Carl Schmitt and the Nineteenth-Century Catholic Reaction on Original Sin

Carl Schmitt is frequently assumed to have primarily been a Catholic intellectual, or Christian political theologian, at least until becoming alienated from the Church in the mid-1920’s. The jurist’s book Political Theology is quite logically a main source of evidence for this standard interpretation of Schmitt’s intellectual biography. However, an assumption of Schmitt’s Catholic, or even simply Christian, bona fides serves more as a distraction in understanding the origins and contours of his early thought. This mistaken narrative hides the degree to which Schmitt’s brand of secular and proto-Hobbesian decisionism is contrary to the thought of his claimed forebears among nineteenth-century counter-revolutionary Catholic theorists.

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Oikonomia Leaves Home: Theology, Politics, and Governance in the History of the West

Is there any genealogical connection between Christian oikonomia and modern political economy? Originally the turning of polity into household and interpersonal “pastoral” rule was not sinister but an advance. Likewise the Christian doctrines of Trinity and Incarnation resolved rather than sustained aporias of the reserved versus the economizing deity. However, later developments with the Franciscans, Palamites, and Jansenists effectively undid this resolution, producing a new “gnostic” duality. Economic rule was now sundered from ethics in a fallen world seen as utterly depraved. The heterodox discourse and practice of political economy resulted.

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Telos 178 (Spring 2017): Original Sin in Modernity

Telos 178 (Spring 2017) is now available for purchase in our store.

“If men were angels, no government would be necessary,” James Madison famously writes in Federalist No. 51. The defectiveness of the human will and the human intellect make government necessary, whether in John Calvin’s Sermon on the Galatians, which Madison echoes, in the locus classicus of this argument, Augustine’s City of God, or in book 9 of Plato’s Laws, which already describes humans’ innate capacity for evil as “a result of crimes long ago.” In modernity, Christian tropes like the Fall and original sin are used not only to justify political power, but also to temper utopian political goals. Reinhold Niebuhr emphasized the latter, for example, when he described the preference of the United States’ purportedly “Calvinist fathers” for relying upon checks and balances rather than the intelligence and goodwill of future American statesmen. Even the most familiar political analyses of original sin and the anthropology of Western Christianity contain this tension between justifying and limiting political power.

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