Shipwrecked on modernity: Mark Lilla’s radical reactionaries

Columbia professor Mark Lilla is one of today’s most eloquent representatives of a classic liberal tradition seeking to assert itself against the politics of identity and populism.

Lilla’s reaction to Donald Trump’s election cut deeper than most, his widely shared New York Times commentary published a few days after the result arguing that mainstream American liberalism has degenerated into a censorious identity politics incapable of speaking in a single, clear voice to the nation’s diverse constituencies. Two new collections of essays illuminate Lilla’s understanding of what liberals should stand for, and what they should stand against.

The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics is an updated edition of a book first published in 2001 gathering portraits of 20th century radicals – including Martin Heidegger, Walter Benjamin and Michel Foucault – who hoped for revolutionary transformation. The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction collects more recent essays profiling conservative writers envisaging a different utopia.

Where Lilla’s ‘reckless revolutionaries’ idealise the future, his ‘shipwrecked reactionaries’ look back to a lost Golden Age. By ‘reactionary’ Lilla does not refer to a conservative pessimism for which the world has always been fallen. Nor to the anti-intellectual populism that has come to overshadow contemporary politics. Lilla is interested in conservatives who believe in the possibility of restoration, counter-revolutionaries whose visions electrify their thought with a ’strangely exhilarating despair’.

He places them in an ancient tradition that looks to the past to light the way to the future, encompassing Hesiod and his lost Age of Gold, Cato the Elder, who blamed the Greeks for corrupting the Republic, the Christians and pagans who held each other responsible for the fall of Rome, and the Romantics who rebelled against the Enlightenment.

The essential story is the same. Once upon a time there was order, civilisations bound by a common faith, their world enchanted by myth, their social hierarchies and political and legal institutions taken to mirror those of a transcendent realm. These cultures moved within imaginative worlds that generated governments, architectures, theologies, literatures and arts oriented to a shared horizon. Then there was a Fall, a corruption from within, a betrayal by the dissatisfied – usually restless intellectuals and other heretics – who pursued strange gods or, worse, none at all. With the breaking of the spell the way was opened for our world, with its aimlessness, alienation, selfishness and vulgarity.

The solemn duty of the conservative intellectual is to make others aware of what has been lost, and to propose the means of restoration, or, if the decay has gone too far, to write beautiful elegies and weep over the ruins:

The reactionary mind is a shipwrecked mind. Where others see the river of time flowing as it always has, the reactionary sees the debris of paradise drifting past his eyes. He is time’s exile.

Athens and Jerusalem

Lilla’s essays demonstrate his gift for disentangling complexity, his sparse prose tracing the arc of his subjects’ epic narratives, spanning the rise and fall of civilisations.

The book opens with portraits of a group of political philosophers who escaped interwar Germany to find refuge at American universities, where they exerted a profound influence on the generation of postwar students who went on to develop the formidable network of think-tanks, faculties and publications that power contemporary American neoconservatism.

The best known today, perhaps, is the Chicago professor Leo Strauss, for whom the ‘authentic’ narrative of Western civilisation is the pursuit of truth, what he called ‘natural right’: a trust in the possibility that the great questions raised by Socrates at the dawn of the Western philosophical tradition – the meaning of justice, beauty, goodness – have answers, answers grounded in ‘nature’ rather than convention. That pursuit has taken two distinct but interwoven paths, secular reason and divine revelation, epitomised for Strauss in the encounter between Greek philosophy and biblical tradition – ‘Athens’ and ‘Jerusalem’ – that takes dramatic form in the lives of Socrates and Moses.

For many centuries those traditions ran alongside each other, sometimes entangling, and over time reached a mutual understanding. Their wisest representatives were aware of the fundamental tension between reason and revelation, that are no more capable of synthesis than oil and water. But they saw that civilisation requires both. The philosophers understood that religious myths provide a robust metaphysical and moral framework for the ‘unreflective masses’, and the priests acknowledged reason’s role in guarding against obscuranticist theocracy.

For Strauss that delicate balance was disturbed by the Renaissance acknowledgement that effective government might require resort to moral subtefuge, and destroyed by the Enlightenment’s corrosive scepticism regarding the very possibility of truth, which opened the way for Romantic solipsism, liberal utilitarianism and contemporary nihilism.

Strauss challenged conservative intellectuals to fight for the reorientation of philosophy towards the horizon of truth, an invitation taken up with particular alacrity by his American disciples, for whom the United States was founded on the principle of natural right. Over time Strauss’s followers have entwined his thought with American history to develop a grand narrative of moral decline that reached crisis point with the cultural ‘Nakba’ of the 1960s, a degenerate decade in which vestigial respect for moral absolutes was lost.

Lilla is doubtful that Strauss, who died in the early 1970s, would have approved of how far his disciples have pushed elements of his thought that he himself hedged with caution, notably the idea of the ’noble lie’, the suggestion that conservative intellectual and political leaders should conceal the ’truth’ about the religious and cultural myths on which a society is founded for the sake of maintaining social order.

Hammurabi’s broken Code

Eric Voegelin, another German émigré went deeper even than Strauss, suggesting that today’s ‘rootless liberalism’ actually has its roots in the Christian faith, which over time tore apart the delicate social fabric of the ancient world, a world Voegelin envisaged as a realm of settled, self-contained civilisations exemplified by ancient dynasties such as Mesopotamia and Egypt.

Those city states and empires were structured by customs, laws and hierarchies accepted as being ordained by the gods. Their priests and monarchs represented and enacted the will of heaven, the nexus between the divine and the human exemplified by the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi, the Egyptian Book of the Dead and the laws of Moses.

For Vogelin this sacred order was fractured by Christianity: Christ’s separation of the jurisdictions of God and Caesar, reinforced by St Paul’s reflections on the nature of political authority in his Letter to the Romans, recast obedient subjects and citizens as restless ‘gnostics’, sojourners merely passing through the world. Over centuries that sense of estrangement fostered a dissatisfaction with established political and religious authorities that encouraged successive rebellions against kings, governments and priests, and, in time, even God.

Curious then, as Lilla notes, that Voegelin, should have been embraced by neoconservatives otherwise keen to emphasise the importance of Christian faith to civilisational restoration.

Splintered Christendom

For other conservatives, the West’s ‘Fall’ was not facilitated by Christianity, but by a false turn within the Christian theological tradition.

This seed for this school of thought, Alasdair MacIntyre’s 1981 classic After Virtue, charts the rise and fall of an Aristotelian tradition that provided a framework for Western moral reflection from antiquity through the Catholic Middle Ages, attaining its apotheosis in the work of Thomas Aquinas.

Aquinas insisted that reason cannot take ‘a view from nowhere’, but is always informed by a philosophical grammar and forms of practice that provide a context for new exploration. This organic understanding of how reason opens up the world was undermined when Aquinas’s successors began to posit the possibility of a free-floating reason able to stand outside tradition, the logical consequences of which were pursued to their conclusion with the advent of the Enlightenment.

MacIntyre’s work has been developed into a rich vein of contemporary theology by the High Anglican Radical Orthodoxy movement, but Lilla takes American Catholic Brad Gregory’s influential 2012 work The Unintended Reformation as representative of this line of thought. Gregory argues that had the Catholic intellectual tradition not taken this tragic turn Western moral reflection and scientific exploration would have developed within a Christian framework. There would have been no Reformation, no need for a regressive Counter-Reformation, and, as Lilla summarises it:

With moral debate confined within the flexible bounds of Catholic orthodoxy, important human values would have been preserved from secular dogmatism and skepticism. We would have been spared the brutality of the industrial era, the monsters of modern science, and the empty individualism of our time.

Lilla’s fascinating survey of the thinkers whose work laid the foundations for American neoconservativism has renewed relevance following Trump’s election. Though neoconservatism represents a sophisticated strand of conservatism quite different from the populism that propelled Trump to the Presidency, and arguably reached a peak of influence under the George W Bush administrations, renewed Republican dominance offers opportunities for Strauss and Voegelin’s ghostly presence to make itself felt again.

France’s ‘fall’

Lilla also assesses some of the most recent work by European conservatives, including reviews of two best-sellers by the Frence writers Eric Zemmour and Michel Houellebecq, written shortly after the Charlie Hebdo shootings at the beginning of 2015. Both Zemmour and Houellebecq attribute France’s agonised response to Islamist violence to a gradual loss of confidence in the Republic’s founding values.

Zemmour’s Le Suicide français (2014) consists of 79 brief chapters, each identifying a factor that has contributed to the Republic’s sad decay, including immigration, multiculturalism, feminism, the eurozone, economic financialisation, and a certain embarrassment in honouring the memory of Republican heroes such as Napoleon and de Gaulle. But Lilla is unconvinced that Zemmour’s ‘Stations of the French Cross’ add up to much more than an opportunistic attempt to impose a simple narrative on a tangled mass of issues and episodes, each with their own complex history.

He is much more impressed by Houellebecq’s [Submission]( – which I reviewed on this site – published by ghoulish coincidence on the same day as the Hebdo attack. The book stands in the tradition of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain or Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, peering at the world from the perspective of an anti-hero appalled by the society in which he must make his way, and yet left spiritually unmoored by the prospect of its collapse.

Houellebecq imagines France’s culture wars finding unexpected resolution in a near future Europe, when a charismatic, moderate Muslim Presidential candidate defeats Marine Le Pen in the 2022 race, then finds that the French welcome the order and stability his ever more socially conservative policies bring.

Despite Houellebecq’s notorious relationship with Islam Submission is not an anti-Islamic work. Here the Muslim faith is employed as a literary device to represent the stable social and metaphysical order the West rejected in turning to liberalism and privileging freedom above other values. Had the novel been written at another time he might just as well used conservative Catholicism. Houellebecq’s sly story is a thought-experiment that seeks to show how easily the liberal West might once again embrace the comforts of a conservative communitarianism.

Paul and Jesus, Lenin and Marx

Lilla also considers another French writer, the Marxist Alain Badiou, whose audacious efforts to appropriate St Paul for the left show that a nostalgia for an imagined past isn’t the exclusive domain of the right.

With his 2003 book Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism Badiou beat out a path – since followed by Slavoj Žižek and other leftists – which interpreted the Apostle’s declaration of the arrival of a ‘new People of God’ made possible by the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, as a revolutionary proclamation of a new political order standing against both Caesar and Moses. In Badiou’s provactive formula Paul is ‘a Lenin for whom Christ will have been the equivocal Marx.’

Badiou’s suggestion that charismatic leaders, both religious and secular, have an uncanny power to invoke and legitimate new political and legal institutions through the power of ‘sovereign decision’ is in the intellectual lineage of the Political Theology of the Nazi theorist Carl Schmitt, for whom social order is not the product of reasoned negotiation, but declared into being by a powerful law giver.

For Lilla Badiou’s curious adaptation of the preachings of a religious visionary and a fascist theorist is a measure of the radical left’s loss of confidence in the classic Marxist narrative that revolution is the inevitable resolution of the conflict between labour and capital, brought to a revolutionary head by the organisation of the working classes.

Time’s ceaseless flow

Lilla isn’t too interested in identifying issues with the sweeping narratives of civilisational decline and fall his subjects propose. He does pick out a few:

Strauss’s stylised picture of the history of western philosophical thought as a noble quest for the classical virtues has to offer a curious interpretation of the radical scepticism characteristic of Socrates and other philosopher martyrs, whose example complicates the assertion that the Enlightenment ruptured a serene ascent towards the contemplation of truth and beauty.

Voegelin’s epic vision of a pre-Christian landscape of settled civilisations built on inviolate mythical and political foundations overlooks the ancient world’s capacity for revolutionary change, manifested by the prolific rate with which it generated new gods and overturned dynasties.

And Radical Orthodoxy’s shimmering vision of a harmonious Christendom must account for the endless councils, heresies, creeds and schisms that predated the Reformation.

But Lilla’s fundamental criticism, applicable to all the reactionaries he studies, cuts deeper, objecting to the very idea that a fall from some former state of grace makes sense. For Lilla time is a chronicle, an unfathomable tapestry woven by the unconscious interplay of innumerable human actions, or – borrowing a Burkean image – a contingent flow of events without a set destination:

If time is a river, then it is like the Nile delta, with its hundreds of tributaries branching out in every imaginable direction.

The reactionary’s Quixotic quest to divide time into eras is motivated by psychological need:

[It is] a kind of magical thinking about history. The sufferer believes that a discrete Golden Age existed and that he possesses esoteric knowledge of why it ended.

Like the revolutionary, the reactionaries aren’t content to accept conventional parameters regarding what is and isn’t politically possible: they believe there was once something better, and that it is possible to return to it.

In his epilogue to The Reckless Mind Lilla recalls Plato’s account of his warning to the tyrant Dionysus regarding the terrible power of eros to intoxicate the intellectual, enducing them to abandon reason and peace in pursuit of a beautiful idea. The wise ruler, wary of the intellect’s susceptibility to unrealisable abstractions, must pursue a politics of restraint that respects ‘the modest goods of life – peace of mind, prosperity, simple decency.’

Restraint and passion

Lilla is an elegant advocate for the classic, sceptical liberal tradition of JS Mill and Isaiah Berlin, standing against exclusivist political claims, of the left and right. Acutely sensitive to the tragic dimension of political conflict, the clash of alternative conceptions of the good that cannot be reconciled, he defends a liberal settlement that holds open a space in which clashing ideologies, religious perspectives and traditions can co-exist peacefully.

A perennial challenge for Lilla’s liberalism is making itself heard in a noisy political marketplace. His elegant, gently ironic prose mirrors liberalism’s sense of restraint and awareness of complexity. It’s a tradition that needs to find a language capable of cutting through the clamour of louder, populist voices.

Liberals might do well to remember that their tradition was once itself a utopian project, standing for reason, scepticism, enquiry and tolerance against absolutist monarchies and theocracies. Liberalism needs to find a way of recapturing some of that urgency. Lilla indicated how it might be done in the conclusion of his New York Times piece written in the wake of Trump’s election:

Some years ago I was invited to a union convention in Florida to speak on a panel about Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous Four Freedoms speech of 1941. The hall was full of representatives from local chapters – men, women, blacks, whites, Latinos. We began by singing the national anthem, and then sat down to listen to a recording of Roosevelt’s speech. As I looked out into the crowd, and saw the array of different faces, I was struck by how focused they were on what they shared. And listening to Roosevelt’s stirring voice as he invoked the freedom of speech, the freedom of worship, the freedom from want and the freedom from fear – freedoms that Roosevelt demanded for ‘everyone in the world’ – I was reminded of what the real foundations of modern American liberalism are.

As Roosevelt’s rhetoric indicates, liberals typically prefer to champion a negative rather than positive freedom: a freedom ‘from’ rather than ‘for’. But isn’t it possible to argue passionately for a particular vision of how the world might be transformed, while retaining a liberal respect for diversity and democracy?

Lilla’s shipwrecked reactionaries and restless revolutionaries inspire because they can see a different world. Liberals, it often seems, can only see this world, a world best left to the supervision of technocracies. Lilla is right to insist that those who wish to move the world in a new direction must respect the liberty of those opposed to that change. But it is too much to expect that we might ever be content merely to navigate a path between different visions of the future. Most of us want to choose one of those futures. Politics a rougher sea, perhaps, than even Lilla is prepared to imagine.

The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction and The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics by Mark Lilla are published by the New York Review of Books.