Where ought the life of the mind lead us?
Mark Lilla is a writer whose work is always interesting and yet increasingly frustrating. The topics he chooses to engage are unerringly the right ones, but his writing now seems hasty. The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction follows upon his The Reckless Mind and, one can presume from this effort, will be followed by The Scuttled Mind or some such. He has hit on a formula and is working it as best he can. This is a great shame, given how original and insightful he can be when honest with his readers and himself.
The subject of this book is reactionary politics and the intellectuals who inspire them. To this end Lilla has chapters devoted to Franz Rosenzweig, Eric Voegelin, and Leo Strauss. Other chapters deal at length with St. Paul, Alain Badiou, Alasdair MacIntyre, the historian Brad Gregory, Miguel de Cervantes, and the contemporary French authors Eric Zemmour and Michel Houellebecq. It is an impressive list, and there are not many who could write confidently and authoritatively about all of them. In this instance, unfortunately, Lilla’s confidence is misplaced and his authority undermined.
One problem is that he forces previously published pieces to fit a title or topic for which they are not suited. For instance, each of the chapters on Rosenzweig, Voegelin, and Strauss clearly state that these are not reactionary thinkers. So Lilla must add awkwardly that their followers are reactionaries . . . or some of the followers are . . . or some of the followers might be. Strauss’s students, for instance, have produced “a lot of cloying scholarship about the American founding, the glories of statesmanship, the burden of prudence, and the need for civic virtue.” Tendentious comments like that are more than unfortunate because they lead the reader to distrust a guide who is in many other ways very reliable. Taken on their own and not dragged under a common theme, his readings of these authors are largely sound and his prose, as any of his readers can attest, rises to elegance. This only adds to the disappointment.
The introductory comments that try to throw a lasso around the book’s structure are among the most frustrating. Right after assuring us that there is a real distinction between conservatives and reactionaries, the author dismisses National Review as a reactionary rag—yes, the magazine that expelled the John Birchers from the conservative movement and had an editorial policy favoring the legalization of marijuana before most leftwing publications did.
Apparently—and if it’s any consolation—the Left is also the home of reactionaries, including “apocalyptic deep ecologists, antiglobalists, and antigrowth activists.” Anyone who criticizes the direction of contemporary liberalism (unless the criticism is that it is not proceeding fast enough) draws the “r” word. But even this is not quite right. In a beautiful takedown of superannuated hippies and their epigones, he sees on the Left “a paradoxical form of historical nostalgia, a nostalgia for ‘the future.’” I shall cherish that line. But is everyone now a reactionary?
According to Lilla, reactionaries are obsessed with history’s wrong turn, with how society abandoned paradise: “The sufferer believes that a discrete Golden Age existed and that he possesses esoteric knowledge of why it ended.” Although reactionaries, he tells us, do not necessarily wish to return to that Golden Age—or at least they do not know how we could if we wanted to—they are left alienated from the contemporary world.
Moreover, “The betrayal of elites is the linchpin of every reactionary story.” At the risk of psychologizing, the charge could easily be thrown back at the author. Betrayal is certainly the theme of his book, far more than the reactionary mind. Each of the authors he considers has somehow turned on the unproblematic (in his view) liberalism or, properly, Progressivism that is his lodestar.
If we take the first of Lilla’s three main subjects, the interwar German Jewish author Franz Rosenzweig, the betrayal seems to be that Rosenzweig could not simply accept the modern world as it was coming to be. Instead his “nostalgia turns the Jewish past into a transcendental ideal rather than a state to be recovered by moving back in time.” The passage reveals two things. First, Rosenzweig was no reactionary in any political sense of the term. Second, his real crime was seeking transcendence rather than immanence, seeking something beyond the world rather than being happy in it.
Having grasped the essence of the criticism, we can more easily see why Lilla would so dislike Voegelin. He dismisses without argument the claim that the 20th century, in its effort to immanentize the eschaton or create a paradise on earth, replaced religion with the totalitarian ideologies of fascism and communism. Lilla does not like the fact that Voegelin, an Austrian who fled the Nazis, was embraced by American conservatives. For this reason he takes evident pleasure in the fact that those same conservatives were disappointed that Voegelin’s final work did not provide “more ammunition for their battle against modern progressivism.”
The point of his comment about the “cloying scholarship” of Strauss’s students becomes clear in light of his disdain for Voegelin’s admirers. His indictment of Strauss’s students is that they are critics of Progressivism. While that critique is not exclusively attributable to Strauss, it is certainly part of his legacy of recovering Platonic political philosophy. He sought a return to Plato, not for the politics of ancient Athens, but for an escape from the deadening hand of historicism. Lilla is actually quite good on this, as he is at explaining Rosenzweig and Voegelin. Yet in each case he is stung by their betrayal.
As it turns out, then, a “reactionary” is anyone not on board with Progressivism. This allows Lilla a great deal of scope for the imagination. It also allows him to devote half a book on “political reaction” to three authors whom he admits did not have reactionary political programs.
In a subsequent chapter, he parodies critics of the world that Progressivism has given us, even imagining St. Thomas’ Summa Theologiae “beckoning on the Road Not Taken,” hovering just out of the reach of those benighted critics. The road not taken is a gentle form of reaction especially attractive to Catholics, such as Etienne Gilson and MacIntyre. Its most recent form is to be found in Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation (2012), “a sly crypto-Catholic travel brochure for the Road Not Taken.” This description comes from Lilla rather than the book’s publisher, that notorious source of ultramontanism, Harvard University Press.
In the next chapter, one of the better, he takes apart the French Maoist Alain Badiou for his peculiar attraction to the peculiarly interpreted St. Paul. This is the Lilla we would like to see more often, the one who is not trying to shoehorn previously published essays into an argument they do not fit. But that Mark Lilla disappears again for the final two chapters, the first of which starts as a reconstruction of the terrorist attacks of January 2015 on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris, yet quickly turns to a denunciation of two French authors “with a theory of history that condemned what everyone else considered to be modern progress.”
These two, Zemmour the journalist and Houellebecq the novelist, confirm that “the power of historical myths to motivate political action has not diminished in our time.” Of course both would be offended at being compared to a foreigner, but Zemmour is a writer in the style of Pat Buchanan. He is also a combination of a social conservative and statist, in a manner only a Frenchman could pull off. Not surprisingly, Lilla describes Zemmour’s book (The French Suicide, 2014) as “unhinged.” Why? Zemmour thinks France is committing suicide by pursuing its failed economic policy of neoliberalism or, more frankly, by doing whatever Germany tells it to do, and by allowing the displacement of its native population with Muslim immigrants.
Houellebecq’s latest novel, Submission (which Joseph Bottum reviewed for Law and Liberty), is a much less aggressive but perhaps more powerful account of the same cultural complaint. As Lilla brilliantly puts it, the novel is about a man “slouching towards Mecca.” There may be no better contemporary account of the emptiness of secular liberalism when the sense of a project, of progress, is lost. Lilla, however, again sees betrayal: “It serves as a device to express a recurring European worry that the single-minded pursuit of freedom—freedom from tradition and authority, freedom to pursue one’s own ends—must inevitably lead to disaster.” That there might actually be something to worry about never seems to cross his mind.
He ends the book with a brief meditation on the character of Don Quixote, the paradigmatic reactionary who spends his declining years living as if the old world of chivalry had not passed away. Lilla’s reading of Cervantes has a light touch, but the application of it to the present is heavy-handed. The man of La Mancha merely allows Lilla to turn to Islam, a topic it seems he wanted to address, only not in the manner of Zemmour or Houellebecq. Instead of Muslim immigrants or a particular Muslim state, he devotes a few brief pages to the Muslim world where “belief in a lost Golden Age is most potent and consequential today.”
How could a book on the reactionary mind wait for the last three pages to address a movement with adherents (even if a small minority of Muslims) in all parts of the world, a movement that explicitly wishes to return to political practices from the 7th century? A simple answer would be to point out that Zemmour and Houellebecq require police protection, something none of us would wish. No one can write about Islam today without contemplating this possibility. But the more fitting answer is that radical Islam just doesn’t happen to be Lilla’s target.
Radical Islam may oppose Progressivism in practice, as a brick opposes a window, but its adherents are not writing critiques of Progressivism as a theory. All of the other authors covered in the book are Progressivism’s critics from within Progressive societies. The historical accounts of Rosenzweig and Voegelin, the anti-historicist account of Strauss, the “Road Not Taken” Catholicism, and the despair of Zemmour and Houellebecq—all would deny the Progressive’s favorite argument, namely, that his opponent is on the wrong side of history. They are traitors.
Perhaps we can expect someday from this prolific author’s pen the book he seems to want to write, one that openly defends Progressive politics from its critics. Instead, he has written a book that smears the reputations of some of the better theological and philosophical minds of the 20th century by associating them with a political movement, “political reaction,” that he is at least honest enough to admit they never endorsed.
Yet honesty demands more. Mark Lilla also associates these same authors, and others, with radical Islamist movements that would, and in at least two cases do, seek their deaths. The Shipwrecked Mind is premised on holding authors to account for how their works are understood and used. He should hold himself to the same standard.