Two days later, the 20th century came to a close. Hitler, Stalin and other ghosts gave way to Osama bin Laden and, eventually, the Islamic State. World wars and cold ones gave way to drone wars and GWOTs. Reckless minds grew even more so.
Now, Lilla, a professor of humanities at Columbia University, has produced a new work that is inseparable from the first — “The Shipwrecked Mind” can be read as a detour through the tributaries of the first volume — yet by focusing on the rise of reactionary thinkers and movements, it feels more timely than its predecessor. Lilla’s publisher, New York Review Books, has reissued “The Reckless Mind” as well, with a new afterword as grafting tissue between the two books and the two times.
“We have theories about why revolution happens, what makes it succeed, and why, eventually, it consumes its young,” Lilla writes in his latest book. “We have no such theories about reaction, just the self-satisfied conviction that it is rooted in ignorance and intransigence, if not darker motives.” With “The Shipwrecked Mind,” Lilla is rescuing reaction, or at least arguing that “one simply cannot understand modern history without understanding how the reactionary’s political nostalgia helped to shape it.”
The term “reactionary” first acquired its negative moral connotations in post-revolutionary France, Lilla explains. “The river of time flows in one direction only. . . . During the Jacobin period anyone who resisted the river’s flow or displayed insufficient enthusiasm about reaching the destination was labeled a ‘reactionary,’ ” he writes.
Today’s reactionaries, Lilla contends, are found among the American right, longing for the strength and uniformity of the early postwar years; European nationalists, blaming Enlightenment values for the continent’s ills; and political Islamists, animated by visions of a caliphate restored. Their nostalgia is more powerful than liberal hope. “Hopes can be disappointed,” Lilla writes. “Nostalgia is irrefutable.”
The battles between reason and religion — between “Athens and Jerusalem,” as Lilla puts it — propel many of Lilla’s thinkers. Franz Rosenzweig, a German philosopher of the early 20th century, sought to renew his Jewish faith in the face of a Europe where bourgeois culture and the scientific outlook were “extinguishing something essential,” Lilla writes, something previously captured in religious belief. “The battle against history in the nineteenth-century sense,” Rosenzweig wrote in his diaries, “becomes for us the battle for religion in the twentieth-century sense.”
Lilla dwells on Eric Voegelin, another German philosopher (just about every philosopher this author deems noteworthy is German), who in dense, ambitious and often unfinished works of political theory concluded that the Enlightenment, by banishing God, had pushed people “to the creation of grotesque secular deities like Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini”; and on Leo Strauss, who from his perch at the University of Chicago during the 1950s and 1960s argued that “modern liberalism has declined into relativism . . . indistinguishable from the kind of nihilism that gave rise to the political disasters of the twentieth century.” It was a philosophy that, after Strauss’s death, would inspire disciples — not in ivory towers, but in Washington think tanks and bureaucracies — to believe in a “redemptive historical mission” for America to promote liberal democracy in an increasingly illiberal world, a neoconservative argument, Lilla notes, that was “nowhere articulated by Strauss himself.”
In the reactionary mind, the arc of history is long, and it bends toward ever greater horrors.
Though “The Reckless Mind” remains the more compelling work in its writing, scope and fullness of its characters, “The Shipwrecked Mind” showcases Lilla’s gift for sketching out such long histories — and historical mythologies — with a few artful brushstrokes, covering centuries of thought and politics in a few pages. (His chapter titled “From Luther to Walmart,” channeling academics such as Alasdair MacIntyre and Brad Gregory to describe the post-Reformation descent into today’s rapacious capitalism, is a minor classic all on its own.) So the book’s concluding chapter is jarring in a good way; after 100-plus pages plumbing essays and letters, Lilla places us in France on Jan. 7, 2015, — another 9/11, of a sort.
Lilla was living in Paris on the morning of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, and he reflects on the longing for a lost golden age that grips the minds of Islamist extremists. “Once the butchery ends, as it eventually must, through exhaustion or defeat, the pathos of political Islam will deserve as much reflection as its monstrosity,” he writes. “One almost blushes to think of the historical ignorance, the misplaced piety, the impotent adolescent posturing, the blindness to reality, and fear of it, that lay behind the murderous fever.”
Yet Lilla seems even more interested in the reaction — in every sense — of contemporary French intellectuals who seized upon that day. He explores the works of journalist Éric Zemmour, who writes of France’s cultural and political suicide, and of Michel Houellebecq, who writes of its submission. They speak to the shipwrecked, those who see the chasm between past and present and become “obsessed with taking revenge on whatever demiurge caused it to open up,” Lilla writes. “Their nostalgia is revolutionary. Since the continuity of time has already been broken, they begin to dream of making a second break and escaping from the present.” For them, that present is multiculturalism, it is demographic decline, it is freedom gone too far.
“We are so accustomed to the old opposition of reason versus passion, spirit versus life,” Hannah Arendt wrote, “that the idea of a passionate thinking, in which thinking and aliveness become one, takes us somewhat aback.” Both “The Reckless Mind” and “The Shipwrecked Mind” wade deep into passionate thought, sometimes admiringly, usually judgmentally. Lilla draws a line between real thinkers and pretenders, the latter often being political leaders who are “passionate about the life of the mind, but unlike the philosopher cannot master that passion.” Such leaders are “sunburned” by ideas, imagining themselves independent thinkers, when in fact they are “a herd driven by their inner demons and thirsty for the approval of a fickle public.”
Plato once traveled to Syracuse in Sicily, hoping to tutor Dionysius, the ruler whose intellectual pretensions barely masked his tyrannical ones. He failed. “Dionysius is our contemporary,” Lilla writes in “The Reckless Mind.” “Over the last century he has assumed many names: Lenin and Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini, Mao and Ho, Castro and Trujillo, Amin and Bokassa, Saddam and Khomeini, Ceausescu and Milosevic — one’s pen runs dry.” And each had intellectual enablers, lured to Syracuse.
Lilla suggests that the years between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the fall of the twin towers were a time of “introspection and self-satisfaction,” when intellectuals began to ask themselves big questions, such as whether history had reached its end. But after Sept. 11, “our thinking became small again,” and now, “a cloud of willful unknowing seems to have settled on our intellectual life.”
In that environment, nostalgia reasserts itself. On this side of the Atlantic, we see it in slogans yearning for lost American greatness — with a wink to those conflating such greatness with a throwback cultural conformity — and politicians promising a return to robust growth. “The lure of tyranny is not the only force that pulls intellectuals off course,” Lilla concludes. “Self-deception has countless forms.” Nostalgia is one of them, and it offers its own kind of tyranny.