Nicholas Heron is Research Fellow in the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Queensland, Australia. He is the author of Liturgical Power: Between Economic and Political Theology (Fordham UP, 2018) and the translator of Giorgio Agamben’s Stasis: Civil War as a Political Paradigm (Stanford UP, 2015). He is currently researching the intellectual and cultural history of the “end of history” thesis.

Heron spoke with contributing editor Shuvatri Dasgupta about his essay “The Superhuman Origins of Human Dignity: Kantorowicz’s Dante,” which has appeared in the current issue of the JHI (82.3). 


Shuvatri Dasgupta: The existing literature on Kantorowicz’s ideas on sovereignty and monarchy have focused on questions of history-writing, nationalism, and the interplay between politics and theology in his understandings of the European Renaissance. Your article takes a step back from that and looks at the politico-affective crisis of a twentieth-century intellectual, caught between Germany and America, between atomistic liberalism and atheistic communism, and between the model of the modest ethical human, on one hand, and the transcendental superhuman, on the other. The article tells a riveting story of an ideological maneuver conducted by Kantorowicz through his readings of Dante’s ideas of sovereignty: first as a defense of imperial sovereignty, and later as a formulation of individual sovereignty. You argue that this shift in his understanding of Dante remains the key to his conceptions of sovereignty that were formulated in his seminal text The King’s Two Bodies. Let me start by asking you to elaborate on the intellectual polarities in which Kantorowicz’s found himself, and the context in which these polarities were produced, over the course of the twentieth century, since as you illustrate in the article, they played a seminal role in shaping his understanding of Dante.

Nicholas Heron: Kantorowicz’s personal and intellectual itinerary exerts an undeniable fascination. The key events are well known, and richly detailed in Robert E. Lerner’s recent biography, but allow me quickly to recount them here. Prior to 1933, he was, among other things, an enthusiastic volunteer combatant in the violent liberation of Munich from the short-lived Soviet Republic (he later claimed to have killed communists); a member of the erotically charged circle of young men gathered around the austere figure of the elderly poet Stefan George, whose spiritual yearnings were directed toward a “Secret Germany” that inhered behind the official one; and the author of a charismatic biography of the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II, whose front page was adorned with the characteristic insignia of the Blätter für die Kunst imprint of the Bondi publishing house—a swastika—and was rumored to have been admired at the highest echelons of the Nazi party. A meteoric academic rise to a professorship in Frankfurt was then brought to an abrupt halt in 1934 after a single semester when he was debarred from teaching on account of his Jewish heritage. Finally, in 1950, after forced emigration from Germany to the United States, he became embroiled in the loyalty oath controversy at Berkeley, where, in the context of the escalating Cold War, he bravely refused to sign the oath disavowing communism, and was consequently dismissed from his academic post—for the second time in a career spanning less than two decades. This amazing sequence has led some commentators to speak of an ideological transformation and even of a conversion: from anti-communist militant to communist sympathizer.

Compelling as this narrative may be, however, there’s little evidence to support it. (The Fundamental Issue, the self-published pamphlet where Kantorowicz outlined his opposition to signing the oath, and whose argument draws on the same intellectual resources I examine in my piece, tells a very different story.) For my part, I was more interested in the continuities that extended across this tumultuous period. Arguably no figure looms larger here than Dante, who occupies a prominent place in the Frederick biography (1927) and is the subject of the luminous final chapter of The King’s Two Bodies (1957). Between the two, he is a recurring reference in the lectures Kantorowicz presented at Berkeley in the intervening years. Focusing on a subtle shift in Kantorowicz’s use of Dante, I offer a more modest explanation for the apparent change in his commitments. His youthful participation in the hero worship that characterized the activities of the George Circle, I argue, made him unusually attentive to what could be described as the liturgical, ceremonial and, indeed, affective dimensions of power. This was what subsequently became the focus of his scholarly investigations.   

SD: In the introductory section of the piece, you note very interestingly that in the recent biographies of Kantorowicz, his chapter on Dante has been employed to separate him from a shared genealogy with Schmitt on the concept of political theology. Whilst for Schmitt political ideas (as well as the concept of the political itself) were secularized theological formulations, you show how Kantorowicz’s formulation of the concept of sovereignty in The King’s Two Bodies is an attempt at the reverse—”a spiritualization of the secular.” What does that tell us about Kantorowicz’s conceptualization of the political, and how did this notion evolve with his understanding of sovereignty? 

NH: Political theology is a highly contested term, which can mean very different (and even opposed) things. For example, it can be religious or non-religious; prescriptive or non-prescriptive, etc. In Schmitt himself, it functions both normatively and empirically: on the one hand, as an index of the ungrounded character of modernity; on the other, as an instrument of conceptual-historical method. To the extent that this term is useful for historians, it is in the latter respect. And here Kantorowicz’s work offers an interesting example.

It is difficult to establish with any precision how Kantorowicz understood this term and where he drew it from, since he is quite evasive, perhaps for good reason, on precisely this point. But he certainly did not view the relationship between theology and politics, or between church and state, either as unidirectional or as normatively weighted toward one or the other side; instead, he always stressed the interplay between the two, the mutual “borrowings” and “exchanges,” to use his own terms. I think we can draw a more general observation from this approach: that intellectual innovation, whether at the level of conceptual formation or institutional design, does not take place in a vacuum, but by means of the specific and finite intellectual resources available for manipulation at a given moment. And that this applies in both directions. When Kantorowicz speaks of “a spiritualization of the secular,” I don’t think we should overdetermine this apparent inversion of the secularization thesis, as if it were intended somehow to unsettle a competing model of political theology. Rather, I think we should take it as a genuinely historical claim, which argues that putatively secular political concepts and institutions can also in turn be invested with spiritual contents.   

SD: What I also found extremely thought-provoking in your piece was your methodology in tracing the shift in Kantorowicz’s arguments, and the ease with which you illustrate the complex interrelationship which ideas share with their contexts. In your essay, not only did you situate Kantorowicz’s works in their historical context, but you also located his biographers, commentators, and intellectual interlocutors in a shared web. What challenges did you encounter in your conceptual exploration of Kantorowicz’s formulation of sovereignty, in terms of recovering this dense transcontinental and transtemporal context?

NH: In a footnote to his 1955 essay “Mysteries of State,” Kantorowicz refers tantalizingly to the “genealogy of ‘superman’.” Based on my analysis of his Berkeley lectures, I knew that it was possible to reconstruct the key points in this genealogy. I also knew that this genealogy provided the critical frame for understanding his evolving interpretation of Dante. But I didn’t want to commit myself to this history, which, while of considerable interest, is certainly not above criticism. Nor did I want to present myself as a dantista, something for which I felt (and still feel) completely unqualified. The solution, as I saw it, was to emphasize Kantorowicz’s own context and to make his reception of Dante the focus of my study. As someone with a PhD in literature, I have a broad interest in how intellectuals used literary sources during this period. As it turned out, it was the reference to Jacques Maritain’s dialogue Théonas from the same footnote that suggested the larger argumentative context to me. It was Maritain’s attempt to reclaim the superman idea for his Christian humanism that helped me to position Kantorowicz’s account of Dante’s “Man-Centered Kingship” (and the competing genealogy in which this formed a part) in relation to a wider set of debates regarding the so-called crisis of man from the period in which he was writing and teaching. 

I’d like to add something further here about how I view contextualization. My sense is that too strong a dichotomy between contextual and exegetical approaches to texts (broadly conceived) is often insisted upon, as if one were permitted to explore the one only in the absence of the other. The same could also be said, in the literary sphere, for the supposed opposition between historicist and formalist approaches. I’m much more interested in the relationship between the two. Recovering the context in which a text was written and, more importantly, received, invariably opens a new perspective on it. In this sense, contextualization––far from entailing historical reductionism––becomes intellectually enabling, insofar as it allows one to read a text that we think we know very well under an entirely new aspect. That’s part of what I wanted to achieve here.   

SD: Let me turn away from questions of sovereignty for my final question, and instead turn to the category of human dignity. In your piece, you narrate how dignity bridges the gap between human and transcendental realms of being in Kantorowicz’s readings of Dante. How do you as an intellectual historian, through your investigation of this moment in the larger global histories of sovereignty in the twentieth century, intend to contribute to the ongoing conversations on state power and human dignity? In other words, could you elaborate on your concluding sentence in the article: “it is humanity that is identified with dignity, rather than, as we hear more often today, dignity with humanity”?

NH: Human dignity is a notoriously elusive concept. In the nineteenth century, Schopenhauer famously called it “the shibboleth of all clueless and thoughtless moralists.” Whoever utters this lofty expression, he argued, can count on it remaining uninterrogated, for their interlocutor is typically more than happy to have it attributed to them! Since that time, its ubiquity has been firmly established, yet without (though perhaps this partially accounts for its success) its meaning necessarily being clarified. Something of the difficulty, as Schopenhauer already intuited, is captured in the semantic history of the term. In contemporary usage, it means something like inherent value or worth. But the Latin dignitas, from which it stems, refers to an elevated position or rank—and hence to something external to whoever is identified with it. How to account for such an extraordinary semantic transformation?

Kantorowicz’s “genealogy of superman,” as I reconstruct it, offers one possible explanation. Namely, that the progressive loosening of the highly restricted model of imperial and papal sovereignty, which culminates in the omnipresent theoretical sovereignty of the modern individual, passes through a decisive intermediary phase: Dante’s elaboration of a dignity of “man” as such, understood here as a paradoxical sovereignty of the individual apart from the office. What’s fascinating about this account, as you’ve already touched upon, is that it entails not just a secularization of the spiritual, but also what Kantorowicz calls a spiritualization of the secular. That is, it sees Dante and his Renaissance interpreters already participating in what could be characterized as a divinization of humanity, one that is neatly captured in the invented Latin formula—homo instrumentum humanitatis—through which Kantorowicz epitomizes his presentation of Dante’s moral-political views. If nothing else, I think this serves as a timely reminder that dignity is always a relative, and never an absolute, concept, even (and especially) when it appears to be otherwise. That is what I was trying to convey in the final sentence of my article.

Shuvatri Dasgupta received a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree in History from Presidency University, Kolkata, India. She was also an exchange student and Charpak Fellow at Sciences Po Paris (Reims campus). She is currently a doctoral candidate in the Faculty of History, University of Cambridge, and is funded by the Cambridge Trust and Rajiv Gandhi Foundation Fellowship. Her doctoral dissertation is tentatively titled “A History of Conjugality: On Patriarchy, Caste, and Capital, in the British Empire c.1872-1947.” By using the lens of Social Reproduction Theory (and Marxist-feminist scholarship in general), it attempts to establish the importance of uncovering histories of marriage not just as legal or gender histories, but as the origin point of private property ownership and capitalist exploitation. Her general research interests include global history, gender history, intellectual history and political thought, histories of empire, histories of capitalism, Marxist and Marxist-Feminist theory, and critical theory.

Featured Image: Photos, Ernst Kantorowicz Collection, AR 7216, Leo Baeck Institute I, 1/12.