Comments on Adam Kotsko’s The Prince of this World


The following text was originally delivered at the 2018 meeting of the Western Political Science Association.

At the outset I want to thank Char for inviting me to participate in this round table. I have to confess that I was intrigued by the possibility of reading and commenting on a book about the history of the devil in Christian theology and how it might relate to political theory. Char insisted that this book has much to teach political theorists, and after reading it I agree with him. Kotsko describes his book as a work of political theology that follows in the tradition of Schmitt and Agamben to examine how secular political concepts originate, often in surprising ways, in theological concepts. The point of such an enquiry is twofold – first to explore how both politics and theology attempt to offer a “total account of their respective fields” so as not to reduce a theory to the idiosyncrasies of a single author (12). The second is to explore the general state of conscious of an epoch to uncover how concepts are sites of power struggles within a given era, and how our present understandings of these concepts are often shaped in hidden ways by these forgotten power struggles.

            In the case of Kotsko’s analysis, the figure of the devil is one site where theologians have tried to square the problem of evil (i.e. that God is all good; that God is all powerful; and that evil exists in the world). Yet how the Judeo-Christian tradition understands the devil shifts from era to era depending upon power struggles both within the church, and by the church against its political rivals. In this exploration of the devil, Kotsko engages with numerous political themes including: freedom, conquest, liberation, revolution, slavery, punishment, sovereignty, legitimacy, and the recognition of minority religious groups. Kotsko also weaves together close reading of the Bible and theological texts with close readings of such diverse political theorists as Agamben, Derrida, Engels, The Federalists, Foucault, Hobbes, Kant, Mills, Nietzsche, Rawls, and many more. To see familiar figures from political theory read alongside Christian theology was truly thought provoking at every turn, and I can’t possibly do justice to such a rich text in such a short period of time.

            So rather than trying to grapple with Kotsko’s theory as a whole, I want to zero in on one provocative idea that he presents us with – what he calls the Satanic Social Contract. This is an idea he first raises in his discussion of the writings of Gregory of Nyssa, a 4th century theologian who argued for universal salvation of all humans. According to Kotsko, “Nyssa’s account of how Christ saves us from the devil . . . anticipates social contract theory”. In Nyssa’s account Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden find themselves in a position akin to the state of nature. Their free consent binds “themselves and their descendants to obey their sovereign [the devil] in perpetuity” (81). Kotsko pushes the analogy between the social contract further when he observes the “the possibility of submitting to the devil is inherent to human freedom, just as for the social contract theorists the establishment of a concrete political order is at once a contingent historical achievement and a natural outgrowth of human needs and capacities” (81). The significant dis-analogy between the Satanic Contract and the Social one is that, at least in Hobbes, death – or at least the fear of a violent death -- is what drives subjects to submit to Leviathan, whereas in Gregory’s account death results from the contract with Satan and is not feared but seen as “therapeutic in intent” as it is necessary to destroy the body to purify the soul. In Gregory’s reading Christ does not only solve the problem of human sinfulness, but by acting as a ransom payment from God to the devil, Christ liberates humans from the bondage of their contract with the devil.

            Kotsko draws on the social contract tradition in two other passages in his text. The first considers the idea of the social contract in early monastic thought. Kotsko argues that early monastic communities represent a kind of social contract. When Constantine moved the Roman Empire towards the official recognition of Christianity this led to a political problematic for Christians. During the Apocalyptic era Roman authority had often been taken as symbolic of the devil. With Rome now becoming Christian, and Christianity shifting from a position as a persecuted minority religion to a hegemonic religion within empire asceticism became a substitute for martyrdom. These early ascetic communities were constituted by voluntary social bonds, freely entered into by members who renounced the sensual world as a means of eliminating “oppression and injustice” (86). Drawing upon Agamben’s reading of early monasticism, Kotsko argues that these orders were not merely alternative forms of the social contract, but alternatives to the social contract. Implicit in both Kotsko and Agamben’s readings is that monasticism represented a form of anarchism, whereas the social contract tradition, as it establishes state authority is “effectively an instrument of subordination and restraint” (87).

            Kotsko’s third reading of social contract occurs in his analysis of Augustine, Anslem’s, and Aquinas’s explanation of the fall of the devil and the founding of the earthly city. Kotsko observes, “free will is the decisive factor in explaining the devil’s responsibility for his own state” (131). The association between freedom as individual choice and the founding of the earthly city is explicit in the writings of Augustine, Aquinas, and Anslem. As Kotsko notes, both the fall and the founding require a distinction between two stages of history: a now inaccessible original position (the state of nature and the Garden of Eden) and a politically qualified states that may or may not be escapable. Both involve a surrender of freedom to enter the commonwealth. And both treat their citizens as if they have consented to the laws of the commonwealth as a way of making them morally accountable for their submission. In drawing the analogy between this medieval reading of the fall of the devil and the founding of the earthly city, Kotsko notes that in both instances (medieval theology and post-Rousseau social contract theory), there is a move from a historical context to a greater degree of abstraction. The function of the abstraction is partly to justify how people find themselves in their present social roles. Kotsko writes, “Like the good angel [of medieval theology], the Rawlsian subject is granted freedom only on condition of a prior submission (to the terms of a thought experiment)” (133). Both the angels of the medieval account and the reasoning subjects of Rawls’ account appear to have consented to their social roles beforehand, and part of the function of the social contract and its implicit view of freedom is to make the citizen responsible for an order to which he has no recollection of consenting. Kotsko concludes his reading of the social contract in conjunction with demonology by asking a most provocative question: “If Rawls is the angel, then who are the demons” (137)? And he replies by citing Pateman and Mills to argue that those whom the liberal democratic order will not recognize as rational (be it on gendered or racialized grounds) function as the excluded demons of the social contract.

            This reading of the social contract through the political-theology of the devil has much to offer political theorists, but I will highlight three key insights. First, Kotsko shows us (political theorists) how submission to the social contract rests on human free will. This understanding of free will in Christian theology asks the question: how can a person/or angel be held responsible for their actions, and how can they be blamed for their moral failings and their sin? Second, the recovery of the social contracts of early monasticism points to a possible non-compulsory political community as an alternative to the state form with its emphasis on compulsory subordination and restraint. Third, the linking of Rawls to demonology draws our attention to how the social contract constructs itself through excluding or marginalizing groups.

            To this I would add two points from political philosophy that I think could press Kotsko’s analysis in further and perhaps more provocative ways. I offer these comments not in the spirit of saying the Kotsko got the political theory wrong, but as suggestions for other ways of reading these traditions in the hope that it will provoke further conversation between political theory and theology. The first concerns the claim that the concept of free will is used to assign blameworthiness to an actor. Kotsko’s point echoes one made by J. L. Austin in his essay “A Plea for Excuses.”

            Austin’s point is that much of moral philosophy ignores the important role that excuses and other modifiers play in our everyday moral arguments. Austin describes speech act such as pleas, defences, justifications and excuses as “extenuations” (Austin 1979, 175). In his elaboration on Austin’s approach to moral philosophy, Cavell adopts the term “elaboratives” (Cavell 1999, 296). Both Austin and Cavell in introducing these terms are critiquing the tendency of many analytic moral philosophers to reduce morality to a set of propositions that are then scrutinized for their logical validity. This approach is not so much wrong, as a fundamental misunderstanding of how people moralize in their day-to-day experiences. One thing that is lost when philosophers move from the exploration of ordinary speech acts to abstract propositions is the subtle yet significant ways in which modifications of various moral claims are used in our moral arguments.

            Austin believes that by focusing on excuses, the philosopher can come to see how philosophy has misunderstood the nature of freedom. Normally, in ethics, freedom implies that the actor possesses some kind of capacity to choose how to act. Because of this ability to choose ‘freely’ the actor can be held responsible for the action. Much of philosophy focuses on freedom as a positive property that an agent possesses. For example, philosophical accounts of freedom focus on the capacity to do something (i.e. positive freedom) – or on the absence of external constraints upon acting (i.e. negative freedom) (Berlin 1969). However, Austin believes that by focusing on excuses, we quickly see that freedom is not only “used to rule out the suggestion of some or all of its antitheses”, nor is it simply “a characteristic of actions” (1979, 180). Instead, what is crucially overlooked about freedom is that it is “the name of a dimension in which actions are assessed” (Austin 1979, 180). The fact that freedom is a dimension of the normative assessment of actions means that the freer people are held to be in their ability to act – i.e. in their ability to choose how they act – the more responsible they are held to be for the results of the action. When one tries to excuse an action (or to be more precise, when one tries to excuse the consequences of an action), one offers reasons for why one is not responsible for what happened. Normally one accomplishes this by explaining why one was not free in that particular circumstance.

            The advantage of bringing Austin’s view on freedom, action, and excuses into this discussion is to complicate the binary between freedom and blameworthiness that is established in the medieval reading of the devil’s fall. Certainly theology must also have its space for excuses that enables the sinner to not just repent, but to offer mitigating circumstances for his actions. I would suggest that there are two possible sites to begin such an exploration. The first might be in how the devil is occasionally used to excuse an action – i.e. “the devil made me do it”. The second, and this is only a hunch as I have not read Paradise Lost since my undergraduate days, would be to see how the devil tries to excuse rather than justify his fall. Part of Austin’s point is that how we defend and elaborate our actions when they come under moral scrutiny is as much a struggle over how much freedom (and hence responsibility) we have, as it is about our moral blameworthiness.

            The other question concerns how Kotsko imagines the social contract. We are presented with two standard interpretations of what the social contract was – either a pre-scientific natural history (as in Kotsko’s reading of Hobbes) or as an abstract thought experiment as in Rawls. But I want to suggest that there is a third way of reading what social contract thinkers are doing, a reading that follows from Stanley Cavell. In the Claim of Reason, Cavell observes that the philosophical search for criteria – the principle by which something is judged or decided as being something – is a claim to community. He then links the search for criteria in linguistic philosophy quite provocatively (in a way quite similar to what Kotsko has done here) with the question of the social contract, and the puzzle of “how could I have been party to the establishing of criteria [or a social contract, or original sin] if I do not recognize that I have and do not know what they are” (22). In making this move, Cavell suggests that the conventional reading of the social contract – the one inherited from Hume’s critique of Locke and echoed by Kotsko – is either “devious” or question begging (i.e. in assuming the question of the social contract is why must I obey the state, it assumes that I have consented to the social contract, when clearly I have no recollection of having done so). Instead, Cavell suggests, “What I consent to, in consenting to the contract, is not mere obedience, but membership in a polis” (23). To ask “why I ought to obey the state?” is always bound to disappoint, as it will come at the cost of occasionally breaking other commitments – to friends, God, family, lovers, oneself. Furthermore because, as Cavell observes, it is a poorly kept secret that all societies are imperfect, an appeal to obedience based upon the advantages of citizenship simply makes no sense. And Cavell argues that the classical social contract theorists in posing the idea of the social contract where not imagining a pre-history, or conducting a thought experiment to justify obedience but instead asking: “given the specific inequalities and lacks of freedom and absence of fraternity in society to which I have consented, do these outweigh the ‘disadvantages of withdrawing my consent” (Cavell, 24). The effect of this question is twofold: it simultaneously binds me to my society (establishes my membership in it, and hence my responsibility for it) while also putting “society at a distance from me, so that it appears as an artifact” (Cavell, 23). I take Cavell here to be saying that the distancing of the social contract is what enables critique, both of my society, but also perhaps of my responsibilities for not having done enough to have righted my societies failings. If we follow Cavell and take the social contract to be a question of membership and the personal responsibilities that asks of me rather than a question of why I ought to obey, then how does this complicate the reading of the social contract in the Prince of this World?