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Levinas’s political judgement

Levinas’s political judgement The Esprit articles 1934–1983

Howard caygill

Lebanon, Levinas revealed a capacity for political judgement that at first glance seems remote from the prevailing picture of Levinasian ethics. While refusing the synthesis of realpolitik and mysticism that to some extent characterized the Likud era in Israeli politics, Levinas was nevertheless forthright in making a link between his ethical theory and the political struggle between the State of Israel and Palestinian nationalists, claiming that ʻin alterity we can find an enemyʼ. [1] The other is not only the stranger, partner in a dyadic relation, but also ʻthe unhated enemyʼ with whom the relation has to be one of war.

The link between political judgement and ethical reflection evident in the case of the Chatilla and Sabra murders is not a lapse in the consistency of Levinasʼs thought, but is fully characteristic and, perhaps uncomfortably, comprises one of its unacknowledged strengths. The tension between ethics and politics motivates Levinasʼs exercise of political judgement and allows it to yield far richer results than the abstract considerations regarding the triadic form of political institutions would seem to promise. However, the precise contours of Levinasʼs political judgement are difficult to trace, especially in the light of the inconspicuous ubiquity of the political in his writings. Hence the heuristic value of his articles in the journal Esprit that show him developing his thoughts on ethics and politics in the course of responding to specific demands for political judgement. These essays are invaluable not only for understanding the development of Levinasʼs view of the relation between ethics and politics but also for showing the range and flexibility of his political judgement. The writings for Esprit form a corpus that extends over almost half a century – from 1934 to 1983 – paralleling the development of Levinasʼs authorship from early writings such as Existents and Existence (1947) and Time and the The critical neglect of the political dimension of Levinasʼs thought is surprising given its centrality to his life and work. Of all the twentieth-century philosophers Levinas was the most directly touched by the violent events of the centuryʼs political history. He witnessed as an adolescent the October Revolution in Lithuania, studied in Strasbourg in the 1920s when Alsace was one of the foci of interwar Franco-German tension, worked in Paris during the travails of the Popular Front government in the 1930s and was a member of the French army defeated in 1940. He survived the war in a special POW camp but lost close members of his family in the Shoah. In the 1950s he taught students from North Africa and the Middle East during the decolonization struggles and the establishment of the State of Israel, and at the height of the student movement in 1968 was teaching at Nanterre. Such proximity to the convulsions of twentieth-century political history made reflection on politics and the exercise of political judgement a predicament rather than a choice for Levinas, and had an enormous, if unappreciated, impact on his formulation of an ethics of alterity.

The underestimation of the role of politics and political judgement in Levinasʼs thought distorts not only his ethics but equally the relationship he proposed between ethics and politics. Typically the latter is reduced to a numerical formalism that moves from the dyadic ethical to the triadic political relation, from an ethical relation to the ʻotherʼ to a legal–political relation to the ʻthirdʼ. Yet this formalism is conspicuously absent in Levinasʼs specific exercises of political judgement, most evidently in his radio discussion with Schlomo Malka and Alain Finkielkraut on 28 September 1982. In this conversation following the murders a week before of Palestinian refugees in the Chatilla and Sabra camps by Phalangist militias within Israeli-occupied Other (1948) to the mature critique of ontology in Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority (1961) and the formulation of an ethics of alterity in Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence (1974). Some of the writings for Esprit are familiar apart from their context, others almost completely and unjustly forgotten; but they are rarely if ever considered as a discrete body of work. This is unfortunate since together they add up to a fascinating and contained corpus that moves audaciously from the consideration of concrete political issues to ethical and political reflection. In this respect, Levinasʼs articles faithfully respect the journalʼs brief of combining politics and philosophy in a movement from a specific occasion for political judgement to a reflection on its broader philosophical significance.

Personalism into politics

Levinasʼs series of contributions to Esprit began in 1934 with an essay whose importance for the development of his thought is increasingly acknowledged. His ʻReflections on the Philosophy of Hitlerismʼ [2] was written in direct response to the political crisis that followed the National Socialist ʻseizure of powerʼ in Germany. His next contribution, the essay ʻOn the Spirit of Genevaʼ, responded to the 1955 Geneva Summit on reducing East–West tension and negotiating limitations on the development and use of nuclear arms. This was followed in 1960 by two contributions, ʻPrinciples and Facesʼ, on the significance of Khrushchev and the post-Stalin epoch in the Soviet Union and ʻThe Russo-Chinese Debate and the Dialecticʼ, ostensibly on the deteriorating relations between the two socialist superpowers. Perhaps Levinasʼs finest essay for Esprit – ʻSpace is Not One-Dimensionalʼ [3] was published in 1968 in response to the Six Day War between Israel and the Arab states, and contains some of his most sustained reflections on the political significance of the State of Israel. The series of articles published in Esprit closes with two reprinted pieces, one on Franz Rosenzweig in 1982 and, the final contribution, an interview on the theme of ʻPhilosophy, Justice and Loveʼ.

Before looking more closely at these articles it is important to consider their occasion – the journal Esprit and the ʻpersonalistʼ movement in Catholic thought that it represented. Levinas described the journal in his 1990 introduction to the translation of ʻReflections on the Philosophy of Hitlerismʼ as representing ʻprogressive, avant-garde Catholicismʼ which, while not inaccurate, underplays the significance of the personalist movement. Founded by Emmanuel Mounier following the Wall Street crash in 1929, personalism through its journal Esprit constituted an important current in postwar political culture, one that guided the radical wing of European Christian Democracy. Among politicians it counted supporters such as Aldo Moro and to a certain extent the current Pope, Karol Wojtyla. The latterʼs main philosophical work Person and Act (1969) may be read as an attempt to use Max Schelerʼs phenomenology to divert personalism from its radical political orientation to a more subjective/moral one, thus defusing the radical philosophical and political agenda central to Mounierʼs vision of personalism. [4]

Perhaps because of its Christian commitments, personalism is a body of thought barely noted in contemporary continental philosophy, which remains almost Jacobin in its secular prejudices. [5] Although the roots of personalist theory are to be found in Kant and neo-Kantians, its development as a social and political movement was initially the almost single-handed work of Mounier. In his short texts What is Personalism? (1947) and Personalism (1949) Mounier located the beginnings of the movement in the Wall Street crash and a sense of the imminent collapse of capitalism. He responded to this crisis with a political, religious and philosophical analysis that, in his words, aspired to combine the insights of Marx and Kierkegaard. At the core of this analysis was a concept of personality as both a moral and a social fact, a balance that Wojtylaʼs theory and practice would later decisively tip towards the moral. Mounier, by insisting on the moral and social basis of personality, was able to sustain both a moral and a political anti-capitalism without retreating to the conservative moral anti-capitalism later sustained by Wojtyla.

Mounier was convinced from the outset that personalism should not be simply another philosophical position available within the French university but should address a far broader social base. Consequently, the journal Esprit, first published in 1932, was intended to take debates in philosophy, politics and theology out of the university and into civil society and wherever possible to relate these debates to current economic and political crises. From the beginning Esprit was politically committed, taking up positions and debating their significance in its pages. In its early years it took a principled position against anti-Semitism and ʻHitlerismʼ and supported the Republic in the Spanish Civil War. After an initial hesitation with respect to Vichy – one that was by no means uncommon in 19406 – Mounier opted for resistance and Esprit was silenced for the duration of the war. In the postwar years Esprit was conspicuous for its opposition to the French presence in Algeria and support for the Hungarian revolution in 1956. Even after Mounierʼs early death in 1950, Esprit continued to be both a philosophical journal offering a space for debates on, for example, Marxism and existentialism and a political journal committed to making principled judgements on contemporary political issues.

The significance of the journal for the development of Levinasʼs thought lies less in his adoption of specific personalist theses than in the demand to combine ethical and political judgement in response to concrete political issues. [7] This is already evident in the 1934 article on Hitlerism, which is both a response to the first year of National Socialist rule in Germany and a reckoning with the contribution of philosophy to its victory. Written only three years after Levinasʼs ʻFreiburg, Husserl and Phenomenologyʼ in which Heidegger is described in almost messianic terms – ʻAt the seminar … all nations were representedʼ [8] – and less than a year after Heideggerʼs entry into the National Socialist Party, the essay attempts to come to terms with the Heideggerian philosophical heritage while framing a political judgement of National Socialist racism. ʻReflections on the Philosophy of Hitlerismʼ attempted to reorient the political and philosophical judgement of Nazism, showing not only that racism was essential to its definition but also that its racism was not parochial or particularistic, but universal and couched within a universal philosophy of history. The prescience of Levinasʼs article is impressive, especially given the widespread belief throughout the 1930s and in some cases into the 1940s (and even after!) that Nazi racism was not essential to its conception of the political. The political and philosophical misjudgement of the character of Nazi racism would lead in many cases to tragic personal, political and strategic errors of judgement.

The centrality of racism to the Nazi conception of the political was already clear to Levinas in 1934. His reflections begin by claiming not only that Hitlerism is a philosophy but also that its racism should not be understood in terms of a particularist response to Enlightenment universalism. Levinas perceptively shows that Nazi racism was not a particularist antiEnlightenment position but part of a universal history according to which the history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of racial struggle. Levinas locates racism within a neo-pagan and anti-monotheist current of thought that dissolved any notion of freedom into fate and any notion of identity into destiny. For National Socialists the ʻfactsʼ of universal racial war and unnegotiable racial identity are ineluctable, and Levinas correctly judged that these considerations would overwhelmingly determine Nazi political action. What is more, Levinas predicted that since Nazi racial ideology was part of a concept of universal history it would also prove expansive and be used to justify ruthless colonial military expansion. [9]

Levinas pits against the universalism of Nazi racism a universal philosophy of freedom with its roots in monotheism and with fragile secular variants in liberalism and Marxism. In this universalism a religiously founded freedom is paramount, for grace and forgiveness have the ability to cancel the past and make present and future identity negotiable. Levinas implies that, by severing their links with the monotheist heritage, secular theories such as liberalism and Marxism are forced to rely on fragile analogies with theological concepts, replacing grace with autonomy for example, making these theories abstract and vulnerable before the pagan religious pathos of Nazism. The implication that a liberal or Marxist anti-Nazism will not prove sufficient without a return to its religious origins was explicitly developed into a call for a monotheistic ʻpopular frontʼ of Jews and Christians. While this was consistent with the position of Esprit, Levinas chose to explore the implications of this position in a series of articles in the journal Pain et Droit, culminating in the 1939 essay on the death of Pope Pius XI with its still provocative juxtaposition of the cross and the swastika.

Cosmo-politics and the inhuman

In the postwar period before the publication of Totality and Infinity in 1961, Levinas published three essays in Esprit that show continuities with the themes of ʻReflections on the Philosophy of Hitlerismʼ. Together they exemplify what Levinas meant by his repeated observation that his life was ʻdominated by the presentiment and the memory of the Nazi horrorʼ. [10] The presentiment had been all too accurate, and the hope for protection under the shadow of the cross, with noteworthy individual exceptions, had been disappointed by the politics of Pius XII. The outcome was a suspicion of all universal histories and the consequent rejection of his appeal during the 1930s to an anti-Nazi universal history of freedom. The critique of universal history, fortified by the experience of imprisonment and the study of Hegel when a POW, as well as the subsequent reading of Rosenzweigʼs critique of Hegel, led Levinas to criticize any claim to progress, whether framed in political, technological or cultural terms. The crisis provoked by this extreme suspicion became particularly marked in his judgements of the actions and the significance of the new State of Israel. The occasional attribution of a universal historical significance to the foundation of the State of Israel in terms of the ʻpassionʼ of the Shoah is constantly qualified by a suspicion guided by the practice of what Levinas described as ʻA special patience – Judaism – for all premature messianic claims.ʼ [11] The difficulty of sustaining an otherwise than universal history was particularly exposed in the case of the State of Israel where the debate around the messianic role of the state was particularly intense.

The title of the essay of 1956 is an ironic reference to the then much-applauded ʻspirit of Genevaʼ or the summit conference that seemed initially to promise an end to the Cold War. Levinas takes the occasion of the Geneva negotiations on nuclear arms control to reflect on the Cold War, and once again his political judgement proved to be more acute than that of many of his contemporaries. The essay continues the critique of paganism opened in ʻReflections on the Philosophy of Hitlerismʼ but now makes an explicit link between paganism and technology, and in particular the technology of nuclear warfare. In the ʻHitlerismʼ essay Levinas described paganism in terms of the subjection to expansionary natural forces, defining these forces in 1934 in terms of the biological definition of race. The link between paganism and expansive force is sustained in 1956, but now the forces are nuclear and defined in terms of the nuclear arsenals of the superpowers. The essay begins a proposition that exemplifies Levinasʼs suspicion of universal history: ʻHuman conflict has lost all meaning without struggle having come to an end.ʼ [12] The universal historical struggle in this case, between socialism and capitalism or between liberty and tyranny, has been revealed as hollow rhetoric by the inhuman forces released by nuclear fission which now exceed human control. For Levinas this fact signifies the end of any universal history: ʻThe release of atomic energy has taken the control of the real away from human will. This is precisely what is meant by the arrest of history.ʼ [13] Not only does struggle no longer possess any meaning or direction (sens) but this lack of orientation signifies a fundamental transformation of the political, if not of politics.

Levinas explains the link between the arrest of history and the transformation of the political by means of one of the first appearances in his work of the ʻthirdʼ. Fascinatingly, the third appears here in an unusual context; normally it signifies the impersonal institution of legal and political judgement, but here the impersonality of the third signifies the end of the epoch of the human political. Levinas writes of the summit negotiations that ʻThe third partner here is not the third man. It is not a human, they are forces without faces. Strange return of the natural powers…ʼ14 The forces without faces will return in the 1960 essay ʻPrinciples and Facesʼ; here they signify a development of the same forces of fatality proposed in the ʻHitlerismʼ essay. In the earlier essay human struggle was conducted in terms of the forces of race, with biological forces serving as ʻthe thirdʼ; here the significance of human struggle is finally evacuated by the inhuman scale of the destructive forces released by nuclear energy.

The location of the moment of the political or ʻthirdʼ in nuclear forces leads Levinas to a redefinition of the political. He proposes a contrast between the human political and a ʻcosmo-politicalʼ, regarding the Cold War as a technologically advanced return to prehistory. Under the reign of the human political,

The inhuman, which in those centuries was prodigious, came to us still through the human. The human relations that made up the social order and the forces that guided that order exceeded in power, efficacy and in being those of the forces of nature.

The elements give themselves to us by means of society and the state, which imprint meaning upon them.

In this negotiation of the human and the inhuman, the encounter of the human and the elements is governed by the third of the human social order. This humanized ʻworldʼ is the condition for meaningful human action, even conflict; it still contains, however occluded, the sentiment of responsibility for the other human. In principle such a predominance of the political over the physical serves as ʻan invitation to work for a better world, to believe the world transformable and humanʼ. [15]

In the ʻSpirit of Genevaʼ essay Levinas comes close to acknowledging that the moment of such politics has now passed. He writes that,

For the first time social problems and the struggles between humans do not reveal the ultimate meaning of the real. This end of the world will lack the last judgement. The elements exceed the states that until now contained them. Reason no longer appears in political wisdom, but in the historically unconditioned truths announcing cosmic dangers.

For politics is substituted a cosmo-politics that is a physics. [16]

The reduction of politics to physics is met by an abdication ʻon both sides of the iron curtainʼ of responsibility in favour of the balance of uncontrollable forces. The parallel between preand postwar conditions hardly needs to be spelt out: Nazi bio-politics and Cold War cosmo-politics share the surrender of a political situated within a human horizon for a calculus of implacable inhuman forces that deprives humans of their wisdom, their agency and ultimately their responsibility.


In the 1960 article ʻPrinciples and Facesʼ Levinas develops the themes of ʻOn the Spirit of Genevaʼ but introduces a further element prominent in the Hitlerism essay. His judgement of the Cold War political is now explicitly linked to an argument for the complicity with it of ʻWestern Philosophyʼ. The exposure of the ontological commitments of ʻWestern Philosophyʼ and the argument for ʻethics as first philosophyʼ in the philosophical writings of the 1950s culminating in Totality and Infinity are here linked with the theme of the abdication of political responsibility in the Cold War. Levinas takes the occasion of a speech by the then general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, Khrushchev, denounced by many journalists as ʻpropagandaʼ, to show that the speech may be located within ʻthe implicit or explicit metaphysics on which the political thought of the West dependsʼ. [17] Consistent with his political position in 1956 and his philosophical position developed during the 1940s, Levinas argues that ʻthe fate of the Westʼ ʻdepends on the perpetual postponement of the consequences flowing from its own principlesʼ. [18] The apocalyptic tone of ʻOn the Spirit of Genevaʼ is succeeded by the admission that a political may still be possible, but one organized around postponement of the consequences of its founding ontological principles. With this Levinas begins the articulation of his notion of prophetic politics, or a politics in which the totality of the political and institutional structures of the West are interrupted and diverted by a prophetic voice sounding from the ethical responsibility for the other.

The title of ʻPrinciples and Facesʼ promises a confrontation between ontological principles and the ethical face-to-face, and both are indeed given voice in the essay. The political ʻconsequencesʼ of the ontological principles of the West were already anticipated in ʻReflections on the Philosophy of Hitlerismʼ. One significant consequence is the ontological reduction of being to the play of forces; another is the link between reason and universality. Already in the 1934 essay Levinas had shown that the combination of force and universality was potentially explosive; now in 1960 he underlines the necessity of postponing their fusion with the example of Khrushchevʼs speech. Fascism is cited as an example of an imperfect fusion of the principles of force and universality, with the force of the nation remaining particular; National Socialism by contrast combined force and universality in the concept of race. Levinas now argues that Soviet socialism marks another possible fusion of force and universality. In Khrushchevʼs speech, the worker is both the source of ultimate force – productivity – and of universality; their combination in the universal history of class struggle marks another political realization of the desire for totality that informs the principles of Western philosophy.

In his reflections on the notion of postponement,

Levinas returns to the choice between particularism and universalism that he posed at the outset of ʻSome Reflections on the Philosophy of Hitlerismʼ. He refuses to prefer ʻthe particularities of tradition, family, country, corporate groupʼ to the ʻmillennial quest for universalityʼ and is no longer inclined, as in 1934, to contest one claim to universality with another. In order to rethink the political it is necessary to reconsider the entire opposition of universality and particularity and to ask ʻIs there not a universality other than that of the state and a freedom other than objective? Difficult reflections, for they must go further than one thinks. Well beyond Marx and Hegel. They lead perhaps to putting into question the deepest foundations of Western Metaphysics.ʼ [19] This would be Levinasʼs project in Totality and Infinity and Otherwise than Being; what this passage clearly shows is that the motivation for putting into question ontology and the formulation of an ethics of alterity is first and foremost political. The ethical face-toface in ʻPrinciples and Facesʼ is acknowledged in the significance Levinas lends to Khrushchevʼs visits to the West, which satisfied the ethical ʻnecessity for humans to see behind the anonymous principle the face of the other humanʼ. [20]

The programmatic statement of the possibility for sustaining a concept of the political beyond and otherwise than Hegelʼs and Marxʼs equation of universality and freedom is strangely disappointed by the essay in Esprit from the same year, ʻThe Russo-Chinese Debate and the Dialecticʼ. Given his suspicion of the principles at the foundations of Western metaphysics, Levinas might have been expected when speaking of Asia to step out of the particularist construction of Europe and look for new sources of universality and freedom. That he does not make this step is but one of the many mysteries of this tormented essay, whose precise political object only becomes clear towards the end. The immediate occasion of the article was the growing Sino-Soviet tension, to which Levinas responded with some strange sentences on the geopolitics of the Soviet Union, Europe and Asia. To be precise, Levinas never speaks of the Soviet Union, but always of ʻRussiaʼ, and this lapse is important for the alliance he evokes between ʻRussiaʼ and Europe against Asia. In an extraordinary reprise of the worst universal history, Levinas writes:

The exclusive community with the Asiatic world, strangers to European history to which Russia, in spite of all its strategic and tactical denials, has belonged for almost a thousand years, would this not be disturbing even to a society without classes. … In abandoning the West, does Russia not fear to drown itself in an Asiatic civilization…21This evocation of an essential national and cultural identity which must be protected against a culture that is a stranger to its history would seem to be everything that Levinas ever argued against.

The continuation of the argument is hardly more encouraging, with a shocking passage that begins:

The yellow peril! It is not racial, it is spiritual. It does not involve inferior values; it involves a radical strangeness, a stranger to the weight of its past, from which there does not filter any familiar voice or inflection, a lunar or Martian past. [22]

Even when explicitly qualified it is difficult to believe that a phrase such as ʻthe yellow perilʼ can ever not be racist, but equally disturbing is the phantasm of the Asiatic past as part of the history of another planet. It is almost as if Levinas was undertaking the experiment of mounting a particularist argument against the universal claims of Hegelian-Marxist philosophy. This is certainly supported by his provisional conclusion, which claims that ʻprogress towards a universal society will pass by paths where the diverse human groups do not have to overcome their histories. There exist particularisms dialectically indispensable.ʼ [23] This move towards particularism was surely not the post-Hegelian or Marxist thought of the universal and freedom that Levinas intimated in ʻPrinciples and Facesʼ.

In the light of references to an alleged spiritual ʻyellow perilʼ, the spirit of universal freedom that Levinas opposed to Nazi racism in 1934 begins itself to seem uncomfortably parochial. With its references to the ʻGraeco, Judaic, Christian Westʼ, the 1960 essay seems to have converted the monotheist popular front against Nazism of the 1930s into a Cold War spiritual and geopolitical bloc, uncannily similar in its simplifications to Heideggerʼs geopolitical ʻanalysisʼ of the position of Germany between the USA and the Soviet Union.

The uncharacteristic distortion and even inversion of Levinasʼs positions in this essay are partially clarified in the final paragraph, which seems to suggest that its object is other than a debate between the Soviet Union and China. The essay ends with the sentence ʻIt will be necessary to be a little Chinese, to again call a cat a cat and to recognize in the anticapitalist nationalisms the shadow of National Socialism.ʼ [24] Far from rediscovering an openness to the Asian other, the conclusion of the essay masks a discrete political judgement. In the final paragraph Levinas describes one of the main points of tension between ʻRussiaʼ and China as the formerʼs support for radical nationalist movements: the Chinese criticized the Soviet Union for its support of nationalist movements regardless of their commitment to socialist or communist principles. Levinas criticizes the Soviet faith in the dialectic that allowed it to appear reasonable ʻto support anti-communists if they represented a stage towards socialism and to show sympathy to those who torture communists in their prisons. It would appear reasonable to take seriously socialist pretensions and anti-imperialist slogans made by avid nationalists.ʼ [25]

This probably should not be read as a Maoist turn in Levinasʼs politics, nor as a straightforward ethical expression of sympathy for communists imprisoned by radical nationalist regimes. It is more likely that Levinas has a particular nationalism in mind at this point – Arab nationalism – and specifically the Nasserite regime in Egypt and the nascent Baʼathist regimes in Syria and Iraq, all of which were supported diplomatically, economically and militarily by the Soviet Union and all of which were united in their ʻanti-imperialistʼ hostility towards the existence of the State of Israel. This reading is confirmed by the claim regarding the ʻshadow of National Socialismʼ falling on these regimes: this is consistent with a political and cultural discourse widespread at that time that emphasized the alleged historical links and similarities between Arab nationalism and German National Socialism. Whatever the historical judgement on the veracity of this claim, it is indisputable that the discourse existed and extremely likely that Levinas is subscribing to it at this point. [26] If this is true, then the ʻAsiaʼ against which Levinas warns Russia is not only China but also the Arab nationalism that was preparing for war with the State of Israel. The tensions evident in the essay around universal history and particularity are characteristic of Levinasʼs writings on the State of Israel, notably the next essay in Esprit. Whatever the explanation of its distortions, ʻThe Russo-Chinese Debate and the Dialecticʼ is an extremely tormented and uncharacteristic essay that must be reckoned with in any responsible interpretation of Levinas.

Non-Euclidean politics

The next contribution made by Levinas to Esprit was the magnificent reflection on Jewish identity, the diaspora and the State of Israel provoked by the Six Day War, ʻSpace is not One-Dimensionalʼ. The war marked the high point of solidarity between the diaspora and the State of Israel, so much as to provoke a resurgence of anti-Semitism in France. It is to this renewed anti-Semitism that Levinas responds in his essay, written in the conviction that ʻa sense of spirit still inhabits the journal Espritʼ. [27] The essay begins by evoking the French Revolution and the tension between citizenship and nationality bequeathed by it (a tension also discussed at length by Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism). Levinas had been interested in this tension from early in the 1920s in connection with the anti-Semitism revealed in the Dreyfus Affair, and now returned to it as the condition for the revival of the anti-Semitic discourse of the ʻdouble-allegianceʼ, this time with respect to France and Israel.

The significance of the French Revolution in Levinasʼs thought is reaffirmed in this essay, notably in the statement that ʻAdherence to France is a metaphysical act, of course; it had to be France, a country that expresses its political allegiance with a trinitarian emblem which is moral and philosophical, and inscribed on the front of its public buildings.ʼ [28] But liberty, equality and fraternity, like the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, remains an equivocal formula susceptible to a host of interpretations. The revolutionary trinity, like the Christian Trinity before it, invites a choice as to which person of the trinity is to be given the most importance. Marxist theory long ago demonstrated the contradiction that arose in bourgeois societies between liberty and equality – economic liberty producing inequality – and pitted against it the ʻfraternityʼ of the international working class. But there were also other possible versions of fraternity that would trump liberty and equality in much the way that ʻthe Sonʼ trumps the Father and the Holy Spirit in the Arian heresy – one is the fraternal nation of brothers-in-arms (the Jacobin version), another the fraternal confession (the Gallo-Catholic version) and a third the fraternal ʻraceʼ. Jewish citizens by definition would always be excluded from the second and third versions of the revolutionary trinity, and their claims to free and equal citizenship would always be under threat from the trump card of confessional or racial fraternity.

Levinasʼs response to the resurgence of this threat in 1967 is to argue that the three dimensions of liberty, equality and fraternity cannot be reduced to the single dimension of fraternity – ʻDoes being French, short of Euclidian space, mean moving only in one dimension?ʼ [29] The question is particularly telling given ʻwhat happened in Europe between 1933 and 1945ʼ, which no longer leaves even the comfort of Euclidian threedimensional space. Levinas describes the Shoah in terms of a topological analogy: ʻthere are human events which tear open their own envelopeʼ – in this case the three-dimensional envelope of the modern political trinity. The transgression of political dimensionality following the Shoah puts in question liberty, equality and fraternity, not to speak of any attempt to reduce even these three to a single dimension. What is more, the non-Euclidian politics to which Levinas alludes is summed up in the extra, religious dimension of politics deliberately unthematized in the revolutionary trinity. It was precisely this lack of thematization of the religious that provoked the set of issues collected under the chilling title ʻthe Jewish questionʼ.

The rethinking of the relationship of a Jewish French citizen to France and to Israel must then take account of the fourth, religious dimension of the political. In this the focus lies in the nature of Israel, and by this Levinas intends the question of the religious-political of Israel rather than the politics of the State of Israel. There is a relationship between the two, but one which cannot be reduced to simple identity. There is, in short, a tension between Israel as an event in ʻsacred historyʼ and the State of Israel as an event in ʻuniversal historyʼ. This tension is ubiquitous in Levinasʼs analyses of Israel and the State of Israel, as when he writes ʻThe Nazi persecution and, following the exterminations, the extra-ordinary fulfilment of the Zionist dream, are religious events outside of any revelation, church, clergy, miracle, dogma or belief.ʼ [30] Here the historical events of the Shoah and establishment of the State of Israel are placed in a class of religious events beyond the established categories of the religious, in short as part of a sacred history.

The reference to a sacred history of Israel informs Levinasʼs messianic concept of Israel, which is not the same as the State of Israel. The concept of sacred history – developed out of Rosenzweigʼs work – is contrary to the Hegelian universal history that locates all historical events within the progressive actualization of the idea of freedom in the state. An account of the foundation of the State of Israel according to universal history would locate this moment as the historical outcome of a sacrifice. Levinas seems on occasion to come to close to this position, but always to tip it in the direction of sacred history. In the following passage, the State of Israel is not founded upon sacrifice, but produces the sacrifice that is consistent with the prophetic vocation of Israel:

It is not because the Holy Land takes the form of a state that it brings the reign of the Messiah any closer, but because the men who inhabit it try to resist the temptation of politics; because the state proclaimed in the aftermath of Auschwitz embraces the teaching of the prophets; because it produces abnegation and self-sacrifice. [31]

The teachings of the prophets do not fuse with the politics of the state to produce a messianic Sittlichkeit, but rather unsettle the state by awakening a ʻdemand for the absoluteʼ that cannot be satisfied by a state. The ʻmessianic institutionsʼ of Israel of which Levinas here speaks are not the real existing institutions of the State of Israel, but nor are they forms of the ideal state in the manner of Platoʼs Republic – they are rather to be understood as postponements or corrections of the existing institutional structures.

One way to clarify Levinasʼs position is to situate it in a key debate within the history of Zionism that recurred throughout the history of the State of Israel. Viewed from the viewpoint of universal history, the State of Israel is primarily a political event set within a particular political history; this view would be consistent with the Zionist position that saw the State of Israel as the realization of a civil freedom that could not be guaranteed to Jews in the diaspora. An opposed view would be to see the ʻstateʼ of Israel and its wars and politics as secondary to the messianic mission of Israel in Jewish sacred history. The political logic governing the actions of the real-existing State of Israel always seems to be in between the two positions – refusing the extremes of sacrificing the messianic mission of Israel in order to ensure the security and material well-being of the State of Israel, or sacrificing the State of Israel in order to fulfil the messianic mission of Israel in sacred history. This is a conflict that in the history of the State of Israel has been played out in terms of territory: how far must attempts to realize the religious claims to the Holy Land be qualified by considerations of protecting the existence of the State of Israel within current borders? That is to say, how far should territorial expansion be limited or even reversed in order to protect the existence of the state?

Levinas tries to sustain the inconsistency between sacred and universal history by holding that ʻsacred historyʼ involves a ʻtruth and destinyʼ ʻnot contained within political and national categoriesʼ, [32] while referring to a ʻdestiny confusedly feltʼ with respect to the events of May–June 1967 that concerned the very survival of the state, and thus fell under the political categories of universal history. He describes this inconsistency in terms of ʻan awkward position within beingʼ;33 this position cannot be understood solely in terms of universal history, but challenges the very dimensionality of its concept of the political, pointing to a need for extra dimensions of political experience that would include the ethical and the religious. The ʻawkward position in beingʼ also characterizes the State of Israel that leads ʻa dangerous and pure lifeʼ as a hybrid product of sacred and universal history – ʻa Holy Land resuscitated by the State, in spite of the profane forms it assumesʼ always in danger of one of its aspects – sacred or secular – destroying the other.

In this context Levinas properly insists on increasing the number of dimensions according to which political judgements, especially those concerning Israel, are made. Yet the conclusion of the Esprit essay seems on balance to prefer to judge the actions of the State of Israel according to the criteria of universal history. After a reference to ʻmy Muslim friend, my unhated enemy of the Six-Day Warʼ, Levinas concludes with the reflection, echoing Kant on the French Revolution, that ʻit is from adventures such as these run by its citizens that a great Modern state – that is to say, one that serves humanity – derives its greatness, the attention it pays to the present and its presence in the worldʼ. [34] With the exception of the reference to serving humanity, all of these epithets concern the secular universal historical significance of the State of Israel rather than the sacred historical significance of the prophetic mission of Israel.

The question of sacred and universal history preoccupied Levinas for the rest of his life, for reasons that are by now evident. It is particularly apparent in his comments on Sartre and in particular Sartreʼs words ʻIf there is a Jewish history Hegel is wrong. Now there is a Jewish history.ʼ Levinasʼs critique of Hegel is largely indebted to Rosenzweig, a writer central to Totality and Infinity on whom Levinas wrote a series of fascinating articles, including one reprinted in Esprit in 1982. With this essay Levinas effectively closed the series of articles for the journal, referring to the writer who was their political and religious inspiration. The final work to appear under his signature was the translation of an interview published in Spanish that linked its themes, ʻPhilosophy, Justice and Loveʼ, by means of the concept of prophesy and its orientation towards the future.

Levinasʼs articles for Esprit span the historical interval between the advent of National Socialism and the consolidation of the State of Israel. They show the link between his exercise of political judgement and the broader development of his philosophy, beginning with the racist character of the National Socialist political, moving to the Cold War political, and finally to the prophetic political of Israel and its awkward relation to the State of Israel. In almost all of his analyses Levinas opts for a complexity of political judgement that far exceeds the formalism of many of his discussions of justice and politics in terms of ʻthe thirdʼ. This complexity of judgement also precedes and underlies the formulation of his ethics, providing the political setting in which he developed his critique of ontological principles and the ethics of alterity. Perhaps before trying to find a passage between Levinasʼs ethics and politics it is necessary first to recover the specific political conditions to which his ethics was a response?


1. ^ ʻEthics and Politicsʼ, in Seán Hand, ed., The Levinas Reader, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1989.

2. ^ Translated by Seán Hand in Critical Inquiry 17, Autumn 1990, pp. 64–71.

3. ^ Translated in Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism, trans. Seán Hand, Athlone Press, London 1990, pp. 259–64.

4. ^ The difference in orientation is most evident in a comparison between Wojtylaʼs Person and Act and Mounierʼs Treatise on Character (1947), which in spite of their shared project of philosophical anthropology arrive at quite opposed conclusions.

5. ^ For two examinations of the secular limits of the canon of continental philosophy, see P. Blond, Post-Secular Philosophy, Routledge, London, 1998, and Hent de Vries, Philosophy and the Turn to Religion, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1999.

6. ^ As was evident in Ricoeurʼs position in 1941:ʻuntil 1941 I was attracted, along with many others – the propaganda was intense – to certain aspects of Pétainism. It was probably that I held against the Republic the feeling of having participated in its weakness, the feeling that a new, stronger, France had to be formed.ʼ Critique and Conviction, trans. Kathleen Blamey, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1998, p. 16.

7. ^ While there are evident links between some of Levinasʼs positions and those of personalism, such as the stress on alterity and the critique of the money form, the substantial links between them are less evident than in the case of Ricoeur, who might with justice be described as a personalist philosopher.

8. ^ Discovering Existence with Husserl, trans. Richard A.

Cohen and Michael B. Smith, Northwestern University Press, Evanston IL, 1998.

9. ^ At the end of the essay Levinas debatedly links this expansive characteristic of Nazism with Nietzscheʼs thought, in the first manifestation of his by no means unequivocal critique of Nietzsche.

10. ^ ʻSignatureʼ, in Difficult Freedom, p. 291.

11. ^ ʻJudaism and the Presentʼ, in ibid., p. 214.

12. ^ ʻSur lʼesprit de Geneveʼ, in Les Imprevus de lʼhistoire, Fata Morgana, 1994, 161.

13. ^ Ibid.

14. ^ Ibid., p. 162.

15. ^ Ibid., p. 163.

16. ^ Ibid., p. 164.

17. ^ ʻPrincipes et Visagesʼ, in ibid., p. 166.

18. ^ Ibid., p. 167.

19. ^ Ibid., p. 168.

20. ^ Ibid., p. 169.

21. ^ ʻLe Debat Russo-Chinois et la dialectiqueʼ, in ibid., p. 171.

22. ^ ibid., p. 172.

23. ^ Ibid.

24. ^ Ibid., p. 173.

25. ^ Ibid., p. 172.

26. ^ For a historical defence of the thesis of this discourse, see Howard Sacherʼs A History of Israel from the Rise of Zionism to Our Time, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1996; for a critique, Albert Hourianiʼs A History of the Arab Peoples, Faber, London, 1991.

27. ^ ʻSpace is Not One-Dimensionalʼ, in Difficult Freedom, p. 259.

28. ^ Ibid., pp. 260–61. The exploration of the inseparable political, ethical and philosophical significance of the trinity ʻliberty, equality and fraternityʼ informs all of Levinasʼs work.

29. ^ Ibid., p. 259.

30. ^ Ibid., p. 263.

31. ^ Ibid.

32. ^ Ibid., p. 264.

33. ^ Ibid.

34. ^ Ibid.

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