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Peter Eli Gordon The Concept of the Apolitical: German Jewish Thought and Weimar Political Theology INTRODUCTION: WEIMAR POLITICAL THEOLOGY RECENT YEARS HAVE SEEN CONSIDERABLE DEBATE OVER THE CONCERNS of political theology and the question as to how the concepts and cate­ gories that inform political association may have derived historically from, or logically depend upon, prior concepts of religion. Debates over this question are partly normative: Does politics require theology, in the sense that theological concepts furnish the only possible warrant for our political commitments? Or, by contrast, does politics only come into its own if theology is dismissed? But the debate is also historical: Did politics only emerge as a transformation or worldly application (“secular­ ization” in the precise sense) of terms originally operative in a theologi­ cal context (as Karl Lowith claimed)? Or does politics, especially in its modem form, only claim its legitimacy by virtue of its attempt (as Hans Blumenberg argued) to place modernity itself on entirely new founda­ tions? These debates may seem especially urgent today given the resur­ gence of political movements, both East and West, that claim to derive their legitimacy from religious principles: Christian, Jewish, Hindu, and Islamic. But for intellectual reasons alone it seems worthwhile to revisit some of the foundational debates out of which the current discussion of political theology was bom .1 social research Vol 74 : No 3 : Fall 2007 855 It is difficult to isolate one discrete historical moment since the attendant themes have an ancient lineage that stretches at least as far back as Saint Augustine’s reflections on the harmony or potential strife between the earthly city and the city of God. It is well known, however, that political theology underwent a dramatic resurgence of attention in Weimar Germany in the years following World War One. In those debates certain names recur with great frequency: Carl Schmitt, Leo Strauss, Franz Rosenzweig, Ernst Bloch, Ernst Kantorowicz.2 But in the specific context of Weimar political theology one name is almost never heard: Hannah Arendt. The question I would like to pose in this paper is admittedly strange because its form is negative: Why does Arendt’s conception of political life not conform to the terms of political theo­ logical debate? The beginnings of an answer—and a beginning is all I can attempt here—can only be found by revisiting some of the politi­ cal-theological alternatives that appeared on the scene during Arendt’s formative years in Weimar Germany. LEO STRAUSS AND THE THEOLOGICO-POLITICAL PROBLEM In 1962 the political philosopher Leo Strauss, now living in Hyde Park on the flanks of the University of Chicago, drafted a new preface to the English translation of his 1930 book, Die Religionskritik Spinozas. The pref­ ace begins by naming what Strauss considered the central problem of modern philosophy: “This study on Spinoza’s Theologico-political Treatise was written during the years 1925-28 in Germany,” Strauss writes. “The author was a young Jew born and raised in Germany who found himself in the grip of the theologico-political predicament” (Strauss, 1965:1). Just what was the theologico-political predicament? While the details or possible merits of Straussian doctrine will not be my focus here, a general characterization seems crucial especially if we wish better to understand the general history of German-Jewish thought over the last century.3 For present purposes, we should first recall that Strauss himself was born in 1899, just seven years before Hannah Arendt, whose centennial we honored this past year. Both were German 856 social research Jews steeped in classical and modern philosophy. And both found in Martin Heidegger an early inspiration for their own work, though it must also be noted that their initial phase of enthusiasm soon turned to disenchantment when Heidegger, like so many of his German contem­ poraries, moved to embrace National Socialism. Disenfranchised by their native government, both eventually sought refuge in the United States—Strauss in 1937, Arendt in 1941—where they took up teaching positions, at the University of Chicago and the New School for Social Research, and laid the foundations for two ofthe most enduring schools of political thought. A comparative study of these two...


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