the clear and pernicious influence of Aristotle on the sociology of knowledge at the time Hobbes was writing comes through so loud and clear. And read this phrase again: ”But especially to establish among adolescents a demeanour of deference…" – has the problem of education ever been so pithily explained? Here’s my Hobbesian inspired statement of teaching philosophy from this day forward: to undo the demeanor of deference established among adolescents.

n.b. quotes from Curley’s translation.