The Sense of History: On the Political Implications of Karl Löwith's Concept of Secularization

by Jeffrey Andrew Barash
The Sense of History: On the Political Implications of Karl Löwith's Concept of Secularization
Jeffrey Andrew Barash
History and Theory
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Written during the period of his emigration to the United States, during and just after World War 11, the originality of Karl Lowith's book Meatlirlg in Hi.c.tor:\~ lies in its resolute critique of all forms of philosophy of history. This critique is based on the now famous idea that modern philosophies of history have only extended and deepened an illusion fab- ricated by a long tradition of Christian historical reflection: the illusion that history itself has an intrinsic goal. This modern extension and deepening of the chimera propagated by Christian historical reflection is what Lowith terms "secularization." Drawing on the arguments in Me~r~irzg

ill Hislory as well as those proposed in other contemporaneous and earlier writings, including Lowith's heretofore unpublished correspondence with Leo Strauss, this article attempts to set in relief the frequently neglected, yet eminently politi- cal implications of Lowith's idea of secularization. Among the problems implicitly con- sidered in relation to the theory of secularization in Menrzirlg irz History is a theme fre- quently addressed in earlier writings: the motives that led German intellectuals like Friedrich Gogarten. Martin Heidegger, and Carl Schmitt to adhere to the Nazi movement.

In commemoration of the centenary of the birth of Karl Lowith

In the preface to his book Menlzir~gill History, written during the period of his emigration to the United States during and just following World War I1 and pub- lished in 1949, Karl Lowith described the main theine of his work in the follow- ing terms:

After I had finished this small study of the large topic of Weltge.schichte nrzrl Heil.sgr.sclzel~erz[world history and the advent of salvation], I began to wonder whether the reader might not be disappointed by the lack of "constr~~ctive" results. This apparent lack is, however, a real gain if it is true that truth is more desirable than illusion. Assuming that a single grain of truth is preferable to a vast construct of illusions, I have tried to be hon- est with myself and, conseq~~ently,

also with my reader about the possibility, or rather the impossibility, of imposing on history a reasoned order or of drawing out the working of God.'

In view of the interpretation of the history of Western thought proposed in this work, these introductory remarks only serve to underscore the paradoxical char-

1. Karl Lowith, "P~.eface," Meorti~tg ill Hixtor:\> (Chicago, 1949), v; Weltge.~c.l~icl~te

~trrd Heil.sges- chelrerl. Zu, Kritil; tier Geschiclrts~~/~ilo,~o~~Itie~Schrftteri (Stuttgart, 1983),11, 608.


acter of the task that Lowith set out to accomplish in it. Indeed, in Meai~illg iiz History Lowith intended to demonstrate not only the illusory character of past attempts to impose a reasoned order on history or to grasp in it the hidden work of God; his purpose was to show that all of these different attempts to make sense of history thei~zselvesconstitute an ordered pattern. If Lowith consistently resist- ed any temptation to interpret this order in terms of a philosophy of history, he nonetheless assumed that the great attempts to make sense of historical develop- ment configure a single coherent movement. For Lowith, the tacit meaning of this historical movement, although hidden to those thinkers who traditionally sought a Divine or reasoned order in history, became identifiable only at the moment of its completion in the twentieth century. It is precisely this tacit pat- tern, as it emerged in the historicity of Western thought about history, that Lowith interpreted in relation to an age-old process of seculnrizritioll. What had above all become secularized since the beginning of the Christian era was the quest for historical meaning in the form of a final historical purpose.

In the pages that follow I will examine Lowith's paradoxical claim to have grasped a "historical pattern" or, in other words, a connecting link between the predominant conceptions of history in different periods which, from Antiquity onward, constitute a coherent movement in the general interpretation of history. If it can no longer be a question of a "divine" or "reasoned" teleological order, but of a hidden tendency toward secularization which first became intelligible in the twentieth century, what exactly could have been Karl Lowith's intention in seeking to identify this tendency?

In regard to the possibility of deriving a "constructive" result from his analy- ses, Lowith confessed that his ambition was quite modest-to the point that he even feared "disappointing" his reader. To my mind, this same modesty in the attempt to produce constructive results accounts for his hesitancy to buttress his conclusions by drawing Inore explicitly on the political assumptions of this work, which are either kept in the background or are not submitted to examination.' Nevertheless, these same political assumptions are clearly expressed in other ear- lier or contemporary works.

In the analysis of Karl Lowith's thought which I will undertake in the follow- ing essay, my main purpose will be less to impute a philosophy of history to him than to place in relief, in relation to the political assumptions of his concept of secularization, the profound quest which may already be gleaned from the para-

2. In niy opiriio~i it is precisely Lowith's discretioti co~icernitig the political ratiiifications of his idea of secularization that accoutits for a certain cotifirsion ill Hans Blu~iietiberg's analysis. in Lqyitiiiiitiit tier Nerl~eit,of Lowith's interpretation of this Iiisto~.ical phenomenon. Sitice enipliasis placed 011 the role of secularization would seem to presunie that ~iiodern times are nierely at1 offshoot of Christiatiity, Blu~iienberg criticized tlie Ilse of this concept by Lowitli and otlier authors for placing ill doubt tlie legiti~iiacy of ~iiodern ti~iies on their own tertiis. A~no~ig

the authors criticized for their use of the concept of secularization, Blu~iienberg iticludes Carl Scli~nitt who. wliile voicing the "strotigest expressioti ot' secularization tlieoretii," tionethelesc represerits a sitiiilar tendency. On tlie contrary, Lowith's concept of secularization, as I will have occasion to de~iiotist~-ate

below, engages a particularly sharp CI-itique of the decisionist theory of Carl Sch~iiitt. See Hans Blumenberg. Le~iriiiririit der Neu-eit (Frankfurt atn Main, 1983), 35-41, 102.


doxical title of the work. "the search for lines of continuity between the past and the present which permit us to elucidate, in the context of the twentieth century, the contours of our own identity. In adumbrating the political implications of Lowith's historical thought, I will attempt to show the way in which his thought might provide insight into our own situation in the aftermath of the ideological- ly-charged clashes of twentieth-century philosophies of history.

My analysis will be divided into two parts. The first part will focus directly on the idea of a historical pattern that emerges in the midst of the historicity of Western ideas of history and that leads, in the modern period, to an increasing secularization of thought. My analysis in the second part will draw out the polit- ical presuppositions of Lowith's reflection in order to examine the implications of this reflection in its twentieth-century context.

Anyone who has read Mearzirlg irl History will recognize the broad lines of inter- pretation of Western historical thought that are developed in this work. According to this book, Western historical thought is rooted in the original Christian expe- rience of time, which distinguished itself from the type of cosmological inter- pretation of historical time, modeled on the cyclical ebb and flow of natural events, that characterized ancient Greek speculation. The shift inaugurated by the early Christians in relation to this ancient experience of historical time occurred with the emergence of Christian eschatological faith for which history, far from turning eternally in a circle, opens out to the future and orients itself in terms of a goal: toward the esc,haton in the guise of the end of the world and of the last judgment.'

According to Lowith's well-known argument in Meclrlirzg in Histor-jl, the mod- ern idea of history extends this original Christian experience of historical time by its tacit assimilation of the idea of an orientation in the lines of continuity between different historical epochs. This assimilation becomes manifest through the profound affinity in the interpretation of historical time as development toward a goal that persists anid all the changes in Christian thought and then dominates the modern idea of history. 111 this movement, however, it is less a mat- ter of a simple prolongation of the Christian idea of historical titlie than of its reconfiguration: while the Christian idea of historical time is the source of the modern conception of progress, this modern conception could only come to pre- dominance by undennining its original Christian inspiration. It is this tendency

3. Wilhelm Dilthey advances a similar argument ill Eiirleitlorg ill rlir Geistec~~~irse~rrclrrfteir, Ga.\ct~rr~rrelrrSch~.;fteir(Stuttgart, 1973). 1, 254-267, 334, 349. Dilthey's interpretation of the contsi- bution of Christianity to the develop~nent of Western historical consciousness, above all through Saint Augustine's idea of the advent of salvation, provided a target for sharp criticism by the young Martin Heidegges in his course lectures of 192 1, Artgrtrti111t5 iorrl tle~. Ne~tplt~to~ri.sirrr~s.



(Frankfi~rt aln Main. 1995). LX. 159.173. Altllough Lowith attended these lectures. the critical analysis of Western historical thought that he developed in Mmirbrg i~r Histoi? had a very different aim.

to assimilate the Christian orientation toward historical time while rendering obsolete its initial religious source that Lowith designates under the heading "secularization."

The originality of Lowith's analysis stems less from his general notion of the development of Western historical reflection than from his interpretation of the precise implications of this development. As Lowith himself was the first to rec- ognize, the idea of an "Auflzebung" of the Christian religion, through which modernity drew its inspiration from the Christian wellspring while obturating its original religious source, has since Hegel served as one of the principal models of European historical reflection. The Enlightenment had already tacitly adopted the teleological Christian view of history while questioning its supernatural, tran- scendent assumptions. Hegel radicalized this movement of secularization of the Christian view of history, since he did not simply reject the Christian faith, but claimed to envisage the way toward its fulfillment. Hence, after 1500 years of Western thought, Hegel, according to Lowith, was the first thinker who ventured to "translate the eyes of faith into the eyes of reason and the theology of history as established by Augustine into a philosophy of history which is neither sacred nor pr~fane."~

As I shall illustrate in Part 11, this "translation" of the theology of history into the philosophy of history, reformulated in the framework of the most diverse philosophical positions in the post-Hegelian world, would have particu- larly fateful consequences for Germany and for Europe.

Lowith's principal task in Menrzirzg in Histoty was not only to reveal the whol- ly illusory nature of these Enlightenment and Hegelian attempts to confer mean- ing on history, but above all to show that such secularized ideas of historical development propagated a chimera initially rooted in the Christian tradition of historical reflection itself. In this vein, the modern illusion concerning historical development only extended and deepened a fiction fabricated by ancient and medieval Christians. Hence, if a profound line of continuity unites all of the great exprebsions of Western historical reflection since the end of Antiquity, this con- tinuity stems above all from the tendency of each of these expressions to embody an illusion. The binding link through which Lowith imposed an order on Western interpretations of history turns out to be a long series of illusions which contin- ually deepened as the idea of progress toward a goal-the heritage of Christianity-became an affair of this world.

One might be tempted to interpret Lowith's conception of history as just another expression of the history of decline (Ve$allsgeschichte) of the West which, in inverting the Hegelian interpretation of history, depicts the idea of his- torical progress as a mask which a civilization adorns to hide the advent of its own decline. Had Heidegger not already portrayed the connection between the epochs of history since Antiquity as a movement toward decline occasioned, not by the coming of secularization, but by a deepening forgetfulness of Being? Did the modern philosophies of progress since Hegel not represent, for Heidegger, the most extreme expression of this forgetfulness? I will postpone consideration

4. Lowith, Met~r~iii,yiii History, 59

of the interpretation of decline among Lowith's contemporaries until part I1 in order to examine more closely the notion of a line of continuity between the Christian and the secularized ideas of history.

At the end of the fourth chapter of Mecining cznrl History, entitled "Progress versus Providence," Lowith explains that the implications of the illusory inter- pretation of meaning in history were of a different character in the Christian and in the modern secularized philosophies. In the Christian philosophies this inter- pretation was "two-dimensional," whereas the secularized philosophies of histo- ry leveled it down to a single dimension.' In what sense is this leveling down to be understood? Sinlply in the sense that the traditional Christian distinction between profane world history and the supernatural advent of salvation collaps- es under the impact of the secularized philosophies of history. Where the Christian interpretations of history presupposed a fundamental distinction between human history and the opacity of a historical advent directed by God's inscrutable will, the secularized philosophies, in transferring the Christian idea of Divine providence into the world, proposed to render the advent of salvation an object of human previ~ion.~

Thus, the illusion that history embodies an ulti- mate, albeit hidden, "meaning" only intensifies when it fuels the assumption that this sense can be foreseen, or even produced, by humanity.

An attempt to provide a detailed recapitulation of Lowith's idea of this move- ment would reach beyond the framework of the present brief analysis of his thought. I will hence not deal with the long preparation of modern secularized ideas of history, from St. Augustine and Joachim of Floris to Bossuet, marked by an ever more resolute projection of eschatological hope in the advent of salvation onto human secular history. I will focus on one sole aspect of Lowith's interpre- tation, which provides particularly clear insight into the connection that he sought to establish between the Christian and secularized ideas of history: the portrayal of Joachim of Floris. It is in relation to this particular connection that, for Lowith, a theologically inspired doctrine surprisingly-even disconcertingly-transformed itself into a radically political problem.

The chapter on Joachim of Floris in Mealzing in History challenges the cus- tomary renditions of historical understanding current among Lowith's contem- poraries. Lowith's thought places in question above all the assumptions of the predominant historicist tradition, stemming from Hegel, for which the historical worldview represents a fundamentally modern achievement. While purifying this worldview of its underpinnings in the metaphysics of the absolute spirit, histori- cism-after the fashion of Wilhelm Dilthey or of Friedrich Meinecke-held modern secularized consciousness of the essential historicity of truth to be a sign of modern superiority-and hence of a relative progression in relation to all ear- lier traditions. Lowith, however, aimed to demonstrate that precisely this idea of the essential historicity of truth, far from being particular to modernity, already emerged in the "theological historism" of Joachim of Floris. With Joachim, as

Ibirl., 1 03
Lowith writes, "the Christian truth itself has, like the logos of Hegel, a temporal setting in its successive developments. With Augustine and Thomas, the Christian truth rests, once and for all, on certain historical facts; with Joachim the truth itself has an open horizon and a history which is essential to it."' Moreover, far from indicating a "progression" of the human spirit, the later receptioii of this idea of the advent of the epochs of Christian truth provided the surest evidence of the decline of Christian spirituality toward the modern philosophies of histo-


The future reception of Joachim's "theological historism" would propel this decline by representing the advent of salvation in terms of a periodization of world history. Here the supernatural intervenes directly in the field of human his- tory, as the advent of salvation develops in the midst of three great historical epochs: the Age of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. This brings an entirely new mode of historical interpretation to the fore, namely in relation to the sharp doctrinal distinction between the citlitas (lei and the civitns terrella in the thought of St. Augustine. Joachim's followers and interpreters projected the early Christian nzotij'of the coming of salvation, subsequent to the overthrow of the order of this world, directly onto the developnlent of human secular hi~tory;~ in this manner they intended to turn a critical eye toward the worldly power of the medieval Church. Claiming to extrapolate from the teachings of Joachim as well as of St. Francis of Assisi, this movement mixed messianic Christianity with the radicalism of political demands that the Church condemned as heretical.

Yet, to Lowith's mind, the heritage of this movement was particularly fateful. In a footnote Lowith recalls the fascination it elicited throughout the centuries up until the contemporary period. This fascination was reflected by the enormous influence of the book of Ernst Kantorowicz, Frieclrich 11, with its theme of a mes- sianic mission bequeathed to a "secret Germany" by the struggles of the four- teenth century-until the utter profanation of this mission by Adolf Hitler." Another footnote recalls the persistence anlong the fascist ideologues of themes borrowed from this movement.") In an astonishing passage at the very end of the chapter in Mealzil~g ill History dealing with Joachim, Lowith included the fol- lowing lines which, in a book so politically discreet, are surprisingly charged with political significance:

The revolution which had been proclai~ned within the framework of an eschatological faith and with reference to a perfect monastic life was taken over, five centuries Inter, by a philosophical priesthood, which interpreted the process of seculari~ation in terms of a "spiritual" realization of the Kingdom of God on earth. As an attempt at realization, the

7. Ibid., 156. The German translation, which Lowith supervised, reinforces this interpretation by referring not to a "history" which is essential to truth but to truth's essential /risto~.icir!. (\~,ere~rtliclre Gesclrichtlic~lrkrit). Weltgesc~l~ichte

111rd Hrilsjirschelrerr. 170.

8. Lowith refers here to the interpretation and distortion of Joachim's theolo:ical doctrine to polit- ical ends in the fourteenth century, notably by Cola di Rienzo. As Lowith explains, this later inter- pretation goes far beyond Joaclii~n's ol.iginal theological intentions.

Ibid.. 245.

spiritual pattern of Lessing, Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel could be transposed into the pos- itivistic and materialistic schemes of Comte and Marx. The third dispensation of the Joachites reappeared as a third International and a third Reich, inaugurated by a dux or a Fiihser who was acclaimed as a savior and greeted by millions with Heil! The source of all these formidable attempts to fulfill history by and within itself is the passionate, but fearful and humble, expectation of the Franciscan Spirituals that a last conflict will bring history to its climax and end."

This surprising conclusion to the chapter in Merrrling irl Histot;~ dealing with Joachim of Floris brings us back to the paradox that we encountered at the out- set of this analysis: if Lowith seeks to overcome the illusory attempts by tradi- tional philosophies of history to inlpose a Divine or a reasoned order on history, his attempt paradoxically depends on the identification of an ordered historical movement encompassing the great interpretations of history throughout the Western tradition.

One might try to minimize the acuity of this paradox by recalling that Lowith's chief target was the quest for salvation in world history, the attempt to "fulfill his- tory by and within itself." However, the critique of this quest was hardly partic- ular to Lowith: it was shared by the proponents of historicism themselves, most notably by Dilthey. While Dilthey considered the emergence of historical con- sciousness to represent progress for humanity, he never attributed an absolute significance to this progress, nor did he consider it to be a source of salvation. Indeed, Dilthey's critique of historical reason, which historicized all values by relating them to worldviews, aimed above all to discredit any claim, as he wrote in his Ei~zleit~lrzg to unearth the "ultimate secret" of

in (lie Geistesn~isse~~scl~cfterl, history as of nature.I2 And yet Lowith's criticism was turned as sharply against Dilthey's historicism as against such all-encompassing philosophies of history as that of Hegel or of Marx.

In another perspective, one might attempt to resolve this paradox by bringing to mind the fact that Lowith, in contrast to the predominant German philosophi- cal orientations since Hegel-both of progress and of decline-did not seek to develop a new type of historical reflection, but to overcorne this reflection as the characteristic mode of analysis of the human world. Lowith adopts this critical attitude toward historical reflection per se in the epilogue to Merirzir~g ill Histo~:,i, while calling for a renewal of the model of cyclical time characteristic of ancient Greek thought patterned on natural phenomena.I7 Since Lowith proposed this idea more as a portent for the future than as a definite philosophical program, it remained quite vague. As early as 1933, Lowith had written to Leo Strauss that his aim was to think, on the basis of a radically historical consciousness (a~f Grlltzcl eirles e,utrenl kistorisckerl Bervusstsei~~s),

in an entirely unhistorical man-

1 I. Ihitl., 159.

12. Dilthey, Ei~rleitrr~r~ Gesc11i7117elte

irr tlie Gei.~te.~\~~isse~rscIrtifterr, Scl7rifie1r.I, 9 1-92

13. Lowith, Me~~rirr,yi~r Hi.F/ot?., 207.

ner (gnnz ur7lzistorisch); this critique of historical modes of reflection did not, however, warrant for him the positing of a human "nature" in the Straussian sense, patterned on a given idea of this nature as it had fi~nctioiied in ancient Greek philosophy. As Lowith wrote in this same letter composed on the eve of Hitler's accession to power, which is of great help in clarifying his philosophical orientation well beyond the year 1933:

I thus think in a rnore I~istoricril manner than you do, since the historicity of reason has become self-evident for me, and at the same time. on that very ground, in a less I~istoricril manner, since I constantly accord to the preserzt, in the perspective of the future, an absolute historical right. You, however, absolutize a history that is no longer our history, atzd s~~bsrirlrtt. rr11 nbsollrte Clzr-istintzity Yo~r ask: what is 111r171ritl

NII CIDSOILIICAt~tiq~rih,for

irl\l and what has become of it-I begin by formulating the question in this same way. arrive however at the factical (fr~ktisclie)conclusion: "that is not the way we ore" and "what can still become of h~manity"!'~

In my opinion, if Lowith's conception of the lines of continuity between dif- ferent historical epochs distinguishes itself from the post-Hegelian philosophies both of progress and of decline, this is due less to a precise model of cosmolog- ical time than to another concern, directly related to the dilemma of Lowith's own present time. It is this dilemma which, since the period of his emigration in 1934, he constantly had to face. If Lowith sought a line of continuity between the Christian quest for salvation and the modern philosophies of history, it was above all in order to comprehend the link between historical ideas and totalitarian movements-principally Nazism. For this reason, in a number of writings prior to and contemporaneous with Mennir7g irz History, reflection concerning this link serves as a means for understanding the human situation in the twentieth centu- ry. Directly in relation to this link to the present time, Lowith engages the "radi- cally historical" consciousness aiming toward the future overcoming of the pre- sent.

This aspect of Lowith's work comes to light above all in his writings on the posterity of the Hegelian projection of salvation onto the secular historical world. In Mennirzg irz History, as in other contemporaneous essays such as "The Dynamics of History and Historicism" ("Die Dyrzanzik cler Geschichte ~~r7d

cler-Historismus"), Lowith extended his analysis of Hegelian philosophy as the cul- mination of a tendency tacitly present in the age-old Christian tradition. This analysis focused on Hegel's famous words : "World history is the tribunal of the world" (Die Weltgeschiclzte ist dc~s Weltgericht).Is As Hegel himself wrote, this judgment represented a transposition of the Christian last judgment (jiingster Gericht) into the secular sphere. In this sense, "world history is the tribunal of the world" embodies the movement of secularization that the Hegelian philosophy of history brings to fulfillment. Yet it is not only due to the line of continuity it

Unpublished letter from Karl Lowith to Leo Strauss, 8 January, 1933, Leo Strauss archive, University of Chicago. I would like to thank Professor Joseph Cropsey for perrnission to quote frorn this letter.
Lowith, Merrrrirrfi irl His/oly; "Die Dyna~nik der Geschichte und der Historismus" [1952]. S<irrr//icl~e
Schrifren,11, 308.


reveals in the movement of world history that this phrase proves especially important for Lowith. Beyond the shift it indicates in the passage from the opac- ity of divine judgment ushering in the end of history to the rationalization of human history, this phrase is of decisive significance for Lowith because of the critical perspective it lays bare. This perspective most concerns contemporary German assuniptions about historicity-particularly fateful in their consequences-which constitute the principal legacy of Hegel's thought.

In his commentary on this legacy, in "The Dynamics of History and Historicism" and several years later, in "Man and History" ("Mensch ulltl Geschichte"), Lowith focused his criticism on Wilhel~n Dilthey, noting that for him, even more directly than for Hegel, "world history is the tribunal of the world."l(' History is the "tribunal" of the world in the sense that success in the sphere of world history is the ultimate criterion of truth. Viability in history becomes the principle that decides the legiti~nacy of all truth claims as such. This is the ultimate result of the millennia1 march of secularization, which tends to disregard all supernatural claims to truth, since the validity of such claims, in their independence of this world, cannot be judged in terms of the values that pre- dominate in it.

In the essay "Man and History" Lowith once again cited the phrase of Hegel, "world history is the tribunal of the world," but this time in relation to a critique addressed both against Dilthey and, even more fundamentally, against Marx. According to Lowith's argument, the Marxian theory of ideologies inaugurated the tendency to evaluate truth solely in terms of its historical efficacy (a tenden- cy which would predominate, albeit for a very different purpose, in Dilthey's his- toricism)." For the Marxian theory of ideology, there are no criteria of truth inde- pendent of the historical process, since all truth criteria are expressions of a his- torical context configured by the material conditions of production. As ideologies tacitly express the particular interests of given classes, only the proletarian revo- lution capable of abolishing classes and the particularity of their interests would, through the process of history, overcome this particularity in establishing univer- sally valid criteria of truth. In presupposing that this outcome is the necessary result of the historical process, the Marxian theory of ideologies tacitly extended the Hegelian assumption that "world history is the tribunal of the world," while transforming the very notion of philosophical truth itself. Where Hegel presup- posed the absolute character of such truth, the Marxian notion of ideology, in deriving truth criteria from material conditions of production, reduced all truth claims advanced in a class society to mere instruments of political action to be evaluated in light of their relation to the ultimate revolutionary goal.

Even more prominently than to Dilthey's historicism, Lowith assigned an especially important role to this Marxian transformation of Hegel's philosophy of history into an instrument of political action. In writings of the 1930s written

16. Lowitli, "Die Dynalnik der Geschichte ulid der Histori%~nus," S~iirrtlic~lre

Schrifieii. 11, 308: Lowith, "Mensch und Geschichte" [ 19601. Siiii~/lic.lrc~

Sc,hrjfteri. 11, 368.

17. Lowith. "Mensch ulid Geschichte," Siirirtlic.he Schi.jftcvr. 11. 368.

much earlier than "Man and History" and even than Meaizir~g ir~ History, Lowitli considered the tacit extension and distortion of this Marxian theory to underlie the decisionist theories of Carl Schmitt, Friedrich Gogarten, and Martin Heidegger. All three of these authors-the jurist, the theologian, and the philoso- pher-acting on the conviction that all past historical traditions were in decline and could no longer be considered to be a source of truth, identified resolute deci- sion in the face of nothingness as the sole foundation of tlie legitimacy of truth. And, after 1933, the call for resolute decision in the theories of all three of these authors led to political activisni in favor of the Nazi movement.

But how can decisionisni be a development of the Marxian idea that truth cri- teria are historically configured? That is, what allows us to situate tlie respective positions of these three authors in tlie move~iient of historical reflection as Lowith conceived of it? Clearly, as witnessed by the accent placed on individual decision in the context of cultural decline, the political orientations of Heidegger, Schmitt, or Gogarten radically opposed tlie liberalism of Dilthey and Marxian communism. It is true, of course, that fascism and Nazism both tacitly appropri- ated certain aspects of the Marxist legacy: Mussolini began his political career as a socialist before World War I and, as Ernst Bloch was one of tlie first to note, fascism and Nazism attempted to combat Marxism by co-opting certain of its claims and symbols.~Wonetlieless, this in itself would hardly provide sufficient support for the assertion that tlie decisionist theories are an ultimate outcome of a long tradition of secularization of the Christian sources of historical thought. Indeed, the decision concerning the criteria of political sovereignty according to Schmitt, of the sense of being of Daseiil for Heidegger, or of Christian faith "out of nothingness" for Gogarten would seem to derive from anything but tradition- al Christian eschatology or from Lowith's notion of its secularized expression tacitly e~iibodied in Marxian or liberal assumptions concerning history as a movement toward an ultimate goal. This is a crucial and admittedly difficult point in Lowith's analysis. It is rendered still more problematic by the paucity of explicit analysis of this theme, to which Lowith ~iierely alludes in Meatzing in Histo1:\1.~VetI believe that it is in interpreting the striking affinities between Lowith's analysis of the movement of historical reflection in this work in relation to his analysis in an earlier article of the 1930s, entitled "The Occasional Decisionisni of Carl Schmitt," that the profoundly political implications of Lowith's interpretation of secularization come to light.

The early but seminal article entitled "The Occasional Decisionisni of Carl Schniitt" was initially published in 1935 as a critique of Carl Sch~nitt and later rewritten and expanded to include critical analysis of Heidegger and Gogarten. Where in Meaning ill History Lowith attempted to link the perverse niessianism of twentieth-century fascist movements with a distortion of earlier historical reflection that had found one of its culminating points in tlie Marxist theory of

Ernst Blocli. E~.l>scl~qfi
See below.
tliese, Zeit 119.151 (Frankfurt an1 Main, 1985). 70-75: translated as Herito~yeof 0111. Tiirles by N. and S. Plaice (Berkeley. 1990). 64-69.


history, this earlier article attempted to tie decisionism, as he conceived of it, to a tacit extension and distortion of tlie Marxian concept of ideology. What appears in Menr~irzg in Histor:\. as a leveling out of two-dimensional Christian eschatol- ogy to produce a one-dimensional schema assimilating all truths to secularized historical truth criteria, finds a parallel movement in this earlier essay: before any explicit reference to the phenomenon of secularization in Lowith's work, analy- sis is centered in this earlier essay on the eradication of the autonomy of all tra- ditional truth criteria capable of transcending historical contingency that the Marxian concept of ideology inaugurated and decisionism distorted and extend- ed in the context of a radically different political orientation. Whac would appear in Meorli~zg irz Histor;), as the most fateful consequence of the "leveling out" of Christian historical reflection through elimination of its absolute otherworldly reference-a "leveling out" already epitomized, as we have seen. in the Hegelian dictum "world history is the tribunal of the worlds-was clearly foreshadowed in this earlier article of 1935 in relation to the reorientation brought about by the decisionist appropriation of Marx's concept of ideology.'(' Let us pursue this lat- ter analysis more closely for the light it sheds on Lowith's assuniptions.

The Marxian concept of ideology presupposed that values, far from possess- ing autonomous truth, draw their significance according to their place in the objective historical process in relation to the i~ltiniate revolutionary goal of over- coming the merely partial perspectives engendered by class society. In this sense, one could say that values, rather than absolute in a Platonic or traditional Christian sense, are always relative to their historical context in view of the ulti- mate revolutionary goal. What Schmitt, like Heidegger and Gogarten, shares with the shift in philosophical perspective inaugurated by Marx is obviously nei- ther the specific notion of ideology determined by a material infrastructure nor tliat of a dialectic movement of history toward conimunist revolution. Rather, the decisionist theories tacitly extended another aspect of the Marxian theory of ide- ology, while shedding its initial dialectical structure: the assiunption concerning tlie "facticity" of all values that emerge in the historical world, signifying their relativity to an existential situation in which truth is bereft of any autonomous status. Hence, Carl Schmitt postulated that the criteria governing political deci- sions are not determined on the basis of ally supreme truth content, but on an

20. 111 regard to the decisionism of Carl Schmitt, Lowith wrote: "This deviation of philosophical insight concerning the e\\elice of politics into an i~itellectual instrument of political actio~i occurred consciously and voluntarily for the first time in tlie debate that Marx engaged with Hegel." Cf. "Der Okkasionnelle Dezisionislii~~s VIII, 57: for an English

von Carl Schlnitt" [ 19351. Siii~itliclre S~111.1fieii. translation of this text, see Karl Lowitli. "The Occasional Decisionism of Carl Schmitt" in Mtr~.tirr Hrirlr,y,yei, c~rrd E/o.oproi~ Niliili~i~i.

ed. R. Wolin. transl. G. Steiner (New York, 1995). 137.169. Regarding tlie tlevelop~nelit of later ideologies. Lowitli e~iipliasized tlie funda~iiental role of Marx's thought rather that1 tliat of Hegel since, ill his perspective, Hegel was a "greater realist" than Marx. Mnrx was less of a realist-ill other words. Inore of an idealist-not because of principles he adopt- ed, hut because of their applicatioli. Hence Marx adopted all "eschatologicnl" poal. albeit ill secularized form, which. in its will to overcome this world by tlnnsforliiing it. showed itself to be far Inore radical than Hegel's i~itellectualism. Lowith'\ assumption that the commu~iist faith is "a p\eudometa- morphosis of Judeo-CIiri\tia~i messianism" drew the critical tire of Er~ist Bloch in DCITPi.iir;ip Hoff

existential situation stemming from the mere "factical" (fnktische) alliances of friend or foe in war; Heidegger sought to found all determinate contents or val- ues on decision in light of the factical existence of Dasein as being-toward-death; Gogarten's "religious decision" subordinates all determinate "worldly" values to primordial choice in the face of nothingness. Once the historical process offers no hope of overcoming the historical contingency of ideology to encompass a universal perspective, this contingency becomes the mark of truth itself which, in the context of the human historical world, can provide nothing more than a mere occasion for the realization of existential decision.

In stipulating that such decision emerges out of a confrontation with nothing- ness rather than in relation to specific, historically determined norms, each of these thinkers at the same time apparently broke with both Marxian and liberal assumptions concerning the historical process as movement toward a final goal, constituting for Lowith the tacit sign of secularization of traditional Christian eschatology. Indeed, for these three authors the decline of the historical process disqualified it as a source of normative values, necessitating radical decision in the face of nothingness. And yet it is precisely in their attempts to break with Marxian and liberal assumptions concerning the movement of history that the decisionist theories show their profound dependence on these assumptions and, from Lowith's standpoint, on a long heritage of reflection on historical meaning originating in Christian eschatology, of which these assumptions are the secular- ized expression. In Lowith's perspective, as I interpret it, this dependence has two aspects, showing decisionism to be both an outcome of secularization and, at the same time, like the predominant secularized theories of history in the West of which it is an ultimate, if pale expression, the tacit reflection of an age-old eschatological orientation.

The first aspect concerns the tendency to interpret all norms manifested in the human historical world as merely relative to that world and thus bereft of any



(Gesoirlrt~elte Schrifretl, Band V, 2 [Frankfurt aln Main, 19591, 1612). It is tempting to interpret the idea of history presented in Mecitzit~g irl Histot;i> as a reaction to Bloch's portrayal of the relation between Marxism and Christianity in his earlier work Erl~sclic!fi dieser Zeit [ 19351 (Her.itcrge oj'01rt. Titlres). 111 this work, Bloch had already underlined the central role of the historical messianism of Joachim of Floris for the development of later social movetnents. Bloch's analyses are of particular interest in relation to Lowitli's theories, since they develop a number of assumptions which, in mod- ifying orthodox Marxist doctrines, elaborated an idea of history diametrically opposed to that of Lowith. Indeed, where for Bloch fascism incorporated-and perverted-certain aspects of Marxist philosophy that were in themselves legitimate, the major mistake of orthodox Marxism arose from its inability to integrate and demystify the religious aspirations that, over the past centuries, have con- stantly nourished social demands. Thu\, after praising the role of Joachim of Floris, Bloch wrote the following passage in which he e~iipliasized for the success of the Marxist program the importance of appropriating the religious heritage : "There will be no successfi~l attack on the irrational front with- out dialectical intervention, no ratio~ializatio~i

atid conquest of these areas without its own 'theology,' adjusted to the always still irrational revolutio~iary content." (ErD.~cllc!fidic~sei.Zeit, 154; English trans- lation. 139). For Lowith, completely to the contrary, the "idealistn" of Marxism results from the fact that the aspirations of faith tacitly orient its social program. It is this secularization of an earlier reli- gious promise-one that was doomed to be betrayed-which for Lowith exhibits the hidden affinity between Marxism and the Fascist programs which distort its fundamental principles.

validity beyond mere "factical" validity. As Lowith wrote in "The Occasional Decisionis~n of Carl Schniitt," the coninion root of the respective positions of these three authors appears in their "decisive conviction that every heritage-the products and tlie institutions, as much as the contents and the criteria-has collapsed into nothingness. This conviction establishes an implicit equivalence between tlie 'world' and the human historical world."" This is the extreme limit of a millennia1 niovenient of secularization once this Inovenlent was stripped not only of its absolute Hegelian underpinnings and liberal theories of historical progress, but also of the Marxian conviction of its ultimate outconie in commu- nist revolution. All that remained was an "occasionalist" relativism of values adapted to a given factical situation." This relativism provides for Lowith the clue to explain how each of these authors, after a period of great political ambi- guity in the context of tlie Wei~nar Republic, could so readily rally to Nazism in accord with the new factical situation presented by Hitler's absolute domination of Germany. Rather than fundamental principles capable of evaluating the his- torical process, decision in the case of each of these authors was made merely in relation to the facticity of a national context as tlie standard of historical judg- ment.

The second line of dependence of tlie decisionist theories on the historical assumptions of the orientations that they brought into question lies in their respective ideas of history as a process-even where, prior to their commitment to the Nazi program, this process was conceived in terms of decline rather than as forward movement toward a goal. Hence, the decisionist theories retained tlie crucial assumption that history as a global process has a meaning-even if a neg- ative one-and that it is within history that the meaning of history is to be sought. Precisely this assuniption concerning the overarching significance of history fueled the conviction among each of the decisionist theorists of the possibility of orienting the course of this process through historically effective action. After resolutely breaking with the Hegelian and post-Hegelian philosophies of history, the presupposition that world history has ultimate meaning or, still more pre- cisely, that "world history is the tribunal of tlie world," continued tacitly to ori- ent their theories, since each of them, with an eye turned exclusively toward the criteria of this world and toward the efficacy of decision in accord with these cri- teria, continued to pursue an ultimate meaning in history by means of resolute political action. This is why juridical, theological, and philosophical decisionism, even after having definitively broken with the conviction of world-historical progress predominant in the post-Hegelian world. could so willingly endorse a

21. Karl Lowith, "Der Okkasionnelle Dezisionismus von Carl Schmitt " (19351. it1 Sii~rrtlic~hr Sc,hrifierr.V111. 70.

22. Lowitli alludes to this idea in Meclrrirrg c111c1

his to^:\^, for example in the coticlusion of this work. where lie tiiakes the following argument in regard to Heidegger: "If the universe is tieither eternal and divine, as it was for the ancients, nor transient but created, as it is for the Christians, there retiinins only one aspect: the sheer contitigeticy of its mere 'existence'," Lowith. Mec~rrirr,qor7cl Histo,?,, 201. It is precisely this possibility that, accol.ditig to tlie earlier article. "The Occasional Decisiotiistii of Carl Schtnitt," Schmitt. Gogarteti, and Heidegger thought to its nihilistic conclusion.

perverse messianic movement seeking salvation in the advent of a national and racial history.

Recall, by way of conclusion, the preliminary remark that Carl Schmitt added to the second edition of his book Political Tl~eology published in 1933 several nionths after Hitler's rise to power. In this remark Sch~nitt referred to the Protestant pastor, Friedrich Gogarten, who had just proclaimed his alle,' Olance to the German Christians faithful to Hitler, thereby renouncing the fundamental principle that had inspired his theological position a decade earlier: the principle of an absolute distinction between God and the world, between theology and pol- itics. The jurist Schmitt, who ostentatiously proclaimed his adhesion to "Catholicism," offered the following commentary on the earlier, so-called apolit- ical position of the Protestant pastor:

Surely. in Protestant theology, another so-called apolitical theory represents God as the "wholly other," in the same way as for political liberalism, which corresponds to this the- ology, the State and politics are the "wholly other." In the meantime we have recognized that the political is the total (rlrrs Totrrle), and for this reason we also know that to decide that something is apolitical is itself always a political decision, regardless of who il~akes the decision and of the justifications in which it is clothed. This is just as true of the ques- tion as to whether a given theology is a political or an apolitical theology."

Neither truly political, nor authentically theological, such a position expresses for Lowith nothing more than the ultimate advent of a millennia1 tendency which, in promising salvation on this earth, leaps toward nothingness. It is this ultimate advent of "secularization" which, from Lowith's vantage point, reveals the bankruptcy both of the ideologies of progress and of decline. At the same time, this ultimate moment of a millennia1 tradition assigns to contemporary humanity a new task: that of casting off the burden of "faith" in the possibility of salvation in this world which, in a great variety of ways, propelled such a fateful historical movement. Inspired by Lowith's own assumptions, such liberation from the burden of eschatological faith in history aims primarily toward demys- tification of all claims derived-either openly or tacitly-from a "political theol- ogy" which confuses the two realms of faith and of history that it is of utmost importance to distinguish. This task calls for a re-examination of the notion of the political and, along with this, a rethinking of human identity itself as we draw toward the end of the twentieth century.

23. Carl Schmitt. "Vorbemerkung zur zweiten Ausgabe" Politirclre Tlieologie 119331 (Berlin, 1985),7.

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