The embracing strategy

A quick note on a thought I had after class on Tuesday, concerning the last paragraph of Schmitt's book: as Phil pointed out as we were ending class, the last sentence of the text seems to undermine Schmitt's declared hostility to liberal universalism by observing at even such claims fail to escape the logic of the political. It might therefore follow that Schmitt is not really all that annoyed with universalism, since after all, it's just political. But I think that what is going on here is a tip of the intellectual hat -- and almost certainly a more profound intellectual debt -- to a stratey that Friedrich Nietzsche pursues in On the Genealogy of Morals. Nietzsche spends most of that book railing against ascetic ideals, the separation of the mind from the body, the cultivation of abstraction as opposed to vigor, and the life-denying character of science and religion and modernity as a whole. But then, just like Schmitt, he seems to turn on a dime and declare that even these (according to his argument) terrible and reprehensible things end up serving life:

Apart from the ascetic ideal, man, the human animal, had no meaning so far. His existence on earth contained no goal; "why man at all?" -- was a question without an answer; the will for man and earth was lacking; behind every great human destiny there sounded as a refrain a yet greater "in vain!" . . . The meaninglessness of suffering, not suffering itself, was the curse that lay over mankind so far -- and the ascetic ideal offered man meaning! . . . man was saved thereby, he possessed a meaning, he was henceforth no longer like a leaf in the wind, a plaything of nonsense -- the "sense-less" -- he could now will something; no matter at first to what end, why, with what he willed: the will itself was saved.

Here at the end of Nietzsche's text the same thing happens as happens at the end of Schmitt's: that which was previously castigated as false and misleading is captured by the broader logic and sweep of the argument, and reworked into something that (as Goethe once wrote of the Devil) tries to do evil but always ends up doing good. This kind of intellectual move is characteristic of "genealogical" approaches to the writing of history and philosophy, since all are of necessity driven by what Nietzsche called amor fati, the love of (one's) fate: whatever led to the present cannot be ultimately bad, because after all it contributed to the place where we currently find ourselves. And, according to this approach, not to embrace the present is to invoke transcendental evaluative ideals that end up undermining themselves. [How one criticizes a present that one is presently embracing is the conceptual problem all of these thinkers end up wrestling with.]

So, we either have here a) a strategy of ultimately defeating universal liberal claims by disclosing their hidden local-political character, or b) a sophisticated rehabilitation of universal liberal claims at the cost of their manifest content. In either case, it's clear that Schmitt is not in any sense embracing liberal universalism, and we have to be very careful not to misread his claims as some kind of retraction of the earlier argument. "Accepting" liberalism on his terms, after all, basically vitiates liberalism -- which is, after all, his point.

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