Max Weber's concept of charisma is notorious both in social theory and in cultural analysis. This article elaborates some of the complex and sometimes contradictory implications of Weber's term, especially its political, theological, and aesthetical aspects. His term must be seen as a possible answer to the questions raised by the “empty place of power” in modernity (Claude Lefort) after the demise of the political theology of monarchy. Weber's theory of charisma can be read as a synthesis of two discourses, which both react to the downfall of the king. On the one hand, Weber takes up some of the ideas revolving around the dynamics of crowd behavior and the role of the “leader” elaborated by crowd psychology; on the other, he is influenced by the nineteenth century's philosophy of the “great man” as a crucial factor of historical and political agency. Outlining some of the inherent tensions in Weber's theory of charisma, this article points to the essentially aesthetic aspects of charisma. As a form of leadership, charisma not only fundamentally depends on the imaginations and affects that the charismatic leader can raise in the hearts and minds of his followers; it also depends on the literary or historical narratives that create a basis for that leader's emergence and the crowd's appreciation of him. Thus charisma must be analyzed as an aesthetic phenomenon, as a theatrical role to be performed, and as a literary narrative. The article outlines some of the conceptual tools for this kind of analysis that are offered by the contributions to this special issue of the journal.

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