Helmuth Plessner and Carl Schmitt: Closeness and Distance

Marek Cichocki - Helmuth Plessner and Carl Schmitt: Closeness and Distance

There are some important points of similarity between the concepts of Helmuth Plessner and Carl Schmitt, which has provoked increasing interest and, at the same time, confusion over the last decade. Should we really expect any significant, and not only occasional, affinity between these two thinkers, who seem to have been formed by two extremely different kinds of political experience? Plessner, on the one hand, has been ranked as a typical German liberal thinker with a background rooted in Protestant tradition; after 1933, he was declared a foe under the Nazi racial criteria and forced to leave his country and go into exile. Schmitt, on the other hand, has been blamed for his engagement in National Socialism and even called the 'main jurist of the Third Reich' (an evident exaggeration), and is often perceived as a typical conservative, nationalistic thinker with a very strong link to Catholic tradition. In spite of these evident political and biographical differences, their affinity seems to be undoubted if we compare some of their writings, especially from the twenties and the thirties. These similarities appear first of all in Plessner's Grenzen der Gemeinschaft and Macht und menschliche Natur and Schmitt's Der Begriff des Politischen and in his essay on Das Zeitalter der Neutralisierung und Entpolitisierung. In the light of the whole ongoing debate, at least two decades old, on the importance of Schmitt's thinking for, and its influence on, German intellectual life before and after World War II, and on his responsibility for intellectual support to National Socialism, the evident forms of intellectual cooperation and adoption of ideas between Plessner and Schmitt may be regarded as an odd and problematical phenomenon. Rudiger Kramme submits that Schmitt's concept of politics and his theory of the state provide a congenial supplementation to Plessner's political anthropology. In his study on Plessner and Schmitt of 1989, he argues there is in fact such a deep identity between these two thinkers that we should perhaps read their writings in parallel, as two complementary parts: an anthropological diagnosis and its direct operationalisation. Such a strong argument is of course immediately opposed and attacked by those convinced that Plessner has to be protected against any possible conquest from Schmitt's side. I do not share the point there is actually a need to protect Plessner against Schmitt. This kind of protection probably has a special meaning in the context of the German debate on intellectual culture in the Weimar Republic and the Federal Republic. Finally, we should also keep in mind the protection strategy can be turned around, and one can use the intellectual affinity between Schmitt and Plessner with the intention to save Schmitt's sinful soul. Closeness and distance between Schmitt's and Plessner's thought should be perceived and analysed in a much wider context of the general relationship between philosophy and politics.

Schmitt mentions Plessner in his main work on the concept of the political in a clearly positive context. Reflecting on the essence of the political, Schmitt indicates the very close connection existing between anthropology and politics and points out that the question of human nature touches directly upon the problem of the source of politics. For that simple reason, one cannot try to solve the problem of the political without first answering the question what the human being really is. This idea is to be found in Hobbes' Leviathan, where an analysis of politics and the state begins with a comprehensive chapter on human nature, the most interesting one in the work. But Schmitt evidently does not believe any more that this kind of relationship between anthropology and the political is still widely accepted at present. On the contrary, he believes it has been ignored and forgotten in the present-day positive sciences on law, politics and society. What he intends is to restore this relationship in reflection on the political and he finds very strong support indeed in Plessner's political anthropology. Thus, his evidently favourable opinion on Plessner was not just a mere courtesy between two scholars.

In Schmitt's book on the concept of the political we find a key passage devoted to the problem of relation between anthropological assumptions and political theories. He argues there that all political and state theories can be classified and analysed in terms of their underlying assumptions on human nature. Some of these theories are based on the concept of human nature being intrinsically good, while others are founded on the assumption that human nature is irreversibly evil. Schmitt stresses that this fundamental anthropological difference should not be understood in any substantial moral or religious terms. It is only a regulative difference referring to the main question whether we have to do with a problematic or non-problematic concept of human being, and whether we can infinitely trust it, or maybe we should, rather, stand in awe of it as an unpredictable and in fact dangerous creature. Has the human being a definite and clear-cut character or not - this is for Schmitt the decisive question opening any political reflection. And in deliberating that question he makes a direct reference to Plessner's anthropological concept of the open character of the human being.

Plessner's concept of political anthropology is based on his philosophy of life and constantly acting man. According to that philosophy, acting man is like a king in the sense that he grows into what he is, he realizes all his potential possibilities and controls his destiny only thanks to his activity and creativity. It is not any aim but, rather, acting itself as a permanent process, that gives acting man sense and the ultimate justification. Only by acting, which is of course always an occasional, historical and temporal phenomenon, is the human being able to find access to its essence, greatness and its human nature. No physis exists in the sense of a universal pattern placed beyond the historical and temporal existence of human beings, which should be reflected or imitated in human life. The only unquestionable facts concerning human nature we can ascertain beyond doubt are its impenetrability and openness. An approximate insight into human nature is provided only through the countless human acts rooted in each historical situation. Our nature is impenetrable in terms of knowledge and science, but we receive an occasional and very narrow, mediated access to it through our acts. This point of view allows Plessner to give an anthropological definition of man as a subject responsible for his own world, a creative place from which all timeless systems and norms have come out, giving man a deeper sense and justifying his existence.

We can find a very similar argument in Schmitt's paper of 1929: Das Zeitalter der Neutralisierung und Entpolitisierung. Schmitt points out there that all ideas from the spiritual sphere are pluralistic and therefore understandable only through instances of their concrete political existence. Accordingly, each nation has its own idea of nation, and each period in culture has its own way of understanding the idea of culture. In conclusion, Schmitt argues that all the relevant ideas of the spiritual sphere have an existential, rather than normative, character.

That brings us to another important point shared by Plessner and Schmitt, to the problem of decision and its anthropological foundation. According to Plessner's political anthropology, the creativeness of the human being is probably not one of the most important but simply the only guarantee of the emergence, and preservation, of a single, subjective autonomy. Autonomy results from the power able to create it. This situation we all as human beings are confronted with is our destiny we can neither overcome nor repeal. This means that every limit and every horizon enabling one to perceive one's own subjectivity as autonomous, amicable, familiar and existentially different from others, aliens, has to be first generated and then preserved. From that point of view, every kind of identity and difference between human beings is always rooted in a decision and has, in that sense, a historical, changeable and impermanent character. For Plessner, these existential decisions have no links to any kind of physis in the ancient sense of the term, and they are each historical, unexpected and unaccountable. Creative power construed as the destiny of the human being faced with its historical condition is the only source of, and justification for, these decisions and their normative results. This means that every normative rule lasts and is obligatory to the extent defined by that power, which has to be always behind it. There is no normative rule and no normative obligation without a link to the personal, subjective power of creativeness.

For a very similar reason, Schmitt attacked the argument of legal positivism proposed in the theory of Hans Kelsen as an unjustified claim to objectivity and universality placed above and beyond any human historical condition. His concept of sovereignty is based on the same assumptions of the unaccountability of human decisions, which are always 'incurably' deeply rooted in the occasional historical context. Precisely for that reason, no-one can justify the legitimacy of any sovereign decision through reference to the logic of history, to the absolute necessity of the progressive process or to the rational nature of tradition. History and tradition as such have no autonomous meaning and, being ta ton anthropon pragmata and absolutely profane, cannot be treated as a universally binding foundation for the acting human being. Schmitt's definition of nomos, which we find in his Der Nomos der Erde, seems to be decisive for his understanding of normative power. Defining the Greek term nomos as the ruler or the sovereign, Nomos Basileus, Schmitt adduces the famous fragment from Pindar, quoted also by Herodotus and Plato in his Gorgias, where law was described as a ruler acting all-powerfully and vehemently. Keeping his distance from the sophist Callicles and interpreting his statement in Gorgias as agreement to the simple normative force of the existing facts (Die normative Kraft des Faktischen) and the arbitrary right of the stronger, Schmitt argues that the original sense of the Greek nomos is, rather, the absolute immediateness and directness of the power creating the legal order, a pure act of legitimacy. This kind of creation of normative lines and horizons could be compared with the situation when someone has put down the first line on an entirely blank sheet of paper, or with the first land measurements taken on a newly discovered continent.

To sum up the main assumptions underlying Schmitt's concept of the political and Plessner's political anthropology, the political as a historical phenomenon arises from the human condition that should be perceived and understood, in some sense, as a lack (according to Christian tradition) and as an immanent openness and impenetrability (in accordance with the philosophy of permanently acting man). From that point of view they both, Schmitt and Plessner, cannot approve of the old understanding of human nature in the sense of physis, as we find it in the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle. This rejection of that fundamental idea of ancient political philosophy seems to be a decisive common feature in their philosophical approach to the problem of the political in modern times. The question whether to reject or not to reject the Greek concept of nature need not be solved automatically by declaring oneself in favour of modernity. In any case, the rejection of the Greek physis in political philosophy is not self-evident in the context of modernity, as the case of Leo Strauss clearly shows. In particular, Strauss gives a very clear definition of political philosophy, and of philosophy in general, reconstructed on the basis of the ancient concept of the political. To him, philosophy simply means an attempt to replace the widespread opinions (doxa) on the notion of the whole with the authentic knowledge (episteme) of the whole. By no means does he reject history: on the contrary, he perceives it as the only possible and attainable way for modern man to learn and retrieve the ancient and lost meaning of human nature. In a letter of 1946 addressed to Karl Loewith he makes a very significant remark on Loewith's approach to philosophy, which applies to Plessner and Schmitt, too. Strauss raises objections to Loewith that, instead of understanding philosophy as replacing doxa with episteme, he prefers philosophy in the sense of a mere self-understanding and self-interpretation of man, which in that particular case means man evidently historically determined. Finally, this point of view on philosophy inevitably leads, so Strauss, to a split between history and nature, and results in a complete philosophical rejection of any strong approach to human nature. Against that kind of Strauss' argument, Plessner would probably assert that his approach to nature does not mean its total rejection in favour of history. It is just a frank assertion that the link between nature and historical man necessarily has a paradoxical shape. That is the only thing that can be established from the human standpoint. Historically determined doxas are the one and only way available to man to provide him with any approximate idea of what his ahistorical nature can be. That situation is in itself paradoxical. Schmitt agrees in point of fact with this paradoxical view of human nature as an impenetrable phenomenon, and in that sense he stands entirely by Plessner and Loewith in their controversy against Strauss and his view on political philosophy. One can argue that Plessner's and Schmitt's position aims to recover that sense of the political which was rejected in Plato's political philosophy, as ta ton anthropon pragmatta - a sphere of human activity and human business. To avoid completely reducing politics to the simple techne and identifying them with material, worldly needs, Plessner ennobles ta ton anthropon pragmatta with the concept of the creative nature of human activity, and Schmitt with his concept of sovereignty. The political is thereby closed within the limits of the human, historical world, and any further deliberations on its metaphysical, rational or religious contexts are cut short.

The perception of the political as a matter of human business and human activity has some very important implications for Plessner's and Schmitt's thought, which does not seem to be so very self-evident in the context of the criticism addressed mostly against Schmitt's concepts of sovereignty and decisionism. The first major consequence is the pluralistic shape of the world as a direct result of creative and powerful acting man. The nature of the political grown out of the human condition has to be pluralistic in the sense of the constantly changing and replaceable forms of human acts. For Plessner, a complete and perfect identity and autonomy, which would contain all potential possibilities of human nature, or could take a dominant position among other identities and autonomies, does not exist and cannot be created. Human creation always takes an incomplete and deficient shape, resulting in a human attitude towards reality called 'creative resignation' by Plessner. This kind of resignation, which becomes, in the end, the true emancipation of historical man, is based on the conviction that no cultural form representing the whole spiritual sphere can be produced by man. Plessner does not believe in the concept of universal culture as a reflection of universality itself. He rejects, in fact, any direct aspiration to such universality. Human beings are predestined or doomed to diversity. The same belief can be found in Schmitt's concept of the political. As Plessner rejects the idea of universal culture, so Schmitt rejects the ideas of a universal legal system and a universal World State. The human political world is composed of many political units. Consequently, a world which could be identified with one all-embracing political unit would cease to be political. The real essence of the political is its polemical character, from the Greek word polemos, which means difference, altercation, and quarrel. In human life there is no escape from this polemical kind of the political. Differences between human beings are unavoidable and this situation generates the political as part of human destiny.

One could fear that such a concept of the constantly changing and replaceable cultural autonomies and political units has to lead to selection in the Darwinian sense. If there is no anchoring in any kind of physis or universality, in any finis ultimus or summum bonum, creative power remains the only criterion of selection and differentiation. Plessner and Schmitt would probably agree with that conclusion, since they believe that human life is risky, open and unsafe. There is no such thing as complete security in human life as they see it--plena securitas in hic vita non expectanda; Schmitt recalls that sentence in his book on the concept of the political. This brings me to another important consequence of Plessner's and Schmitt's position. The lack of complete security and certainty in human life is the price we have to pay, but it may also be a guarantee of the unavoidable heterogeneity of the human world. Complete homogeneity is not possible. This idea becomes the keynote of Plessner's concept of community limits. Plessner, in fact, rejects the hope of 'natural' communal human life as rooted deeply in Romantic tradition, where an assumption is made that complete harmony and identity are required and desirable for a true and natural community. Even in those communities based on affective bonds, such as ethnical bonds, blood ties or close family ties, complete homogeneity and identity seem to be impossible. This concerns, to the same extent, a political community organized by the principle of charismatic leadership and a religious community founded on revelation. It is the category of love that is the essence bonding internally every kind of human community.

Plessner's argument is: Without love, no community is imaginable-neither in the sense of Platonic philosophy, nor in the sense of the Apostle Paul's concept of agape as expressed in his Epistle to the Corinthians. But it is precisely within the same category of love that the limits of human community are enclosed. Every human being is more or less capable of sacrifice for, devotion to and solidarity with other members of the community, but not towards all of them with the same intensity, and not permanently. In the life of every true community there are special ecstatic moments when the highest levels of identity and intensity of integration are required for the community to survive. However, those ecstatic moments are very rare and there is no possibility and no need to expect a full mobilization of community members all the time. The community has to be able to transform itself into one based on less intensive social, traditional, functional and institutional bonds for it to exist and to continue in the so-called 'normal' times. According to Plessner, this capability of transformation is exemplified by the considerable wisdom possessed by the Church and the state, making it possible for them to continue in history, in contrast to both kinds of Communist ethos: nationalistic-racist and international, which promise a permanent mobilization and identity of their followers.

Notwithstanding all the criticism against Schmitt as a nationalistic German thinker, in Schmitt's thought, too, full identification and homogeneity within a community are neither attainable nor justifiable. Even his concept of friend-enemy relationship cannot be reduced to a simple and completely homogenous community in the sense of nationalism or racism. This relationship only explains the political phenomenon of the highest possible level of integrative and disintegrative intensity within a human community related to other human communities. There is no promise of a 'happy ending' of any kind contained in that thought, which could be fulfilled in the form of a completely homogenous community, free from any kind of internal diversity, paradox or contradiction and with absolutely transparent, authentic and clear relations between its members. Schmitt, like Plessner, denies that human beings are able to create, and to live in, communities based directly on love. In his Verfassungslehre, Schmitt explicitly rejects the hope that complete identity may be reached by human beings within a political unit. Every kind of political unity has to be mediated and cannot be directly expressed with full intensity. And in the final conclusions of the second part of his Political Theology, we find Schmitt's very interesting suggestion concerning a human community as a form of unity which continues in the state of permanent rebellion against itself: the idea related by Schmitt to the ancient philosophical concept of Heraclitus and to the Christian concept of stasiology (stasis) connected with the problem of the Holy Trinity. 

What I have attempted to do in my presentation is to show what are, in my view, the most significant convergence of opinion and similarities appearing in Plessner's and Schmitt's thought on the political. One could dispute, of course, what degree of accuracy and adequacy my interpretation has allowed in the presentation of this similarity, but no-one can deny its evidence. I do not entirely agree with the interpretation of Rudiger Kramme, and do not share his general view that the concepts of the political in Plessner's and Schmitt's thought should be regarded as complementary. The affinity between these two thinkers is more complex and cannot be reduced to a simple division of labour, with Plessner providing the anthropological and philosophical foundation, and Schmitt constructing practical strategies upon it. We have to make an attempt to define the character of that affinity much more precisely, with due respect for its complexity. Otherwise, if we take it too directly, we may miss a crucial difference present in, or perhaps even constitutive for, this affinity. For the same reason, I cannot accept the interpretation based on the assumption that the case of the Weimar Republic is decisive for understanding Plessner's and Schmitt's affinity and its real limits.

What is the most significant sense of this convergence of views, of the similarities we find between Plessner and Schmitt? A reference to Strauss' opinions on ancient philosophy could again be very helpful. He draws our attention to the fundamental significance of the dispute between antiquity and modernity, with what seems to be its central conflict between the historical human condition and the concept of nature. The term modernity itself, modernitates, was not coined accidentally by Christian thought as a consequence of the 11th century revolution within the papacy, to be later adopted in modern times and finally turned into their most popular slogan. There is a very strong agreement between Christianity and modernity on this point, directed against antiquity. This kind of alliance may be observed when comparing St. Augustine's Civitas Dei and Hobbes' Leviathan. They both have the same message to communicate: no summum bonum is possible in this human life. The political and the state orders are human, and not divine, creations. There is an impassable limit dividing eternity from human life. And I think the same kind of agreement appears in the intellectual relation between Schmitt and Plessner: an agreement which does not cancel the profound differences dividing Christianity from modernity. And for that reason, the affinity between Schmitt and Plessner is more understandable as a tactical and not an essential one. In other words, all this applause on Schmitt's part for Plessner's political anthropology may not be very spontaneous: it mostly results, rather, from the need to find support in modernity in his struggle against the new forms of irrational and rational paganism. The affinity between Schmitt and Plessner has its limits. It is not accidental that Schmitt's reflection on the political tends in the direction of political theology and that he tries to moderate and discipline a strongly irrational, unlimited and dangerous meaning of the autonomous sovereignty expressed in human decision by using his key idea of representation, on which we find not one word in Plessner. Representation refers to what is absent in the human world but what exists beyond it, and what we believe in. In that sense, the idea of representation touches upon the very essence of the Christian understanding of what the world order created by man really is. It allows one to combine faith in the only, timeless and infinite God as the principle of the creation of the world and the world order on the one hand with the vision of the creative, dynamic, historical human being responsible for its temporal and finite world on the other hand. Symptomatically, Plessner willingly uses Schmitt's concept of friend-enemy relationship, but he keeps silent about the idea of representation. The explanation for that can be found in his brief remarks on his attitude towards Protestant metaphysics after the Wilhelminian era, which are very pessimistic and devoid of any illusions. Plessner stands on the ground of the philosophy of permanently acting man, not of political theology, and the only anchoring for this human activity he finds in culture as a historical process, and in the human knowledge of its nature, which glimmers through the life of the succeeding human generations and human acts.


Marek A. Cichocki - Filozof, germanista, politolog, współtwórca i redaktor „Teologii Politycznej”, dyrektor programowy w Centrum Europejskim w Natolinie i redaktor naczelny pisma „Nowa Europa”, adiunkt w Instytucie Stosowanych Nauk Społecznych Uniwersytetu Warszawskiego (specjalizuje się w historii idei i filozofii politycznej). Autor książek "Władza i pamięć" (OMP 2005), "Porwanie Europy" (OMP 2004) i "Ciągłość i zmiana" (1999), twórca programu w TVP Kultura „Trzeci punkt widzenia” (wraz z Dariuszem Gawinem i Dariuszem Karłowiczem).

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