IPRH Distinguished Lecture, Feisal Mohamed, “Republican Political Theology in the Age of Hobbes”
Guest Writer: J. Patrick Fadely

Friday, October 5, 2012

posted under , , , , by Unit for Criticism

The illustration to Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan
[On October 3, 2012 the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities held its third Annual IPRH Distinguished Lecture in the Humanities. Feisal Mohamed (English/CSAMES), who is also a retiring member of the Unit for Criticism’s Advisory Board, presented a lecture entitled “Republican Political Theology in the Age of Hobbes.”]

Sovereignty, Sacrifice, and the Myth of Secularization

J. Patrick Fadely (English)

Professor Feisal Mohamed began his talk by describing a menacing political landscape. In the world he invoked, the sovereign's personal will trumped the rule of law, the force of revelation impinged on rational thought, and internecine religious conflicts threatened political stability. But he wasn't talking (yet) about an early modern England convulsed by religious strife and civil war. Rather, he was describing our own political moment, the latest installment of the dialectic of Enlightenment, in which the end of the Cold War has led not to the promised end of history, but to an era of terror and perpetual war.

Professor Feisal Mohamed, English/CSAMES
In this political climate, scholars have increasingly turned their attention toward the intersection of politics and religion. The works of Carl Schmitt, influential interpreter of Hobbes who was also a controversial conservative jurist (and eventual Nazi supporter) , have been particularly influential in shaping the resulting scholarly conversation. Mohamed's return to the age of Hobbes intervenes in current debates about political theology in two ways. First, it extricates Hobbes's republicanism from Schmitt's interpretive grip and second, it does so by way of exploring the work of Roger Williams and Sir Henry Vane, two of Hobbes's contemporaries. Their notions of republican political theology provide insights about the consonance between the early-modern and postmodern political situations that a narrow focus on Schmitt and Hobbes overlooks.

As opposed to Schmitt, who situates Hobbes in a "grand narrative of secularization," Mohamed sought to return Hobbes to his own cultural and political context. He suggested three specific ideas whose influence in England Hobbes deemed pernicious to the state: classical and continental republicanism, theories of mixed polity, and the doctrine of liberty of conscience (which sought to curtail the crown's power in matters of religion). Mohamed suggested that reading the Leviathan (1651) as a response to these pressures, allows us to see what a Schmittian interpretation necessarily misses: namely that Hobbes's commitments to “decisionistic” sovereignty on the one hand, and the mechanical rationalism of the new philosophy on the other, are not mutually exclusive but co-constitutive aspects of his political thought.

Mohamed next turned to the Roman influences on Hobbes's political theology as a way of showing the cracks in the edifice of Leviathan. Hobbes, Mohamed argued, praised, yet failed to understand Rome's henotheism, which admitted the worship of a plurality of gods while maintaining a centralization of state power in religious affairs. Had Hobbes read his Porphyry more carefully, he would have realized that it was not Judaism, as Hobbes claimed and Schmitt enthusiastically echoed, that threatened this arrangement of the relationship between throne and altar; it was Christianity, whose confession of faith could admit no other and no higher locus of sovereignty than Christ.

Mohamed then turned his attention to the "Godly republicans," whose rejection of any state-sanctioned church and advocacy of full liberty of religious conscience make them diametrically opposed to Hobbes. The political theology formulated on these principles constitutes, for Mohamed, the "uniquely English contribution to the republican tradition." Mohamed enlisted Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island Colony, and Sir Henry Vane the Younger, a British statesman, to represent this strain of republican thought. By examining Williams's correspondence, Mohamed showed how fervent belief in liberty of conscience can nevertheless underwrite the establishment of an ad hoc theodicy. This is because Williams and other Godly republicans who rejected the authority of the state in religious matters, maintained, nevertheless, a messianic hope "that non-interference [would] allow the saints to rise to their rightful reign in God's time.”

Henry Vane the Younger, by Sir Peter Lely
In the little-studied works of Henry Vane, Mohamed explained, one finds the most programmatic expression of Godly republicanism, bolstered by his status as a martyr for the Protestant cause (he was executed by the Restoration government for his politics in the Interregnum). Vane's work codifies, and his life instantiates, the three aspects of the political theology of the Godly republicans: an abstract sense of the locus sovereignty, a belief in the authority of a spiritual elect, and an eschatological historical perspective, in which a fundamentally corrupt present order awaits redemption in the fullness of time. This last aspect of Godly republicanism brought Mohamed's argument back to the post-secular present. He cited the work of Paul Khan (keynote at the Unit for Criticism’s Bios conference) and other recent scholarship on the function of sacrifice in the modern state in order to show how political authorities deemed legitimate draw on the millennial and redemptive aspects of the political imaginary in order to inspire subjects to give their lives up in the service of sovereign power. Such acts and the values they accrue are difficult to account for if one takes the sovereignty of the modern state to be essentially rational and secular, in contraposition to the irrational religious polities of the seventeenth century.

During the spirited Q&A that followed, Professor Bruce Rosenstock (Jewish Studies/Religion) picked up on this last point for further exploration. Rosenstock asked whether Mohamed was prepared to distinguish between a circumstance in which a subject sacrifices himself for a sovereign power whose will accords with the subject's sense of religious conscience, and a circumstance in which sovereign will and individual conscience were in conflict. Mohamed responded that these two circumstances resulted in two distinct but related forms of giving up one's life for the sovereign: martyrdom, in which the earthly power is conceived of as the enemy of God as true sovereign, and self-sacrifice proper, in which the two are understood to be consonant.

Ultimately no heroes emerged from Mohamed’s talk. While one might have expected Williams and Vane to provide a largely palatable alternative to the unsavory political theologies of Hobbes and Schmitt, Mohamed’s talk emphasized that all of the political theologies he discussed contain the seeds of their own corruption, and the potential to become instruments of oppressive authority.

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