Leviathan: a political myth misfired?

Leviathan: a political myth misfired?

Schmitt argues: ‘No illustration of or quotation about a theory of state has engendered so provocative an image as that of the Leviathan; it has become more like a mythical symbol fraught with inscrutable meaning’ (Schmitt 1996b: 5). His detailed 1938 study of this political myth was translated only in 1996. It has recently attracted an increasing measure of scholarly attention from a variety of perspectives, albeit of variable quality (Gottfried 1990; McCormick 1997; Palaver 2002; Tregenza 2002; Kahn 2003; Aravamudan 2005; Lorberbaum 2007).

There is a connection here with the topics of a previous section. Schmitt’s Weimar-era analysis of Sorel’s view of political myth – expressive of Marxist as well as fascist revolutionary politics – can be usefully set against the former’s 1938 analysis of how Hobbes resorted to the myth of leviathan as the ‘failure of a political symbol’ for state sovereignty. In part, the political victories of Lenin, Mussolini and Hitler, as well as the defeat of the Weimar Republic, are explicable in terms of an unfortunate failure of the notion of sovereignty inscribed into Hobbes’ myth of leviathan compared to the relative success of those deployed by Communist and Fascist revolutionaries. Indeed, with respect to Marxism, Aravamudan argues that:

For Schmitt the history of sovereignty is inextricable from the history of its failure as a myth, and also a lamentation of its actual failure to sustain the Weimar Republic. Schmitt’s unhappiness with the semantic excess of the Leviathan myth that undermines its use for political authoritarianism is exacerbated by what he considers the efficaciousness of the Sorelian myth of the general strike for inspiring the Marxist imaginary.

(Aravamudan 2005: 637)

Within parts of continental Europe from 1917 to 1937, the myths of revolutionary Marxism and fascism had emerged as powerful forces. By contrast, the authoritarian myths supportive of a statist form of political conservatism articulated by Hobbes’ leviathan image, and its namesake monograph, had failed to counteract these developments; and thus became eclipsed. The cultural and interpretative reasons for this ‘failure’, which presupposes an encoded critique of such revolutionary movements as dangerously sectarian and divisive forces, appear to animate Schmitt’s study of Hobbes’ Leviathan (Schmitt 1996b). Indeed, Kahn notes that, for Schmitt: ‘Hobbes’s myth of the Leviathan state that terrifies the proud was not enough to counteract Hobbes’ other message about the state as a mechanism or artefact – the message that the state was man-made, mortal, and in the service of particular interests …’ (Kahn 2003: 76).

Hobbes as a case study of the importance of studying political myth-making

Schmitt’s study contains a sustained and often interesting discussion of how Hobbes deployed mythic symbols as a creative supplement to his more general use of rationalistic, even scientific, argumentation (Schmitt 1996b: 5–12, 19, 26, 49, 52, 62–3, 74, 81–4, 94–5). With respect to either the creators of myth, or those who receive and believe in them, he expressly states that his primary question is located not primarily, or exclusively, at the level of individual psychology, or biography. Instead, it is articulated within a theoretical framework that requires a widely credible myth of the nature of a nation state, with the latter interpreted as an overarching collective force. That is, a secular god-like figure of a sovereign-representative-person, the totality of which is more than the sum of his parts. Given the difficult historical conditions of 17th-century England under which Hobbes was writing, this image of sovereignty was required to respond to the collective needs of his fellow citizens. These included a requirement for a strong and higher public authority sufficient to end a fearful type of internal conflict and resulting insecurities. Within a 17th-century English historical context, Hobbes re-affirmed the rationale of an absolutist type of state.

Yet, according to Schmitt, the type of a myth required for such original and contextual affirmation of a need for state-guaranteed security and protection must also be supplemented by concrete mythic images. These must prove themselves adequate to the later historical development of the extensive machinery of public sector operations. Such complementary mythology is not, however, that of a ‘total’, or ‘quantitative’, type of state which, in keeping with the imperatives of a totalitarian regime, dissipates its power by seeking in vain to intervene everywhere and regulate everything. Instead, a mythic figure of sovereignty as something only relatively transcendent needs to arise in response to a cultural tradition’s already constituted need for collective security. The latter is itself an integral life-element of every citizen: one that generally both pre-dates and post-dates the existence of each. The resulting myth, conditioned by the context of its emergence, permanently risks becoming anachronistic following developments with this cultural tradition. These include the rise of a semi-autonomous form of technology and processes of industrialisation radiating potentially totalitarian implications, which largely evade systems of control:

The sovereign-representative-person is much more than the sum total of all the participating particular wills. To be sure, the accumulated anguish of individuals who fear for their lives brings about this new power, but it affirms rather than creates this new god. To this extent the new god is transcendent vis-à-vis all contractual partners of the covenant and vis-à-vis the sum total, obviously (though) only in a juristic and not in a metaphysical sense. The sovereign-representative person cannot thus delay the complete mechanization of the state. It is only a time-bound expression of the baroque idea of representation of the seventeenth century, of absolutism, not of ‘totalism’.

(Schmitt 1996b: 26)

Schmitt claims it is particularly important to recognise the mythic qualities of the leviathan symbol that adorns the frontispiece of this work. He implies a need to emulate the approach of social anthropology, particularly its receptiveness to questions of plural significations. It is necessary to address the historical accumulation of multiple cultural meanings and associations drawn from a number of distinct genres, each of which exhibits its own strengths, limitations and intensities:

In the long history of political theories, … this leviathan is the strongest and most powerful image … in the mythic sense of a secular image of battle. … As a symbol of a political unity, the leviathan is … not just any ‘corpus’ or just any kind of beast. It is an image from the Hebrew Bible, one garbed in the course of many centuries in mythical, theological and cabbalistic meanings.

(Schmitt 1996b: 5–6)

As Dean notes, ‘more than most thinkers, Schmitt knows the emotional charge that can electrify symbol and myth’ (2006: 13). For his part, Schmitt suggests, for example, that the Jewish use of this symbol expresses ‘political myths of the most astonishing kind and by documents often fraught with downright magical intensity’ (1996b: 8). Hobbes, by contrast, appears to approach the leviathan myth in a far less serious even cavalier manner.

There has been some speculation as to the nature of the politics behind Schmitt’s own concern for the mythic dimension of Hobbes’ work, a question that no Schmittian could regard as unproblematic. Lorberbaum, for example, suggests that Schmitt’s analysis forms part of his wider critique of the allegedly self-destructive qualities of liberal constitutionalism, particularly its mechanistic conception of the modern state. Within a social context of constitutional disintegration, this ideological conception prompts a need for a counter-myth to reassert an overarching sense of political unity:

Schmitt’s Weimar project sought mythic inspiration from Leviathan. Myth was the imaginary mindset to inculcate so as to overcome the mechanistic emasculation of the state. Schmitt explored the utility of evoking the monstrous power of the mythic beast as an expression of reviving state power to impose its order in the face of the threatened anarchic potential of German society. But Schmitt realized – as is indeed implied by the subtitle of his book on Hobbes – that the thrust of Hobbes’ political philosophy was not mythic. For those seeking mythic inspiration, Hobbes’ book was an example of the ‘failure of a political symbol.’ The employment of a mythic symbol, however powerful, is not sufficient to constitute a commitment to develop myth as a shared mindset of a polity.

(Lorberbaum 2007: 98)

Schmitt’s work on Hobbes thus regards the study of the formation, operation and trajectory of myths as a key scholarly pursuit: one that is not confined to literature but rather extends into cultural history and the social sciences more generally. This explains why he expressly praises Vico who, without himself becoming either a mythic figure or a ‘producer of myths’, nevertheless produced an incisive and insightful account of ‘the force and meaning of myth for his era’. Schmitt suggests that a historically informed mode of analysis is vital. Vico achieved his successes by ‘overcoming the historical blindness of Cartesian scientific principles’ and by ‘advancing a new historical understanding’. As a result, Schmitt praises Vico for becoming ‘a true and great mythologist’, albeit in the sense of a social scientist and cultural historian of such myths (Schmitt 1996b: 84). In one sense, Schmitt’s study of Hobbes’ mythic image of Leviathan can be viewed as an admirer’s effort to emulate Vico’s achievements through a sober historical reconstruction identifying the force and meaning of myth for later eras.

Schmitt’s advocacy and partial adoption of a historically informed social scientific stance explains why, in principle, he welcomes Hobbes’ willingness to invoke graphic images to both capture and convey key aspects of his political theory of the state. Indeed, he notes that Hobbes ‘had the courage to see the unity of political commonwealth in the image of a powerful monster that combined god, man, animal and machine. Hobbes used this image because he considered it to be an impressive symbol’ (Schmitt 1996b: 81).

And yet part of Schmitt’s critique of Hobbes is that despite the latter’s acute political realism, he failed to think through the possible implications of the leviathan image he had both unleashed and popularised with his book of this name: ‘Looked at closely, the sue of the leviathan to represent Hobbes’ theory of state is nothing other than a half-ironic literary idea born out of a fine sense of English humour’ (Schmitt 1996b: 94).

For his part, Hobbes’ sparse references to the Leviathan figure include its use to depict the leader of a newly emerging modern state as a ‘mortal god’: one who imposes peace and political unity through popular recognition and respect for its institutional power and authority (Schmitt 1996b: 19). Schmitt thus implies that Hobbes’ resort to this mythical figure was unfortunately naïve and unreflective concerning not only these sociological factors, but also its ambiguities and divergent historical associations. Indeed, he claims that Hobbes failed to address the significance of his depiction of the leviathan myth for the ‘content and formulations of the book’ (Schmitt 1996b: 18). Apart from the frontispiece image and the book title page, Hobbes only mentions the word leviathan three times, and then with little reflective analysis concerning its range of possible meanings.

This cavalier neglect and disregard is problematic. It grossly underestimates the rhetorical power exerted by interpretations and reinterpretations of this symbolic image over the subsequent phases of the cultural reception of Hobbes’ central theoretical claims (Schmitt 1996b: 19). Indeed, Schmitt claims: ‘He failed to realise, however, that in using this symbol he was conjuring up the invisible forces of an old ambiguous myth’. In particular, he did not sufficiently take into account this myth’s capacity to be repeatedly mobilised as a political weapon in unpredictable ways, including those subversive of Hobbes’ own substantial intellectual claims. Schmitt further implies that it is an unfortunate – if perhaps instructive – irony that such a pre-eminent political theorist as Hobbes could have remained so naïve concerning the power-politics central to mythic aspects of the cultural reception and reinterpretation of his own work. This is a neglected task that Hobbes has bequeathed us. However, for Schmitt, its fulfilment could help ensure that he did not ‘teach in vain’ (Schmitt 1996b: 85).

On this issue, Hobbes’ unreflective naïveté concerning factors determining the subsequent impact of political myths represents both a theoretical and pragmatic failure. In response, Schmitt asserts the need for a more attentive, systematic and reflective approach. For his part, Schmitt seeks to correct Hobbes’ naïveté and omission by taking far more seriously his graphic depiction on the front cover of Leviathan. That is, an image of a sovereign figure poised above two fields of symbols signifying the unification of temporal and ecclesiastical powers under the authority of the modern state. Schmitt’s corrective work of supplementing Hobbes, which itself clearly operates within a broadly Hobbesian framework, aims to systematically compare the various associations attached to the idea of leviathan with Hobbes’ own goals.

Correcting Hobbes: contrasting meanings of leviathan

To realise his project as already discussed in outline, Schmitt’s 1938 study corrects Hobbes’ carelessness concerning the choice of political symbolism and whether leviathan is consistent with, or wholly counterproductive for, the realisation of his wider theoretical project. He does so by retracing the various Biblical and other associations of the leviathan as a ‘powerful mythical representation as a huge water animal … as a ‘tremendous sea monster … sea dragon’. The latter has sometimes been depicted as caught up in a life and death struggle with the associated mythical symbol of the land monster behemoth, itself often culturally represented as a bull or elephant (Schmitt 1996b: 6).

Schmitt’s specifically biblical analysis, which encompasses Isaiah (27:1), Psalms (74:14, 104:26) and Job (3:8), recognises the sheer historical diversity of leviathan’s mythic representations. These include its transformation from a serpent or dragon ‘representing a dangerous force to a downright foul fiend’ (Schmitt 1996b: 6). He argues that, as an authentic living myth, ‘a wealth’ of various reformulations of the leviathan have exhibited an enduring symbolic power transcending their original biblical context, including mythical depictions relating to the slaying of sea dragons. Drawing on the Old Testament, Schmitt shows leviathan to have been widely interpreted as a sea monster and a whale that vanquishes its land-based counterpart behemoth.

Schmitt contrasts the Christian mythology of leviathan with that of Judaic Cabbalistic traditions. In particular, he retraces the transformation and mutation of the leviathan myth as Christian theologians and Jewish cabbalists interpreted and reinterpreted it during the Middle Ages. Whilst for Christians the leviathan symbolised the devil captured by the Cross, Cabbalists by contrast interpreted it as an essentially heathen symbol, participating in a tension between sea and land powers. Here, the sea-based leviathan appears as a symbol of heathen forces locked in a mortal combat with the land-based behemoth monster, neither of which are especially friendly to Jews (Schmitt 1996b: 8–9): ‘The latter [behemoth] tries to tear the leviathan apart with his horns, while the leviathan covers the behemoth’s mouth and nostrils with his fins and kills him in that way’. For Schmitt, this image is a ‘fine depiction’ of a naval blockade (Schmitt, 1996b: 9).

What results stem from Schmitt’s reconstruction and comparison of contrasting associations of the leviathan myth? One is to highlight questions concerning their compatibility with a Hobbesian constitutional programme, a point discussed later. Another is to suggest that mythical images are subject to repeated reshaping, changed interpretations and reconfiguration by different cultural traditions in ways that reflect the latter’s distinct concerns and orientations.

Schmitt’s reconstruction also corrects a serious omission in Hobbes’ Leviathan by addressing the many diverse and symbolic characteristics of his leviathan image. And yet throughout such diversity and the ‘chaotic abundance’ of leviathan’s cultural representations, there has remained a common core: a consistent reference to the sea and related maritime associations. For Schmitt, this is clear from its presence within scholastic and Lutheran theology as a ‘huge fish’ possessed by the devil, which is outwitted by God (Schmitt 1996b: 7–8). It is interesting to consider the extent to which this graphic imagery of a primordial clash between Anglo-American maritime powers on the one hand, and both continental European and Asiatic land-based nations on the other, influenced both Schmitt’s critique of US imperialism, and his characterisation of the postwar Cold War conflict (Ulmen 1987a: 44; Dean 2004: 49).

The plurality of accumulated and expanded associations and images that Schmitt highlights need not be interpreted as a negative phenomenon inherently destructive of a Hobbesian agenda. On the contrary, they provide evidence of leviathan’s particular resonance, rhetorical power and vitality as a political myth. Schmitt notes: ‘Numerous interpretations and transformations belong to the nature of the mythical images; continuous metamorphoses, in nova formae, are in fact sure signs of their vividness and effectiveness’ (Schmitt 1996b: 7). The question arises as to whether, in different epochs, such vital imagery operates to either support or subvert a Hobbesian agenda of statist conservativism. The answer is determined not by the form of the leviathan myth (the myth ‘as such’), but rather by the intuitive associations widely inspired by its particular shifting contents. The question of possible subversion is the theme of the next section.

The possibility of myth misfiring

Following his preliminary analysis, Schmitt indicates that his central analytical question is whether Hobbes’ choice of leviathan as his ‘politico-mythic image’ has stood the test of time? Can we conclude that this image has supported the goals of a Hobbesian programme concerning the preconditions for political unity and stability? Has it survived the various contests between contrasting, and sometimes incompatible, cultural associations, particularly the ‘Judeo-Christian destruction’ of such unity? Alternatively, from a Hobbesian perspective, including that broadly adopted by Schmitt himself, has this choice of mythic imagery proved especially problematic, an unfortunate and unpredicted misfire and ‘blowback’?

For Schmitt, the possibility of a deployment of political myth turning counterproductive remains an almost inherent risk. A major issue for legal scholars resorting to such political myths in support of their contentions, is, according to Schmitt, that – like Pandora’s box – they can help conjure up forces, which once unleashed generate unpredictable and counterproductive outcomes. In turn, these may ultimately overshadow, even perhaps overpower, our appreciation of strictly cognitive aspects of their scholarly constitutional theories. Once launched, such symbols enter into a domain of politico-cultural contestation. Here, questions of validity are, for all practical purposes, typically governed largely by historically changing institutional patterns of authority and power relations.

It follows that no writer can ever hope to predict these factors, let alone exercise complete control over them. It is not as if the choice of mythic imagery is analogous to making a financial investment based upon valid statistical evidence, and having already calculated the prospects of making a healthy financial return:

When an author employs an image like that of leviathan, he enters a domain in which word and language are not mere counters that [like money] can be used to calculate worth and purchasing power. In this domain, mere ‘values’ do not ‘hold true’; whatever effectively govern are force and power, throne and master.

(Schmitt 1996b: 81)

Schmitt claims that Hobbes’ lack of reflection upon the choice of mythic depictions for state power has proved grossly detrimental to the project of his political and legal theory. The most familiar and obvious mythic representations of leviathan associated with the Christian tradition have certainly not advanced the cause of Hobbes’ overall constitutional theory; that is, the vital restoration of political unity within a state under a powerful leadership figure. Perhaps, if Hobbes had, like Vico, expressly studied the political role of specific myths, together with their changing pattern of contested cultural associations, he may have avoided this naïveté:

In contrast [to Machiavelli], Hobbes is neither a mythologist nor a mythic figure. Only with the image of the leviathan did he approximate a myth. But it is precisely because of this image that he had spent his energies and failed in his endeavour to restore the natural unity.

(Schmitt 1996b: 85)

For Schmitt, Hobbes all too casual selection of the myth of leviathan sought to draw an association between the great biblical sea monster and the early modern national state. An implicit aim was to develop new imagery and icons apparently supportive of Hobbes’ wider argumentation concerning the post-medieval sovereign state and society more generally. The leviathan was supposed to operate as a symbol of a state newly equipped with modern qualities of national sovereignty, territorial borders containing the domestic relations and activities of a distinct nation centred politically around a capital city. This, for Schmitt, invokes a model of political symbols that emphasises their role as articulators of a specific ‘geo-mythology of power relations’ (Dean 2004: 49).

Leviathan as counterproductive?

Having set out the implicit requirement of a political mythic symbol to further Hobbes’ overall project, Schmitt then considers whether his depiction of leviathan has proved adequate to this task. Is the history of Hobbes’ leviathan really that of the failure of political symbol? To have adequately harmonised with Hobbes’ constitutional theory, the associations of leviathan just discussed would have needed to rely upon, and be supplemented with, another less familiar and indeed ‘opposite interpretation’: one that is rooted in venerable Celtic and Saxon traditions. This minority tradition depicts the leviathan as a powerful, yet still protective, force. Hobbes failed to realise that this cluster of associations, limited to a less familiar tradition, were already on the wane. He did not anticipate that, over subsequent decades and centuries, a far more powerful tradition would exercise the dominant role in shaping what it is that the idea of a leviathan state signified. In short, Hobbes failed to demonstrate an appreciation of the implications of the interpretive points highlighted by Schmitt’s comparison of the leviathan myth’s various associations by devising a contextually appropriate graphic depiction of the state.

One explanation for Hobbes’ difficulties may have been that he was caught up with the positivistic idea of producing an aesthetically denuded and mechanistic ‘science of politics’, in which mathematical and logical deduction plays the dominant role in constitutional reasoning. This meant that he grossly underrated those distinctly interpretative foundations of political understandings of the state that became prevalent in 17th-century England. In turn, these required a particularly receptive and qualitative understanding of the meaning and power of cultural symbols, images and mythic representations, especially those expressive of sovereign power. Hobbes’ careless picturing of leviathan as a large man-god, a human construct combining into a ‘mythical totality’, a huge man, beast and machine, increasingly clashed with its traditional association with a sea monster or dragon. In one sense, this need not have been a major problem if – but only if – a creative ‘fusion’ of the two associations had ever emerged. Indeed, Schmitt recognises that such mutations, hybridisations and transformations are common to the trajectory and fate of those political myths that manage to retain their credibility. However, and unfortunately for the fate of Hobbes’ project, this mutation never materialised (Schmitt 1996b: 19).

Schmitt observes the irony of how the title of Hobbes’ Leviathan book and its namesake’s mythic associations to which Hobbes devoted so little thought, eventually became far better known and influential, albeit in the sense of a notorious scandal, than this book’s central scholarly claims. The resulting superficial familiarity has, in turn, resulted in the mythic image of leviathan providing a distorting lens through which Hobbes’ theoretical claims have been widely reinterpreted as those of a threatening totalitarian beast-state, and thereby allowed to exert their rhetorical impact upon successive generations. Thus, according to Schmitt: ‘the drawing on the title page has undoubtedly contributed to the powerful effect that the book evokes’ (Schmitt 1996b: 18). He further argues that this ultimately ill-chosen mythic depiction has created a distorted impression concerning the main thrust of Leviathan as a broad ranging constitutional treatise:

In contrast to the later Behemoth, [Hobbes’ image of the Leviathan] does not depict an enemy; it shows a god that assures peace and security. Nor is it a political friend-myth. It is too horrible and terrifying for that. … Only the enormous striking power implicit in the image of the mythical beast has led to the mistaken notion that this is the central idea of Hobbes theory of state.

(Schmitt 1996b: 94)

Since Leviathan’s publication, Schmitt argues that these inherent tensions began to make themselves felt. The symbolism of this unfortunate image was unintentionally thrust into a political battle between competing myths and counter-myths conducted by rival parties: ‘wielding “indirect” power’ (Schmitt 1996b: 18–19). Within the cultural reception of Hobbes’ work as a whole, there has, in particular, been a primal conflict between the mythic figures of leviathan, defined by a less familiar Saxon tradition, as an order-creating force embodied in the modern state as a supreme temporal power, and its mortal enemy, behemoth, with the latter portrayed as the monstrous embodiment of the unruly ‘state of nature’ (Schmitt 1996b: 21–2). Had this interpretation become the dominant one by displacing the Judaic–Christian alternative, then Hobbes’ work could have received a less distorted reception.

Having clarified an understanding of leviathan as a politico-mythic device for ideological warfare loaded with emotive rhetorical associations, the next question Schmitt poses concerns this myth’s ongoing suitability for, and consistency with, Hobbes’ wider purposes. He implies that political myths can have no historically invariant core of ‘essential’ meaning. Instead, meaning is whatever meaning does, with the significance of leviathan determined by its changing patterns of usage within different contexts of origination and application. Indeed, Schmitt argues in a utilitarian-pragmatist manner that: ‘The meaning of the image of the leviathan seems to be limited to the utility of the concept’ (Schmitt 1996b: 22). Since such utility changes over time, the question of leviathan’s reception becomes vital.

It follows that the question of the suitability of leviathan to work as an emblem for a Hobbesian programme of re-establishing political unity against those centrifugal forces exerted by rival indirect powers at war, including religious sectarian conflict, is complex. It certainly requires a historical reconstruction of its ‘fit’ with changing patterns of interpretation in different contexts.

In turn, this raises the following questions, some of which take us beyond the scope of this chapter. Given changing patterns of use of this expression and its cultural associations, has the way Hobbes portrayed leviathan within the political theological dimension of his work proven to be optimally appropriate? Considering its role in a context heavily shaped by religious sensibilities and subsequent materialistic secularisations, has this depiction proved to be the most effective means to realise his wider aims and claims concerning the vindication of political unity and legitimate state authority? If not, then does the alleged failure of leviathan as a mythic symbol provide a credible rationale for Schmitt’s own study of Hobbes focusing so heavily upon the cultural dimension of the reception of this myth? To what extent is Schmitt’s approach to Hobbes’ Leviathan an effort to reinterpret and relocate this work within his own concerns for politico-theological, and thus symbolic, dimensions of politics?

Gottfried’s interpretation is suggestive of some answers. He rightly emphasises that the central focus of the majority of Schmitt’s study falls upon Hobbes’ symbolism of the leviathan myth, its visual content and probable rhetorical impact relative to a range of contextually specific appropriations: