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Written during the period of his emigration to the United States, during and just after
World War II, the originality of Karl Lwiths book Meaning in History lies in its resolute
critique of all forms of philosophy of history. This critique is based on the now famous
idea that modern philosophies of history have only extended and deepened an illusion fab-
ricated by a long tradition of Christian historical reflection: the illusion that history itself
has an intrinsic goal. This modern extension and deepening of the chimera propagated by
Christian historical reflection is what Lwith terms secularization. Drawing on the
arguments in Meaning in History as well as those proposed in other contemporaneous and
earlier writings, including Lwiths heretofore unpublished correspondence with Leo
Strauss, this article attempts to set in relief the frequently neglected, yet eminently politi-
cal implications of Lwiths idea of secularization. Among the problems implicitly con-
sidered in relation to the theory of secularization in Meaning in History is a theme fre-
quently addressed in earlier writings: the motives that led German intellectuals like
Friedrich Gogarten, Martin Heidegger, and Carl Schmitt to adhere to the Nazi movement.

In commemoration of the centenary of the birth of Karl Lwith

In the preface to his book Meaning in History, written during the period of his
emigration to the United States during and just following World War II and pub-
lished in 1949, Karl Lwith described the main theme of his work in the follow-
ing terms:
After I had finished this small study of the large topic of Weltgeschichte and
Heilsgeschehen [world history and the advent of salvation], I began to wonder whether the
reader might not be disappointed by the lack of constructive results. This apparent lack
is, however, a real gain if it is true that truth is more desirable than illusion. Assuming that
a single grain of truth is preferable to a vast construct of illusions, I have tried to be hon-
est with myself and, consequently, also with my reader about the possibility, or rather the
impossibility, of imposing on history a reasoned order or of drawing out the working of

In view of the interpretation of the history of Western thought proposed in this

work, these introductory remarks only serve to underscore the paradoxical char-

1. Karl Lwith, Preface, Meaning in History (Chicago, 1949), v; Weltgeschichte und Heilsges-
chehen. Zur Kritik der Geschichtsphilosophie. Smtliche Schriften (Stuttgart, 1983), II, 608.

acter of the task that Lwith set out to accomplish in it. Indeed, in Meaning in
History Lwith intended to demonstrate not only the illusory character of past
attempts to impose a reasoned order on history or to grasp in it the hidden work
of God; his purpose was to show that all of these different attempts to make sense
of history themselves constitute an ordered pattern. If Lwith consistently resist-
ed any temptation to interpret this order in terms of a philosophy of history, he
nonetheless assumed that the great attempts to make sense of historical develop-
ment configure a single coherent movement. For Lwith, the tacit meaning of
this historical movement, although hidden to those thinkers who traditionally
sought a Divine or reasoned order in history, became identifiable only at the
moment of its completion in the twentieth century. It is precisely this tacit pat-
tern, as it emerged in the historicity of Western thought about history, that Lwith
interpreted in relation to an age-old process of secularization. What had above
all become secularized since the beginning of the Christian era was the quest for
historical meaning in the form of a final historical purpose.
In the pages that follow I will examine Lwiths paradoxical claim to have
grasped a historical pattern or, in other words, a connecting link between the
predominant conceptions of history in different periods which, from Antiquity
onward, constitute a coherent movement in the general interpretation of history.
If it can no longer be a question of a divine or reasoned teleological order,
but of a hidden tendency toward secularization which first became intelligible in
the twentieth century, what exactly could have been Karl Lwiths intention in
seeking to identify this tendency?
In regard to the possibility of deriving a constructive result from his analy-
ses, Lwith confessed that his ambition was quite modestto the point that he
even feared disappointing his reader. To my mind, this same modesty in the
attempt to produce constructive results accounts for his hesitancy to buttress his
conclusions by drawing more explicitly on the political assumptions of this work,
which are either kept in the background or are not submitted to examination.2
Nevertheless, these same political assumptions are clearly expressed in other ear-
lier or contemporary works.
In the analysis of Karl Lwiths thought which I will undertake in the follow-
ing essay, my main purpose will be less to impute a philosophy of history to him
than to place in relief, in relation to the political assumptions of his concept of
secularization, the profound quest which may already be gleaned from the para-

2. In my opinion it is precisely Lwiths discretion concerning the political ramifications of his

idea of secularization that accounts for a certain confusion in Hans Blumenbergs analysis, in
Legitimitt der Neuzeit, of Lwiths interpretation of this historical phenomenon. Since emphasis
placed on the role of secularization would seem to presume that modern times are merely an offshoot
of Christianity, Blumenberg criticized the use of this concept by Lwith and other authors for placing
in doubt the legitimacy of modern times on their own terms. Among the authors criticized for their
use of the concept of secularization, Blumenberg includes Carl Schmitt who, while voicing the
strongest expression of secularization theorem, nonetheless represents a similar tendency. On the
contrary, Lwiths concept of secularization, as I will have occasion to demonstrate below, engages a
particularly sharp critique of the decisionist theory of Carl Schmitt. See Hans Blumenberg, Legitimitt
der Neuzeit (Frankfurt am Main, 1983), 35-41, 102.
doxical title of the work, the search for lines of continuity between the past and
the present which permit us to elucidate, in the context of the twentieth century,
the contours of our own identity. In adumbrating the political implications of
Lwiths historical thought, I will attempt to show the way in which his thought
might provide insight into our own situation in the aftermath of the ideological-
ly-charged clashes of twentieth-century philosophies of history.
My analysis will be divided into two parts. The first part will focus directly on
the idea of a historical pattern that emerges in the midst of the historicity of
Western ideas of history and that leads, in the modern period, to an increasing
secularization of thought. My analysis in the second part will draw out the polit-
ical presuppositions of Lwiths reflection in order to examine the implications
of this reflection in its twentieth-century context.

Anyone who has read Meaning in History will recognize the broad lines of inter-
pretation of Western historical thought that are developed in this work. According
to this book, Western historical thought is rooted in the original Christian expe-
rience of time, which distinguished itself from the type of cosmological inter-
pretation of historical time, modeled on the cyclical ebb and flow of natural
events, that characterized ancient Greek speculation. The shift inaugurated by the
early Christians in relation to this ancient experience of historical time occurred
with the emergence of Christian eschatological faith for which history, far from
turning eternally in a circle, opens out to the future and orients itself in terms of
a goal: toward the eschaton in the guise of the end of the world and of the last
According to Lwiths well-known argument in Meaning in History, the mod-
ern idea of history extends this original Christian experience of historical time by
its tacit assimilation of the idea of an orientation in the lines of continuity
between different historical epochs. This assimilation becomes manifest through
the profound affinity in the interpretation of historical time as development
toward a goal that persists amid all the changes in Christian thought and then
dominates the modern idea of history. In this movement, however, it is less a mat-
ter of a simple prolongation of the Christian idea of historical time than of its
reconfiguration: while the Christian idea of historical time is the source of the
modern conception of progress, this modern conception could only come to pre-
dominance by undermining its original Christian inspiration. It is this tendency

3. Wilhelm Dilthey advances a similar argument in Einleitung in die Geisteswissenschaften,

Gesammelte Schriften (Stuttgart, 1973), I, 254-267, 334, 349. Diltheys interpretation of the contri-
bution of Christianity to the development of Western historical consciousness, above all through Saint
Augustines idea of the advent of salvation, provided a target for sharp criticism by the young Martin
Heidegger in his course lectures of 1921, Augustinus und der Neuplatonismus. Heidegger,
Gesamtausgabe (Frankfurt am Main, 1995), LX, 159-173. Although Lwith attended these lectures,
the critical analysis of Western historical thought that he developed in Meaning in History had a very
different aim.

to assimilate the Christian orientation toward historical time while rendering

obsolete its initial religious source that Lwith designates under the heading
The originality of Lwiths analysis stems less from his general notion of the
development of Western historical reflection than from his interpretation of the
precise implications of this development. As Lwith himself was the first to rec-
ognize, the idea of an Aufhebung of the Christian religion, through which
modernity drew its inspiration from the Christian wellspring while obturating its
original religious source, has since Hegel served as one of the principal models
of European historical reflection. The Enlightenment had already tacitly adopted
the teleological Christian view of history while questioning its supernatural, tran-
scendent assumptions. Hegel radicalized this movement of secularization of the
Christian view of history, since he did not simply reject the Christian faith, but
claimed to envisage the way toward its fulfillment. Hence, after 1500 years of
Western thought, Hegel, according to Lwith, was the first thinker who ventured
to translate the eyes of faith into the eyes of reason and the theology of history
as established by Augustine into a philosophy of history which is neither sacred
nor profane.4 As I shall illustrate in Part II, this translation of the theology of
history into the philosophy of history, reformulated in the framework of the most
diverse philosophical positions in the post-Hegelian world, would have particu-
larly fateful consequences for Germany and for Europe.
Lwiths principal task in Meaning in History was not only to reveal the whol-
ly illusory nature of these Enlightenment and Hegelian attempts to confer mean-
ing on history, but above all to show that such secularized ideas of historical
development propagated a chimera initially rooted in the Christian tradition of
historical reflection itself. In this vein, the modern illusion concerning historical
development only extended and deepened a fiction fabricated by ancient and
medieval Christians. Hence, if a profound line of continuity unites all of the great
expressions of Western historical reflection since the end of Antiquity, this con-
tinuity stems above all from the tendency of each of these expressions to embody
an illusion. The binding link through which Lwith imposed an order on Western
interpretations of history turns out to be a long series of illusions which contin-
ually deepened as the idea of progress toward a goalthe heritage of
Christianitybecame an affair of this world.
One might be tempted to interpret Lwiths conception of history as just
another expression of the history of decline (Verfallsgeschichte) of the West
which, in inverting the Hegelian interpretation of history, depicts the idea of his-
torical progress as a mask which a civilization adorns to hide the advent of its
own decline. Had Heidegger not already portrayed the connection between the
epochs of history since Antiquity as a movement toward decline occasioned, not
by the coming of secularization, but by a deepening forgetfulness of Being? Did
the modern philosophies of progress since Hegel not represent, for Heidegger,
the most extreme expression of this forgetfulness? I will postpone consideration
4. Lwith, Meaning in History, 59.
of the interpretation of decline among Lwiths contemporaries until part II in
order to examine more closely the notion of a line of continuity between the
Christian and the secularized ideas of history.
At the end of the fourth chapter of Meaning and History, entitled Progress
versus Providence, Lwith explains that the implications of the illusory inter-
pretation of meaning in history were of a different character in the Christian and
in the modern secularized philosophies. In the Christian philosophies this inter-
pretation was two-dimensional, whereas the secularized philosophies of histo-
ry leveled it down to a single dimension.5 In what sense is this leveling down to
be understood? Simply in the sense that the traditional Christian distinction
between profane world history and the supernatural advent of salvation collaps-
es under the impact of the secularized philosophies of history. Where the
Christian interpretations of history presupposed a fundamental distinction
between human history and the opacity of a historical advent directed by Gods
inscrutable will, the secularized philosophies, in transferring the Christian idea
of Divine providence into the world, proposed to render the advent of salvation
an object of human prevision.6 Thus, the illusion that history embodies an ulti-
mate, albeit hidden, meaning only intensifies when it fuels the assumption that
this sense can be foreseen, or even produced, by humanity.
An attempt to provide a detailed recapitulation of Lwiths idea of this move-
ment would reach beyond the framework of the present brief analysis of his
thought. I will hence not deal with the long preparation of modern secularized
ideas of history, from St. Augustine and Joachim of Floris to Bossuet, marked by
an ever more resolute projection of eschatological hope in the advent of salvation
onto human secular history. I will focus on one sole aspect of Lwiths interpre-
tation, which provides particularly clear insight into the connection that he
sought to establish between the Christian and secularized ideas of history: the
portrayal of Joachim of Floris. It is in relation to this particular connection that,
for Lwith, a theologically inspired doctrine surprisinglyeven disconcerting-
lytransformed itself into a radically political problem.
The chapter on Joachim of Floris in Meaning in History challenges the cus-
tomary renditions of historical understanding current among Lwiths contem-
poraries. Lwiths thought places in question above all the assumptions of the
predominant historicist tradition, stemming from Hegel, for which the historical
worldview represents a fundamentally modern achievement. While purifying this
worldview of its underpinnings in the metaphysics of the absolute spirit, histori-
cismafter the fashion of Wilhelm Dilthey or of Friedrich Meineckeheld
modern secularized consciousness of the essential historicity of truth to be a sign
of modern superiorityand hence of a relative progression in relation to all ear-
lier traditions. Lwith, however, aimed to demonstrate that precisely this idea of
the essential historicity of truth, far from being particular to modernity, already
emerged in the theological historism of Joachim of Floris. With Joachim, as

5. Ibid., 103.
6. Ibid.

Lwith writes, the Christian truth itself has, like the logos of Hegel, a temporal
setting in its successive developments. With Augustine and Thomas, the
Christian truth rests, once and for all, on certain historical facts; with Joachim the
truth itself has an open horizon and a history which is essential to it.7 Moreover,
far from indicating a progression of the human spirit, the later reception of this
idea of the advent of the epochs of Christian truth provided the surest evidence
of the decline of Christian spirituality toward the modern philosophies of histo-
The future reception of Joachims theological historism would propel this
decline by representing the advent of salvation in terms of a periodization of
world history. Here the supernatural intervenes directly in the field of human his-
tory, as the advent of salvation develops in the midst of three great historical
epochs: the Age of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. This brings an
entirely new mode of historical interpretation to the fore, namely in relation to
the sharp doctrinal distinction between the civitas dei and the civitas terrena in
the thought of St. Augustine. Joachims followers and interpreters projected the
early Christian motif of the coming of salvation, subsequent to the overthrow of
the order of this world, directly onto the development of human secular history;8
in this manner they intended to turn a critical eye toward the worldly power of
the medieval Church. Claiming to extrapolate from the teachings of Joachim as
well as of St. Francis of Assisi, this movement mixed messianic Christianity with
the radicalism of political demands that the Church condemned as heretical.
Yet, to Lwiths mind, the heritage of this movement was particularly fateful.
In a footnote Lwith recalls the fascination it elicited throughout the centuries up
until the contemporary period. This fascination was reflected by the enormous
influence of the book of Ernst Kantorowicz, Friedrich II, with its theme of a mes-
sianic mission bequeathed to a secret Germany by the struggles of the four-
teenth centuryuntil the utter profanation of this mission by Adolf Hitler.9
Another footnote recalls the persistence among the fascist ideologues of themes
borrowed from this movement.10 In an astonishing passage at the very end of the
chapter in Meaning in History dealing with Joachim, Lwith included the fol-
lowing lines which, in a book so politically discreet, are surprisingly charged
with political significance:
The revolution which had been proclaimed within the framework of an eschatological
faith and with reference to a perfect monastic life was taken over, five centuries later, by
a philosophical priesthood, which interpreted the process of secularization in terms of a
spiritual realization of the Kingdom of God on earth. As an attempt at realization, the

7. Ibid., 156. The German translation, which Lwith supervised, reinforces this interpretation by
referring not to a history which is essential to truth but to truths essential historicity (wesentliche
Geschichtlichkeit), Weltgeschichte und Heilsgeschehen, 170.
8. Lwith refers here to the interpretation and distortion of Joachims theological doctrine to polit-
ical ends in the fourteenth century, notably by Cola di Rienzo. As Lwith explains, this later inter-
pretation goes far beyond Joachims original theological intentions.
9. Ibid., 245.
10. Ibid.
spiritual pattern of Lessing, Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel could be transposed into the pos-
itivistic and materialistic schemes of Comte and Marx. The third dispensation of the
Joachites reappeared as a third International and a third Reich, inaugurated by a dux or a
Fhrer who was acclaimed as a savior and greeted by millions with Heil! The source of
all these formidable attempts to fulfill history by and within itself is the passionate, but
fearful and humble, expectation of the Franciscan Spirituals that a last conflict will bring
history to its climax and end.11


This surprising conclusion to the chapter in Meaning in History dealing with

Joachim of Floris brings us back to the paradox that we encountered at the out-
set of this analysis: if Lwith seeks to overcome the illusory attempts by tradi-
tional philosophies of history to impose a Divine or a reasoned order on history,
his attempt paradoxically depends on the identification of an ordered historical
movement encompassing the great interpretations of history throughout the
Western tradition.
One might try to minimize the acuity of this paradox by recalling that Lwiths
chief target was the quest for salvation in world history, the attempt to fulfill his-
tory by and within itself. However, the critique of this quest was hardly partic-
ular to Lwith: it was shared by the proponents of historicism themselves, most
notably by Dilthey. While Dilthey considered the emergence of historical con-
sciousness to represent progress for humanity, he never attributed an absolute
significance to this progress, nor did he consider it to be a source of salvation.
Indeed, Diltheys critique of historical reason, which historicized all values by
relating them to worldviews, aimed above all to discredit any claim, as he wrote
in his Einleitung in die Geisteswissenschaften, to unearth the ultimate secret of
history as of nature.12 And yet Lwiths criticism was turned as sharply against
Diltheys historicism as against such all-encompassing philosophies of history as
that of Hegel or of Marx.
In another perspective, one might attempt to resolve this paradox by bringing
to mind the fact that Lwith, in contrast to the predominant German philosophi-
cal orientations since Hegelboth of progress and of declinedid not seek to
develop a new type of historical reflection, but to overcome this reflection as the
characteristic mode of analysis of the human world. Lwith adopts this critical
attitude toward historical reflection per se in the epilogue to Meaning in History,
while calling for a renewal of the model of cyclical time characteristic of ancient
Greek thought patterned on natural phenomena.13 Since Lwith proposed this
idea more as a portent for the future than as a definite philosophical program, it
remained quite vague. As early as 1933, Lwith had written to Leo Strauss that
his aim was to think, on the basis of a radically historical consciousness (auf
Grund eines extrem historischen Bewusstseins), in an entirely unhistorical man-
11. Ibid., 159.
12. Dilthey, Einleitung in die Geisteswissenschaften, Gesammelte Schriften, I, 91-92.
13. Lwith, Meaning in History, 207.

ner (ganz unhistorisch); this critique of historical modes of reflection did not,
however, warrant for him the positing of a human nature in the Straussian
sense, patterned on a given idea of this nature as it had functioned in ancient
Greek philosophy. As Lwith wrote in this same letter composed on the eve of
Hitlers accession to power, which is of great help in clarifying his philosophical
orientation well beyond the year 1933:
I thus think in a more historical manner than you do, since the historicity of reason has
become self-evident for me, and at the same time, on that very ground, in a less historical
manner, since I constantly accord to the present, in the perspective of the future, an
absolute historical right. You, however, absolutize a history that is no longer our history,
and substitute an absolute Antiquity for an absolute Christianity. You ask: what is human-
ity and what has become of itI begin by formulating the question in this same way,
arrive however at the factical (faktische) conclusion: that is not the way we are and
what can still become of humanity!14

In my opinion, if Lwiths conception of the lines of continuity between dif-

ferent historical epochs distinguishes itself from the post-Hegelian philosophies
both of progress and of decline, this is due less to a precise model of cosmolog-
ical time than to another concern, directly related to the dilemma of Lwiths
own present time. It is this dilemma which, since the period of his emigration in
1934, he constantly had to face. If Lwith sought a line of continuity between the
Christian quest for salvation and the modern philosophies of history, it was above
all in order to comprehend the link between historical ideas and totalitarian
movementsprincipally Nazism. For this reason, in a number of writings prior
to and contemporaneous with Meaning in History, reflection concerning this link
serves as a means for understanding the human situation in the twentieth centu-
ry. Directly in relation to this link to the present time, Lwith engages the radi-
cally historical consciousness aiming toward the future overcoming of the pre-
This aspect of Lwiths work comes to light above all in his writings on the
posterity of the Hegelian projection of salvation onto the secular historical world.
In Meaning in History, as in other contemporaneous essays such as The
Dynamics of History and Historicism (Die Dynamik der Geschichte und der
Historismus), Lwith extended his analysis of Hegelian philosophy as the cul-
mination of a tendency tacitly present in the age-old Christian tradition. This
analysis focused on Hegels famous words : World history is the tribunal of the
world (Die Weltgeschichte ist das Weltgericht).15 As Hegel himself wrote, this
judgment represented a transposition of the Christian last judgment (jngster
Gericht) into the secular sphere. In this sense, world history is the tribunal of the
world embodies the movement of secularization that the Hegelian philosophy of
history brings to fulfillment. Yet it is not only due to the line of continuity it

14. Unpublished letter from Karl Lwith to Leo Strauss, 8 January, 1933, Leo Strauss archive,
University of Chicago. I would like to thank Professor Joseph Cropsey for permission to quote from
this letter.
15. Lwith, Meaning in History; Die Dynamik der Geschichte und der Historismus [1952],
Smtliche Schriften, II, 308.
reveals in the movement of world history that this phrase proves especially
important for Lwith. Beyond the shift it indicates in the passage from the opac-
ity of divine judgment ushering in the end of history to the rationalization of
human history, this phrase is of decisive significance for Lwith because of the
critical perspective it lays bare. This perspective most concerns contemporary
German assumptions about historicityparticularly fateful in their conse-
quenceswhich constitute the principal legacy of Hegels thought.
In his commentary on this legacy, in The Dynamics of History and
Historicism and several years later, in Man and History (Mensch und
Geschichte), Lwith focused his criticism on Wilhelm Dilthey, noting that for
him, even more directly than for Hegel, world history is the tribunal of the
world.16 History is the tribunal of the world in the sense that success in the
sphere of world history is the ultimate criterion of truth. Viability in history
becomes the principle that decides the legitimacy of all truth claims as such. This
is the ultimate result of the millennial march of secularization, which tends to
disregard all supernatural claims to truth, since the validity of such claims, in
their independence of this world, cannot be judged in terms of the values that pre-
dominate in it.
In the essay Man and History Lwith once again cited the phrase of Hegel,
world history is the tribunal of the world, but this time in relation to a critique
addressed both against Dilthey and, even more fundamentally, against Marx.
According to Lwiths argument, the Marxian theory of ideologies inaugurated
the tendency to evaluate truth solely in terms of its historical efficacy (a tenden-
cy which would predominate, albeit for a very different purpose, in Diltheys his-
toricism).17 For the Marxian theory of ideology, there are no criteria of truth inde-
pendent of the historical process, since all truth criteria are expressions of a his-
torical context configured by the material conditions of production. As ideologies
tacitly express the particular interests of given classes, only the proletarian revo-
lution capable of abolishing classes and the particularity of their interests would,
through the process of history, overcome this particularity in establishing univer-
sally valid criteria of truth. In presupposing that this outcome is the necessary
result of the historical process, the Marxian theory of ideologies tacitly extended
the Hegelian assumption that world history is the tribunal of the world, while
transforming the very notion of philosophical truth itself. Where Hegel presup-
posed the absolute character of such truth, the Marxian notion of ideology, in
deriving truth criteria from material conditions of production, reduced all truth
claims advanced in a class society to mere instruments of political action to be
evaluated in light of their relation to the ultimate revolutionary goal.
Even more prominently than to Diltheys historicism, Lwith assigned an
especially important role to this Marxian transformation of Hegels philosophy
of history into an instrument of political action. In writings of the 1930s written
16. Lwith, Die Dynamik der Geschichte und der Historismus, Smtliche Schriften, II, 308;
Lwith, Mensch und Geschichte [1960], Smtliche Schriften, II, 368.
17. Lwith, Mensch und Geschichte, Smtliche Schriften, II, 368.

much earlier than Man and History and even than Meaning in History, Lwith
considered the tacit extension and distortion of this Marxian theory to underlie
the decisionist theories of Carl Schmitt, Friedrich Gogarten, and Martin
Heidegger. All three of these authorsthe jurist, the theologian, and the philoso-
pheracting on the conviction that all past historical traditions were in decline
and could no longer be considered to be a source of truth, identified resolute deci-
sion in the face of nothingness as the sole foundation of the legitimacy of truth.
And, after 1933, the call for resolute decision in the theories of all three of these
authors led to political activism in favor of the Nazi movement.
But how can decisionism be a development of the Marxian idea that truth cri-
teria are historically configured? That is, what allows us to situate the respective
positions of these three authors in the movement of historical reflection as
Lwith conceived of it? Clearly, as witnessed by the accent placed on individual
decision in the context of cultural decline, the political orientations of Heidegger,
Schmitt, or Gogarten radically opposed the liberalism of Dilthey and Marxian
communism. It is true, of course, that fascism and Nazism both tacitly appropri-
ated certain aspects of the Marxist legacy: Mussolini began his political career as
a socialist before World War I and, as Ernst Bloch was one of the first to note,
fascism and Nazism attempted to combat Marxism by co-opting certain of its
claims and symbols.18 Nonetheless, this in itself would hardly provide sufficient
support for the assertion that the decisionist theories are an ultimate outcome of
a long tradition of secularization of the Christian sources of historical thought.
Indeed, the decision concerning the criteria of political sovereignty according to
Schmitt, of the sense of being of Dasein for Heidegger, or of Christian faith out
of nothingness for Gogarten would seem to derive from anything but tradition-
al Christian eschatology or from Lwiths notion of its secularized expression
tacitly embodied in Marxian or liberal assumptions concerning history as a
movement toward an ultimate goal. This is a crucial and admittedly difficult point
in Lwiths analysis. It is rendered still more problematic by the paucity of
explicit analysis of this theme, to which Lwith merely alludes in Meaning in
History.19 Yet I believe that it is in interpreting the striking affinities between
Lwiths analysis of the movement of historical reflection in this work in relation
to his analysis in an earlier article of the 1930s, entitled The Occasional
Decisionism of Carl Schmitt, that the profoundly political implications of
Lwiths interpretation of secularization come to light.
The early but seminal article entitled The Occasional Decisionism of Carl
Schmitt was initially published in 1935 as a critique of Carl Schmitt and later
rewritten and expanded to include critical analysis of Heidegger and Gogarten.
Where in Meaning in History Lwith attempted to link the perverse messianism
of twentieth-century fascist movements with a distortion of earlier historical
reflection that had found one of its culminating points in the Marxist theory of

18. Ernst Bloch, Erbschaft dieser Zeit [1935] (Frankfurt am Main, 1985), 70-75; translated as
Heritage of Our Times by N. and S. Plaice (Berkeley, 1990), 64-69.
19. See below.
history, this earlier article attempted to tie decisionism, as he conceived of it, to
a tacit extension and distortion of the Marxian concept of ideology. What appears
in Meaning in History as a leveling out of two-dimensional Christian eschatol-
ogy to produce a one-dimensional schema assimilating all truths to secularized
historical truth criteria, finds a parallel movement in this earlier essay: before any
explicit reference to the phenomenon of secularization in Lwiths work, analy-
sis is centered in this earlier essay on the eradication of the autonomy of all tra-
ditional truth criteria capable of transcending historical contingency that the
Marxian concept of ideology inaugurated and decisionism distorted and extend-
ed in the context of a radically different political orientation. What would appear
in Meaning in History as the most fateful consequence of the leveling out of
Christian historical reflection through elimination of its absolute otherworldly
referencea leveling out already epitomized, as we have seen, in the Hegelian
dictum world history is the tribunal of the worldwas clearly foreshadowed
in this earlier article of 1935 in relation to the reorientation brought about by the
decisionist appropriation of Marxs concept of ideology.20 Let us pursue this lat-
ter analysis more closely for the light it sheds on Lwiths assumptions.
The Marxian concept of ideology presupposed that values, far from possess-
ing autonomous truth, draw their significance according to their place in the
objective historical process in relation to the ultimate revolutionary goal of over-
coming the merely partial perspectives engendered by class society. In this sense,
one could say that values, rather than absolute in a Platonic or traditional
Christian sense, are always relative to their historical context in view of the ulti-
mate revolutionary goal. What Schmitt, like Heidegger and Gogarten, shares
with the shift in philosophical perspective inaugurated by Marx is obviously nei-
ther the specific notion of ideology determined by a material infrastructure nor
that of a dialectic movement of history toward communist revolution. Rather, the
decisionist theories tacitly extended another aspect of the Marxian theory of ide-
ology, while shedding its initial dialectical structure: the assumption concerning
the facticity of all values that emerge in the historical world, signifying their
relativity to an existential situation in which truth is bereft of any autonomous
status. Hence, Carl Schmitt postulated that the criteria governing political deci-
sions are not determined on the basis of any supreme truth content, but on an

20. In regard to the decisionism of Carl Schmitt, Lwith wrote: This deviation of philosophical
insight concerning the essence of politics into an intellectual instrument of political action occurred
consciously and voluntarily for the first time in the debate that Marx engaged with Hegel. Cf. Der
Okkasionnelle Dezisionismus von Carl Schmitt [1935], Smtliche Schriften, VIII, 57; for an English
translation of this text, see Karl Lwith, The Occasional Decisionism of Carl Schmitt in Martin
Heidegger and European Nihilism, ed. R. Wolin, transl. G. Steiner (New York, 1995), 137-169.
Regarding the development of later ideologies, Lwith emphasized the fundamental role of Marxs
thought rather than that of Hegel since, in his perspective, Hegel was a greater realist than Marx.
Marx was less of a realistin other words, more of an idealistnot because of principles he adopt-
ed, but because of their application. Hence Marx adopted an eschatological goal, albeit in secular-
ized form, which, in its will to overcome this world by transforming it, showed itself to be far more
radical than Hegels intellectualism. Lwiths assumption that the communist faith is a pseudometa-
morphosis of Judeo-Christian messianism drew the critical fire of Ernst Bloch in Das Prinzip Hoff-

existential situation stemming from the mere factical (faktische) alliances of

friend or foe in war; Heidegger sought to found all determinate contents or val-
ues on decision in light of the factical existence of Dasein as being-toward-death;
Gogartens religious decision subordinates all determinate worldly values to
primordial choice in the face of nothingness. Once the historical process offers
no hope of overcoming the historical contingency of ideology to encompass a
universal perspective, this contingency becomes the mark of truth itself which, in
the context of the human historical world, can provide nothing more than a mere
occasion for the realization of existential decision.
In stipulating that such decision emerges out of a confrontation with nothing-
ness rather than in relation to specific, historically determined norms, each of
these thinkers at the same time apparently broke with both Marxian and liberal
assumptions concerning the historical process as movement toward a final goal,
constituting for Lwith the tacit sign of secularization of traditional Christian
eschatology. Indeed, for these three authors the decline of the historical process
disqualified it as a source of normative values, necessitating radical decision in
the face of nothingness. And yet it is precisely in their attempts to break with
Marxian and liberal assumptions concerning the movement of history that the
decisionist theories show their profound dependence on these assumptions and,
from Lwiths standpoint, on a long heritage of reflection on historical meaning
originating in Christian eschatology, of which these assumptions are the secular-
ized expression. In Lwiths perspective, as I interpret it, this dependence has
two aspects, showing decisionism to be both an outcome of secularization and,
at the same time, like the predominant secularized theories of history in the West
of which it is an ultimate, if pale expression, the tacit reflection of an age-old
eschatological orientation.
The first aspect concerns the tendency to interpret all norms manifested in the
human historical world as merely relative to that world and thus bereft of any

nung (Gesammelte Schriften, Band V, 2 [Frankfurt am Main, 1959], 1612). It is tempting to interpret
the idea of history presented in Meaning in History as a reaction to Blochs portrayal of the relation
between Marxism and Christianity in his earlier work Erbschaft dieser Zeit [1935] (Heritage of Our
Times). In this work, Bloch had already underlined the central role of the historical messianism of
Joachim of Floris for the development of later social movements. Blochs analyses are of particular
interest in relation to Lwiths theories, since they develop a number of assumptions which, in mod-
ifying orthodox Marxist doctrines, elaborated an idea of history diametrically opposed to that of
Lwith. Indeed, where for Bloch fascism incorporatedand pervertedcertain aspects of Marxist
philosophy that were in themselves legitimate, the major mistake of orthodox Marxism arose from its
inability to integrate and demystify the religious aspirations that, over the past centuries, have con-
stantly nourished social demands. Thus, after praising the role of Joachim of Floris, Bloch wrote the
following passage in which he emphasized for the success of the Marxist program the importance of
appropriating the religious heritage : There will be no successful attack on the irrational front with-
out dialectical intervention, no rationalization and conquest of these areas without its own theology,
adjusted to the always still irrational revolutionary content. (Erbschaft dieser Zeit, 154; English trans-
lation, 139). For Lwith, completely to the contrary, the idealism of Marxism results from the fact
that the aspirations of faith tacitly orient its social program. It is this secularization of an earlier reli-
gious promiseone that was doomed to be betrayedwhich for Lwith exhibits the hidden affinity
between Marxism and the Fascist programs which distort its fundamental principles.
validity beyond mere factical validity. As Lwith wrote in The Occasional
Decisionism of Carl Schmitt, the common root of the respective positions of
these three authors appears in their decisive conviction that every heritagethe
products and the institutions, as much as the contents and the criteriahas col-
lapsed into nothingness. This conviction establishes an implicit equivalence
between the world and the human historical world.21 This is the extreme limit
of a millennial movement of secularization once this movement was stripped not
only of its absolute Hegelian underpinnings and liberal theories of historical
progress, but also of the Marxian conviction of its ultimate outcome in commu-
nist revolution. All that remained was an occasionalist relativism of values
adapted to a given factical situation.22 This relativism provides for Lwith the
clue to explain how each of these authors, after a period of great political ambi-
guity in the context of the Weimar Republic, could so readily rally to Nazism in
accord with the new factical situation presented by Hitlers absolute domination
of Germany. Rather than fundamental principles capable of evaluating the his-
torical process, decision in the case of each of these authors was made merely in
relation to the facticity of a national context as the standard of historical judg-
The second line of dependence of the decisionist theories on the historical
assumptions of the orientations that they brought into question lies in their
respective ideas of history as a processeven where, prior to their commitment
to the Nazi program, this process was conceived in terms of decline rather than
as forward movement toward a goal. Hence, the decisionist theories retained the
crucial assumption that history as a global process has a meaningeven if a neg-
ative oneand that it is within history that the meaning of history is to be sought.
Precisely this assumption concerning the overarching significance of history
fueled the conviction among each of the decisionist theorists of the possibility of
orienting the course of this process through historically effective action. After
resolutely breaking with the Hegelian and post-Hegelian philosophies of history,
the presupposition that world history has ultimate meaning or, still more pre-
cisely, that world history is the tribunal of the world, continued tacitly to ori-
ent their theories, since each of them, with an eye turned exclusively toward the
criteria of this world and toward the efficacy of decision in accord with these cri-
teria, continued to pursue an ultimate meaning in history by means of resolute
political action. This is why juridical, theological, and philosophical decisionism,
even after having definitively broken with the conviction of world-historical
progress predominant in the post-Hegelian world, could so willingly endorse a

21. Karl Lwith, Der Okkasionnelle Dezisionismus von Carl Schmitt [1935], in Smtliche
Schriften, VIII, 70.
22. Lwith alludes to this idea in Meaning and History, for example in the conclusion of this work,
where he makes the following argument in regard to Heidegger: If the universe is neither eternal and
divine, as it was for the ancients, nor transient but created, as it is for the Christians, there remains
only one aspect: the sheer contingency of its mere existence, Lwith, Meaning and History, 201. It
is precisely this possibility that, according to the earlier article, The Occasional Decisionism of Carl
Schmitt, Schmitt, Gogarten, and Heidegger thought to its nihilistic conclusion.

perverse messianic movement seeking salvation in the advent of a national and

racial history.
Recall, by way of conclusion, the preliminary remark that Carl Schmitt added
to the second edition of his book Political Theology published in 1933 several
months after Hitlers rise to power. In this remark Schmitt referred to the
Protestant pastor, Friedrich Gogarten, who had just proclaimed his allegiance to
the German Christians faithful to Hitler, thereby renouncing the fundamental
principle that had inspired his theological position a decade earlier: the principle
of an absolute distinction between God and the world, between theology and pol-
itics. The jurist Schmitt, who ostentatiously proclaimed his adhesion to
Catholicism, offered the following commentary on the earlier, so-called apolit-
ical position of the Protestant pastor:
Surely, in Protestant theology, another so-called apolitical theory represents God as the
wholly other, in the same way as for political liberalism, which corresponds to this the-
ology, the State and politics are the wholly other. In the meantime we have recognized
that the political is the total (das Totale), and for this reason we also know that to decide
that something is apolitical is itself always a political decision, regardless of who makes
the decision and of the justifications in which it is clothed. This is just as true of the ques-
tion as to whether a given theology is a political or an apolitical theology.23

Neither truly political, nor authentically theological, such a position expresses

for Lwith nothing more than the ultimate advent of a millennial tendency
which, in promising salvation on this earth, leaps toward nothingness. It is this
ultimate advent of secularization which, from Lwiths vantage point, reveals
the bankruptcy both of the ideologies of progress and of decline. At the same
time, this ultimate moment of a millennial tradition assigns to contemporary
humanity a new task: that of casting off the burden of faith in the possibility of
salvation in this world which, in a great variety of ways, propelled such a fateful
historical movement. Inspired by Lwiths own assumptions, such liberation
from the burden of eschatological faith in history aims primarily toward demys-
tification of all claims derivedeither openly or tacitlyfrom a political theol-
ogy which confuses the two realms of faith and of history that it is of utmost
importance to distinguish. This task calls for a re-examination of the notion of
the political and, along with this, a rethinking of human identity itself as we draw
toward the end of the twentieth century.

Universit dAmiens

23. Carl Schmitt, Vorbemerkung zur zweiten Ausgabe Politische Theologie [1933] (Berlin,