Review of Jacob Taubes’ Occidental Eschatology and From Cult to Culture

Below is a long review of two of Jacob Taubes’ recently (relatively) translated works. This was originally written for a journal, but I was not able to speak to the ideological commitments of the journal and so it has languished as they’ve waited for me to correct it. At some point I realized I would never really be able to meet their requests for a variety of reasons and so decided to pull it so they might find a more suitable reviewer. I’m not sure those who are familiar with Taubes or Continental philosophy of religion will find anything new, but since I had spent some time on this (though years ago now) I am posting it here for those who might be interested.

Review of Jacob Taubes, Occidental Eschatology, trans. David Ratmoko (Stanford UP, 2009) and From Cult to Culture: Fragments Toward a Critique of Historical Reason, eds. Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert and Amir Engel (Stanford UP, 2010).

Anthony Paul Smith (Spring, 2012)

During the mid-point of the Bush-Blair years two intellectual inquiries rose to prominence: questions relating to sovereignty, focused around a renewal of interest in the work of German far-right jurist Carl Schmitt, and questions relating to the so-called “return of religion”, which resulted in a number of para-Marxist engagements with the thought of the Christian apostle Paul. What drove both of these trends from being simply passing academic fancy to something actually reflective of live questions operative within cultural consciousness was their connection to the practice of sovereignty undertaken by the Bush regime and the seeming return of religion into the public sphere, especially in the form of resurgent fundamentalisms vying for political power. These two lines of thought came together in 2004 with the publication of Jacob Taubes’ The Political Theology of Paul in English-translation, which was originally published posthumously in German in 1993 but originally delivered as lectures in 1987. The seminar from which the book comes was to be Taubes last and during its preparation and delivery he was suffering from the final stages of an advanced form of cancer. According to Aleida Assman, the editor of the lectures, Taubes could not stand “even for a moment” during the seminar and delivered his lectures lying down in great pain. This book joined other left-wing philosophical readings of Paul’s writings, like Giorgio Agamben’s The Time That Remains: A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans, Alain Badiou’s Saint Paul: The Foundations of Universalism, Slavoj Zizek’s own engagements in The Ticklish Subject and The Puppet and the Dwarf, and the less well-known engagement by Jean-François Lyotard in The Hyphen: Between Judaism and Christianity. While there are a number of important theoretical differences at work in these books, though perhaps more minimal with regard to Agamben’s text due in part to shared sources (primarily their working with Benjamin’s theory of time), the crucial difference is that Taubes understood his reading of Paul to be the culmination of his intellectual work. His commitment to give the lectures reveals that Taubes’ intellectual work was more than just an academic interest, but a real struggle with themes and concepts that Taubes believed were of ultimate concern for Occidental history. In the writings of Paul, specifically his “Letter to the Romans”, Taubes finds within Paul, essentially a thinker whose ideas had been completely absorbed into the World (that is, the State, the Church, and all other forms of authority and law), a radical example of the living out of the experience of apocalyptic temporality, an experience that Taubes claims is to be expressed in the philosophical and theological thinking of all true revolutionary moments in history.

It was the translation of this book that raised Taubes’ profile in the English-speaking world, owing in part to its untimeliness. Yet, it would be a mistake to think that Taubes’ published work presents any kind of overarching systematic investigation into the question of the apocalyptic. Instead, Taubes deploys a markedly Talmudic approach to his investigations. That is, Taubes proceeds by entering into a discussion with a number of different texts. He does this not as a historian or commentator, but rather, as in the art of Talmud, as an artist of disagreement (On Talmud understood in this way see Sergey Dolgopolski, What Is Talmud?: The Art of Disagreement [New York: Fordham University Press, 2009]). That is, in each case, and they are remarkably varied, from ancient Gnostic texts to contemporary Christian theologians, Taubes’ enters into another thinker’s work not in order refute them or assent to their position, but to see what is revealed through reorienting that thinker to the question of the apocalyptic in a variety of modes. This means that Taubes rarely gives his readers any sense of guidance with regard to the other thinker in the dialogue. The point isn’t to give the final word on, say, Kierkegaard or Marx, the reading of which I will touch on below, but to bring them under the sign of the apocalyptic. While this is interesting and at times frustrating, it does mean that Taubes does not have a fully-worked out notion of the apocalyptic, it changes with the engagement between each thinker which in turn changes the next reading, and so his work can only be described as fragmentary. And so, while he insists at times on the particularity of Paul’s Jewishness against certain Christian readings of Paul, his own understanding of particularity doesn’t support the idea of a static identity. While he was a Rabbi, at other times he presents himself as a Paulist instead of a Jew or as a Gnostic instead of an Orthodox believer. The wager is that this fragmentary character is more revealing of the essence of the apocalyptic break than the dictatorial model of State intellectuals, like Schmitt, and thus mirrors Taubes own conviction that the apocalyptic break does not come from on high, but is firmly on the side of those who are left outside the established order (OE, p. 39).

It can be easy to overstate Schmitt’s influence on Taubes’ thought, but what Taubes does take from Schmitt’s work is the recognition “that there is a world civil war in progress.” (Taubes, The Political Theology of Paul, eds. Aleida Assmann and Jan Assmann, trans. Dana Hollander (Stanford: Stanford UP, 2004), p. 102) With regard to this civil war, Taubes says, a decision has to be made:

“at the moment of cultural civil war – this is something I also want to profess from the outset – I made – let this be clear – a clear choice. It was the student movement, no big deal, but it was something. And I then unequivocally threw what little weight I had on the side of the leftists, although there was much with which I didn’t agree. In such a case, it’s not a matter of cultivating one’s personal opinions but of putting them aside in order to become capable of acting in a particular situation, and for this it’s necessary to be on one side.” (Taubes, p. 98.)

Ultimately this cultural, world civil war is the grounding axiom of Taubes’ investigations. Taubes is not a Marxist, as such, but is something like a para-Marxist that combines Marxism with Gnosticism, with apocalypticism, and that any theory at work in a radical political movement must give attention to this radical split, this radical dualism, operative in the social fabric of reality itself. It must also attend to the past, to the forms of thought and forms of life whose repetition can be located throughout history at the moments when that civil war became apparent in flesh and in blood. Taubes represents, then, an instance of a genre of theory shared by contemporary militant theory groups, like Tiqqun and The Invisible Community, though in a more academic mode. His work can be used as more readily available specimen allowing us to consider the ultra-left, which is neither truly Marxist nor anarchist, though proclaiming some form of communism, and their basic theoretical position of civil war with its corollary concepts of decision and apocalyptic temporality and break.

A Fragmentary Life

The details of Taubes life reveal an idiosyncratic path that matches his fragmentary style and because much of his work was carried out in seminars and conferences those details deserve a retelling here. Taubes published very little in his life, the two books reviewed here along with a slim volume collecting a few remarks on Carl Schmitt still untranslated and the posthumous publication of his last seminar are the only writings he published, but his seminars and conference participation bestowed a kind of Forest Gump-esque quality to his life. That is, the influence of Taubes appears to be behind a number of major intellectuals. Amongst those students who he had direct contact with as supervisor we find Susan Sontag and Avital Ronell. Amongst those who attended his seminars we can count Jacques Derrida and, to put a point on the strange juxtaposition of figures in Taubes’ life, Henry Kissinger. He considered himself a member of the “extreme Left” and the conservative political theorist Eric Voegelin once exasperatedly remarked that he had “met a Gnostic in the flesh!” after meeting Taubes (CC, p.xiv).

David Ratmoko, the translator of Occidental Eschatology, provides a short summary of Taubes’ life as an academic, the details of which I will reproduce here (pp. xii-xiii). Taubes was born in Vienna in 1923 to a rabbinic family. The family narrowly escaped Nazi persecution in 1937 when they moved to Zurich where his father was appointed chief rabbi. While his Jewish heritage, specifically within a rabbinic family, is of undeniable importance to his intellectual development and work, Taubes engaged at a very deep level with Christian theology in both its Protestant and Catholic forms. Indeed, his interest in eschatology and apocalyptic likely first began to develop into its mature form when he began to attend the Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar’s seminars of 1937-39 on the “Apocalypse of the German Soul”. Taubes was ordained a rabbi in 1943 and received his doctorate in philosophy from the University of Zurich in 1947, after which he published an edited version of his dissertation as Occidental Eschatology, his only monograph.

Within the year he moved to New York City where he held a post at the Jewish Theological Seminary, which quickly lead in 1950 to another post in Jerusalem as a research fellow under Gershom Sholem. Sholem and Taubes had a falling out, which resulted in twenty-five years of academic exile from the Jewish intellectual scene, and so Taubes moved in 1953 to Harvard where he carried out a research programme in political theology before teaching for a year at Princeton University and, finally, in 1956 he was offered a full-time academic appointment in religion at Columbia University. During this time Taubes married the academic and writer Susan Taubes, who wrote, in addition to a number of other works, a novelized account of their intense and tumultuous relationship entitled Divorcing. She committed suicide a week after the novel was published in 1969 three years after Taubes left New York City for Berlin. In 1966 Taubes was offered and accepted the chair of Jewish studies at Berlin’s Freie Universität, which he eventually turned into a whole Department of Hermeneutics. During this time he also was a guest lecturer at the Maison des Sciences de l’Homme in Paris. In addition to these posts, which put him in contact with some of the brightest young intellectuals of Europe, he was the coeditor with Jürgen Habermas (a strange coupling) of the popular Theorie series published by Suhrkamp, which published a number of avant-garde works of critical theory.

Taubes met his “arch-enemy” Carl Schmitt in 1978, after declining Schmitt’s invitations for some thirty-odd years. The story of the meeting between Schmitt and Taubes is reported to us by Taubes himself in an appendix to The Political Theology of Paul. This short appendix is one of the most delightful and interesting pieces of personal history I have ever come across in academic writing and is genuinely illuminating of Taubes’ intellectual position vis-à-vis Schmitt. There he presents a very human picture of Schmitt. While Taubes seems at times gentle and defensive about the former Nazi, he also presents a man that is stubborn and determined to defend himself in public concerning past actions and ideas that are indefensible. That is where the relationship between Taubes and Schmitt truly begins; with Schmitt using a letter from Taubes to Armin Mohler, Ernst Jünger’s secretary and New Right philosopher, which Mohler subsequently passed on to Schmitt, as a propaganda device, as Taubes explains:

“And Schmitt visits Jünger, and Jünger tells him about the letter, and Schmitt has him give him the letter, and, you know, he is hardly lazy when it’s a matter of propaganda regarding himself, he makes copies of the letter: ‘Letter from a Jewish intellectual, who understand more about me than all the… ,’ and so on.” (Taubes, p. 100. The letter to Mohler and another sent to Schmitt are also collected in a second appendix to The Political Theology of Paul.)

After this Schmitt begins to send copies of all his works to Taubes with dedications and even pointers for how to read the texts. Finally, after being encouraged by Blumenberg and Kojève to put aside any lingering, though justified, anger and distrust of Schmitt, Taubes decides to meet with him. Here Taubes full rabbinic gentleness is on display:

“And so I said to myself: Listen, Jacob, you aren’t the judge, especially as a Jew you aren’t the judge, because you have to admit, if you’ve learned anything at all, you learned something from Schmitt. I know the about the Nazi period. I even know a great deal more, a part I cover over with priestly silence, that doesn’t become public. You aren’t the judge, because as a Jew you weren’t tempted. We were blessed in this sense, that we couldn’t even take part. Not because we didn’t want to, but because they wouldn’t let us. All right, you can judge, because you know about the Resistance, but I can’t be sure about myself, I can’t be sure about anyone, that he won’t catch this infection of national uprising and go crazy for one or two years, uninhibited as he was. About Carl Schmitt’s uninhibitedness there is a lot to say.” (Taubes, p. 101.)

At that meeting, which is described by Taubes in friendly terms, Taubes tried to convince Schmitt that the “separation of powers between worldly and spiritual is absolutely necessary.” (Taubes, p. 103.) This is precisely the difference for Taubes between a true apocalypticism and its capture by the world (or, in less Gnostic terms, the State). And this separation is at the heart of Paul’s political theology against the Church and State political theology presented by Schmitt. This engagement with Schmitt’s right-wing theoretical work thus comes to a head with Taubes’ seminar on the writings of St. Paul, translated and published in English as The Political Theology of Paul, already mentioned above. He died a month later on March 21st, 1984 at the age of 64, leaving behind only his first book written forty-one years before and the fragmentary articles and essays collected in From Cult to Culture.

Tracing the Eschaton through History

Taubes tell us in the first pages of Occidental Eschatology that the subject of the book is history. By setting history within the perspective of the eschaton history suddenly reveals its own conditions and limits. That is, within the perspective of the end of time, the fulfillment of history, where history attempts to exceed itself, this is where history truly reveals itself. The conditions for history are ultimately negative, according to Taubes, since “The essence of history is freedom. […] Only mankind’s answer to the word of God, which is essentially a negative one, is evidence of human freedom. Therefore, the freedom of negation is the foundation of history (OC, 5).” Some conclusions follow from this claim: first, only human beings create history and so, secondly, nature is outside both the realm of freedom and thus of history as well. This Judeo-Gnostic refusal of nature has consequences, ultimately, for how Taubes will go on to read the history of eschatology in the West and so how he goes on to read the philosophy of Marx as a philosophical eschatology twinned with Kierkegaard. But before I turn to that reading, I want to remark on the subtle tension at play in Taubes’ binary casting of history and nature. While this is not a new binary, the form of the opposition is more subtle than usual in other modern Jewish thinkers and perhaps more subtle than we find in a Christian Protestant philosopher like Hegel. Some of this subtly comes across in the performative aspect of the book. For example, Taubes titles the first chapter “The Nature of Eschatology” and here he traces out the birth of apocalyptic thinking in ancient Judaism and up through early first century forms of what is normally called Gnosticism in most discourse today, but which Taubes more accurately calls simply “Gnosis”. History begins in freedom as expressed in the negation of the realm of necessity (named “God and Nature” by Taubes, calling up Spinoza, though seeming also to reject him) (OC, p. 5), and yet the very limit-form of history as eschatology itself can be shown to have a nature, to have a kind of birth. This is perhaps a recognition, though unsaid by Taubes, of the seed of corruption inherent in the act of freedom. In quasi-Adornian fashion, that eschatology too has a nature witnesses to the way eschatology may turn into the wrong state of things, perhaps through State-capture and perhaps not.

Further to this, Taubes also claims and shows that eschatology also has a history even though it is the limit of history. Here, in the second chapter, Taubes lays out his early reading of St. Paul and the form of apocalyptic found therein and the way St. Paul’s apocalyptic entered into the formation of what would become the modern Christian ideology through St. Augustine’s theology. The fact that St. Paul’s writings have been incorporated into Occidental history again witnesses to the way that one moves from a radical negation of the World to a new interpretation of it (OC, p. 77). The clear reference here is to Marx’s 11th Thesis and the expression of the move from negation of the World to the foundation of the medieval state is expressed within the realm of religion as the move from the free act of a heretical, apocalyptic sect to that sect becoming a new Worldly authority: “Universal eschatology, which bears within it the expectation of the Kingdom, form now on appears within the Christian sphere of influence as heresy. […] Rome will stand as long as the world stands (OC, 80, 81).”

At this point in Taubes’ narrative what we’ve seen happen is all forms of apocalyptic, with its roots in ancient Israel and ancient forms of Gnosis, coalesce around what would become Christianity. At this point the history of Occidental eschatology shifts its central location from the Middle East, Southern Europe, and North Africa, to Northern Europe. At this point the conditions for freedom, which is the act of negating necessity, shifts from the site of both nature and history, to theology. Taubes’ shift in focus appears to be something like a shift in the focus of the primary means of production, or the requirement to focus on what the form of production is that most determinative. So, the primary antagonism shifts from historical actors, that is different religious sects, to an intra-religious antagonism represented by the discourse of Christian theology. Taubes description of the rebellious, apocalyptic elements within Christian discourse is interesting and will make a good introduction for those who have not studied the history of Christian theology. The focus is on some familiar names, namely Joachim, the Spiritual Franciscans, and Müntzer, united by their chiliastic teachings which preached the end and imminent supercessionism of all authorities, including those assumed spiritual authorities like the Papacy. While this set of names may be new for some and the presentation by Taubes helpful for new readers of the history of political theology, they remain within studies of politics and religion/theology a set of familiar names and I found myself wishing that Taubes had looked a little further afield, to less examined territory like the apocalyptic form of nominalism found in rebellious Franciscans like Ockham. The lack of this engagement speaks to the age of the book, since in many ways the reason that Joachim and the others are familiar to us now is because of a plethora of writings that came out of the mid-20th Century, form both Marxists like Bloch and neoconservatives like Eric Voegelin. Yet, the lack of interesting engagement with nominalism, especially as precisely such a negating, apocalyptic discourse in distinction to the usually stale political philosophy written on it, is long overdue and deserving of an intellect like that of Taubes.

At this point Taubes turns to the actual supersession of the Church that occurred in Europe “since the collapse of the theocracy of the Middle Ages, since the Renaissance and Reformation, history has moved to the Copernican earth, over which no divine heaven any longer is spread (OC, p. 125).” Under this form of secularism the primary antagonism shifts from theological discourse to philosophical discourse. This antagonism is born in the midst of what we now call German Idealism, where the transcendental conditions of eschatology are spelled out or where thinkers move from the content of individual propositions to how those propositions are arrived at. Taubes claims that this is a move from a distinctly Christian eschatology, however metaphysical, to a transcendental eschatology that has no grounding in anything objective, as Christian scripture was taken to be. Taubes writes, “transcendental eschatology requires that everything be grounded in subjectivity, making this the condition of possibility of cognition, as self-knowledge, self-apocalypse (OC, p. 132).” Taubes traces this development of a secular, transcendental eschatology through the usual characters: Lessing, Kant (called the Old Testament of German Idealism), and Hegel (the New Testament). Though in each case there is something too neat about Taubes’ progression from one to another, ending ultimately in a reading of Hegel as the thinker of reconciliation where dialectic is ultimately about a reconciliation and consummation of object and subject, between reason and reality, between what is and what ought to be.

It is at this point that Taubes finally arrives at Marx and Kierkegaard. In Taubes’ reading the two thinkers are twinned because of their differing but apposite response to Hegel. In some sense both thinkers take their starting point from left Hegelianism, the difference with right Hegelianism is described by Taubes provocatively: “The right mystifies reality into something supralogical, demanding that reason conform to a reality beyond logic. The left, on the other hand, devalues reality, claiming that it is sublogical and demanding that sublogical reality conform to reason, the idea (OC, pp. 165-166).” Ultimately, by starting with left Hegelianism, both Marx and Kierkegaard refuse the blended nature of Hegel, for whom the right and left elements of his own system allow him to reconcile his own eschatology with the World and the State. For both Marx and Kierkegaard, as the inheritors of a form of left Hegelianism that rejects the state of the World, the question then becomes what to do when the split still remains between reality and reason, between what is and the idea, and so both focus on the problem of self-alienation and how to end this subjective state.

At this point Taubes has done a masterful job weaving a narrative out of some nearly 2500 years of human history in a short space. Moving from ancient Israel to the end of the bourgeois age. And yet, when it comes to dealing with the two figures that ultimately end his text, he makes a rather simplistic point. For, he writes, “The difference between Marx and Kierkegaard lies in the positions of inside and outside (OC, p. 176).” Is this really the pay off such a magisterial history? That “Marx pins his hopes for a proletarian revolution on the economic situation of the masses, which for Kierkegaard it is the individual that underpins the religious revolution of bourgeois Christianity (ibid)”? It seems clear from his focus on the eschatological elements of Marx, however secularized, that Taubes’ reading of Marx broadly fits with those who read Marx as ultimately a humanist. And, other than placing that history within a wider historical development, it isn’t clear that Taubes’ reading would add much (despite coming some time before these readings in the original). The scientific Marx comes, somewhat abusively, to simply be a kind of superstructure for the more base desire for an overturning of history in the name of a freedom that the “outside below” is constitutive of. What lessons come from this reading? Only, it seems based off Taubes short conclusion to Occidental Eschatology, that if one wants to bring about revolution then that act is always set in a decision that marks a rift in reality. Yet, this decision always has the same form of revelation in apocalyptic thinking.

The Political Science of Forms and Decisionism

All of this raises the question of what value is added by studying religion and theology in the context of Marxism, if any. Setting aside the important distinction between religion and theology, elided by Taubes himself, that must exist and is itself constructed by the very tradition he is studying, is this anything other than of historical interest? Taubes himself does not answer this question for us, but if I were to make an argument on his behalf, despite the relative mundane nature of his reading of Marx, the reading of the failure of apocalyptic thinking is traced by Taubes as a science of forms. Reading Marx from this perspective means that certain forms of Marxism suddenly seems to function in a way similar to the establishment of Christendom or even Islam. Not the Islam of Islamaphobia and its implicit connection with a certain political fanaticism, but with the Islam and Christianity that claims the movement of revelation has been actualized and completed in history.

This is ultimately Taubes’ critique of the “messianic idea” as represented by Gersholm Sholem. Whereas Sholem takes the messianic idea within Judaism as a messianic monad, Taubes sees a form that will ultimately lead to the failure and destruction of the idea in the State of Israel. He writes, “Every endeavor to actualize the messianic idea was an attempt to jump into history, however mythically derailed the attempt may have been. It is simply not the case that messianic fantasy and the formation of historical reality stand at opposite poles. Consider the millenarian expectations of the Puritan community in New England. Arriving in the Bay of Massachusetts to create a New Zion, they founded in the end the United States of America. […] If one is to enter irrevocably into history, it is imperative to beware of the illusion that redemption […] happens in history. For every attempt to bring about redemption on the level of history without a transfiguration of the messianic idea leads straight into the abyss (CC, pp. 8, 9).”

This investigation of forms ultimately is the only linking thread for the diverse subjects explored in the essays that make up From Cult to Culture. This is an investigation of forms that appears to support the requirement of certain preformative revolutionary acts that some contemporary forms of ultra-leftism call for. Taubes, like Tiqqun, seems hesitant to enter into any kind of objective form of revolution without some required subjective revolution. And this subjective revolution always requires a decision or revelation; some experience of conversion. But this decisionism remains uninvestigated by Taubes, left outside of his political science of forms, and despite much that is of interest in Taubes work, this is a glaring weakness. Let us assume that Taubes is correct in his reading of the common forms between politics and religion, setting aside any critiques that would miss the point by reasserting the need for a trenchant atheism in Marxism. Then surely what remains missing in investigations of these theo-political forms is an investigation into the question of conversion. This seems true of ultra-leftism in general, owing in part to its Gnostic excess where if one does not agree with their analysis then they are simply on the other side of a civil war. From the perspective of the ultra-left there is always the requirement for a personal conversion, a sudden influx of political grace. But when such an influx of grace presupposes a radical disinterest in one’s own interests it appears powerless when, as nature always does, those interests reassert themselves in one’s life. For those interested in the messianic form of radical politics dealing with this reassertion of the mundane, whether it goes by the name of history or nature, remains a task.

To close, Taubes’ work represented a positive advance on studies in the relationship between politics and religion/theology. While some aspects of these investigations remain dated, especially in so far as the figures studied have now become familiar, the real advance is treating these realities as expressions of underlying political forms. This can be useful in political analysis in terms of modeling, tracing potential weaknesses in a political idea and practice as well as exploiting productive aspects. Yet, Taubes does not complete this science and in fact such a science would need to be turned upon Taubes own Talmudic approach to inquiry as well as his Gnosticism.

3 thoughts on “Review of Jacob Taubes’ Occidental Eschatology and From Cult to Culture

  1. Anthony,

    Thanks for this. I’m going to be reading both of these texts (and re-reading the Paul book) this year for my thesis research, and this overview is going to prove very helpful. I was in a Marxism seminar last year and left it (not without having learned some things) thinking that I would have a very difficult time calling myself a Marxist, due to some of the very antagonisms that you’ve outlined in this review.

    Glad the review found a home. Though I have to admit, I’m curious as to which journal objected so stringently to this.

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