The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics
The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics

"To Be Read" Book Review Column: Mark Lilla, "The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics"

Oct 1, 2002

Politics is the art of the possible. We’ve all read it so many times it’s become a cliché. But it takes virtue and a certain humility to base one’s thinking and action on it. The capital sin of the thinker is hubris, which, in the case of the political thinker, means soaring on wings of theory at too great a distance from the hard ground, where facts lie in wait, like surface-to-air missiles, to shoot theory down in flames.

I was recently a participant in a faculty discussion of Samuel Huntington’s very high-flying article, "The Clash of Civilizations." * Devastating criticism of the article came especially from a Roumanian faculty member and two faculty members from India. The Roumanian pointed out that the fault line in Huntington’s map between “Western Christianity circa 1500" and “Orthodox Christianity and Islam” was drawn right through the middle of Roumania and that the map completely misrepresents the complexity of that country's ethnic divisions.

The faculty members from India were outraged at Huntington’s failure to recognize that India's Hindu-Muslim divide owes more to divisions between Brahmins and lower caste Indians, as well as to the divisions between upper and lower class Muslims, than to a simple division along religious lines.

But the most devastating criticism of all came from another faculty member who pointed out that in his country Huntington’s soaring simplifications were being used to ratify and intensify divisions among the people, proving to them that the “other” was truly the “enemy.”

The art of the possible focuses discussion on the pursuit of limited, time-constrained objectives. But so humble a focus, according to Mark Lilla in The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics, ** was rare among European philosophers in the twentieth century, whose voices rose in a “chorus for tyranny.” In no danger of suffering the effects of tyranny themselves, “free to think and write what they wanted,” they nevertheless embraced Fascist and Communist regimes, along with “various tyrannies masquerading as national liberation.” To them Western liberal democracy was tyranny, and the pursuit of limited and time-constrained objectives, beneath their notice.

Lilla’s book summarizes the thought of some of the most important philosophers of the twentieth century, some of whom are well known but others of whom are new, at least to me. His book is exciting. Ideas leap out from the page. I wore out two highlighter pens on my way through.

That said, on the second time around, as I tried more carefully to trace his argument, I found myself bedeviled by the rapidity -- and in some cases, the syncopation -- of Lilla’s presentation. The elaborate context of each lifetime of thought tends to overwhelm the specific focus of his criticism.

Still, an impression gradually formed itself in my mind, of thinkers struggling desperately to throw off the limits of the ordinary, responding to some urgent need to escape the constraints of time and see history whole. They were writing a new Apocalypse, raging against the power not so much of the empires of their day but of the world of ordinary mortals pursuing the ends of ordinary life.

For me, the most startling of the thinkers in Lilla's book is Carl Schmitt, a dedicated Nazi, who remained an unrepentant anti-Semite up to his death at ninety-six in 1985. Schmitt is “virtually unknown in America,” says Lilla, but in Europe is considered “one of the most significant political theorists of the twentieth century:”

What political theory did Schmitt embrace? That the essential political act is picking your enemy. That every political body is defined by its enemy, as is everyone’s inner self. That war is not the breakdown of politics but the essential manifestation of what it is to be human. The evidence is intuitive: hostility is obvious and universal. Liberalism denies this fact in favor of a series of fictions: individualism, human rights, the rule of law.

Apparently, the horrors of the twentieth century have taught contradictory lessons. While much of the world struggles to promote human rights and the rule of law, ideologues of the left continue to maintain that human rights and the rule of law are mere ideological weapons in the hands of a ruling class. Marxists and Nazis share the same bed.

Schmitt sounds as secular as Machiavelli, but citing Leo Strauss, the founder of the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, where he carries on his research, Lilla points out that Schmitt’s political theory is based on faith in an utterly arbitrary God whose essence is will and whose will is beyond reason.

Here Christian theologians will find themselves on familiar ground. There has long been a struggle within Western Christianity between the notion of a God who rules over a rationally ordered world, and a God like the God of the Puritans -- Jefferson called him Satan -- who rules arbitrarily, by will alone. In a rationally ordered world, what God forbids is bad because it is unreasonable. In an arbitrary world, things are bad because God forbids them. There are no reasons. The only "why" is God’s arbitrary will. Just as faith is a decision unsupported by reason, obedience does away with the why of God’s commands. Correspondingly, political decisions are naked acts of will, impervious to reason. Schmitt places us in an arbitrary universe under the rule of an arbitrary God and governed by arbitrary dictators. Within such a universe the search for peace and security is a rebellion against God.

We’ve recently been notified of the end of history by Francis Fukuyama. Alexandre Kojeve looked back and found the end of history in the Napoleonic wars. But, more interesting than these high-flying theories is the argument Lilla outlines between Kojeve, defending tyranny, and, again, Leo Strauss. Strauss, in On Tyranny, complains that tyranny is a perennial problem that philosophers and intellectuals recurrently fail to recognize. But it is the job of philosophy to make us aware of the threat of tyranny to both politics and philosophy.

Amazingly, Kojeve responds to Strauss by calling him the victim of an ancient prejudice [emphasis mine] against tyranny! Tyranny, contends Kojeve, may actually advance the work of history and prepare the way for a better future. For Kojeve, philosophy consists not of detached reflection on eternal truths -- there are no such truths -- but of active participation in the struggle to bring “into existence the future truths that are latent in the present. Philosophers and tyrants therefore need each other to complete the work of history: tyrants need to be told what potential lies dormant in the present; philosophers need those bold enough to bring that potential out.”

When Strauss sees in this “an urge to arrest the endless quest for enlightenment, coupled with a messianic hope for the day when human striving will cease and we will all be satisfied,” Kojeve does not disagree. “In the final state there can be no more ‘human beings’ in our sense of an historical human being. The ‘healthy’ automata are satisfied (sports, art, eroticism, etc.), and the ‘sick’ ones get locked up . . . . The tyrant becomes an administrator, a cog in the ‘machine’ fashioned by automata for automata.”

In mitigation of the horror of this vision, Lilla notes, “It is not entirely clear how serious he is being.” I confess to feeling, at this point, that I am describing a zoo story. Then again, I’m not sure it isn’t. These are more than reckless minds.

Lilla’s portrait of Michel Foucault, reveals “an essentially private thinker” who made “a foolish and fruitless detour into the politics of his time" and then gave up the illusion of social reform to take refuge in a California homosexual subculture. In the midst of the AIDS crisis he continued to reject the help of established medical power. “His suspicion of the ‘discourses’ of disease. . .had finally rendered him insensible to any distinction between a biological factum and its social interpretation. If one believes that all ‘discourse’ about disease is constructed by social power, and that one can invent any ‘counter-discourse’ aesthetically, it is easy to convince oneself of a certain invincibility. But Foucault was not invincible.” He died of AIDS -- in a hospital.

The strange effort of Jacques Derrida in recent years to deconstruct his cake and bake it too is the subject of Lilla’s penultimate chapter. Deconstruction is the latest form of the intellectual phenomenon that scholastic philosophy called universal skepticism. The scholastic response is still valid: universal skepticism refutes itself.

However, in the 1990s Derrida "changed his mind.... There is a concept -- though only one -- resilient enough to withstand the acids of deconstruction, and that concept is ‘justice.’” Since law, like everything else, is merely a linguistic construct, and language is purely a matter of convention, what, Derrida asks, is the law’s foundation, reason, nature, or something else? Of course both reason and nature are themselves phenomena of language and subject to deconstruction. Yet Derrida has decided that justice is “an infinite idea,” another sort of mysticism, suggests Lilla. Since it is the business of deconstruction to demonstrate that no law can embody absolute justice, to deconstruct the law is to act in the name of justice. In other words deconstruction is justice.

But, says Lilla, deconstruction suspends judgment -- indefinitely. And that leaves politics stripped of judgment and open to pure will. Or to romantic nostalgia. Lilla cites Derrida’s musings about a “spirit” of Marxism and its messianic yearnings: “A messianic promise, even if it was not fulfilled, at least in the form in which it was uttered, even if it rushed headlong toward an ontological content, will have imprinted an inaugural and unique mark in history. And whether we like it or not, whatever consciousness we have of it, we cannot not be its heirs.”

Lilla concludes: “Derrida is convinced that the only way to extend the democratic values he himself holds is to destroy the language in which the West has always conceived of them, in the mistaken belief that it is language, not reality, that keeps our democracies imperfect.” And so the "democracy we want cannot be described or defended; it can only be treated as an article of irrational faith, a messianic dream."

In his concluding chapter,*** Lilla looks to Plato’s belief that some are drawn to tyranny, others to philosophy, but both are drawn by the mad passion to “beget the beautiful.” Happiness is achieved only if the madness is mastered. Most of us don’t master it -- and lead mediocre lives. Some become slaves to their drives, and emerge as tyrants. The subject of Lilla’s book, however, is that other “class of tyrannical souls...those who enter public life not as rulers, but as teachers, orators, poets -- what today we would call intellectuals.”

Tyrannical intellectuals fail to master their passion for the life of the mind. They dive “headlong into political discussion, writing books, giving speeches, offering advice in a frenzy of activity that barely masks [their] incompetence and irresponsibility. Such men consider themselves to be independent minds, when the truth is that they are a herd driven by their inner demons and thirsty for the approval of a fickle public.”

Such intellectuals play their role in driving democracies toward tyranny by whipping the minds of the young into a frenzy until some of them take the step from thought to action and try to realize their tyrannical ambitions in politics. “Gratified to see their own ideas take effect, these intellectuals become the tyrant’s servile flatterers.”

This is Lilla’s indictment of the reckless mind. The picture rings true. But I would pass another judgment. In his book on Gandhi, Erik Erikson criticized both Gandhi and Western tradition for failing to acknowledge the satyagraha, or truth force, of everyday life. Likewise, the thinkers Lilla considers seem to have been uninspired by the art of the possible in improving the ordinary human lot. Rather, they appear to have been inspired by the desire to transcend, to escape the ordinary, in fact, to destroy it. Yet in the end, the force of truth lies in the ordinary struggles of the individual to live well, and in the formal procedures of government that make it possible for us to live together in peace.

* Huntington's “ Clash of Civilizations?“ article appeared in the summer 1993 issue of Foreign Affairs (Volume 72 No. 3).
**The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics by Mark Lilla was published by New York Review Books, 2001.
***Also published as “The Lure of Syracuse” in The New York Review of Books (20 September 2001). Lilla, a professor at the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, was interviewed by Eric Alterman for The New York Times: “Why Are Deep Thinkers Shallow About Tyranny?” (November 10, 2001).

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