[Essay] Boris the Katechon — Josh Mcloughlin

In March, Boris Johnson was bullish and belligerent, adopting military metaphors to describe his response to Covid-19 as a ‘war […] we have to win’. Likewise, Moon Jae-in and Emmanuel Macron framed their reactions to the virus as a ‘war’, whilst Donald Trump, called Covid-19 an ‘attack’ worse than Pearl Harbour or 9/11.

However, as UK casualties rose far in excess of the ‘best-case’ scenario of 20,000 and politicians realised the full scale of the pandemic, Johnson modified his language and adopted a different pose. In October, as he reluctantly announced a second lockdown, the prime minister shifted into a passive, almost defeatist register. ‘We’ve got to be humble in the face of nature’, he said. The UK was ‘failing to get [the virus] under control’, Johnson admitted, conceding that scientists were ‘unanimously gloomy about the immediate options’.

Despite optimistic noises in November, Johnson essentially admitted defeat and surrendered. Lamenting a ‘tragic year when so many have lost loved ones and faced financial ruin’, the prime minister conceded that the nation must now place its hope in ‘vaccines [that] are now edging ever closer to liberating us’. In December, new lockdown restrictions cancelling Christmas signalled a disorganized and panicked retreat from a new and more aggressively infectious variant of the virus, the spread of which the government has proved powerless to contain. The would-be national saviour-general is now desperately playing for time, framing the present as a time of irrecoverable loss and ‘sacrifice’ and deferring victory and salvation to hypothetical, distant ‘future Christmases’. What explains Johnson’s rhetorical shift from a confident, aggressive ‘war’ leader on the front foot to a passive, defeatist figure, powerless in the ‘face of nature’ and crisis, meekly awaiting ‘liberati[on]’ by scientists?

The katechon, a concept originating in early Christian theology but since secularised by political theorists, can help us understand the prime minister’s fate. In his second letter to the Thessalonians, Paul established a key Christian eschatological tenet in response to those in the early Christian church who thought Jesus’s second coming (parousia) was imminent: ‘we beg you, brothers and sisters,not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed […] that the day of the Lord is already here’, said Paul:

That day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction. […] Do you not remember that I told you these things when I was still with you? And you know what is now restraining him, so that he may be revealed when his time comes. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work, but only until the one who now restrains it is removed. 
(2 Thessalonians 2: 1–8) (NRSV)

Tempering zeal for the parousia, Paul reminds the Thessalonians of a ‘restrain[er]’ (‘katechon’ from the Greek τὸ κατέχον, ‘that which withholds’) holding back ‘lawlessness’ and chaos until the proper time.[1] Paul assumes the katechon is familiar to his readers: ‘Do you not remember that I told you these things when I was still with you?’ he says, assuming ‘you know what is now restraining’. But Paul’s impatience means he does not elaborate. What exactly is the katechon? It is certainly an ambiguous figure, tasked with restraining the ‘the end of the world’, as Paulo Virno puts it. But it is always-already doomed, destined eventually to be ‘removed’. Biblical scholars have assumed the katechon is a divine force. Maarten J.J. Menken sees the restrainer as a function of ‘apocalyptic eschatology’, a figure ‘on the side of God’ who ‘obstructs the […] outbreak of iniquity’, whilst Charles E. Powell calls it a ‘ministry of Spirit’.[2]

But there is nothing in Paul’s terse and taciturn epistle confirming the katechon as a holy force. Thomas Hobbes, in his masterpiece of political theory Leviathan (1651), theorised a new, absolutist ‘Soveraign Power’ tasked with ‘prevent[ing] Discord […] faction, and Civil war in the Common-wealth’ and ensuring ‘a Kingdome […] free from Sedition and Civill Warre’.[3] For political thinkers like Hobbes, writing after the devastation of the English Civil War (1642–1651), restraining the outbreak of further crisis was paramount. The most pressing concern was not eschatology or the parousia but preventing the breakdown of social and political order. This led Wolfgang Palaver to declare Hobbes’s leviathan a ‘secularized katechon’, who ‘restrain[s] […] the apocalyptic state of war’ and ‘provides for the permanent prevention of chaos and violence’.[4]

Like Hobbes, Carl Schmitt theorised the katechon as a secular institution: the respublica Christiana. The ‘Christian empire’, in Schmitt’s later work, is a ‘historical power’, a ‘restrainer [that] holds back the end of the world’.[5] ‘The emperor’s office was inseparable from the work of the katechon’, says Schmitt, describing a political leader who ‘decides on the exception’ to prevent both secular apocalypse and ‘eschatological paralysis’.[6]

The Schmittian katechon also features obliquely in the work of Walter Benjamin. A decade before the German Jewish philosopher died by suicide at Portbou in 1940 to escape arrest by the Wehrmacht, Benjamin sent Schmitt—who would later become a leading Nazi intellectual—a copy of his Origin of the German Trauerspiel (1928). ‘You will very quickly recognize how much my book is indebted to you for its presentation of the doctrine of sovereignty in the seventeenth century’, said Benjamin.[7] However, whereas for Schmitt the sovereign is tasked with deciding what constitutes, and therefore with bringing about the state of exception, Benjamin’s sovereign must uphold ‘the continuity of the commonweal’ and ‘avert […] war, revolt, or other catastrophes’ at any cost.[8]

But Benjamin, like Schmitt and Hobbes, drew on katechonic thinking for his theory of sovereignty. In a particularly difficult passage in the Trauerspiel book, Benjamin speaks of ‘die verzögernde Überspannung der Transzendenz’, which Howard Eiland translated in 2019 as ‘the decelerating hypertension of transcendence’, attempting to improve on John Osborne’s 1977 rendering: ‘the retarding effect of the over-strained transcendental impulse’.[9] The key terms of Benjamin’s formulation are Verzögern, which can mean ‘delay’, ‘hold back’, ‘retard’, or ‘slow down’, and Überspannung, which carries the sense of ‘overstrain[ing]’ or ‘overload[ing]’. Benjamin’s sovereign, harking back to Paul’s restrainer, is ‘faced with catastrophe’, doomed to a fruitless effort to ‘avert’ crisis and restrain the destruction of the commonwealth.[10]

The notion of the katechon continues to animate political theory. Giorgio Agamben has used it to describe ‘a sovereign power’ able, at best, to ‘merely slow’ the progress of apocalyptic history.[11] René Girard nuances the classical definition, noting that the ‘katechon holds back violence’ but adding that, to do so, it must exert a ‘certain amount of violence’ itself. Thus, for Girard, the ‘katechon […] contains the Apocalypse in the twofold sense of the word’: ‘to have within itself and to hold within certain limits’. [12]

Covid-19 has nakedly exposed the emergency powers of contemporary states and stress-tested politics in a devastating ‘state of exception’. Governments around the world, not without a ‘certain amount of violence’ to civil liberties and constitutional norms, have exercised their power as katechonic restrainers tasked with protecting their polities from utter destruction. It would be tempting to say Johnson echoes Paul, managing apocalyptic expectations at a time of heightened, ‘world-historical’ significance.[13] But he is closer to the katechon that Paul describes. The prime minister is a vivid example of the tragically doomed leader in a time of crisis, crushed by responsibility but incapable of action, the antithesis of the Hobbesian ‘principle of order’.

Unable to maintain with any credulity the guise of a state protector or leviathan, Johnson now cuts a meek figure, a would-be Churchillian talisman in a time of ‘war’ humbled in the ‘face of nature’, biding his time and awaiting scientific salvation from those experts we had apparently had enough of.

Johnson, like the archetypal Pauline katechon, has been outmatched and overwhelmed by a crisis he has proved too incapable and incompetent to restrain, and which will further darken his already wretched political legacy.

*

Josh Mcloughlin is a writer from Merseyside, UK. He is the editor-in-chief of New Critique, a Wolfson Scholar in the Humanities at University College London, and he was shortlisted for the Jane Martin Poetry Prize 2019. His work is published in The Times, The London Magazine, The Fence, Review 31, and elsewhere.


[1] Biblical scholars agree that the Greek katechon translates as ‘restrainer’ or ‘restraining force’. See: Ben Witherington III, 1 and 2 Thessalonians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Cambridge: William B. Eerdmans, 2006), 211–221, 221.

[2] Charles E. Powell, ‘The Identity of the “Restrainer” in 2 Thessalonians 2: 6–7’, Bibliotheca Sacra, 154 (1997), 330-332, 320; 332.

[3] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan: Reprinted from the Edition of 1651 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1965), 137, 363, 160

[4] Wolfgang Palaver, ‘Hobbes and the Katechon: The Secularization of Sacrificial Christianity’, Contagion, 2 (1993), 57-74, 63–65.

[5] Carl Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, trans. George Schwab (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 1; Carl Schmitt, The Nomos of the Earth in the International Law of the Jus Publicum Europaeum, trans. G.L. Ulmen (New York: Telos, 2006), 58–62.

[6] Matthias Lievens, ‘Carl Schmitt’s Concept of History’, The Oxford Handbook of Carl Schmitt, eds. Jens Meierhenrich and Oliver Simons (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 401–423, 404; 415.

[7] Walter to Benjamin to Carl Schmitt, December 1930, trans. in Samuel Weber, ‘Taking Exception to Decision: Walter Benjamin and Carl Schmitt’, Diacritics, 22:3–4 (1992), 5–18. Cf. Horst Bredekamp, ‘Walter Benjamin’s Esteem for Carl Schmitt’, trans. Melissa Thorson Hause, Jackson Bond, and Katharina Lee Chichester in, The Oxford Handbook of Carl Schmitt, eds. Jens Meierhenrich and Oliver Simons (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 679–704; Marc de Wilde, ‘Meeting Opposites: The Political Theologies of Walter Benjamin and Carl Schmitt’, Philosophy and Rhetoric, 44:4 (2011), 363–381.

[8] Walter Benjamin, Origin of the German Trauerspiel, trans. Howard Eiland (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019), 46–48

[9] Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, trans. John Osborne (London: Verso, 1998), 65.

[10] Benjamin, Origin, trans. Eiland, 50.

[11] Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University Press: 1998), 28; Cf. Giorgio Agamben, The Time that Remains, trans. Patricia Dailey (Stanford University Press, 2005), 110.

[12] René Girard, The One by Whom Scandal Comes, trans. M.B. DeBevoise (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2014), 98; René Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, trans. James G. Williams (Leominster: Gracewing, 2001), 186–7.

[13] Georg Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of History, trans. John Sibree (London: Bohn, 1857), xxiv, 39, 91, 266, &c.