The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction. Mark Lilla. NY: New York Review Books, 2016.
Mark Lilla’s goal in this book is to warn the reader about the dangers of political reaction and to map out something of its extent. Lilla understands political reaction as originating in a false understanding of both history and the present world. In looking at history, some people are tempted to identify a particular historical period as a lost Golden Age to which they are then inclined to look with nostalgia. They come to see their own age as one of decline or decadence and they reject it in favor of a return to that Golden Age. Lilla would disabuse them of their nostalgia by showing them that their alleged Golden Age never existed, and that the real progress that we have made in the modern world since the Enlightenment deserves our loyalty. The term reactionary has commonly been reserved for the political Right. But in Lilla’s view, the challenge presented by political reaction is ideologically extensive. To be sure, Lilla analyzes a number of alleged political reactionaries on the Right, but he also identifies alleged reactionaries on the Left, and he looks beyond the West to argue that the Islamic world too is burdened by nostalgic reactionaries.
Lilla begins his book by summarizing and (largely) dismissing the thought of three prominent conservatives: Franz Rosenzweig, Eric Voegelin, and Leo Strauss. He identifies them as reactionaries and denies that they are conservatives (xii). But he doesn’t make clear what he means by the term conservative, an omission that leaves a linguistically stubborn reader free to apply the term to all three thinkers. Lilla offers up rather useful summaries of their thought. Indeed, that is by far the strongest part of his discussion of these three thinkers.
Lilla is critical of Rosenzweig for arguing “that there cannot be a Jewish state, and [that] any messianic attempt to found one is idolatrous.” (20). Rosenzweig wrote before the Shoah and the necessity of responding to it by means of the sort of political activity he rejected (23). Nostalgia for the past must not blind Jews to the necessities presented by the modern world.
Lilla is friendlier toward Voegelin and praises him for changing his mind about his understanding of history in The Ecumenic Age (39). In that work, Voegelin demonstrates a willingness “to renounce the bittersweet comforts of cultural pessimism and question the just-so narratives of civilizational decline that still retain their allure for Western intellectuals.” (42) Lilla also has kind words for a key insight of Voegelin’s, noting that “those concerned with the revival of political messianism in our time would do well to consider his searching reflections on the gnostic impulse.” (42)
Leo Strauss and especially his Straussian intellectual heirs come in for rather sharper criticism than do either Rosenzweig or Voegelin. On Lilla’s reading, Straussians are naive and credulous students of Strauss who absorbed a teaching that the modern world represents a decline from an Athenian Golden Age (58). Then, in a partisan reaction to the allegedly openly nihilistic 1960s, these Straussian epigones themselves declined, supporting a messianic foreign policy of neoconservatism aiming at American-led regime change abroad, and a domestic policy of right-wing, populist government at home. Surveying the populist and born-again Christian supporters of the Republican Party with whom the Straussians have made common cause, he tell us, in what he evidently regards as a biting and ironic criticism, that “[i]t is a long way from Athens.” (63)
Lilla then turns to a discussion and analysis of the account of history offered by Christianity. “Christianity,” he tells us, “turned its back on . . . ancient stories of fated decline. But it has never been able to escape historical mythmaking” (69). He offers as an example Brad Gregory’s unconvincing (to Lilla) account of decline from the middle ages to our time.
Having dispensed with conservative thinkers, Lilla turns his attention to the intemperate Left. He offers us an account of the turn of some contemporary French leftists to anti-Semitism. Upset at what they regard as Israel’s mistreatment of the Palestinians, thinkers such as Alain Badiou would deny to Jews an allegedly too-easy resort to the Shoah as an argument for defending the Israeli state and Jewish particularity (97-98). To Lilla, Badiou and similar thinkers on the left are victims of their failed radical past. These soixante-huitards have not been able to reconcile themselves to the collapse of their most fervent revolutionary hopes. Lilla concludes: “All one finds on the (almost exclusively academic) left today is a paradoxical form of historical nostalgia, a nostalgia for ‘the future.’ ” (99) They are, in a sense, prisoners of the past. They are attracted to “a very old political romanticism that longs to live life on more dramatic terms than those offered by bourgeois society” (101). They seek a life of passion and the frisson of antinomianism.
Lilla then moves to a discussion of the contemporary situation in France regarding Islam. This provides him with an opportunity to dismiss both Islamist terrorists and French thinkers sharply critical of the French government’s policies toward Islam. He places Islamists in the category of reactionaries aiming to restore some alleged Muslim Golden Age. But he also places critics such as Éric Zemmour and Michel Houellebecq in the category of Western analogues to the Islamists against whom they warn. For they too, in their own way, are upset at what they regard as the nihilistic present-day consequences of a corruption of a better past. In their case, they believe that the corruption originated in the Enlightenment.
In an afterword, Lilla offers us a view of history to counter ones that posit a Golden Age followed by decadence and decline: “The urge to divide time into ages seems embedded in our imaginations.” And our imaginations have fooled us: “Epochal thinking is magical thinking.” Indeed, “Narratives of progress, regress, and cycles all assume a mechanism by which historical change happens. . . . But what if there is no such mechanism? What if history is subject to sudden eruptions that cannot be explained by any science of temporal tectonics?” (134-36) With the Right and the radical Left discredited, what remains intact is his brand of allegedly moderate and decent leftism.
Lilla’s book does not make a persuasive case that all of the thinkers and political actors he mentions can be connected by means of a nostalgic view of history. First, Lilla never engages the strongest claims of natural right proponents such as Strauss. Indeed, because Strauss understands himself as recovering the natural right teachings of past thinkers such as Plato and Aristotle, Lilla (and, for that matter, any critic of Strauss) might well go to the original sources and engage Plato and Aristotle directly. Refuting the claims of Plato and Aristotle with respect to the issue of natural right involves much deeper philosophic engagement than Lilla offers in this book. Moreover, Lilla is overly curt in his dismissal of West Coast Straussians and their political support for the American regime bequeathed by the Founders. A deeper understanding of the thought of Harry Jaffa would go a long way to making sense of how Straussian intellectuals can bring themselves to support the Republican Party while still regarding themselves as Straussians in good standing.
Second, Lilla is unpersuasive because his dismissal of religious thinkers such as Rosenzweig is overgeneralized. If Rosenzweig tells us that Judaism demands an apolitical life, and if such an apolitical life exposes Jews to the Shoah, then to that extent Rosenzweig’s thought must be judged erroneous. But aspects of his thought that are not in conflict with reason must be judged from within the Jewish faith. One must engage Jewish thinking on its own terms and determine if Rosenzweig is true to Judaism with respect to those non-irrational elements of his thought.
Third, Lilla is too dismissive of the role of ideas in the movement of history. For reasons he doesn’t make clear, he sees the flow of history as rather more disordered than it actually is. No one would deny the role of contingency in shaping events. But neither contingency nor the absence of bright lines dividing up historical eras render traditional understandings of historical eras incoherent. And the fact that every era’s reigning idea or ideas contain an admixture of other ideas and influences does not refute the notion that eras do indeed have reigning ideas.
Finally, Lilla must be challenged in his belief (especially evident when he turns to a discussion of the extreme French Left) that his own political and philosophic views are reasonable and promote something like decent social and political progress. Leftism is characterized by a rejection of nature as a standard for human life. But because some minimal adherence to nature is a condition for being able to live together in communities, this rejection is never total. Leftists who imagine themselves freed from the constraints of nature will go only so far. In fact, it is precisely this sort of reticence rooted in a residual attachment to nature, and not his leftist politics, that makes Lilla a decent person. But having rejected nature philosophically, and having engaged in a politics that is in part opposed to nature, leftists have no principled philosophic argument for the further rejection of nature by subsequent generations seeking further “liberation” from the constraints of nature.
For example, in America the war against nature began in earnest during the Progressive Era in the late nineteenth century, with a rejection of Founding Era political and economic principles grounded in modern natural law and natural rights. Nonetheless, despite their conscious rejection of nature, Progressives understood themselves to be protectors of women, whom they regarded as weaker by nature than men. They thus displayed a residual attachment to natural right. This view of women continued until the 1960s, and the coming to political prominence of second wave feminism, which swept aside what it saw as the paternalism of both conservatives and the old Progressives, and which inaugurated a revolt against natural sexual differences. Liberals in the 1960s and 1970s rapidly accepted second wave feminism, but at the same time were still opposed to unnatural sexual relations. Thus, liberals again displayed a residual attachment to natural right. Yet homosexuals were next in line to be liberated from the constraints of nature, and in the years after the Stonewall Riots, liberals slowly accepted the normalization of homosexuality. Today, no liberal can be found who opposes any part of the homosexual agenda. The full acceptance of homosexuality freed liberals to move on to the transgendered, who must be liberated from the bodies nature gave them.
How to explain this slippage over the last century? For an answer, consider Antonin Scalia’s dissent in the Supreme Court’s Lawrence v. Texas (2003) case, which legalized homosexual sex nationwide. Scalia wrote that the same legal arguments that were used to overturn Texas’s anti-sodomy law could be used to overturn “criminal laws against fornication, bigamy, adultery, adult incest, bestiality, and obscenity.” He was misunderstood by some at the time as claiming that supporters of the legalization of homosexual sex were also supporters of incest and bestiality. He meant no such thing. Instead, he was making the point that the arguments offered to the court for legalizing homosexual sex were (necessarily?) overly broad, and that the proponents had unlocked a door that could be pushed open at some point by future nihilists. This has been the pattern in liberal arguments, from the old Progressives to the proponents of transgenderism in our day. And indeed, here we now are, contemplating the next extension of the logic of leftism: puberty-blocking drugs for children and polyamory rights for consenting adults.
And what comes after transgenderism and polyamory? Shall we extend the logic of liberation from one’s natural body? Let us do so: What of human/machine or human/animal mixtures? Military thinkers are already contemplating “hyper-enabled teams” that involve man/machine interfaces and biological “enhancements” as a way to create supersoldiers. Their speculations are complemented in the civilian world by those of the transhumanists. These researchers are opening the door for leftist ultra-technophiles, anxious to escape natural biological constraints. In the world toward which we might be headed, will it be a social faux pas or even a firing offense to object to some chimera, liberated at last from the tyranny of his natural human DNA and anxious to assert his right to be free from discrimination? Today’s liberals — Lilla included — would surely all recoil in horror at such a dystopia, just as the supporters of Lawrence v. Texas all properly and sincerely recoiled at what they mistakenly saw as Scalia’s accusation that they support incest and bestiality. And yet, by abandoning nature, leftism has sown the wind, and has no coherent argument against such creeping nihilism. Lilla quotes one of the more famous passages from Natural Right and History: ” ‘The contemporary rejection of natural right leads to nihilism,’ Strauss writes, ‘nay, it is identical with nihilism.’ ” (58) It is a pity that Lilla did not follow up properly on this claim.
But perhaps, and very ironically, there are natural limits to the liberal capacity for nihilism. Since at least the 1960s, it has become clear that each advance in liberalism leaves some liberals behind. When a liberal finds an extension of or evolution in liberal thought too hard to swallow, when his residual, unspoken, and undefended loyalty to natural right prevents him from taking the next step, he realizes that he has been mugged by reality. And he joins the ranks of the other half-conservative refugees from liberalism who make up a very large part of what passes for the American Right today.
Lilla is wrong to categorize thinkers on the basis of nostalgia or reactionary beliefs. It is all fine and good to psychologize, but one must first refute a thinker by deploying evidence and arguments. And that process of refutation points to a more fundamental way to categorize thinkers: their relationship to a trans-historical and universal natural right. This understanding of human thought would reveal, and urge a confrontation with, the nihilism of our era.