Currently, I’m researching Thomas Hobbes’s (1588-1679) Leviathan (1651) for a book I’m writing. I noticed that Hobbes’s theory of war in one chapter of Leviathan (Book I, 13) resembles that of one of his closest followers, Carl Schmitt (1888-1985), the controversial German jurist. Schmitt discussed war in numerous places. But the theory of war most similar to Hobbes is contained in his classic essay The Concept of the Political (1927).
What united both authors was the conviction that war really wasn’t about military conflict as such. It was more a state of mind, of which war offered a ‘limiting case.’ This common view supported their broader philosophical outlooks, both of which were divergent.
2. Hobbes and Civil War
Hobbes’s main concern is justifying peace and order. To achieve this he contrasts a state of anarchy to one of peace. In the state of nature all men pursue their separate interests and run the risk of clashing with one another. Although Hobbes does discuss the right of sovereigns to make foreign war in numerous passages of Leviathan (e.g. kings are in a “posture of war” with one another (L, I, 13)), global conflicts are an afterthought to which Hobbes offers little insight. By far, Hobbes’s leading concern is with the possibility of civil war, the language of which is nihilistic. Warfare is part and parcel of a pre-political condition which occurs when there is no common guardian standing over men and is synonymous with civil war. But the thrust of Hobbes’s polemic with respect to the state of nature is directed against liberty which he says runs counter to law. War is merely another phenomenon which occurs when men are free.
3. Schmitt and the Political
For Schmitt, war is a ‘given’ whenever there are political units who distinguish each other according to his celebrated friend/enemy criterion. As opposed to many other political thinkers who portray politics as servicing a common good, Schmitt’s concept of politics is inherently sectarian; war thus appears as a natural element of politics.
Unlike Hobbes, Schmitt never contemplates the idea that there could ever be a state of total anarchy. Even civil war involves well-identified groups (CP, 32). He always sees organization as emerging with respect to war, and this is also true with respect to groups who are outwardly ‘anti-war.’
If pacifist hostility toward war were so strong as to drive pacifists into a war against nonpacifists, in a war against war, that would prove that pacifism truly possesses political energy because it is sufficiently strong to group men according to friend and enemy (CP, 36).
4. Comparative Similarity
While Schmitt doesn’t construct a fictional state of nature, he agrees with Hobbes that the looming threat of war motivates man’s behaviour in critical ways. Let’s compare passages from both Hobbes and Schmitt.
For war consisteth not in battle only, or the act of fighting, but in a tract of time, wherein the will to contend by battle is sufficiently known (L, I, 13).
War is neither the aim nor the purpose nor even the very content of politics. But as an ever present possibility it is the leading presupposition which determines in a characteristic way human action and thinking and thereby creates a specifically political behavior (CP, 34).
These examples reveal the key similarity. For Hobbes and Schmitt, war is not the fact of actual fighting but an aggressive suspiciousness and preparedness for conflict. People are battle-ready, even if not at war. Military conflict doesn’t have independent meaning although it forms a critical element in their outlooks. Hobbesian or Schmittian philosophy sans guerre would be incomprehensible but it would be wrong to see them as reducing politics to militarism. War is the most important consideration for men or political entities but it is subordinate to either (a) the will of man to live at liberty, for Hobbes, or (b) the natural tendency of groups, for Schmitt, to live within the political domain.
5. Radical Differences
War is vital to both theories as a perspective but in radically different ways. War for Hobbes is a ‘floor’ to which men can sink in the absence of fear with respect to a common power. Even those who know little of Hobbes have probably read the following lament concerning war in a news article.
In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short (L, I, 13).
War is merely destruction and uncertainty for Hobbes. His theory recognizes war but is concerned with removing its spectre. By contrast, war for Schmitt is the climax of human existence.
There always are concrete human groupings which fight other concrete human groupings … The high points of politics are simultaneously the moments in which the enemy is, in concrete clarity, recognized as the enemy (CP, 67).
Whereas Hobbes consistently views war as offering a window into man’s psychological deficiencies, Schmitt shows little interest in exploring this aspect. War is an ongoing political reality and is accepted as a given. Men are inherently political; war comes with political territory and is reduced to a means. Schmitt has no interest in abolishing war, forms a realistic view of its existence, and at times glorifies it. Hobbes generally conceptualizes war as a nihilistic condition and he condemns it.
It is perhaps not surprising that Schmitt shows a Hobbesian influence in his assessment of war. His theory of authoritarianism, for example, is largely Hobbesian. Yet Schmitt’s concept of politics is radically dissimilar to Hobbes but the two men yet find common ground in using and conceptualizing war in near identical ways within their variant philosophies.