Mark Lilla’s The Reckless Mind

In the wake of Donald Trump’s surprise election victory last year, when much of the nation was in a state of shell-shock, a Columbia University professor of history and political philosophy wrote a scathing indictment of contemporary liberalism in, of all places, the New York Times. Among the numberless voices offering commentary on the election results, Mark Lilla was almost alone in recognizing that Trump’s victory exposed a fatal flaw on the left, one that he did not hesitate to name: “American liberalism has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing.” While much of the media, academia and political classes have been genuflecting to identity, in its infinite guises, the more difficult work of building a political brand that appeals to as wide an array of people as possible has been altogether ignored, with the result that “a generation of liberals and progressives [are] narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups, and indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life.” The fixation on diversity has, ironically, produced a constricting, unappealing politics, one that was summarily rejected at the polls by those who felt themselves unrepresented, and has resulted in the election of the most manifestly incompetent president in the nation’s history. Needless to say, Lilla’s take was not well-received, but it struck me as the correct one nonetheless, and I resolved to read him in greater depth.

Thus did I arrive at The Reckless Mind, published in 2001, shortly before the attacks on the Twin Towers. In name and spirit, The Reckless Mind is descended from the Polish poet Czesław Miłosz’s The Captive Mind, which sought to explain the intellectual appeal of Stalinist philosophy, but its ambitions are larger: Lilla covers eight philosophers, from Martin Heidegger to Jacques Derrida, whose obvious brilliance and originality of mind did not prevent them from propping up tyrannical regimes, both communist and fascist, either directly – through activism or pamphleteering or outright collusion – or indirectly, through apologetics and a persistent denial of their evil nature. Lilla even coins a phrase to describe these men: philotyrannical intellectuals. The book is divided into essays dedicated to each of these men and their philosophies, beginning with Martin Heidegger, one of the 20th century’s most original and influential philosophers, and yet someone who spent the Second World War not only as a member of the Nazi party, but as an active supporter and propagandist for the regime; in his zeal, he even cut off all contact with his Jewish friends, former students, and colleagues. What was it in Heidegger’s thinking that could cause such a monstrous moral misstep? To this day, Heidegger has his apologists, men and women who are eager to believe that his dalliance with Nazism owed more to practical considerations, stemming form his philosophical aloofness from the world, than any real commitment to the party program, But Lilla – and many of Heidegger’s contemporaries, including the philosopher Karl Jaspers, who spent the war years hiding his Jewish wife from discovery and carrying cyanide pills on his person at all times – disagrees. In Being And Time, Heidegger’s magnum opus, he argues that the entire Western tradition, since the Greeks, has been founded on a misperception:

In Heidegger’s view, man has a tendency to lose himself in his world. He falls in with the crowd (the “they”), engages in idle chatter, lets himself be absorbed by average everydayness – all in order to avoid the fundamental question of his existence and its responsibility. We are inauthentic creatures: “Everyone is other, and no one is himself.” Authenticity is not easy to recover, however. It requires a new “orientation,” Heidegger claims, a confrontation with our finitude, an “authentic being-toward-death.” It would mean heeding the call of conscience, exhibiting “care” toward the manifestation of Being. And, above all, it would demand a new “resoluteness,” which signifies “letting oneself be summoned out of one’s lostness in the ‘they.'”

Heidegger’s mistake, Lilla argues, is two-fold. He allowed himself to believe that his lofty aspirations – the refounding of an entire culture, upon more “authentic” grounds – was compatible with the program of the Nazi party. But, more fundamentally, his entire philosophy represented a break from the mundane realities of actual politics. How could an entire civilization be reconstituted, except through politics? And yet, from his lofty perch, Heidegger showed no real concern with the practical aspects of implementing his wishes. Lilla quotes from a letter Karl Jaspers wrote towards Heidegger, long after World War II, when Heidegger was largely unrepentant, and certainly unchanged in his political outlook:

A philosophy that speculates and speaks in sentences like those in your letter, that evokes the vision of something monstrous, isn’t it in fact another preparation of the victory of totalitarianism, in that it separates itself from reality? Just as the philosophy circulating before 1933 helped prepare the acceptance of Hitler? Is something similar going on here?… Can the political, which you consider played out, ever disappear? Hasn’t it only changed its forms and means? And mustn’t one actually recognize them?

Jasper’s observation is an astute one, and no less applicable to every other philosopher Lilla invokes in this work.

Another thinker Lilla touches on is the Russian-born French politician Alexandre Kojève, who has had a lasting influence on today’s politics in his role of shaping the European Union.

He was convinced that the entire developed world was moving, by fits and starts, toward a rationally organized bureaucratic society without class distinctions. For him it was a mere detail whether that end was to be reached through the industrial capitalism promoted by the United States (which he called the right-Hegelian alternative) or the state socialism of the Soviet Union (the left-Hegelian one). In either case, the master-servant distinction would eventually disappear and a prosperous universal state arise, satisfying our age-old yearning for recognition.

This false moral equivalence between the free and democratic United States and the murderous Soviet Union would prove to be an irresistible error for many French intellectuals, in particular, who followed Hegel in believing that history, as a philosophical struggle, was over, and that the modern age would be marked by the rational administration of an ever-enlarging polity. But Kojève took his Hegelianism to an extreme, going so far as to posit a “rational” relationship between philosophers and tyrants, summarized by Lilla: “Philosophers and tyrants [,,,] 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.”

The final chapters of The Reckless Mind deal with two French intellectuals, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, whose baleful influence continues, to this day, in the United States. Both earned fame and fortune as socialist prophets, and both displayed an amazing moral blindness with regard to the Soviet Union. In a famous 1971 television debate with Noam Chomsky, for example, Foucault managed this declaration:

The proletariat doesn’t wage war against the ruling class because it considers such a war to be just. The proletariat makes war against the ruling class because, for the first time in history, it wants to take power. When the proletariat takes power, it may be quite possible that the proletariat will exert toward the classes over which it has triumphed a violent, dictatorial, and even bloody power. I can’t see what objection could possibly be made to this.

To such thinkers, the Soviet Union seemed the very embodiment of the revolutionary proletariat in action, and Foucault, useful idiot that he was, was offered a tour of the Soviet state; he returned to France singing its praises, blissfully unaware that his “tour” had been scripted, that the masses of people he did not see were starving, and that anyone who spoke out was summarily rounded up and executed, or sent into forced labour camps. The publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, just three years after that debate, revealed the full extent of Foucault’s moral idiocy.

The Reckless Mind is both a powerful synopsis of 20th century philosophy and a calling to account, an indictment of the “professors, gifted poets, and influential journalists who summoned their talents to convince all who would listen that modern tyrants were liberators and that their unconscionable crimes were noble, when seen in the proper perspective.” Lilla’s philotyrannical intellectual is with us still, clouding our judgment and excusing all manner of moral evils, but with Lilla’s help, we see him – and see through him – more clearly.