The problem with being a public intellectual, the late Jean Bethke Elshtain once quipped, is that over time one tends to become more “public” and less “intellectual.” Fortunately, this does not apply fully to Mark Lilla. Unfortunately, to a degree it does.
A regular contributor to the New York Times, the New York Review of Books, the New Republic, and other citadels of high-brow liberalism, Lilla has distinguished himself as that rare intellectual griffon—part serious scholar, part journalist—able to write with lightly worn erudition and biting eloquence. His The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics deftly explored what he called the “philotyrannical” bent of several twentieth-century thinkers, who cozied up to dictatorships deemed capable of translating their ideas into policy. A subsequent book, The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West, analyzed the emergence of religious toleration in the West. A recent essay of Lilla’s in the New York Times caused a stir for the way it skewered identity politics on American campuses for helping supplant an older, class-based New-Deal liberalism, thereby abetting the losses of the Democratic Party in the 2016 elections.
In The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction, Lilla turns his attention to some of modernity’s most articulate discontents: reactionary intellectuals and movements that nostalgically turn to the past to impeach the present. He commendably condemns the “smug outrage” that prevents many liberals from taking conservative thought seriously, arguing that both liberal and conservative ideas produce “revolutionary” historical developments. His aim is exposé: to uncover the inner workings, the deep logic, of reactionary thought to diminish its allure.
The work is perhaps less a book, though, than a codex consisting of six previously published essays and reviews. Three focus on “thinkers”: Franz Rozenzweig, Eric Voegelin, and Leo Strauss. Two focus on “currents”: American “theoconservativsm” and the peculiar turn to St. Paul among some leftist figures eager to produce a “Damascus-road experience” in the wreckage of Marxist thought. In the final essay, Lilla ruminates on his own experience of living in Paris when two French Muslims terrorists infiltrated the offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and assassinated twelve people.
One needs a long rope to tie these essays together and Lilla believes he has it in the idea of “reaction,” particularly in how reactionary intellectuals invoke the past approvingly in their critical analyses of the present. “The reactionary mind is a shipwrecked mind,” he writes:
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 a 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.
Drawing “from preserved memories of the old ways,” the reactionary thinker, in Lilla’s interpretation, is eager to “restore,” convinced that others—and usually “the elites”—are hapless minions of the Zeitgeist—well-intentioned perhaps, but finally clueless.
All six essays have merits. Lilla does an especially nice job of describing the complex intellectual trajectory of the Jewish thinker Franz Rozenzweig. He also ably recounts the tale of how Leo Strauss’s esoteric reading of classical texts in the middle decades of the twentieth century, through various twists and turns, inspired a generation of “neoconservative” intellectuals or “Straussians,” some of whom improbably enlisted their learning in efforts to shape U.S. foreign policy. Remember Paul Wolfowitz?