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Telos 178 (Spring 2017): Original Sin in Modernity

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“If men were angels, no government would be necessary,” James Madison famously writes in Federalist No. 51.[1] 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.”[2] 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.[3] Even the most familiar political analyses of original sin and the anthropology of Western Christianity contain this tension between justifying and limiting political power.

Critics of the liberal novus ordo seclorum are no less attentive to original sin. In the twentieth century, both Carl Schmitt and Isaiah Berlin emphasize how radical conservatives, from Maistre to Taine, wield anthropological pessimism against secularism, liberalism, and democracy.[4] In his contribution to this issue, Brian Fox interrogates whether Schmitt’s anthropological pessimism is in fact rooted in a Christian doctrine of original sin. Fox points to important differences between Schmitt and the intellectual forbears he claims among the nineteenth-century Catholic reactionaries. More comprehensively, Adrian Pabst takes on Berlin and Schmitt to argue not only that a deep anthropological pessimism runs through the liberal tradition, but also that the Romantics provide a formidable political alternative in their emphasis upon imaginative reason, aesthetic politics, and the organic state. In the same vein, Robert Wyllie also complicates the notion of the “conservatism” of original sin. While Catholic reactionaries were emphasizing the deep-rootedness of original sin and the Romantics were offering a hopeful alternative, Hegel changed the course of liberal political thought by finding a symbolic account of human perfectibility and a warrant for progressive but problematic humanizing education in the book of Genesis.

There are also familiar stories about the birth of modernity in the Reformation’s emphasis upon original sin. Most famous is Max Weber’s argument linking Puritan anxieties over Calvin’s doctrine of total depravity with the development of early modern capitalism,[5] the subject of a recent debate in the pages of Telos.[6] In his contribution to this issue, John Milbank argues that capitalism has deeper roots in Jansenism, with its own bleak take on the Fall. In his article, Milbank criticizes Giorgio Agamben’s arguments for continuity between the Christian church fathers’ economy of salvation and the modern political economy. Instead, Milbank shows how the earliest conception of a market economy, in the thought of the Jansenist political thinker Boisguilbert, is connected to a rejection of older, orthodox theological ideas. Both Milbank and Pabst suggest that the recalcitrant self-interest often presupposed by liberalism is in fact more pessimistic than earlier anthropologies of sin, grace, and virtue.

Every article in the issue suggests that “original sin” signifies a more complex influence on modern politics and culture than often realized. Original sin has had not just one but many messy afterlives in modernity. In his cultural history of original sin, Alan Jacobs finds that the unpleasant doctrine pops up in times of crisis, arguing, “We cannot make sense of it and yet cannot kill it.”[7] Of course, original sin has always been a contested concept. It emerged in Augustine’s polemic against the Manichean and Gnostic emphases on pervasive cosmic evil, on the one hand, and the Pelagian confidence in humans’ self-sufficient virtue on the other. While broadly vindicating Augustine, the Church tempered the most pessimistic possibilities of the doctrine and defined original sin within the parameters of grace and salvation. A fervent desire to take sin and redemption more seriously galvanized the Protestant Reformers, even as the Reformation began to dislodge theological concepts from the institutional framework of the Catholic Church.

In modernity, the grammar of original sin is often taken out of its theological context. It is at times decoupled from the Christian doctrine that human beings are made in the image and likeness of God. The peccatum originale originans, the fall narrative of Adam and Eve, is often separated from original sin as peccatum originale originatum, a description of human nature. Just as the jeremiad is arguably still the form of American political exhortations, though the Puritan theological anthropology of Jonathan Edwards belongs to a distant past,[8] original sin may be dislodged from theology altogether yet remain in cultural memory and language. One hears distant echoes of Augustine and Pelagius in academic debates that have won a wide audience, for example, when John Gray and Steven Pinker debate whether or not humans are becoming less violent.[9] Also, the language of original sin can be appropriated for new philosophical, literary, or political purposes. In her essay, Victoria Kahn argues that Thomas Hobbes and (more provocatively) John Milton use original sin as a metaphor that actually allows them to loosen the grip of Christian theology on modernity. Tracy Strong’s contribution, on the other hand, looks at Nathaniel Hawthorne as a political theorist who appropriates Puritan conceptions of sin to think through the possibilities and limits of political community. As Vincent Pecora demonstrates in his essay, some of the most important figures in modern critical thought, including Nietzsche, Freud, Heidegger, and Derrida, conspicuously end up offering their own fall narratives even as they try to displace the Biblical account. He shows that original sin seems to have had a significant post-Christian tenure.

There may be more to the staying power of original sin than either subterranean influence or polemical utility, of course. While original sin is central to Augustine’s polemics, it is not necessarily reducible to them. Paul Ricoeur argues that Augustine also turned to original sin to name something in his experience, and perhaps the experience of all humans: “the resistance of desire and habit to good will . . . the experience of a will that escapes from itself and obeys another law than itself.”[10] And G. K. Chesterton called original sin that unique doctrine of Christian theology that can be “proven fact,” that is understandable on empirical grounds alone.[11] In a similar but less sanguine vein, Leszek Kołakowski proposes that original sin puts modern Western culture in a bind, with destructiveness on either side:

The possible disastrous effects of the concept of original sin on our psychological condition and our cultural life are undeniable; and so are the disastrous effects of the opposing doctrine, with its implication that our perfectibility is limitless, and that our predictions of ultimate synthesis or total reconciliation can be realized. However, the fact that both affirmation and rejection of the concept of original sin have emerged as powerful destructive forces in our history is one of many that testify in favor of the reality of original sin.[12]

With Kołakowski in mind, it will seem less paradoxical for the literary critic George Steiner to claim that original sin is at the core of tragic drama, and yet that tragedy cannot survive in a Christian culture. In his article, Steven Knepper challenges not only Steiner’s redefinition of original sin beyond the parameters of Christian theology, but also his argument that hope ultimately corrodes tragic art.

Telos has devoted significant attention to political theology in recent years, and historically, the politics of original sin has been the most fertile topic in this field. Because of the many connections that scholars have drawn between original sin and politics and culture, especially modern politics and culture, it is a particularly rich locus for reflection on method in political theology. Does original sin still have an influence in secular culture? Does it name something true to our experience? Or have new and quite different secular ideas replaced or “reoccupied” the space left by Christian anthropological doctrines?[13] The articles in this special issue of Telos span the course of modernity, showing how original sin operates in unexpected ways, and how these operations raise methodological questions for political theology.

The messy afterlives of original sin may simply suggest that no single theory of secularization will serve as skeleton key. It is difficult, further, to discern when original sin functions as an influential concept and when it is deployed as a merely grammatical subject, as a metaphor that draws on a particular cultural memory. The pieces in this issue help to tease out some of these difficulties, and to work out the complicated histories of original sin in modernity. We hope they strike this issue’s readers as provocative, illuminating, and relevant to the powerful forces shaping our future as well.

Note from the Editor

As in recent issues, this Telos also includes a section on the Critical Theory of the Contemporary, devoted here to the triad of nationalism, populism, and Islamism as key vectors of the political world today. Contributors include David Pan, Tim Luke, Andreas Pantazopoulos, and Arno Tausch, and a brief introduction by myself.


1. Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, The Federalist Papers, ed. Ian Shapiro (New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2009), p. 264.

2. Plato, The Laws, trans. Trevor J. Saunders (New York: Penguin 2004), 854a.

3. Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2008), p. 23.

4. See Carl Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, trans. George Schwab (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2006); and The Concept of the Political, trans. George Schwab (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2007). See also Isaiah Berlin, Freedom and Its Betrayal: Six Enemies of Human Liberty, ed. Henry Hardy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2002).

5. Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Talcott Parsons (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2003), pp. 98–127.

6. See the exchange between Luciano Pellicani and Adrian Pabst in Telos 162 (Spring 2013): 151–76.

7. Alan Jacobs, Original Sin: A Cultural History (New York: HarperOne, 2008), p. xvii.

8. Sacvan Bercovitch, The American Jeremiad (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1978).

9. See John Gray’s review of Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature (New York: Penguin, 2012) in “Steven Pinker is Wrong about Violence and War,” Guardian, March 13, 2015,

10. Paul Ricoeur, “‘Original Sin’: A Study in Meaning,” in The Conflict of Interpretations: Essays in Hermeneutics, trans. Peter McCormick (Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 1974), pp. 278–79.

11. Gilbert K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York: John Lane, 1908), p. 24.

12. Leszek Kołakowski, Modernity on Endless Trial (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1990), p. 80.

13. Hans Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, trans. Robert Wallace (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1985), p. 171.

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