Book Review "Land and Sea: A World-Historical Meditation" by Carl Schmitt
What is Seapower? By Joseph Martin on February 10, 2015
This book is translated by Simona Draghici. Since it is out of print I will summarize its twenty sections and give my thoughts at the end.
Myth and History
One. The text begins with the epigraph 'As told to my daughter Anima'. When we begin to read, we wonder if we are reading a fairy tale. And it does begin that way. We learn that Man is a terrestrial being. Earth is represented as our mother in innumerable myths. So it seems that it is only the first of the ancient four ancient elements (earth, water, air, fire) that is truly ours. - Or is it? Schmitt mentions that there are legends of deities and also men born of the sea. He does not seem to wonder at this, and approvingly quotes Goethe: Everything is born of water, Everything is preserved by water Ocean, bring us your eternal rule! "So, it is worth asking: what is our element? Are we the children of the earth or of the sea?"
Two. Now, the term 'element', as used in the mythic 'four elements', is an unscientific term. "For our historical analysis, however, we retain the four elements, with their simple but evocative names. As a matter of fact, they are global designations of the various possibilities of human existence." I believe he means most especially land and sea powers. We speak 'mythically,' because men are not things that only have causes; Man also has Reasons. He can respond to circumstances, especially novel circumstances, in novel ways. The implication is that the sciences will never entirely know Man. He can "choose, and at certain moments in his history, he may even go so far, through a gesture peculiar to him, as to change himself into a new form of his historical existence, in virtue of which he readjusts and reorganizes himself."
Three. Yes, Man can go wherever he wants; but within the limits imposed by the physical world and his own nature. "World history is the history of the wars waged by maritime powers against land or continental powers and by land powers against sea or maritime powers." We are no longer in a fairy tale. We have fallen (or, if you prefer, risen) from the mythical, via the 'constructivism' inherent both in man and history, to the given. The limits to our power are our material geo-political world and (Schmitt would add) the fact that there are always friends and enemies. This is the boundary that no historical creation can ever cross. In the nineteenth century, the great example of the struggle between Land and Sea Powers was England and Russia. In Schmitt's explication of the battle between land (Behemoth) and sea (Leviathan) he says that "according to the cabbalists, behemoth tries to tear leviathan to pieces with its horns and teeth, while in turn, leviathan tries hard to stop the land animal's mouth and nostrils with its flaps and fins in order to deprive it of food and air." Land power battles; sea power blockades. No, we have not returned to myth. Everywhere we look in history we see this struggle between Land and Sea. For instance: Persia-Greeks Sparta-Athens Rome-Carthage Now, do not think of Rome as only a land-power. It was after the defeat of Carthage that they started referring to the mediterranean as Mare Nostrum (our sea). In some sense the Romans chose a new form of historical existence. And long after defeating Carthage declining Rome "saw its domination of the seas snatched by the Vandals, the Saracens, the Vikings, and the Normans." But sea-powers at this time were not merely pirates and raiders. The Byzantine Empire is singled out for high praise. He calls it a Katechon(!), i.e., the restrainer of The Antichrist, (see Thessalonians 2) for holding back Islam and, by this, even protecting the Roman Church. The last sea power Schmitt speaks of here is Venice. Those who think Schmitt is contemptuous of all sea powers should read this. Venice is for Schmitt a preview of the British Empire: great wealth, diplomatic superiority in maneuvering others powers to fight its wars, and an aristocracy tolerant enough to avoid internal division while open to heterodox religious and political views, even offering asylum to political emigrants. Now, Venice enacted rituals too; most famously the sposalizio del mare (marriage to the sea). Each year the Doge would board an 'official vessel of the Republic' and throw a ring into the sea. Even today Venice attracts romantics, but its great age (Schmitt says from 1000 to 1500) is long gone. Our author does not want to "darken the brightness of such splendor." But he closes this section wondering what the Adriatic and Mediterranean are compared to all the oceans of the world. And so we see that it is not only geopolitics, human nature, and the friend-enemy distinction that is to be the object of our inquiry. We are to remain concerned with the mythical too.
Four. Quoting Ernst Kapp our author indicates that one could divide history into three stages. 1. The fluvial culture of the ancient middle east, from Mesopotamia to Egypt. 2. The thalassic era from classical antiquity to the Mediterranean middle ages. 3. Oceanic civilization. The discovery of America and the rise of ocean-spanning empires. Schmitt will categorize this as river, closed sea, ocean. Schmitt will archly note "of 'oceanic' civilization, the carriers [...] are the Germanic peoples." Again, Schmitt doesn't simply despise sea-power. Now Schmitt will conclude his discussion of the Venetians. Venice came to a halt at the second stage. They were a 'terrestrial people' that only married the Sea. It was not their element. Schmitt notes two limitations on Venice's power. First the limitation that haunts all Sea Powers. It is difficult "to exert one's domination over a continent merely by means of a fleet." The other point is that Venice lacked innovation in seafaring warfare. Venice, at Lepanto in 1571, was essentially fighting the same type of battle that the fleets of Anthony and Octavian fought at Actium 1500 years earlier. Innovation would fall to the Dutch, and then the English. And there our current history begins.
Five. But it begins with Myth; that of whales and whalers. They are images of each other. How? Well, after calling the whale a 'monster', Schmitt says of it that "a warm-blooded giant has been handed over to the element without having been physiologically intended for it." Both whalers and whales are terrestrial animals that have turned themselves into creatures of the Sea. Are they both monsters? Also, note that the nature of hunting has changed. "And the hunters of this fish were in the times that concern us here, that is, from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, genuine hunters in a grand style, and not mere 'catchers.' This detail is not lacking in importance for our story." Schmitt points out that both the nature of whaling and warfare has changed thanks to technology. The whalers are no longer the heros they were 500 years ago. We infer that the same can be said of sea powers; like whalers, they have been given an unnatural advantage due to advances in technology. Thus they are both now doubly 'monsters.' This section ends with Schmitt pointing out that the sixteenth century had two different type of hunters. In Russia, fur trappers who led the way into Siberia. And our whale hunters.
Six. A new technology appears around this time too. The Dutch invent a new smaller square sail that allows for more mobility by better utilizing the wind. A new ship, the man of war, appeared too. It was a "sailing ship equipped with cannons that fired broadside salvos at the enemy." Thus the nature of sea battle changes too. Many European nations had a "part in the great epic of the discovery of the new Earth, that led to the domination of the world by the Europeans." And not only the contemporary colonizers. Germans made maps. Italians 'perfected' the compass. Oh yes, and the English are involved too.
Seven. Pirates! Schmitt is mostly concerned with English Pirates because of England's struggle with Spain. The Pirate Era "lasted approximately a century and a half, from 1550 to 1713, or said differently, from the beginning of the struggle carried on by the Protestant powers against the world power of Catholic Spain, and until the Peace of Utrecht." (Note that Schmitt is a Catholic.) Of course there have always been pirates. But "the privateers of the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries [...] played a considerable part in history." Now, that part, whether carried out by pirate or privateer (with their Royal Commissions!) was usually aimed at Catholic Spain, but it was only a moment. It passes.
Eight. But that moment put little England onto the road of world power. Before Elizabeth I they were ''sheep-breeders'; after... 'predatory capitalists'! Schmitt underlines the 'corsair-capitalist' nature of this period in English history by telling the story of the Killigrews of Cornwall, who were gentlemen pirates. Schmitt intends us to understand that this was 'normal' at the time. "For the first fourteen years of Elizabeth's reign the largest part of the English navy was actively engaged in piracy and illegal transactions..." Myth: a "thirteenth-century English prophecy: 'The lion's cubs will turn into the fishes of the sea.'" Schmitt concludes thusly: -It was only in the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries that this nation of shepherds recast itself into a sea-roaming nation of privateers, into 'children of the sea.'- The point is that British supremacy begins doubly in crime. First, and obviously, as Pirates. Secondly, as monstrous 'children of the sea'.
Nine. The other European powers chose, however unwittingly, either to be land powers, or were bested by English arms or trade on the high seas. The Portuguese, Spanish, French and Dutch all eventually were surpassed by the English. Thus "Spain and Portugal, for instance, preserved their huge overseas possessions, but lost control of the seas and the communication routes." The Netherlands were "continentalized". The French? When In 1672 "the French king sacked Colbert, his great secretary of trade and of the navy, the choice in favor of the land element became irreversible." Schmitt explains that English domination cannot be reduced to the failure of others. Or fully illuminated by comparisons to earlier maritime powers: -The case of England is in itself unique. Its specificity, its incomparable character has to do with the fact that England underwent the elemental metamorphosis at a moment in history that was altogether unlike any other, and also in a way shared by none of the earlier maritime powers. She truly turned her collective existence seawards and centered it on the sea element. That enabled her to win not only countless wars and naval battles but also something else, and in fact, infinitely more—a revolution. A revolution of sweeping scope, that of the planetary space.-
Ten. "What is a space revolution?" What Schmitt is after is certainly not the concept of space given by various sciences. (Such as physics, geometry, psychology and biology.) Not even philosophy is a help. But history rolls on nevertheless: -Each time the forces of history cause a new breach, the surge of new energies brings new lands and new seas into the visual field of human awareness, the spaces of historical existence undergo a corresponding change. Hence, new criteria appear, alongside of new dimensions of political and historical activity, new sciences, new social systems; nations are born or reborn.- I want to underline this. What "new criteria" means is that, before the 'breach', the future is largely unknowable for all observers. Schmitt would add that the divisions between land & sea, friend and enemy will remain; but I believe he would concede that neither their shape nor content can be known in advance. "Actually, all important changes in history more often than not imply a new perception of space." Schmitt gives three examples of Spatial Revolution.
Eleven. 1. The conquests of Alexander the Great. Hellenism: Aristarchus taught that the earth revolved around the sun. Euclid. Heron of Alexandria and his inventions. Eratoethenes knew of the equator and taught that the earth was round. But all this was no revolution of 'planetary space', that is, no knowledge of the ocean. 2. The first century of the Roman Empire. The northwest came into view: Gaul, Britain, the Atlantic. Conquests, civil wars, and trade established a 'common political destiny' from Spain and Germany, to Illyria, Syria, and Africa. Persia in the East, Arabia to the South were part of this World. "Agrippa's map of the world and Strabo's geography are evidence of this spatial expansion." Schmitt quotes Seneca: -The Indian drinks of the icy Araxes. The Persians quaff the Elbe and the Rhine. An age will come in the far-off centuries, When Ocean will loosen the bonds of things, And the whole broad Earth will be revealed, When Thetis will disclose new worlds. And Thule will no longer be the bound.- A prophesy of globalization! 3. But Rome fell, and the world got smaller. The 'continentalization' of europe happened thanks largely to the loss of the eastern trade to the Arabs. And then the Crusades happened. This was the beginning of trade and a communication network that was a nascent 'world economy'. I do not think that, given the provincialist torpor that was shaken up by the crusades, it would be outrageous to suggest that european progress began here!
Twelve. But none of these are comparable to the planetary revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Beginning with the discovery of the americas and then sailing around the world, a new 'global consciousness' was born, first in europe, and then, inexorably, the rest of the world. Schmitt calls it "the first, complete, space revolution on a planetary scale". (I think that 'space' s/b translated as spatial, here and elsewhere.) It had repercussions far beyond political economy with its colonies and trade. It wiped out not only peoples traditional everyday conceptions of the world but also those of cosmology and astronomy. Schmitt will single out the notion of the infinite void. After the development from Copernicus to Newton, the stars are "masses of matter, [that] move while the forces of attraction and repulsion balance each other in an infinite void, in virtue of the laws of gravitation." An entirely materialist cosmology reigned. The traditional 'horror vacui' was a thing of the past. Aufklärungen like Voltaire "were taking pride in the very idea, scientifically demonstrable, of a world placed inside an infinite void." A revolution like this is no mere emendation of geography. Vikings and Basque whalers had been to the 'new world' before Columbus, but nothing came of it. "A space revolution presupposes more than just setting foot on land previously unknown. It assumes the transformation of the notion of space at all levels and in all the aspects of human existence." Examples? Renaissance perspectival painting and architecture and sculpture are all witness to a change in our understanding of space. There were revolutions in music and on the stage too. What today we all think of as 'globalization' began here.
Thirteen. What is a spatial order? -To talk of the constitution of a country or a continent is to talk of its fundamental order, of its nomos. The true, the authentic, rests essentially upon distinct, spatial delimitations. It presupposes clear dimensions, a precise division of the planet. The beginning of every great era coincides with an extensive territorial appropriation.- What historical 'modes of production' are to Marx, historical 'spatial orders' (Nomoi) are to Schmitt. They are the key to understanding history and large-scale historical change. The spatial revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries changed not only Europe, but the world. At first, colonialism was justified because it was spreading christianity, later because it was spreading (the european conception of) civilization. In this process, a european christian civil law was born. To be considered civilized one had to accept that civil law. Of course, european nations in this period did not behave civilly towards each other. There were terrible wars fought between them. However, for the period there is, "the dominant fact: the collective conquest of the New World by the Europeans." European civil law was both the delineation and implementation of a new spatial order, a new Nomos of the Earth. Schmitt says that the 'age of discovery' is the era of european territorial conquest. He ends the section with Heraclitus: "war brings people together, while law divides them." What is Nomos? In one of the very few notes in this text Schmitt says the term (the Greek noun nomos derives from the verb nemein) consists of three meanings: 1. Taking, seizure, appropriation. 2. Division, repartition, distribution. 3. Use, exploit, produce, consume.
Fourteen. How are these conquests related to law? Well in the beginning, all european powers did was arrive at some new territory, have a ceremony, read a proclamation, perhaps leave a symbolic object, and go. Later, these claims were naturally contested. So long as it was Portugal and Spain, disputes could be settled by the Pope. As early as 1493(!), the Papal Bull Inter caetera gave all the new lands 100 leagues west of the Azores to Spain. Later (1494), Portugal and Spain agreed that all the new lands east of the line belonged to Portugal. Of all this Schmitt says that the, "dividing line traced by the Pope in 1493 marked the beginning of the struggle for the new fundamental order, for the new nomos of the planet." As one might guess, other european powers (the French, the Dutch, the English, eg) were unimpressed by this. When some of these powers became Protestant, "the struggle for the ownership of the new Earth turned into a struggle between Reformation and Counter-Reformation." I would argue that the rise of a new Nomos always includes the rise of new religions or, at the very least, new religious sects. I am not sure Schmitt would agree.
Fifteen. The European Religious Wars and the struggle between the Colonial Powers Schmitt proposes to treat as one. But before he gets to that, - what of Germany? Schmitt singles out Emperor Rudolf II. While most of the world remembers him as an ineffectual leader whose mistakes brought about the Thirty Years War, Schmitt will go so far as to call him a katechon! (In secular terms, the katechon is the restrainer of inevitable catastrophe.) Our author sees Rudolf II as "a brake, a delaying factor." Why? He "understood that the fighting that was going on far from the German borders was no concern of Germany whatsoever." In his time, germany did not participate in the wars of religion. Schmitt (a Catholic) sees Germany at the time divided between Lutherans, Catholics, and Calvinists. And certainly there was conflict between them. But beyond Germany there was a struggle for the entire globe. "A more clear-cut and deeper-going conflict emerged above and away from Germany's internal problems, namely, that between the Jesuits and the Calvinists. Henceforth, the friend-foe distinction would serve as the axis of world politics." Within Germany, the Emperor strove to balance these three sects. This was achievable because Lutherans were 'observant of the principle of obedience to authority.' -But Calvinists were not. Like Max Weber, our author hangs a great deal of the responsibility for modernity around the neck of the Calvinists. But not everything; continental Calvinists "had no significant repercussions upon world politics, unless they joined the train of maritime forces." It was the combination of Calvinism and seapower that changed the world. Calvinist predestination is "characteristic of an elite assured of its social position and its hour in history." This certainty, this energy, needed an outlet. "The land will become sea, and so will be free." The natural ally of expansive Calvinism was seapower. Schmitt ends this section thusly: -But let us turn our eyes to the sea: almost instantly, we notice the osmosis, I would even call it the historical brotherhood, between politicized Calvinism, and Europe's released maritime energies. Even the religious battle-fields and the theological slogans of the period were pervaded by the opposition of the elemental forces that brought about the shift of historical existence from firm land to the sea.-
Sixteen. Eventually this separation of Land and Sea was enthroned as follows: "the dry land would belong to a score of sovereign states. The sea, on the other hand, would belong to nobody, or everybody, but in reality, it would belong to a single country: England." Understand this: for Schmitt, Land _is_ Order; Sea is an anarchy that always (/probably) culminates in rule of the strongest. We are told it was upon these 'spatial premises' that "Christian-European civil law was built during three centuries." Practically speaking, what does this mean? Well, land and sea war were always two different things. But now, Land and Sea become "two distinct worlds, and two antithetical, juridical convictions." Schmitt tells us that since at least the 16th century land war was becoming a "state-to-state affair", civilians were left out. But seapower wars, by definition, is war on civilian population because it always involves blockade and thus effects trade and the economy. Blockades indiscriminately target 'enemy combatants and noncombatants'. I would note that invading armies also live off the local population simply because they always need food. But rather than believe real land wars resembled Schmitt's description, I suggest thinking of this in the terms of Law, and European international Law evolved in the manner our author suggests. The amazing success of England turning herself into a world power had repercussions throughout europe. How? Well, while one landpower ruling all was unacceptable; one seapower ruling the high seas was, well, if not exactly acceptable, all acquiesced anyway. Great theories of 'economies, lawyers, and philosophers' rose to explain England's dominance. Of England's success and its acceptance Schmitt says: -Here you can see that the great leviathan had exerted its power over minds and hearts too. Of all the signs of its domination, it is indeed the most remarkable.-
Seventeen. "England is an island." There are two senses of that. First, the English thought of their Island as a castle with a moat that kept enemies away. "This precious stone set in the silver sea". Olde England, Schmitt calls "land-bound, soil-bound and so territorial through and through." Later, England is thought of as a ship or a fish(!), and a ship is "a floating extension of the national territory." Now, the "Continent is but a shore, a strand with its hinterland." And so England's relations with the continent were transformed. "Henceforward, all the standards and criteria of British politics became incompatible with those of all the other European countries." England built a world empire. And "Her destiny was no longer necessarily linked to that of Europe. She could free herself and change seats, as metropolis of a world maritime empire."
Eighteen. The "age of the total and uncontested supremacy of England" had begun. This happened thanks not only to her seagoing prowess but also her advantage in technology and industrialism. This, however, had an unexpected consequence: Leviathan, a sea-beast was now "turning into a machine." The Heroic Age of Seapower was over. But, "Fish or machine, the leviathan was gaining in strength and power, on every occasion, and its realm seemed eternal."
Nineteen. This chapter is a brief discussion of Alfred Thayer Mahan's geopolitics. We are told he thought the USA was best placed to continue the anglo-saxon domination of the sea. He even proposed "the possibility of England's reunification with the United States of America." The continental size of the US would allow it to be equal to any foreseeable challenge. What he did not foresee is how technology would change the character ("the elemental relationship between man and the sea") of English and American seapower. For Schmitt, this was not the way forward. Mahan's theory was geopolitically 'conservative'; it did not point towards a new spatial order. (Which Schmitt surely believes the world needs.) Mahan's theory: -had nothing of the energy of the elemental irruption, which in the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries gave birth to the historical alliance between the navigators' spirit of adventure and the Calvinist predestination.-
Twenty. Industrial and technological development continued. Electricity, radio, airplanes all contribute to a new understanding of space; and perhaps even a new spatial revolution. WWI was an educator in this, - it showed how much had changed. "The invention of the airplane marked the conquest of the third element," that is, after land and sea, air. "Standards and criteria undertook further changes." Man had even more power, for war and peace. Is air now our element? No, "caution is recommended when making such affirmations, the implications of which are not all at the tips of our fingers." Leaving the question of elements aside, Schmitt notes two points. First, in the early modern period space was thought of as a void in which things merely existed. Today, space "has become the field of man's energy, activity, and creativity." Secondly, technology has changed mans relation to the sea: -Nowadays, in times of peace, a ship owner may know the whereabouts of his ship at sea day by day and hour by hour. That means that, compared to the age of the sailing ship, the sea environment has changed drastically in man's favor.- Thus the difference between Land & Sea is fading. "Relentlessly the new nomos installs itself upon the ruins of the old." And no one knows what it will be. Surprisingly for some, Schmitt does not fear the rise of a new Nomos. Nomos is Order; Schmitt fears the sea and its anarchy that culminates in Tyranny. The essay concludes: -Here, too, are gods that rule. Ample are their bounds.- We go from Nomos to Nomos, from Order to Order - forever.
Final Thoughts For Schmitt, seapower is tyranny. He therefore uses the term Leviathan in both senses, a great maritime power and a mighty tyrant. Isn't Behemoth also a Tyrant? Yes. But an orderly one. Why? First, let us recall the 'sins' of sea-power: 1. 'unnatural' for terrestrial Man to turn his socio-political being to the open Ocean. 2. the anarchic criminality of piracy, whose avatar is free-trade capitalism. 3. 'politicized' calvinism and its millenialist propensity for the overturning of Order. 4. unfettered technology and industrialism. 5. ideological domination. Geopolitically, the 'choice' before us is between Leviathan and Behemoth(s). It is peculiar to speak of choice without 'freedom'. But their is no freedom in Schmitt. Freedom, for him, has (geopolitically) become an ideological / propagandistic term employed by hegemonic seapowers. For our author, fundamentally, there is only Order and disorder, Land and sea. Fine. But how do individuals choose between brutish regimes? I am here reminded of a remark of Solzhenitsyn regarding WWII. He said something to the effect (- I no longer remember the exact quote) that in choosing between communists and nazis the russian people chose to fight for the monster that spoke its own language. Behemoth always speaks the language (and glorifies the culture) of the local population. Schmitt is well aware of that. Localisms are the strength of Behemoths - and therefore there is always more than one of them. And what of the History of freedom that seapower trumpets? Perhaps we should say histories of Freedom. -Little seafaring republics, libertarians, liberals and socialists all tell different stories. But each story is a rational (or rationalizing) account of historical change. Where change is found to be rational (liberating, enriching, cosmopolitan, universal) they call it progress. But it is change that landpower always wishes to prevent or forestall. The 'stages of history' that we find everywhere from Montesquieu to Adam Smith to Marx were not merely records of what happened to happen. They all thought that these stages were leading to a better world. Insofar as they were, - they were also the graveyards of earlier Orders. Freedom in Athens, in Rome (even after the Carthaginian Peace), and in Venice, is not the target of Schmitt's venom. States are always struggling against other states. It is the overturning, according to Schmitt, of the very possibility of Order that he here opposes. And this is what Schmitt finds in seapower. Again, Schmitt has no problem with premodern seapowers. They were, for the most part, but coastal trading powers plying the inland seas. It is the oceanic powers that changed everything. Now all oceans can be regarded an 'inland sea' thanks to technology, unfettered capitalism, and oceanpower ideologies. (And thus, imo, there tends to be only one hegemonic seapower at a time.) But this does not mean that all inhabited land is now merely seashore. How do oceanpowers control the interior of continents? (Especially central Eurasia!) The short answer is that they can't. Schmitt's argument of the irreducibility of the Land and Sea Dichotomy hangs on this small fact. ...And I do not see any way to get around it. Make no mistake, the succession of world orders (nomoi) that Schmitt here sketches is meant to be a theory of history on a par with Montesquieu, Adam Smith and Marx. This essay is not his comprehensive position. For that, one must turn to his 'The Nomos of the Earth in the International Law of Jus Publicum Europaeum'. Four stars for a brilliant thought provoking essay with a sub-optimal translation. Five stars reserved for Schmitt's Nomos book when (if) I get around to reviewing it.