Skip to comments.Brilliant, Yes, but Morally Obtuse (Intellectuals)
Posted on 11/10/2001 12:34:46 PM PST by l33t
THE RECKLESS MIND By Mark Lilla
(New York Review, 216 pages, $24.95)
RECENT EVENTS have had many baleful effects, not least on the peace of mind of American citizens. But they have also reminded many of us, in a tonic way, of the fragility of civilized order. Indeed, a clarifying act of malevolence has led Americans to reaffirm the virtues of liberal civilization, to confront the reality of evil and to think about the sacrifices that citizenship requires.
The one exception seems to be the academy, where prominent voices blame America first and demand sympathy for The Other, the supposed victim of rapacious rationalism and imperialism. The loathing of Western intellectuals for the West itself is one constant of our age.
This theme is explored lucidly by Mark Lilla in "The Reckless Mind." Mr. Lilla's theme is the "philotyrannical" intellectual who lends his mind and prestige to illiberal regimes. Mr. Lilla states the problem roughly as follows: While it is understandable that some intellectuals living under tyranny have collaborated with it, it is puzzling that pre-eminent thinkers living under conditions of freedom should have supported tyranny and attempted to justify its crimes. "The Reckless Mind" sets out to explore this perplexity.
Some thinkers went so far as to justify tyranny in its most inhuman forms. Martin Heidegger, perhaps the greatest philosopher of the 20th century, saw in National Socialism "an inner truth and greatness" that could free the Western world from its enslavement to rationalism, technology and a soul-numbing conformism that he called "average everydayness." After his disastrous tenure as the Nazi rector of the University of Freiburg in 1933 and 1934, Heidegger turned to seemingly apolitical meditations on the "eclipse of Being" in a world dominated by technology.
But through everything Heidegger stayed contemptuous of Western liberalism. In 1966 he went so far as to state that "only a God could save us" from the destructiveness that it represented. This "passionate thinker," as Mr. Lilla rightly calls him, could not make the most elementary moral and political distinctions.
If Heidegger saw in Hitler's rise to power the self-disclosure of Being itself, the Franco-Russian philosopher Alexandre Kojeve saw in Stalin's reign the "universal and homogeneous state" where man is finally recognized in his full humanity. As a French civil servant after World War II, Kojeve came to modify his judgment, viewing liberal democracy and communism as two equally meritorious means toward "the end of history." (His ambivalence is reflected in his life: There is some evidence that Kojeve was a Soviet spy from 1938 until his death in 1968.)
Postmodern thought, although Heideggerian in origin, has departed from Heidegger in decisive respects. But it continues to express his moral and political obtuseness. Michel Foucault, for instance, seemed to be guided by a reductive antinomian impulse: He was unable to distinguish between legitimate authority and the tyrannical abuse of power. He investigated so-called structures of oppression (prisons, asylums) and saw in them, amazingly, the essence of Western rationalism. Meanwhile, he admired Mao's regime in China and even, for a time, Khomeini's theocratic insurrection in Iran.
Luckily, with the immense success of Solzhenitsyn's "Gulag Archipelago" in France in the mid-1970s, it became almost impossible for Foucault's countrymen to take seriously his denunciations of Western democracy's "totalitarianism." Yet his views have become something close to the official philosophy of American humanities departments up to the present day.
Jacques Derrida, Foucault's fellow postmodernist, is another thinker whose intellectual status, while having plummeted in Paris, seems to rise and rise in the campus towns of America. His largely impenetrable works are the source of the academic craze for "deconstructing" the Western tradition -- for teasing out supposedly suppressed meanings and for seeing all of reality as a "text" in need of deconstruction. Mr. Derrida, somehow not surprisingly, combines his abstruse method with an admiration for Marx.
As Mr. Lilla ably shows, what is common to these thinkers is a rejection of political philosophy. They deny the possibility of a patient, sober and rational exploration of political possibilities. And even when they become disillusioned with specific tyrants -- Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Castro, Khomeini -- they continue to reject political moderation and balanced analysis.
Mr. Lilla does not believe that liberal societies are beyond reproach. And he recognizes that liberal political philosophy often degenerates into moral relativism or a soft humanitarianism that cannot distinguish friends from enemies. This latter flaw was the central thesis of Carl Schmitt's 1932 classic, "The Concept of the Political." But Mr. Lilla shows that Schmitt was so carried away by a hatred for liberal democracy that he lost the ability to reason about its strengths and weaknesses. For a time he became the most prominent legal theorist of the Third Reich. Oddly enough, Schmitt is now the hero of certain left-wing social philosophers, who forgive him his Nazism because they share his contempt for bourgeois society.
Of course, not all major 20th-century thinkers succumbed to the totalitarian temptation. Three heroes stand out in Mr. Lilla's account. The political philosopher Leo Strauss defended political decency and -- although respecting the theoretical contributions of Heidegger, Schmitt and others -- recognized the insanity of their political projects. The French thinker Raymond Aron relentlessly exposed the confused justifications of Marxisant intellectuals, arguing that "commitment" must be grounded in reasoned political analysis and could never be an end in itself. And the German philosopher Karl Jaspers came to appreciate that Heidegger's failure to come to terms with his own complicity with Nazism was linked to the disorder of a soul ravaged by tyrannical demons.
Mr. Lilla develops the last point with great insight in the final chapter of his book. He turns to Plato's reflections on politics and eros to explore how some of the profound thinkers of our age allowed their passions to drive out moderation and self-mastery, leading them to embrace the worst ideological furies. It is a danger well worth keeping in mind as liberal democracy comes under assault, again.
Mr. Mahoney teaches political science at Assumption College and is the author of "Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: The Ascent From Ideology" (Rowman & Littlefield).