The Deflationary Mind

Mark Lilla’s prosecution of radical thinkers in the name of intellectual seriousness can only lead to a flat and lifeless politics.

Michael Yan / Flickr

During the 1990s, some of the most prominent Anglo-American interpreters of European intellectual history decided it was time to settle accounts. They brought important thinkers of the past two centuries — Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Georges Bataille, Jean-Paul Sartre, Louis Althusser, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, just to name a few — before end-of-history tribunals, and, more often than not, declared them guilty of intellectual irresponsibility, a weakness for tyranny or mythology (or both), and crazed utopianism.

The liberal reading public was delighted to read these verdicts, which convicted twentieth-century European philosophy of failing to submit to the global triumph of English-speaking liberal capitalism. The idea of “intellectual responsibility” guided both the late British historian Tony Judt’s excoriation of French intellectuals’ postwar communism, and Mark Lilla’s portrait-essays of European theorists who looked beyond the pragmatic, deflated liberal politics he presented as the exclusive terrain of legitimate intellectual engagement.

Things look different now. The limits of American power, as well as the strength of recent resistance to the global neoliberal order, have come into clearer view, making the questions Europeans faced in the first half of the twentieth century — and some of the answers they proposed — seem more current. Less prosecutorial scholars have approached the difficult ideas of European thinkers with greater theoretical subtlety, intellectual empathy, and political open-mindedness, grounding their work in its historical context.

From this vantage point, the “realism” of the fin-de-siècle American elite looks more like myopic hubris than sober responsibility. Its assessment of twentieth-century theory looks less like a reckoning with the past and more like the euphoric sanctification of what they allowed themselves to believe was the permanent overcoming of history.

European theorists of the last century produced a trove of critical thinking about liberalism, socialism, capitalism, empire, and the challenges of intellectual engagement, acutely aware of bourgeois-liberal politics’ inability to address the intractable problems of modern society. But all too often, their most famous American interpreters served as prosecutors rather than translators and attempted to inoculate Anglo-American intellectual culture from contamination by the allegedly dangerous, ideological European continent. These prosecutors presented their work as the responsible guardianship of the “reality-based community,” but they were engaged in their own deeply ideological, even utopian project. Their work delegitimized any avenue for criticizing the end-of-history consensus, and the intellectual consequences of this project is only now becoming fully apparent.

The Great Separation

Over the last two decades, Mark Lilla has constructed an elaborate philosophical justification for the deflated political thinking that triumphed in the 1990s.

It began with a stark distinction between two styles of thought: first, a sober Hobbesian realism that demands followers shackle their deep desires for explanation and justice in the world and limit themselves to a stoic secular materialism. The other tradition belongs to those unable to meet that challenge and accept the limits imposed by “reality.” They reach for forbidden fruit in the form of theological or ideological explanations that claim both to master the world and to point the way toward changing it. The second style, Lilla has persistently warned, can be blamed for most of the last two decades’ traumas and tragedies.

In the epilogue to The Reckless Mind, titled “The Lure of Syracuse,” Lilla explained this divide by way of a Platonic allegory that remains a useful key to his thinking. Drawing on Plato’s Epistles, which recount the philosopher’s misadventures advising the tyrant Dionysius, Lilla explained that the drive to think begins in eros; philosophy, as the love of wisdom, is inescapably rooted in desire. But the eros that draws people toward philosophy can also drive them to reckless action: “love induces madness, a blissful kind of madness that we find hard to control, whether we are in love with a person or an idea.”

If intellectual eros is not subjected to strict discipline, it can produce “philotyranny” — intellectuals so committed to an idea that they are willing to tango with tyrants to realize them. But eros has a dark side: without a conscious struggle to sublimate it toward the right ends, it can be a force of reckless chaos and destruction — it can produce tyrants.

Lilla concluded that rationality is a struggle against powerful internal forces, an ascetic life of which “few are capable.” Most people prefer to satisfy their desires in more plebeian ways by, for example, making politics a vehicle for remaking the world. Nevertheless, “the highest happiness can only be had if such madness is indeed mastered and we remain in charge of our souls, even as eros draws us upward.”

This might have remained an ambiguous philosophical fable had Lilla not proceeded to develop its world-historical implications. The Stillborn God, his 2007 book, presented Thomas Hobbes as the decisive thinker who established a “Great Separation” between divine and worldly knowledge.

Hobbes inaugurated a tradition of preserving political peace by renouncing the need for theological reflection in matters of government. He understood, Lilla argued, the dangers that human passions for “higher goods” posed to “the modest goods of life — peace of mind, prosperity, simple decency.” But only the few appreciated this achievement, and Kant, Rousseau, and Hegel tried to have it both ways by letting God back into their accounts of the world. Later, German liberal theologians tried to reconcile the divine with rational bourgeois thought, unwittingly opening the door to more robust and dangerous visions of the higher collective good that aimed to destroy bourgeois rationality altogether.

The Stillborn God demonstrated Lilla’s considerable abilities as a philosophical expositor and his sensitivity to the power of the non-rational in the human constitution. Despite his awareness of the complexity of the thinkers and political situations he described, he nevertheless arrived at a stark, binary conclusion: Some courageous thinkers stood resolutely against allowing a divine dimension in politics, while others — often with the best of intentions — compromised safety and peace in pursuit of more expansive ends.

The twentieth century proved how dangerous the latter could be. To prevent further violent, political upheavals, Lilla argued, we must have zero tolerance for any hint of the messianic in modern thought. The messianic, in Lilla’s understanding, was not merely the literally religious, theological, or irrational: it was to be defined as any effort at all to address the deep problems of human life through politics. Ventriloquizing Hobbes, Lilla explained,

Politics was not about serving the highest good; it was a problem that could be solved only if the passions were held in check, and mad dreams of turning men into angels or building divine cities remained just that — dreams.

Lilla’s stoic realism is grounded in self-doubt, producing a politics hesitant to address structural dysfunction. Nevertheless, the intellectual portraits in The Reckless Mind render Olympian verdicts across time, space, intellectual tradition, and political culture, about which thinkers were deluded by “mad dreams.” It suggests that the answer is: pretty much all of them.

The docket included a number of intellectuals that featured in the work of American left intellectuals in the late twentieth century. Michel Foucault was the nihilistic victim of his “inner demons.” Jacques Derrida — the hyper-rationalist logician, criticized most of his career for distancing himself from politics — became a “dark and forbidding” fantasist due to his desire to hold open the prophetic horizon of Marxism. Lilla’s prosecutorial disdain was a somewhat better fit for Nazi-compromised thinkers like Martin Heidegger and Carl Schmitt, but it should be noted that Lilla presented the strongest possible reading of their political misdeeds and tries to ensure that readers never take their criticisms of bourgeois society and liberal thought seriously.

For a thinker suspicious of any intellectual bold enough to offer systemic and critical worldviews, Lilla dismissed any alternative to the strictest pragmatic liberalism with remarkable confidence.

The Less Reckless Mind

Since then, however, Lilla seems to have softened. In two recently released works — a revised edition of The Reckless Mind and a new collection of more recent work, The Shipwrecked Mind — he acknowledges that history has moved past the “self-satisfaction” of the 1990s. The liberal emphasis on rights, individualism, and economic growth has hardened into a “soft dogma,” Lilla writes in his new afterword to The Reckless Mind:

Our hubris is to think that we no longer have to think hard or pay attention or look for connections, that all we have to do is stick to our “democratic values” and economic models and faith in the individual and all will be well.

The end of the Cold War, he argues, “left us incurious and self-absorbed.”

The Shipwrecked Mind is ostensibly addressed to the phenomenon of “political reaction,” which he sees as a more pressing concern than dissident-left French philosophers. But although the targets now come from the opposite side of the political spectrum, the argument remains the same. Reactionaries, Lilla explains, are “just as radical as revolutionaries, just as firmly in the grip of historical imaginings.” They posit a golden age in the past from which humanity has fallen, leaving behind only the reactionary’s special knowledge of history as the key to salvation. Lilla stretches this notion to the breaking point, profiling a hodgepodge of intellectuals including idiosyncratic German thinkers like Franz Rosenzweig, Eric Voegelin, and Leo Strauss, the Maoist French philosopher Alain Badiou, the American Catholic historian Brad Gregory, and two contemporary French writers (the far-right journalist Éric Zemmour and the novelist Michel Houellebecq).

What possible typology could emerge from such a lineup? Though Lilla dresses him in new clothing, his “reactionary” turns out to be the same character he has been prosecuting his entire career: the “theo-political mythmaker” who cannot accept the world as it is, but instead rebels against the facts of “reality” — in this case, the reality that time is “irreversible and unconquerable.”

Lilla fails to provide even an elementary account of the reactionary mind, instead assimilating a new group of thinkers into his existing demonology of reality-resisters. This massive category has little analytical value, but does work as a weapon in the service of Lilla’s epistemological and political commitments: “Reality” speaks for itself — albeit mostly through English-speaking liberals with Straussian affectations for ancient philosophy — and it foredooms all efforts to know too much or to try to change the world through politics. On Lilla’s account, history becomes a cyclical recurrence of human hubris in which only the characters change. The only true villains are radicals — especially leftist ones — who dare to think they can interfere with it.

The chapter on Alain Badiou is perhaps the apex of The Shipwrecked Mind’s absurdity and serves as a case study in the limitations of Lilla’s broader intellectual framework. Here we see most clearly how little the details and historical context of a thinker’s concepts or political commitments matter as long as Lilla can shoehorn them into a moralizing tale about theoretical irrationality or political radicalism.

With a careful eye on the biases of his American audience, Lilla foregrounds Badiou’s journalistic criticisms of Israel and hints at links to Nazi anti-Semitism, quoting selectively and tossing out dark insinuations. Lilla argues that Badiou is particularly obsessed with the problem of “Jewish particularity,” without noting that Badiou is ferociously critical of all religious, nationalist, and communitarian particularism, above all in the forms of French racism and anti-Semitism. An uncompromising universalist, he credits Jewish thinkers — the apostle Paul, Spinoza, Marx, Freud, and Trotsky — with “a universalism that . . . while not disregarding particularities, goes beyond particularisms.” His criticisms of “the uses of the word Jew” are not about Jewish identity, but about the ways he sees it used to render Israel exempt from political criticism.

While Badiou’s philosophy and politics are controversial for a number of reasons and provide ample material for a critical essay, Lilla refuses to even mention the original dimensions of his thought, focusing almost exclusively on minor writings. Instead of a philosopher whose ideas require careful explication and critique, Badiou becomes a fictitious villain, knitted together by cynical reading techniques and embodying both the left and right versions of Lilla’s bête noire.

Elsewhere in the collection, Lilla’s sharp critical voice takes on a gentler register, suggesting that the tides of history have nudged him toward a defensive sympathy with some of the thinkers he believes have flirted with reaction. His readings of Rosenzweig, Strauss, Voegelin, and Houellebecq grant the intellectual empathy he so often withholds. Although he remains skeptical of theological impulses throughout, Lilla does seem to speak through some of his subjects.

This is especially noteworthy in his pages on Houellebecq’s 2015 novel Submission, which imagines the whimpering conclusion of Western civilization in the form of an Islamist political takeover of France. Lilla presents the novel astutely and sensitively, inserting his own voice only to softly reinforce the book’s philosophical coherence and literary significance. He has nothing to say about Houellebecq’s transfiguration of flesh-and-blood French Muslims into stylized representations of a great civilizational battle between Christianity and Islam, perhaps because it mirrors his own tendency to see history as a battle between lofty ideas. Lilla’s understated admiration for Houellebecq’s thought seems to mark a quiet turning point in his work, as he allows the novelist — widely celebrated as a bitter critic of decadent and secular Western elites — to speak cogently and without interruption.

Is this evidence that Lilla has grown skeptical about the liberal order he so vigilantly defended two decades ago? A turn into Houellebecquian pessimism might be a logical next step for Lilla’s deflationary understanding of political action, especially since they share the belief that history is hopelessly resistant to change and indifferent to human despair.

Lilla’s recent commentary on the Obama presidency in New York magazine does nothing to resist such an interpretation, restating his usual pessimistic themes in a register that broadcasts exasperation with and even contempt for politics: “Americans are addicted to hope,” he scoffed. “[Obama] raised expectations he could not meet, which just infuriated the kids, until Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders offered them ice cream.”

The deflated intellectual worldview of the 1990s has apparently left one of our most erudite intellectuals with nothing to offer but empty, cranky clichés. Political hope, whether it belongs to the workers of the twentieth century or to the precariat of the twenty-first, represents nothing more than the childish delusions of those demanding heaven on earth. Never one to bother with the particulars of history, Lilla cannot see how often the achievement of the most basic and realistic political goals depended on the credible threat of utopian revolution. Radicalism has so often been the byproduct of realism.

A Different Responsibility

Neoliberalism,” Jedediah Purdy recently wrote, “is not so much an intellectual position but a condition in which one acts as if certain premises were true and others were unspeakable. It’s not a doctrine but a limit on the vitality of political imagination.”

Did it have to go this way? Must we face Brexit, Donald Trump, and ISIS with so little in our intellectual arsenal? Or is it perhaps time to revisit the intellectuals of the twentieth century who faced an unknowable future with responsibility, imagination, and courage?

Immediately after World War II, the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty embarked on a rigorous existential analysis of what he called “the Communist problem” — whether, and how, one could justify Soviet violence.

The resulting Humanism and Terror (1947), often described as a “scandalous” book, interrogates violence, intellectual responsibility, the radical blindness of historical action, and liberal intellectuals’ failure to subject their own commitments to the same self-reflection they demand of radicals. Refusing to take the rhetoric of liberal humanitarianism at face value, Merleau-Ponty attempted a complex historical argument in which the Moscow Trials and Soviet terror would be justified if history — unknowable to those “condemned” to act without knowledge of the future — judged them to have been carried out in the name of an end to violence.

Responding to horrified critiques, Merleau-Ponty theorized that, after years of world war, liberals simply lacked the energy to fight for a true end to violence; they instead opted for an illusory peace that displaced responsibility for violence elsewhere. This ideology, Merleau-Ponty wrote, underlines its humanitarian commitments and its horror at political violence. But in so doing, it “puts [itself] outside the domain to which justice and injustice belong” because it fails to see that “as incarnate beings, violence is our lot.” Put differently, liberals lack the courage to address the reality of violence and what it would truly take to end it, so they whitewash their own societies’ imperial slaughter and domestic racial brutality, blaming violence on communist “totalitarianism” and the dictators of “banana republics.”

He goes on, “precisely because it is out of weakness that they love peace,” [liberals] are always “ready for propaganda and war,” becoming eager, unwitting authorizers of the violence their own society hides in plain sight.

We might find in Merleau-Ponty an alternative model of political responsibility. He struggled mightily to see the world as it was, to think through all violence, and to make the most ethical choice possible. His commitment to reconsidering history as it unfolded led him to become more and more critical of the Soviet Union and finally to abandon his association with organized communism altogether. But he continued to resist liberal capitalism’s “spiritual” obfuscations to argue that societies should be judged on how seriously they aim to improve the real-world conditions of humanity:

Whatever the philosophy they profess, a society is not the temple of the value-idols featured on the front of its monuments and in its constitutional scrolls; the value of a society is the value it places upon man’s relation to man.

Surveying the aftermath of the end-of-history moment in American intellectual history reminds us that the refusal to engage with politics can have consequences as fateful and dangerous as the wholehearted commitment to utopianism. Withdrawn and elitist intellectual pessimism can misapprehend history as thoroughly as passionate engagement, and can represent just as much of a moral failure.

Intellectual responsibility is less a matter of the content of one’s ideas than with their conceptual rigor, intellectual honesty, interpretive charity, and historical sensitivity. The project of deflationary liberals like Mark Lilla was less ethical than political — an effort to make the content of their own antiradical political commitments coextensive with responsible intellectual practice and thereby disqualifying ideas they disliked without a fair hearing.

But the historical ground has shifted, their moral certainty has evaporated, and radical ideas — both good and bad — are back on the agenda. We’ll need more than deflated intellectual history to make sense of them, and to guide our political action.