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The Future of Illusion

Political Theology and Early Modern Texts

In recent years, the rise of fundamentalism and a related turn to religion in the humanities have led to a powerful resurgence of interest in the problem of political theology. In a critique of this contemporary fascination with the theological underpinnings of modern politics, Victoria Kahn proposes a return to secularism—whose origins she locates in the art, literature, and political theory of the early modern period—and argues in defense of literature and art as a force for secular liberal culture.

Kahn draws on theorists such as Carl Schmitt, Leo Strauss, Walter Benjamin, and Hannah Arendt and their readings of Shakespeare, Hobbes, Machiavelli, and Spinoza to illustrate that the dialogue between these modern and early modern figures can help us rethink the contemporary problem of political theology. Twentieth-century critics, she shows, saw the early modern period as a break from the older form of political theology that entailed the theological legitimization of the state. Rather, the period signaled a new emphasis on a secular notion of human agency and a new preoccupation with the ways art and fiction intersected the terrain of religion. 

264 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2013

Literature and Literary Criticism: General Criticism and Critical Theory

Philosophy: Philosophy of Religion

Political Science: Classic Political Thought

Religion: Religion and Literature


“A work about a process (of reading and rereading, of making and deposing ideas), [The Future of Illusion] is also a feat of persuasion, and an intimate report—a chronicle—of its author’s nimble handling of her sources.”

Los Angeles Review of Books

“Moderates powerfully the often neglected (and certainly unfinished) conversation between early and late moderns. . . . A much needed provocation in the field of Renaissance and early modern studies.”

Modern Philology

“An exciting book. . . . Kahn sets a new standard for scholars testing the relevance of early modernity in later periods, tracing the broad contours of a theoretical debate with rigor, commitment, and expertise.”

Renaissance Quarterly

”Kahn makes a decisive case for the role of art in the discussion of political value while assuming from her reader an investment in the project of a secular liberal culture. . . . The Future of Illusion does excellent work in multiple fields.”

Renaissance and Reformation

 “As we, in late modernity, grapple with our own theological-political predicament, Victoria Kahn fearlessly interrogates early twentieth-century engagements with many of the early-modern authors who gave the religion-politics dilemma its definitive form. Kahn’s interpretive moves and conclusions are always enlightening and often exciting. The Future of Illusion is a timely, erudite, and well-argued book that will be an important intervention into contemporary debates over political theology.”

John P. McCormick, University of Chicago

The Future of Illusion provides recent discussions of the postsecular with a much-needed alternative set of questions about how we are to think about the realm of human agency. Given the massive attention that a religiously charged ‘values politics’ has gotten and the attacks on and defunding of the (secular) humanities that abound, The Future of Illusion is a timely intervention. Its defense of the power of a purely secular conception of culture makes it an important book.”

Jane O. Newman, University of California, Irvine

“In The Future of an Illusion, Victoria Kahn revisits the early twentieth century’s political-theological crisis, revealing the surprising preoccupation of both Jewish and Christian intellectuals with the texts of the European Renaissance and with the task of poesis, or poetic making. Poetics—the conscious, imaginative shaping of our world—is, Kahn argues, the concept crucially missing from contemporary arguments that posit religion as the irreducible ‘real’ of secular political life. Readings ranging from Carl Schmitt to Sigmund Freud, Shakespeare to Spinoza, show us how belief and politics are both imaginative arts that can be used to liberate or oppress. This is a bracing, profound, and timely book, which will have a widespread and transformative effect on the current debate over the place of religion in the public sphere.”

Lorna Hutson, University of St Andrews

Table of Contents

1 Hamlet or Hecuba: Carl Schmitt’s Decision
2 Sacred Kingship and Political Fiction: Ernst Kantorowicz, Carl Schmitt, Ernst Cassirer, and Walter Benjamin
3 Machiavelli and Modernity: Leo Strauss, Carl Schmitt, and Ernst Cassirer
4 Spinoza and Liberal Culture: Leo Strauss, Carl Schmitt, and Hannah Arendt
5 Freud’s Spinoza/Freud’s Illusions

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