#Reviewing Political Realism in Apocalyptic Times

Political Realism in Apocalyptic Times. Alison McQueen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

We seem to be living in apocalyptic times. Since the September 11 attacks in 2001, apocalyptic language and visions of worldly destruction have proliferated in American political culture and news media and around the world. George W. Bush’s crusading Global War on Terror rhetoric employed frequent allusions to God’s will and the Last Judgment. The massive American bombardment and invasion of Iraq—accompanied by oil fires, looting, and destruction—produced a wealth of apocalyptic imagery. The ensuing sectarian conflict during the Iraq War fueled horrific killings, market bombings, and massacres. The brutality of the Syrian Civil War has prompted millions of Syrians to flee as refugees from a war-torn and devastated landscape. Militants have claimed to be acting to establish an Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in preparation for the end times. Civil warfare and religious violence in Nigeria, Congo, Libya, Sudan, Somalia, Pakistan, Myanmar, Indonesia, and other nations is often described in apocalyptic terms. Meanwhile, climate scientists warn of the potentially devastating effects of global warming, leading many journalists to offer apocalyptic predictions of global disaster.

Within this context, Alison McQueen’s Political Realism in Apocalyptic Times offers a refreshing approach to religion in political theory. The book builds on the work of political scientists and political theorists over the past two decades to insert religion into international relations studies.[1] Rather than dismissing apocalyptic language or confining it to political idealism, McQueen finds apocalyptic language in texts of political theory normally associated with political realism, leading her to consider these (purportedly realist) political theorists’ works as responses to apocalypticism. She explains that “...what I in fact found was a history of more uneasy and sustained realist encounters with the apocalypse.”[2]

Political Realism in Apocalyptic Times defines apocalypticism as “a worldview or ‘symbolic universe.’”[3] McQueen emphasizes that “the apocalyptic worldview took shape gradually in response to the political crises that plagued ancient Palestine...The origins of the apocalyptic worldview do not lie ‘outside’ of politics but are instead inescapably political.”[4] As a result, McQueen rightly insists that scholars studying political history, political theory, and political science should investigate apocalyptic thought. She explains that “the apocalyptic worldview is a political theodicy—an attempt to understand the oppression, dispersion, and loss of sovereignty that plagued the Israelites without delegitimizing the authority of God.”[5] The book thus aims to analyze apocalyptic worldviews, in relationship to the related literary genre of apocalypse, which focuses on visionary experience and often establishes a narrative of world development.

The book utilizes the concept of an apocalyptic imaginary to frame its analysis of political theories. McQueen adopts Charles Taylor’s definition of a “social imaginary” as a broadly shared collective understanding of social situations based on shared imagery.[6] McQueen finds inspiration in Taylor’s theory, which “distinguishes between canonical texts and official doctrines, on one hand, and social imaginaries, on the other.”[7] The book might also have employed criticisms of Taylor’s theory, as well as other interdisciplinary approaches to imaginaries that draw on the theoretical work of Jacques Lacan and Louis Althusser.[8]

To analyze apocalyptic imaginaries, Alison McQueen adopts a somewhat idiosyncratic selection of political theorists across five centuries: Niccolò Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes, and Hans Morgenthau. McQueen focuses on these three political theorists because they “are all defining members of the realist tradition. They all wrote during times when powerful political, social, and religious actors were announcing the imminent end of the world.”[9] McQueen examines the apocalyptic circumstances in which these authors wrote before considering their responses to apocalypticism.[10] Throughout the book, McQueen explores various and competing interpretations of the three political theorists in lengthy reflective footnotes that engage directly with other scholars. The selection of these political theorists effectively limits the book to a Eurocentric approach to political theory, shaped by a conception of Western thought that is presented as fundamentally Judeo-Christian in nature.

An initial chapter on “Understanding the Apocalypse” examines apocalyptic texts in the Judeo-Christian tradition—focusing on the book of Daniel, the book of Revelation, Paul’s letters, and Augustine’s City of God as “political works written in particular contexts” and imagining a future world.[11] McQueen explains that “Revelation and Daniel offer their audiences not only the promise of a world without persecution but also a seductive vision of a world without politics.”[12] Apocalyptic texts adopt visions of sacred space and emplot narrative time: “Both Daniel and Revelation suggest that God’s sovereignty is, at least in part, sovereignty over history.”[13] Paul’s letters also reveal an apocalyptic framing: “As a zealous convert to the teachings of Jesus, Paul’s despair about human nature sits alongside a radical hope for the Second Coming (the parousia).”[14] Augustine wrote in an apocalyptic context following the Visigothic sack of Rome in 410 CE. McQueen emphasizes that “Augustine affirms the general outline of the apocalypse given in Revelation, including the persecution of believers, the return of Christ, the resurrection of the dead, and the Day of Judgment.”[15] Surprisingly, the book does not develop an analysis of the Creation, the great flood, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the plagues on Egypt, the destruction of the Temple, and other biblical narratives of violent destruction and creation. Prophecies of Godly punishments and “natural” disasters by Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Jonah, and other prophets are largely absent in this analysis.

Niccolò Machiavelli responded to the “Savonarolan moment” in Florentine history (1490-1498), when Girolamo Savonarola’s prophetic preaching and apocalyptic language radically reshaped civic society and then overturned the republican government. McQueen’s analysis relies heavily on Konrad Eisenbichler’s translation of Savonarola’s works and on excellent historical studies by John M. Najemy, John P. McCormick, Donald Weinstein, Richard C. Trexler, and John G.A. Pocock.[16] Despite Savonarola’s powerful apocalyptic message and attempt to found a theocratic state, Machiavelli did not simply reject his political program. Machiavelli’s The Prince compares Savonarola to Moses, and McQueen argues “Machiavelli treats Savonarola as a refounder of a state, a role that he holds in the highest regard.”[17]

McQueen offers an extended analysis of the last chapter of The Prince, arguing “the apocalyptic solution for which Machiavelli pleaded at the end of The Prince offered to give suffering a meaning and an end, transform humanity, and transcend the political condition.”[18] But she also considers a possible reading of Machiavelli’s The Prince as a satire and ultimately describes the chapter as a “flirtation with apocalypse.”[19] McQueen sees a shift in Machiavelli’s response to apocalypticism in his later work, Discourses on Livy, which emphasized a tragic sense of decline and a rejection of apocalyptic thinking. McQueen interprets Machiavelli’s shifting responses to apocalypticism in relation to his correspondence with Francesco Vettori and Francesco Guicciardini.

Thomas Hobbes developed a scriptural project in Leviathan in response to an early modern English apocalyptic imaginary. The English apocalyptic imaginary was initially produced by John Bale, John Foxe, and other Marian exiles, and then shaped by the English translation of the Genevan Bible, which became particularly influential in apocalyptic thought in the British Isles.[20] The English Civil War provided a new context for English apocalyptic thought, as shown by the debate between Presbyterian preacher Stephen Marshall and royalist chaplain Edward Symmons. The book briefly mentions apocalyptic pamphlets, but does not develop an extended analysis of the apocalyptic print culture in seventeenth-century England.[21] Curiously, McQueen does not consider the role that Hobbes’s experience of the Fronde Civil War (1648-1652) in France may have had in shaping his responses to apocalypticism.

Hobbes limited the scope of action for the Antichrist and, in so doing, undermined the subversive potential for apocalyptic prophecies.[22] According to McQueen, Hobbes aimed to moderate the prospects of hell and eternal torment, attempting to lessen Christian fears of the Last Judgment. Hobbes deflates apocalyptic thought, replacing it with “a captivating vision of a secular apocalypse in which the terror of the state of nature is the narrative prelude an enduring commonwealth.”[23] McQueen stresses that “Hobbes redirects the stunning visual and rhetorical resources of apocalypticism to secure belief in and obedience to the Leviathan state.”[24] McQueen offers an iconographical reading of the famous frontispiece of Hobbes’s Leviathan as exhibiting Christic features that affirm his salvational role in establishing an earthly kingdom.[25] This enticing analysis points to the potential for a more extended consideration of the intersections between apocalyptic language and imagery through iconotexts and intertextuality.[26]

Hans Morgenthau in 1963 (Wikimedia)

Hans Morgenthau responded to apocalyptic imagery surrounding the Second World War, the Holocaust, and the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. McQueen surveys diverse strains of mid-twentieth-century apocalyptic thought, emphasizing that “Morgenthau’s postwar work took shape in the context of this apocalyptic imaginary.”[27] Morgenthau viewed the competing ideologies of capitalism, fascism, and communism as “political religions.”[28] McQueen focuses particularly on Morgenthau’s 1961 essay, “Death in the Nuclear Age,” which considers the prospect of global nuclear annihilation. Nuclear proliferation and the development of hydrogen bombs created a terrifying situation that called for a transformation of international politics. In response to the threat of nuclear annihilation, Morgenthau’s “obvious solution to this problem is a world state that can extract loyalty from humanity, provide the ‘citizens’ of the world with some measure of justice, and establish a ‘monopoly of organized violence.’”[29]

Alison McQueen aligns herself with realists within the discipline of political theory. She notes that “this book began with a concern about the prevalence of apocalyptic rhetoric in post-9/11 political discourse,” and that she discovered a similar concern among political realists who signed an op-ed in the New York Times in 2002, criticizing the George W. Bush administration’s case for invading Iraq.[30] McQueen defines political realism by its vision of the distinctive nature of politics, which is considered conflictual, necessitating an emphasis on order and stability, and leading to a rejection of utopian thinking.[31] McQueen considers apocalypticism as a variety of utopian thought, so “we might expect that political realists would limit themselves to merely opposing or dismissing apocalyptic expectations.”[32]

Despite its realist theoretical positioning, Political Realism in Apocalyptic Times articulates a humanistic approach to apocalyptic thought. McQueen’s analysis blends approaches from the fields of political history, history of ideas, political theory, and international relations. She builds historical contextualization of religion and political thought, especially in the Machiavelli chapter, by engaging with the rich historiography on Machiavelli and early modern Florentine political history. The book might have employed the methods of Begriffsgeschichte (history of concepts) to push the analysis of apocalyptic imaginaries even further.[33]

Despite its realist theoretical positioning, Political Realism in Apocalyptic Times articulates a humanistic approach to apocalyptic thought.

Religious history could support McQueen’s attempt to place religion at the center of the history of political theory. The author identifies two basic responses to apocalypticism by political theorists: outright rejection or redirection.[34] Later, she discusses the risks posed by apocalyptic imaginary: active embrace of apocalypticism, religious asceticism, and resigned fatalism.[35] Perhaps we might be able to identify additional strategies of thinking with apocalypses? The analysis could benefit from more attention to the specificity of Machiavelli’s, Hobbes’, and Morgenthau’s religious or confessional identifications and positioning within Latin Christianity, Protestantism, Catholicism, or Judaism. I wonder about the place of spirituality, seeking, doubt, conversion, skepticism, and unbelief in the political theorists’ responses to apocalyptic narratives?

Bringing in comparative religious studies might have allowed more of a global approach, examining connections with Islamic, Judaic, and other religious worldviews that may have shaped the apocalyptic imaginaries under consideration. The book might have drawn more on the outpouring of historical examinations of apocalypticism around the turn of the millennium in 2000.[36] McQueen could have positioned the book more directly in relationship to the intellectual responses to the September 11 attacks by anthropologists, historians, political scientists, sociologists, and religious studies scholars.[37] Recent interdisciplinary scholarly literature on religious violence and sectarian violence could also provide a framework for considering apocalyptic thought comparatively.[38]


McQueen’s close attention to apocalyptic imaginaries—and to religion in international relations—fundamentally challenges the categories of political realism and political idealism within the history of political theory. Machiavelli offers a strange apocalyptic vision in his enigmatic work, The Prince. McQueen argues the final chapter “may represent an authentic if desperate moment of hope: hope that Italy’s degradation holds the chance for a rebirth of ancient freedom and valor under a prophetic leader who knows how to grasp the potential of his moment.”[39] McQueen interprets Leviathan as a pedagogic text that assumes that “only egoistic, self-interested men who fear violent death will be fit to obey their sovereign. Hobbes does not assume the existence of such men. He aims to create them.”[40] Troubled by the risk of nuclear annihilation, Morgenthau “envisions the radical reform of human nature. No longer would humans be driven by our pursuit of power or our will to dominate. In the shadow of nuclear apocalypse, self-preservation would become our guiding motivation and the basis for a project of permanent peace.”[41] The apocalyptic visions and utopian projects of these political theorists make it difficult to continue to consider them through the conventional frameworks of international relations theory.

Brian Sandberg is a Professor of History at Northern Illinois University who works on religion, violence, and political culture during the European Wars of Religion. He is the author of  Warrior Pursuits: Noble Culture and Civil Conflict in Early Modern France, War and Conflict in the Early Modern World, 1500-1700, and a number of articles and essays.

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Header Image: “The Last Judgment “ painted by Michelangelo (Wikimedia)


[1] Daniel Philpott, “The Religious Roots of Modern International Relations.” World Politics 52: 2 (January 2000): 206-245; Daniel Philpott, Revolutions in Sovereignty: How Ideas Shaped Modern International Relations (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001); Philip S. Gorski, The Disciplinary Revolution: Calvinism and the Rise of the State in Early Modern Europe (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2003).

[2] Alison McQueen, Political Realism in Apocalyptic Times (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 8.

[3] Ibid., 24.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 26.

[6] Charles Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004).

[7] Ibid., 53.

[8] José Casanova, ed., Secular Imaginaries, special issue, International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society 21 (December 2008); Stuart Hall and Paul du Gay, eds., Questions of Cultural Identity (London: Sage, 1996); Homi K. Bahba, The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 1994); Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, rev. ed. (London: Verso, 1991).

[9] McQueen, Political Realism, 8.

[10] Ibid., 9.

[11] Ibid., 22-23.

[12] Ibid., 42.

[13] Ibid., 41.

[14] Ibid., 45.

[15] Ibid., 50.

[16] Girolamo Savonarola, A Guide to Righteous Living and Other Works, trans. Konrad Eisenbichler (Toronto: Center for Reformation and Renaissance Studies, 2003).

[17] McQueen, Political Realism, 83.

[18] Ibid., 97.

[19] Ibid., 79-96.

[20] Ibid., 109-110.

[21] Ibid., 116-117.

[22] Ibid., 128.

[23] Ibid., 133.

[24] Ibid., 133.

[25] Ibid., 139-144.

[26] “Intertextuality” refers to the intertwined relationships between texts through allusion, evocation, reference, citation, quotation, and other literary techniques. The concept of “iconotexts” relates to convergences of images and texts, such as images that contain embedded texts or texts that employ visual features. On “iconotexts”, see: Peter Wagner, Reading Iconotexts: From Swift to the French Revolution (London: Reaktion Books, 1995); Alain Montandon, ed., Iconotextes (Paris: CRCD-Ophrys, 1990).

[27] McQueen, Political Realism, 132.

[28] Ibid., 162.

[29] Ibid., 178.

[30] Ibid., 6.

[31] Ibid., 10-12.

[32] Ibid., 12.

[33] Alf Lüdtke, “History of Concepts, New Edition: Suitable for a Better Understanding of Modern Times?” Contributions to the History of Concepts 7, no. 2 (2012): 111-17; Reinhart Koselleck, The Practice of Conceptual History: Timing History, Spacing Concepts, trans. Todd Samuel Presner (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002).

[34] McQueen, Political Realism, 13-14.

[35] Ibid., 204.

[36] Andrew Cunningham and Ole Peter Grell, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Religion, War, Famine and Death in Reformation Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999); Frederic J. Baumgartner, Longing for the End: A History of Millennialism in Western Civilization (New York, NY: Palgrave, 1999); Eugen Weber, Apocalypses: Prophesies, Cults, and Millennial Beliefs through the Ages (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999).

[37] W.J.T. Mitchell, Cloning Terror: The War of Images, 9/11 to the Present (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2011); Bruce Lincoln, Holy Terrors: Thinking about Religion after September 11 (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2003); Daniel Philpott, “The Challenge of September 11 to Secularism in International Relations,”  World Politics 55: 1 (2002): 66-95.

[38] Mark Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence, 4th ed. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2017) [originally published in 2000]; Monica Duffy Toft, Daniel Philpott, and Timothy Samuel Shah, God’s Century: Resurgent Religion and Global Politics (New York: W.W. Norton, 2011); R. Scott Appleby, The Ambivalence of the Sacred: Religion, Violence, and Reconciliation (New York, NY: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000).

[39] McQueen, Political Realism, 91.

[40] Ibid., 145.

[41] Ibid., 189-190.