TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Against Schmitt's Political Theology, Prometheus or Pandora? Hans Blumenberg and Walter Benjamin as Political Theologians

As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Robert Wyllie looks at Richard Faber’s “The Rejection of Political Theology: A Critique of Hans Blumenberg,” from Telos 72 (Summer 1987).

In “The Rejection of Political Theology: A Critique of Hans Blumenberg,” Richard Faber reconstructs two alternatives to Carl Schmitt’s political theology. Faber draws the first alternative from Hans Blumenberg. Blumenberg, whose later work explores how metaphor orients thought, proposes a “polytheistic” alternative to “monotheistic” political theology. Polytheism is an early modern metaphor for plural sovereignty, underlying the checks and balances of liberalism. Sympathetically, Blumenberg believes a polytheistic political theology turns away from Schmitt’s “monotheistic” picture of sovereignty where one sovereign decides the state of exception. After expositing Blumenberg’s polytheistic political theology, Faber rejects it. Instead, he turns to Walter Benjamin’s eschatological political theology. Monotheists have been promised an apocalypse, a violent divine intervention, to restore justice in the future. Unlike the Schmittian state of exception, this hoped-for intervention would ground no new legal constitution. Benjamin radicalizes the state of exception into the “pure violence” of a Marxist revolution aimed at destroying the political state altogether.

Philosophical anthropology is at the center of the Schmitt-Blumenberg debate.[1] Schmitt is sympathetic to the Hobbesian vision that the state of nature is a war of all against all. Against Schmitt’s “anthropological realism,” Blumenberg insists that the behavior of human beings in the state of nature is underdetermined. Faber puts this debate—encapsulated by Brad Tabas in Telos last spring—in a wider context of rival political theologies. According to Blumenberg, Schmitt’s anthropological realism is already determined by monotheism. The friend-enemy distinction is predetermined by a believer-unbeliever distinction made by devotees of a single god. Faber unpacks Blumenberg’s idiosyncratic response: complicating Schmitt’s monotheism with a polytheistic counter-myth. Faber turns to Blumenberg’s Arbeit und Mythos (1980) to reconstruct the attempt to offer “a polytheology which is supposed to escape the Schmittian definition of the political” (180).[2] In search of a political theology for liberal pluralism, Blumenberg introduces new gods to complicate the dualism of Schmitt’s authoritarian political vision.

Faber, like Blumenberg, takes for granted that Schmitt has a “monotheistic” political theology. On this view, for Schmitt, the sovereign in the state of exception is an anagoge for the one god’s radically transcendent will. The sovereign may decide between equally legitimate value systems, but ultimately valorizes one over another. Importantly, the decision of the sovereign overrides plural norms. In this way, for Blumenberg, Schmitt’s decisionism is a secularization of specifically monotheistic dogma. To defeat Schmitt’s philosophical anthropology, Blumenberg sets his sights on political monotheology. There is precedent for this approach.

In modernity—or since the French Revolution—the old place occupied by God is neither abandoned nor “secularized.” Instead, according to Blumenberg, there is a reoccupation (Umbesetzung) of theology by new political gods. Faber seizes upon Blumenberg’s gloss of the Goethe’s motto Nemo contra deum nisi deus ipse (“None stand against god except a god”). Against the sovereigns of Christendom, Faber explains, early modern liberals mimicked the godlike lawgivers of Greco-Roman polytheism. In Goethe’s eyes, Napoleon was a Prometheus; Rousseau followed Numa introducing civil religion. Enlightenment liberals invoked the classical world—reactivating the metaphors of polytheism—to depose Christian sovereigns. Describing these revolutionaries, Faber quotes Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire, “in such periods of crisis they anxiously call up the spirits of the past to their purpose, and borrow from them names, battle-cries, and costumes in order to present the new scene of history in this time-honored disguise and this borrowed language” (175). The political theology of Christian monotheism was reoccupied not by rationalism and deism, Faber and Blumenberg show, but by polytheism. Multiple political leaders were divinized. Faber sees a precedent in the mature Goethe’s answer of the Prometheus myth. When one learns to take the power of the gods, more can follow. Deposing the sovereign and divinizing revolutionaries, early modern liberal revolutionaries opened the Pandora’s Box of polytheism (183).

Blumenberg’s polytheism metaphor obviates Schmitt’s state of exception because it makes the gods’ decisions the norm. The many gods in the political arena strike a balance of power. When normal politics is recast as divine activity, the state of exception becomes the rule. Parliamentary demigods check and balance themselves. Olympian hierarchies may form, but no single authority may sanction extralegal violence—there is no Schmittian category of legal exception. As in the Crito, the gods speak with the voice of the laws. Inverting Schmitt’s formula, the norm takes priority over the decision.[3] When the parliamentary norm is sacred, the exceptional decision of the sovereign may not appear.

The polytheistic counter-myth sacralizes a constitutional separation of powers within states and a balance of power between them. Faber explains, “Even as [Blumenberg] condemns monotheism for its inherent absolutism and political dualism, he pleads for polytheism on political grounds” (182). Those outside the state are not enemies qua unbelievers, since a polytheist might acknowledge the reality of the Other’s god(s). Polytheism allows leaders to strike a prudent balance of power in international relations. This is the most significant payoff for Blumenberg, who concludes that “the projection of the category of enmity onto the relation between states is no longer a viable procedure” in the atomic age (179).

After explaining how Blumenberg responds to Schmitt with a counter-myth, Faber pivots to critique Blumenberg for sacralizing the status quo. At the end of his article, Faber turns Matthew 16:25 into a scathing critique of Blumenberg’s modus vivendi pluralism: “Whoever wants merely to survive, with no thought of others, will fail to achieve into that” (186). What kind of political theology could inspire radicalism?

Dissatisfied with Blumenberg’s support for polytheism-qua-liberalism, Faber turns to a second alternative to Schmitt. Faber is unwilling to abandon the concepts in Schmitt’s political theology that trump legal norms and sanction violent political change. In fact, Faber wants to radicalize the state of exception. Faber holds out hope for a political theology that will animate class war. He shares this hope with Walter Benjamin.

In Faber’s view, Benjamin makes an immanent critique of Schmitt’s categories that does not obviate the state of exception, but rather “purifies” it. Benjamin’s Marxism is also secularized political monotheology. There may be a state of exception created by a single divine will. The dispute between Benjamin and Schmitt instead concerns the true nature of divinely sanctioned violence. Benjamin insists that the real state of exception is no mere putsch. In the “Critique of Violence,” Benjamin disambiguates divine violence from myth and law-formation.[4] For Benjamin, the only pure divine violence is eschatological hope, an “emergency brake” on the atomic age. Schmitt’s state of exception, as the basis of law and state power, is a historical norm. The true exception is eschatological divine violence.

Benjamin rethinks the political motivations for Marxism, and this rethinking leads him to work within the terms of Schmitt’s political theology. Unlike Marx, Benjamin seeks the political motivation for revolution in “carrying out the demands which the past still makes on the present” (177). Blumenberg’s project—according a legitimate distinctiveness to the modern age—is a mistake, one that Benjamin says Marxists have made before. Faber endorses Benjamin’s argument: to draw political motivation solely from the image of Marxism as the savior of future generations threatens “cutting the sinews of [the working class’s] greatest strength . . . its hatred and its spirit of sacrifice, for both are nourished by the image of enslaved ancestors rather than that of liberated grandchildren” (177). Benjamin radicalizes Schmitt’s state of exception, turning it into an eschatological hope for class struggle.

Blumenberg’s skeptical objection—the idiosyncratic “counter-myth” that enacts the tenuousness of our anthropological and theological knowledge—still confronts Faber. Isn’t polytheism just as plausible as monotheism, and more desirable besides? Faber resorts to Benjamin for an answer. A polytheistic counter-myth would cut present generations off from the eschatological promises made to their ancestors, allowing the greatest source of political motivation to wither away. Political theology may generate the most tenuous of concepts, but it produces the most powerful of promises. Its power is reason enough for Blumenberg’s caution, and reason enough for Benjamin’s hope. Richard Faber would have us hope.


1. In Telos 158, Brad Tabas encapsulated Blumenberg’s central critique against Schmitt: “The problem with ‘anthropological realism’ is its failure to deal realistically with humanity’s tenuous grip on reality.” Brad Tabas, “Blumenberg, Politics, Anthropology,” Telos 158 (Spring 2012): 135–53.

2. Cf. Kirk Wetters, “Working Over Philosophy: Hans Blumenberg’s Reformulations of the Absolute,” Telos 158 (Spring 2012): 105.

3. Carl Schmitt, Political Theology, trans. George Schwab (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2005), 12–13.

4. Walter Benjamin, “The Critique of Violence,” in On Violence: A Reader, ed. Bruce B. Lawrence and Aisha Karim (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2007), 268–85.

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