Carl Schmitt on Dictatorship. Reading the First English translation IV

Chapter Two

The Practice of Royal Commissars until the Eighteenth Century 

The chapter is divided into two sections, Ecclesiastic and Royal Commissars and Excursus on Wallenstein as Dictator. Posting on the Schmitt book is going much more slowly than I expected, as I finding of the argumentative and historical detail demands explanation and a filling in of the background and possible perspectives. This chapter is going to take at least two posts, whether the organisation of posts follows the divide Schmitt makes in the chapter remains to be seen.  It looks like there are many posts to come in my summary plus commentary with regard to this book.

The opening of the chapter reminds me of comments I have posted  before on juridification and Foucault (put ‘juridification’ in the search box in the blog to find relevant comments). I must admit I found Foucault’s comments on juridfication a bit mystifying, and not so long ago. After going through discussions of law and the state, particularly with regard to the Middle Ages, and the transition from ‘Greek world’ to ‘Roman world’ in various places, including Montesquieu, Vico, Weber, and Arendt as well as Foucault, I feel reasonably clear about this and will post on the topic before long. My initial confusion was in some degree due to being more used to discussion of the transition between Greek and Roman law n antiquity, and the emergence of the administrative state in recent modernity, than the discussion of the Middle Ages which was what Foucault was discussing, particularly with regard to the thirteenth century revival of Roman law, though also a longer historical process.

I bring up the progress of my thoughts on juridification, because Schmitt opens the chapter with a discussion of how the position of the Medieval papacy, an institution of particular interest to him, was transformed through a legal revolution in the thirteenth century. That transformation of the papacy was the basis of the movement from the medieval to the modern state.  It was a transformation in which the office of the Pope evolved from a feudal status to ‘supreme lordship of the church’, so complete sovereignty. The feudal position was one of a fixed hierarchy, in the sense of  a pattern of offices and powers, that could not be changed by anyone, including the personal the top of the hierarchy. The idea that the Pope could intervene directly without mediating bodies in every aspect of Christian society was against the ‘feudal’ papacy.

For Marsilius of Padua the Pope was exercising tyrannical power. Similar reactions came from John Wycliffe (England), Jan Hus (Bohemia) and Jean Gerson (France). By mentioning these people, Schmitt is intimating that Medieval theological criticisms of Papal power, from the purely theological academic, as well as those thinkers who had some impact on broader opinion at the time (Wycliffe, Hus) were largely a reaction to a stricter legalised sovereignty version of the role of the Pope. Of course the new powers of the Pope were explained in terms of reviving the old role of the papacy, but Schmitt seems sympathetic to the view that there was a real change from occasional intervention by the Pope, where necessary, to systematic exercise of Papal sovereignty. The new system based on legalised ‘supreme lordship’ was one in which the Pope appointed commissars, Papal legates, who had judicial powers, and various administrative powers, over those above them in the hierarchy, because they had power directly from the Pope.

Schmitt finds it necessary to go beyond the understanding the Medieval commentators themselves had of the situation, which suggests that Schmitt was no mere nostalgic with regard to the Catholic Middle Ages though it is a largely positive point of reference for him. The thought of the time understood all power as judicial (is there a continuation of this that explains why early modern thought refers to government of any kind as the ‘magistrate’?) so Schmitt finds it necessary to use the word ‘commissar’ rather than just the term legate when referring to the representative of Papal powers. In English, the word Commissar is mostly familiar from Soviet usage, which gives Schmitt’s usage that rests on the broad German use of ‘der Kommissar’ for a number of official functions a rathe bizarre feel. The most extreme example is where there is a reference to the Pope as ‘commissar of Christ’, sending like a bizarre mixture of religious and Leninist-Stalinist language, rather than the familiar English expression, ‘Vicar (deputy) of Christ’. Schmitt’s use of Commissar with regard to the Pope’s own deputies links their role back to that of classical dictatorship, particularly with regard to the limited and provisional office of dictator in the early Roman Republic, and links the issue of the Pope’s sovereignty to that of late Medieval and early Modern kings. The discussion of the opposition to the new legalisation of the Pope’s powers hints at a kind of origin of modern liberalism in Marsilius, Gerson, Hus and Wycliife, though perhaps more a a genealogy, since for Schmitt modern liberalism lacks to kind of link to the historical and concrete unity of authority and legality at the background to criticisms of the Pope’s later powers.


(The above refers to:

Carl Schmitt


From the origin of the modern concept of sovereignty to proletarian class struggle 

Translated by Michael Holzel and Graham Ward

Cambridge: Polity Press, 2014)


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