Mark Lilla’s The Shipwrecked Mind

If you wanted to find a modern moment that encapsulated the worst possible political future for the Western world, you could not do better than the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a group of neo-Nazis and white nationalists did battle with “AntiFa,” a globalized left-wing militia fond of brandishing the hammer and sickle and physically assaulting their political opponents. No single event in recent memory has so perfectly captured what political science professor Mark Lilla would describe as a conflict between revolutionaries and reactionaries, between those who want to set the contemporary social order on fire and build utopia on its ashes, and those who would destroy the present to return us to a glorified past. In The Reckless Mind, Lilla explored the philosophy animating revolutionaries; in The Shipwrecked Mind, he turns his sights “on political reaction,” on the reactionary mind, and seeks to explain its attractions.

The publishing of both The Reckless Mind and The Shipwrecked Mind coincided with two deadly flareups of reactionary thought. The first book, The Reckless Mind, was published just two days before the al-Qaeda strikes on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon; in January of 2015, Lilla was living in Paris and completing the book that would become The Shipwrecked Mind when ISIS gunmen murdered the staff of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. The Islamic radicals who perpetrated these attacks are practitioners of what Lilla calls “the politics of nostalgia,” which makes the paradigmatic claim that the present moment is corrupt beyond redemption, and what is therefore needed is a return to a glorious past. Indeed, the Islamic texts are fertile grounds for reactionary thought, as Lilla points out:

The more deeply one reads into the literature of radical Islamism, the more one appreciates the appeal of the myth. It goes something like this. Before the arrival of the Prophet the world was in an age of ignorance, the jahiliyya. The great empires were sunk in pagan immorality, Christianity had developed a life-denying monasticism, and the Arabs were superstitious drinkers and gamblers. Muhammad was then chosen as the vessel of God’s final revelation, which uplifted all individuals and peoples who accepted it. The companions of the Prophet and the first few caliphs were impeccable conveyors of the message and began to construct a new society based on divine law. But soon, astonishingly soon, the élan of this founding generation was lost. And it was never been recovered.

There is your lost Golden Age, the glorious past beckoning for its return, and the idea has proved seductive enough for men and women to kill and die for it. And the ruthless logic of it extends outward, casting non-Muslims – particularly Western citizens – not only as unbelievers, but as enemy combatants, people who are spreading a pernicious mix of materialism, individualism, and secularism designed to weaken Muslim society and undermine the teachings of the Prophet. Thus can you make innocents into enemies, and terrorists into martyrs for the faith.

Lilla’s other reactionary groups are Christian conservatives, and it is here I felt his argument weakened, not because many of these thinkers do not fit the reactionary model impeccably, but because his distinction between reactionaries and conservatives seems too weak, much as he would like to keep them separate. “Reactionaries are not conservatives,” he tells us. “This is the first thing to be understood about them. They are, in their way, just as radical as revolutionaries, and just as firmly in the grip of historical imaginings. Millennial expectations of a redemptive new social order and rejuvenated human beings inspire the revolutionary; apocalyptic fears of entering a new dark age haunt the reactionary.” So far, so good: an Islamic conservative might look to the past and find much worth preserving and reintegrating in the present, whereas an Islamic reactionary would be eager to destroy the present for the sake of a return to the past. But Lilla will continue with an elegant definition of the reactionary that might equally apply to many conservative thinkers:

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. The revolutionary sees the radiant future invisible to others and it electrifies him. The reactionary, immune to modern lies, sees the past in all its splendor and he too is electrified. He feels himself in a stronger position than his adversary because he believes he is the guardian of what actually happened, not the prophet of what might be.

I recognize myself in this definition, not – I hope – as a shipwrecked mind, but as someone capable of seeing the splendor of the past and the lies with which the modern world seeks to erase that splendor, or deny it, or downplay it, and I do indeed feel myself to be “the guardian of what actually happened,” particularly when so many of my educated peers cannot provide even the briefest synopsis of their own history. Lilla goes on to quote the original mission statement of the National Review, “the reactionary American magazine,” which was “to stand athwart history, yelling Stop!” As if aware of the distinction without a difference he is drawing between conservatives and reactionaries, Lilla concludes the paragraph with this concession: “The militancy of his nostalgia is what makes the reactionary a distinctly modern figure, not a traditional one.” Well, yes, obviously. A conservative might yell at history, might write and argue and agitate for the preservation of history; the reactionary, on the other hand, will take up arms for history. That is a distinction with a difference.