Saturday, October 7, 2023

Carl Schmitt on Public Enemies and Private Enemies: Using the Ancient Greek Method to Define Enemies


Carl Schmitt, one of the most controversial political thinkers of the 20th century, made significant contributions to understanding politics, sovereignty, and the nature of the enemy. He delved deep into the distinction between 'public' and 'private' enemies, bringing an ancient Greek perspective to the fore. Juxtaposes Schmitt's thoughts on this dichotomy with ancient Greek classifications.

Schmitt, in his seminal work "The Concept of the Political," posited that the political is defined by the distinction between friend and enemy. This distinction is fundamental and existential. It's not merely about disagreements but existential threats – where the possibility of combat or death looms. The essence of the political for Schmitt was this very possibility of conflict.

Drawing upon this framework, Schmitt draws a distinction between two types of enemies:

  1. The Public Enemy (Hostis): This refers to an external enemy of the political community. It is the collective antagonist, such as a rival nation-state, against which the community might wage war. This enemy is not necessarily evil or morally reprehensible; they are simply an opposing force in the political realm. The decisions and actions toward a public enemy are made collectively and represent the community's or state's interests.

  2. The Private Enemy (Inimicus) refers to personal enmities or private conflicts. Such an enemy arises from individual disagreements or disputes, like personal vendettas or rivalries. These enemies are not political and do not represent an existential threat to the political community.

Schmitt's distinction is deeply rooted in the ancient Greek understanding of the enemy. The Greeks had a nuanced approach to friendships and enmities, grounded in the philosophical discourses of figures like Aristotle. For the Greeks, the polis (city-state) was the highest form of human organization, and any threats to it were seen as public enmities. These threats were to be dealt with collectively.

However, personal rivalries, individual disputes, and the like fell outside the realm of the polis. These were private matters to be settled among the involved parties without dragging the entire community into the fray. This ancient classification aligns well with Schmitt's delineation.

Using the ancient Greek perspective allows us to understand the depth of Schmitt's thought further. In the Greek tragedies, such as those penned by Sophocles or Aeschylus, we often witness the tragic consequences of allowing private enmities to spill over into the public realm. Oedipus' personal flaws and conflicts lead to the downfall of Thebes. In "The Oresteia" by Aeschylus, the private vendettas of the House of Atreus threaten the order of the polis.

Schmitt's warning can be seen as echoing these ancient insights. A political entity must clearly distinguish between public and private entities to remain stable and functional. The conflation of the two can lead to chaos, disorder, and the eventual disintegration of the political community.

While presented in a modern context, Carl Schmitt's distinction between public and private enemies resonates in ancient Greek thought. By appreciating this layered historical perspective, we can grasp the profound implications of Schmitt's argument: that for a political community to thrive, it must navigate its enmities with clarity and purpose, lest it succumbs to internal strife and external threats.



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