Still Enlightening After All These Years

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The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction by Mark Lilla. New York Review Books, 145 pages, $15.95

Modernity and Its Discontents: Making and Unmaking the Bourgeois from Machiavelli to

Bellow by Steven B. Smith, Yale University Press, 402 pages, $45.


Whatever else they may agree or disagree about, a majority of Americans clearly dislike Clintonism: the technocratic, managerial ethos of the Democratic Party since the early 1990s. They believe, rightly, that it exists to administer the decline of the post-World War II, New-Deal-mediated industrial order and to ratify the extinction of an older, producerist way of life. Neoliberal economics, plus consumerism, the culture of celebrity, and rights-based identity politics, is what secular modernity has come to mean to most Americans, and most of them reject it, or at any rate are deeply uneasy about it, whether articulately or not. Those on the left who wish to redeem and vindicate modernity have a great deal of distinguishing and discriminating to do in the years ahead; and they will face competition from conservatives, who have their own reckonings with modernity to proffer.

Of course no one wants - or at any rate will admit wanting - to roll back modernity altogether. Reactionaries get toothaches and are as grateful for modern dentistry as the rest of us. They also have daughters, to whose professional ambitions and achievements they are by no means indifferent. And whether they are of the 1 percent or the 99 percent, most of them understand that capital has no homeland, that nation-states are no match for financial markets, and that those markets do not take the slightest notice of an investor's race, color, or creed, the kink of his hair, or the slant of her eyes. All that is solid has long since melted into air. Nationalism and religion remain excellent ways of motivating us to kill, but they are no longer of much use in showing us how to live.

The libertarian right wastes no tears on religion or nationalism. They are entirely - in fact, exclusively - modern; they have jettisoned all such pre-modern baggage as charity, loyalty, humility, and self-sacrifice. By and large, they think that pushpin is as good as poetry and Facebook is as good as Tolstoy. Whatever satisfies your utility function.

Still, however perversely, libertarians at least think. The commissars of the Republican Party since 1980 have not allowed an idea into their heads, individually or collectively. Their sole principle is service to the rich; their sole function to be, in Thomas Frank's apt phrase, a "wrecking crew," or as wrecker-in-chief Grover Norquist sniggered, to drown the government in a bathtub. They can scarcely appreciate George Will, much less Charles Krauthammer, who, though reduced by long immersion in the sound-bite culture of television and the opinion pages to a sequence of irritable mental gestures, is nonetheless an intellectual. Even Bill O'Reilly is probably too highbrow for Republican politicians - he writes books, after all, or at any rate puts his name to them. The Democrats, as Frank shows in his latest book, Listen, Liberal, are the party of the 2 through 10 percent - the professional class, to whom ideas do matter, though far less than income and status.

It is no use, then, expecting philosophy to shed much light on contemporary American politics. But perhaps political history can help adjudicate some philosophical disputes. One such venerable yet evergreen debate centers on the Enlightenment. Has the Enlightenment been a success or a failure - or better, how much of each and in what respects? How much moral progress has humankind made, and how much more can we hope for? How far can we rely on reason, and how much room must we make for tradition, authority, and faith? Two new books by conservatives - Columbia intellectual historian Mark Lilla and Yale political philosopher Steven Smith - examine some well-known (in Smith's case) and little-known (in Lilla's) answers.

The Shipwrecked Mind, like Lilla's earlier book The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics (2001), is a collection of occasional essays on related themes. The earlier book pondered "tyrannophilia," the regrettable tendency of both left-wing and right-wing intellectuals to lose their bearings and end up defending political violence and oppression. This is a subject of inexhaustible interest to centrist liberals from Isaiah Berlin and Raymond Aron to Michael Ignatieff and Leon Wieseltier, who do not always convey the impression that they fully understand why anyone would become a left-wing or right-wing radical, or anything but a sensible centrist liberal.

Lilla was far from smug or heavy-handed in The Reckless Mind but he did occasionally overstress the present danger of tyrannophilia and the urgency of responsible moderation. He justifies these emphases in the book's preface, where he laments that "so many admirers of these thinkers [i.e., Heidegger, Schmitt, Benjamin, Foucault, and Derrida] continue to ignore or justify their political recklessness." But he refrains from naming anyone, and I, for one, have no idea who he means. The admirers of Heidegger and Schmitt have generally been forthcoming about those authors' obvious and undeniable political recklessness. Some of Foucault's European admirers may have taken seriously his brief infatuations with Maoism and the Iranian Revolution, but not many, and even fewer Americans. And there has not been a Marxist-Leninist above thirty years old in the United States for at least half a century (always excepting Chairman Bob Avakian) - or if there has, she hasn't published anything. Meanwhile, in the non-ideological (i.e., real) world, predatory global capitalism has rolled on, grinding the faces of the poor and destroying the planet, unhampered, indeed virtually unnoticed, by centrist liberalism. Lilla at least has the grace to acknowledge, in a footnote to the Afterword in this year's reissue of The Reckless Mind, "the countless cases of intellectuals whose political commitments did not pervert their thinking." Perhaps he will join them before Earth's Gini coefficient reaches 1 and Morningside Heights is under water.

The fauna of The Shipwrecked Mind are more exotic than those of The Restless Mind and harder to interest us in, though Lilla is a skillful expositor and a graceful writer. Who is "the reactionary," he asks, "this last remaining 'other' consigned to the margins of respectable inquiry"? Intriguingly, he replies: "Reactionaries are not conservatives. That is the first thing to be understood about them." Conservatives like Burke and Tocqueville are satisfied with the status quo, not merely because they are well off in it but because they see the virtue in it and prize stability over an unattainable ideal. Reactionaries are anything but satisfied:


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. ... 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. ... The militancy of his nostalgia is what makes the reactionary a distinctly modern figure, not a traditional one.



Lilla's portrait of the reactionary as a revolutionary with the polarities reversed is persuasive and illuminating, though it is marred by a spasm of reflexive centrism. He notes the descent from Oswald Spengler of a declinist literature on the American and European right, then adds that nowadays declinism "can also be found on the fringe left, where apocalyptic deep ecologists, antiglobalists, and anti-growth activists have joined the ranks of twenty-first-century reactionaries." This is a false equivalence, or at least two-thirds of one. Anti-globalization and anti-growth activists yearn for progress as fervently as Thomas Friedman or Lilla himself but have the wit to recognize that whatever may be the ultimate result of unrestricted capital mobility and unlimited fossil fuel exploitation, it will most certainly not be progress, and may indeed be "apocalyptic." Nostalgia has nothing to do with it.

The first of Lilla's subjects is Franz Rosenzweig, born in 1886 and dead of ALS only 43 years later. Rosenzweig shared the reaction among early-20th-century German-speaking philosophers against their Hegelian legacy. Most of them gravitated toward neo-Kantian rationalism or the anti-rationalism of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. Rosenzweig, spurred by a mystical experience during a Yom Kippur service, turned toward the burgeoning Jewish studies movement. Though never theologically orthodox, he saw in sacred history, both Jewish and Christian, a refuge from and remedy for the spiritual homelessness that afflicted so many cultivated Europeans and Americans in those years. Had he lived, he might have become one of the century's great religious existentialists. But his involved style and his resolute unworldliness limited his influence. Lilla certainly makes him sound interesting but cannot make him sound relevant.

Lilla's next two subjects, Eric Voegelin and Leo Strauss, were far more influential. Both were German refugees, their attention riveted by the extremism and violence that convulsed Central Europe and Russia between the world wars. Both devised esoteric anti-modern philosophical systems that found much favor in Cold War America, though in both cases their intellectual seriousness eventually undermined their popularity.

Voegelin naturally blamed the Enlightenment for subverting Western civilization, but he traced the origins of Western decline much further back. The first, fateful step toward the collapse of order was Christianity's distinction between divine and secular authority, the City of God and the City of Man. Until then, humankind had been ruled by god-kings; as a result, everyday life was permeated by, and structurally dependent on, the transcendent, which anchored the individual and society.

Voegelin was best known for his claim that the key to understanding Western history is Gnosticism. An ancient half-Christian, half-pagan heresy, Gnosticism held that the visible world is corrupt, the work of an evil spirit, but might be redeemed by those endowed by a higher, hidden divinity with secret knowledge (gnosis). In Voegelin's view, this was the archetype of millenarian ideologies, in which an elite claiming special inspiration promises to lead the masses to a new and better world.

Strauss too believed that political order required divine sanction, though unlike Voegelin, he had no vestige of belief in the divine. Strauss was a political and religious skeptic but he was convinced that skepticism was bad for non-philosophers - that is, virtually everyone. T.S. Eliot wrote that "human kind/ Cannot bear very much reality"; Nietzsche thought that only supermen could live without "metaphysical comfort." Strauss agreed with them and drew a radical political conclusion: philosophers (actually, since few people pay attention to philosophers nowadays, one should probably say "intellectuals") ought to protect ordinary people from unbearable truths by shoring up whatever myths their society lives by. Of course, different societies may have irreconcilable myths, in which case war is unavoidable. But better war than chaos or anomie.

Better for whom? Not necessarily for ordinary people - Strauss seems to have cared very little about ordinary people. But definitely better for intellectuals, who re  quire to be subsidized (for their useful myth-making) and then left alone to "converse." Lilla describes all this rather more benignly:


Strauss held [that] all societies require an authoritative account of ultimate matters - morality and mortality, essentially - if they are to legitimate their political institutions and educate citizens. Theology has traditionally done that by convincing people to obey the laws because they are sacred. The philosophical alternative to this obedience was Socrates's life of perpetual questioning beholden to no theological or political authority. For Strauss this tension between [philosophy and religion] was necessary and in any case inevitable in human society. Without authoritative assumptions regarding morality, which religion can provide, no society can hold itself together. Yet without freedom from authority, philosophers cannot pursue truth wherever it might lead them.


... The philosopher and the city each have something to teach the other. Philosophers can serve as gadflies to the city, calling it to account in the name of truth and justice; and the city reminds philosophers that they live in a world that can never be fully rationalized, with ordinary people who cling to their beliefs and need assurance. The wisest philosophers, in Strauss's estimation, were those who understood that they must be political philosophers, thinking about the common good. But they must also be politic philosophers, aware of the risks they take in challenging false certainties.



This is a good deal too charitable. False certainties, Strauss thought, were indispensable: for ordinary people to accept, since they must have some comforting beliefs to insulate them from the harsh truths that would drive them to despair and disorder; and for philosophers to propagate, since they must rely on benighted ordinary people to create an stable and orderly world, safe for philosophizing. A properly functioning false certainty is the last thing a Straussian political philosopher would want to challenge.

The remainder of The Shipwrecked Mind touches briefly on a few widely assorted and (apparently) justly obscure thinkers. First is the mid-20th-century theologian Jacob Taubes, an admirer of Carl Schmitt and Walter Benjamin, who declared Saint Paul an apostle from the Jews to the rest of humanity and the first and perhaps greatest revolutionary. Another admirer of Saint Paul is the contemporary philosopher of "the event," Alain Badiou, who considers Mao the greatest of all revolutionaries - readers can profitably skip this chapter. Also included are two essays Lilla wrote while living in Paris during and after the Charlie Hebdo murders. The essays take two books by "new reactionaries," Eric Zemmour's right-wing jeremiad Le Suicide fran├žais and Michel Houellebecq's novel Soumission, as starting points for reflections on the appearance of a troubling strain of cultural despair.

Introducing readers to obscure and difficult authors is hard and valuable work. Here and in The Reckless Mind, Lilla has done it well and deserves our thanks. Still, although he is not strictly obliged to indicate the degree of his agreement or disagreement with his subjects' opinions, I think he might have seen fit to take exception to some of the more outlandish ones. The Political Religions contains, he tells us, "the germ of all Voegelin's major works"; the book's "basic theme" is that "the fantasy of creating a world without religion, a political order from which the divine was banned, led necessarily to the creation of grotesque secular deities like Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini. ... When you abandon the Lord, it is only a matter of time before you start worshiping a Fuhrer." It is Voegelin's assertion seems grotesque to me, a crass libel on the Enlightenment. Historically, the correlation between religious skepticism and democracy is strong, as is the correlation between dogmatic religion and authoritarianism. The nearest contemporary approximation to "a world without religion" is, after all, Scandinavia (where the divine is not exactly banned).

Likewise, historians may be allowed to exaggerate their subjects' continuing relevance - but only up to a point. As evidence that "we have much to learn from Voegelin's grand narratives," Lilla urges that "those concerned with the revival of political messianism in our time would do well to consider his searching reflections on gnosticism." What revival of political messianism? If messianism is a vision of radical social transformation, it is notable by its absence from today's world. The Chinese are busy getting and spending under the benevolent supervision of the Communist Party. The Indian masses yearn for air conditioners and washing machines. In Russia, Putin is liquidating his barons and enlisting Orthodoxy in a revival of Tsarism. Europe is under the thumb of central bankers and their civil servants. Africa is torn by ethnic and religious violence. Latin America is tending its wounds after decades of American-backed dictatorships. And US politics, pre- and post-Trump, is completely dominated by two parties distinguished only by the degree of their fealty to the plutocracy. Right-wing populism dreams only of returning to the day before yesterday, not of transforming anything. But embattled centrism must have something to be embattled about; there must always be dangerous radicals inciting restive masses to imminent apocalypse.

Again, Lilla seems to agree (it's hard to tell) that "the assumption behind [the Enlightenment] was that the world could be reformed on the basis of reason and empirical inquiry. And that assumption, on Strauss's reading of modern history, was wrong. All the [Enlightenment] managed to do was distort philosophy's mission, leaving it and the world worse off." It is a peculiar reading of modern history according to which either the world has not been reformed (cf. the abolition of slavery, religious toleration, universal suffrage, child labor laws, the emancipation of women) or reason and empirical inquiry do not deserve most of the credit. That the Enlightenment "left the world worse off" is either a deep truth or shallow nonsense, but in any case requires a great deal more in the way of argument than Lilla (or, as far as I can tell, Strauss) provides.

Steven Smith, a Straussian, undertakes to provide it, or some of it. Modernity and Its Discontents is an ambitious survey of the Enlightenment's precursors (Machiavelli, Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza), interpreters (Kant, Hegel), and critics (Rousseau, Tocqueville, Nietzsche, Schmitt, Berlin, Strauss), with side trips into Franklin's Autobiography, Flaubert's Madame Bovary, Lampedusa's The Leopard, and Bellow's Mr. Sammler's Planet. Smith is not as cogent an analyst or as fine a stylist as Lilla, but he is an engaging and good-natured, if occasionally prolix, guide to this vast intellectual territory.

Gallantly, Smith begins by putting the Enlightenment in the best possible light, defining it as "the desire for autonomy and self-direction, the aspiration to live independently of the dictates of habit, custom, and tradition, to accept moral institutions and practices only if they pass the bar of one's critical intellect, and to accept ultimate responsibility for one's life and actions." Politically, it entails "individual rights, government by consent, and the sovereignty of the people." What's not to like about any of that?

Some of the Enlightenment's critics object that human nature is simply not up to it: we are too belligerent or too greedy or too superstitious ever to put war, poverty, and intolerance behind us. Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor makes this case memorably. Burke's horror at the thought of any individual's "private stock of reason" challenging the verdict of tradition and Carl Schmitt's insistence that our political loyalties have nothing to do with reason but instead seize us unaccountably and irresistibly are other influential examples of this argument, which we get in vulgar form every day from politicians who remind us that "there is no such thing as society," and certainly no such thing as a free lunch. Other critics think that the universal reign of reason, peace, and justice is, alas, all too probable and will cause any person of spirit to die of boredom (Nietzsche) or at least not find sufficient scope for heroism and grand ambitions (Tocqueville).

Smith sums up the "Counter-Enlightenment" very handily:


For each movement of modernity, there has developed a comprehensive counternarrative. The idea that modernity is associated with the secularization of our institutions has given rise to fears about the rationalization and "disenchantment" of the world; the rise of a market economy and the commercial republic gave way in turn to an antibourgeois mentality that would find expression in politics, literature, art, and philosophy; the idea of modernity as the locus of individuality and free subjectivity gave rise to concerns about homelessness, anomie, and alienation; the achievements of democracy went together with fears about conformism, the loss of independence, and the rise of the "lonely crowd"; even the idea of progress itself gave rise to a counterthesis about the role of decadence, degeneration, and decline.



Smith's own views are - as is often the case with Straussians - hard to pin down. He would not dream of doubting the "immense benefits" brought about by the Enlightenment's "humanitarian project," its belief that "science and the application of scientific method could provide answers to the most pressing problems - war, poverty, ignorance, and disease - facing humankind." Regrettably, however, progress has given birth to "progressivism," an "almost eschatological faith" in humankind's irresistible advance toward a glorious future. Certain that "all the important problems facing civilization are technical in nature," progressives place entire confidence in experts and see no need for "prudence and practical judgment." The social sciences have furnished the tools with which a "new elite" has created an "administrative state," threatening "an end to politics." Perhaps we must entertain the possibility - familiar to the ancients but supposedly anathema to the Enlightenment - that "our seemingly most intractable problems lie beyond our rational capabilities."

This is a fine muddle. To begin with, reason was only half the Enlightenment's program. The other, equally important half was freedom. The intimate, unbreakable connection between the two halves was this principle: every form of authority must be justified to those over whom it is exercised. The motto of the Enlightenment was: "Question authority." That was also the motto of the New Left, which Straussians rate a little below bubonic plague among history's great misfortunes. Allan Bloom was the most hysterical of them in this respect, but all good Straussians loathe the Sixties. Questioning authority is something ordinary people - the poor shlubs - should be strongly discouraged from doing.

Of course radical democrats are no friends of the "administrative state." But here is how Smith frames his objection: "the classical idea of the statesman (or what remains of it) gave [way] to the new idea of the expert or policy specialist as the hero of the new age." The Straussians' idea of a heroic statesman is Henry Kissinger, quite possibly the most callous, dishonest, self-serving public figure in American history. To be sure, the administrative state must be made democratically accountable. (At present it is wholly accountable, but only to people with significant power over investment and employment, which are a capitalist society's oxygen supply.) But in that arduous and long-term effort, Straussians will be no help.

There have always been free spirits and critical thinkers, but a critical mass was achieved in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when humankind finally "emerged from its self-imposed dependence" (Kant). That beautiful and decisive episode (chronicled for all the ages in Peter Gay's and Jonathan Israel's masterly, epic histories) is vulnerable, like all other human achievements, to erosion and reversal. The Enlightenment's protagonists had no illusions about the inevitability of progress or the attainability of ultimate perfection. They simply recognized that we would do better to trust to open debate and democratic decision-making than to the prudence of statesmen or the wisdom of philosophers. We owe it to them, of course, to listen patiently to their critics, both friendly (like Berlin) and unfriendly (like Strauss). But we owe it to ourselves and one another to keep clear forever of that "self-imposed dependence."



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