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Carl Schmitt’s Land & Sea, Part 9


Caspar David Friedrich, "The Sea of Ice," 1823–1824

2,401 words

Part 9 of 9

Translated by Simona Draghici, revised by Greg Johnson


It was the age of the total and uncontested supremacy of England that began after Waterloo, which had witnes­sed the undoing of Napoleon at the end of a war-like adventure that had lasted twenty years. It went on through most of the nineteenth century, but reached its zenith in mid-century, that is to say, with the Paris Conference of 1856 that put an end to the Crimean War. The free-trade era coincided with the free expansion of England’s industrial and economic superiority. The free­dom of the sea and that of world trade merged into the concept of freedom, the carrier and guardian of which could be only England. It was also during that period that the universal admiration and emulation of the En­glish model reached their peak.

An internal mutation had affected the elemental being of the great leviathan. It should have passed unnoticed in those times, but it was just the opposite that happened. Shortly after the spectacular surge of the world economy commenced, a positivistic age, blinded by the rapid accumulation of wealth, started to think that the latter would keep growing indefinitely, leading to a millennial paradise on earth.

The change that affected the nature of the leviathan was, however, the conse­quence of the industrial revolution. It had begun in England, in the eighteenth century: the first blast furnace in 1735, cast iron in 1740, the steam engine in 1768, the spinning mill in 1770, and the mechanical loom in 1786. All saw the light of day in Britain. They are only a few examples that show clearly the magnitude of the advantage that England had over all the other nations. The steam­ship and the railway made their appearance in the nine­teenth century. In those matters, too, England had the edge. Simultaneously, the great naval power became the great engineering power, and its world supremacy seemed assured.

We have seen earlier what a big leap she had taken in her maritime existence, in just a few years, between the galley battle at Lepanto in 1571 and the destruction of the Spanish Armada in the Channel in 1588. As important a step lay between the Crimean War, which opposed England, France, and Sardinia to Russia, between 1854 and 1856, and the American Civil War of 1861–1863, in which the industrial North defeated the agrarian South. Whereas the Crimean war was still waged with sailing ships, the American Civil War saw the advent of the armored steamship. The latter marks the begin­ning of the modern, industrial and economic wars.

Under all aspects, England was still in the lead, and managed to maintain its comfortable advantage until the end of the nineteenth century, or almost. This latter step, though, also marked a new stage in the relationship between the two elements, land and sea.

A fish until then, the leviathan was turning into a machine. It was in fact an extraordinary transformation. The machine affected the relationship between man and the sea. The type of daredevil that had made the great­ness of sea power before lost his former significance. The intrepid performance of seamen in their sailing ships, the high art of navigation, the solid training and strict selection of a particular human type fit for it, all that was dissolved in the modern, hazard­ free, and technicized maritime traffic. Undoubtedly, the sea remained a great molder of men, but the lasting im­pact that had transformed a nation of sheep-breeders into pirates gradually weakened, only to end by disap­pearing altogether.

Machinery was interposed between the sea element and human life. A domination of the seas erected on the basis of the engineering industry is ob­viously something other than a sea power built up on a day-by-day, direct, and ruthless struggle with the ele­ment. A sailing ship that is served only by muscle-power, on the one hand, and a vessel put in motion by steam-­propelled wheels, on the other, represent two different attitudes towards the sea element. The industrial revo­lution has transformed the children of the sea into machine-builders and servants of machines.

Everybody felt the change. Some shed tears over the end of the old, heroic age and took refuge in the ro­manticism of tales about pirates. Others ap­plauded technological progress and hurled themselves into the utopias of man-made paradise. In all ob­jectivity, it must be admitted that at the time, the genuinely mari­time existence that had been the secret of the British world power suffered a blow at its very core. Nonetheless, it passed unnoticed by the people of the nineteenth century. Fish or machine, the leviathan was gaining in strength and power on every occasion, and its realm seemed eternal.


At the turn of the century, the American Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan made a remarkable attempt to extend the original circumstances of the English conquest of the seas into the era of the machine. Mahan was no mean student of the influence of sea power in history. That is also the title of his main work [The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1805 [2]], that was later translated into German. As such, it was highly appreciated by the German navy, and particularly by its founder, Admi­ral Tirpitz.

In one of his articles of July 1894, Mahan wrote about the possibility of England’s reunification with the United States of America. In his opinion, the most fundamental reason for such a reunification was not the com­munity of race, language, or culture. Undoubtedly, he did not underestimate those factors, which were often placed in the forefront by other authors. Nonetheless, they appeared to him mere welcome accessories.

What counted, though, was to maintain Anglo-Saxon supremacy over the world seas, attainable in virtue of insularity and through the union of the two powers. In the evolving modern world, England had grown too small. She was no longer an island in the sense she had been before. On the other hand, the United States was the island per­fectly adapted to the times. The expanse of the country had, in Mahan’s opinion, prevented the realization of that fact. Nonetheless, it corresponded to the ample dimensions of our age. The insularity of the United States would make it possible to maintain and develop British maritime domination on an extended basis. America was the larger island, through which the British mastery of the seas would be perpetuated as an Anglo-American maritime dominion of the world on a larger scale.

Whereas a politician like Disraeli wanted to trans­fer the British world empire to Asia, the American ad­miral was thinking of transplanting it to America. All that was consonant with the natural direction of nineteenth century thinking in the mind of an Anglo-American navy man. The admiral felt the change in his times, as he was witnessing the fantastic pertur­bation of standards and criteria, which was the unavoid­able consequence of industrial development.

What he did not see, though, was that industrial transforma­tion was affecting the very core of the matter: the el­emental relationship between man and the sea. That is also the reason why Mahan could not find his way out of the old schemes. His larger island was intended to preserve an obsolete, traditional heritage in a radical­ly new context. As for the old island, grown too small, and the whole complex of its naval and world power: they were to be hooked to the new island and hauled as by a gigantic trawler.

No matter how imposing Mahan’s personality was, no matter how impressive his model of a bigger island, his theory did not reach the elemental essence of a new spatial order. His theory had not been prompted by the spirit of the old seamen, but rather by the conservative need of geo­political security. It 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.


Industrial development and the new technology did not come to a halt in the nineteenth century. They did not linger at the level of the steamship and the rail­way. The world was changing much faster than could be imagined, even by the most machine-worshipping of prophets. The age of electronics and electrodynamics made its entrance. Electric power, the airplane, radio, all introduced such confusion into the existing notions of space that it could easily be regarded as evidence of a new stage in the first spatial revolution on the planet, or even of the beginnings of a second spatial revolution.

In a few years, between 1890 and 1914, one of the countries of continental Europe, Germany, caught up with England and even managed to surpass her in certain sectors such as machine-building, ship-building, and steam-engines. Krupp had surpassed English cannon production as early as 1868. The World War of 1914 would be waged under this new sign. Undoubtedly, nations and governments entered the war under the impression that they were fighting another of the conventional wars of the nineteenth century. They were unaware of the times, portentous of a spatial revolution.

In the highly industrialized Germany of the day, English notions and the English constitutional ideals were held in high esteem and deemed classical. On the other hand, Tsarist Russia, an immense agrarian country entered the First World War without having a single plant that could manufacture internal combustion engines within her borders. In fact, the step from the steamship to the modern war cruiser was no smaller than that from the galley to the sailing ship. Once more, the relationship between man and the sea element was altered completely.

The invention of the airplane marked the conquest of the third element, after those of land and sea. Man was lifting himself high above the plains and the waves and in the process acquired a new means of transportation, as well as a new weapon. Standards and criteria underwent further changes. Hence man’s potentialities to dom­inate nature and his fellow man were given the widest scope.

It is easy to understand why the air force was called the “space weapon.” The spatial revolution which it is carrying out is especially direct, forceful, and obvious. Aware as one is that airplanes crisscross the air space above seas and continents, and the waves broadcast by transmitters in every country cross the atmosphere and circle the globe in a matter of seconds, one is tempted to conclude that man has conquered not only a third dimension, but also the third element, air, the new elemental space of human exis­tence. To the two mythical creatures, leviathan and behemoth, a third would be added, quite likely in the shape of a giant bird.

Notwithstanding, caution is recom­mended when making such affirmations, the implications of which are not all at the tips of our fingers. As a matter of fact, if one thinks of the technology neces­sary for human prowess to manifest itself in the air space and of the engines that propel the flying for­tresses, it seems that the new element of human activity is fire.

For the time being, we set aside the question of the two elements that are to be added to earth and water. They give occasion to ruminations in which serious thinking is too tightly bound to speculation that par­takes of pure fantasy and so leaves too much to the imagination. According to an ancient belief, the whole history of mankind is but a voyage through the four elements. Nevertheless, if the subject matter is ap­proached with all the necessary reservations, two ob­jective findings become evident and certain.

The first is related to the transformation of the notion of space that marks the new stage in the spatial revolution. This transformation is no less profound than that which occurred in the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries. At that time, man believed that the world found itself in an empty space. Nowadays, space is no longer mere depth, void of contents that can be reflected upon. Space has become the field of man’s energy, activity, and creativity. A manner of thinking, which was impossible in previous times, is now becoming possible. A contempo­rary German philosopher has defined it as follows: it is not the world that is in space, but rather it is the space that is in the world.

Our second finding is linked to the elemental rela­tion between land and sea. Nowadays, the sea is no longer the element which it was during the age of the whale hunters and privateers. Modern transportation and tele­communication technologies have transformed the rela­tionship into space in the present sense of the word. 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. If that is true, the distinction land/sea, on which the relation between the dominion of the oceans and world supremacy rested until recently, becomes redundant. As obsolete as the circumstances that favored the British conquest of the seas and hence the nomos that the Earth has known until now.

Relentlessly the new nomos installs itself upon the ruins of the old. It is demanded by man’s new relations with the elements, the old and the new, by the change in the standards and criteria of human existence. Many people will see in it only death and destruction. Others believe that they are experiencing the end of the world. In reality we only live through the end of the tradi­tional relationship between land and sea. But the fear of the new is often as strong as the fear of the void, and as strong when the new is overcoming the void.

That explains why many people see but absurd chaos there where a new meaning seeks to impress itself. Indeed, the old nomos is fading away, dragging the whole system of re­dundant standards, norms, and traditions with it in its fall. On the other hand, there is nothing to show that what is to come will perforce be nothing but chaos or nothingness, inimical to any nomos. The fiercest confrontation between old and new forces may well generate just standards and criteria and forge new dimensions loaded with meaning.

Here, too, are gods that rule.
Ample are their bounds.