I received Mark Lilla’s book The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction at what felt like an especially reactionary moment in America’s history. With the so-called Age of Trump colliding into various resistance movements, this book promised to explain the reactionary tradition, which Lilla views as an unmined conceptual category. A skillful explicator of complex ideas and classic texts, his occasional contributions to the New York Review of Books, New Republic, and New York Times carefully apply the wisdom of ages past to contemporary cultural evolution. At a time when it’s still fashionable to treat the Western canon like a disposable scrap heap, Lilla’s scholarly craftsmanship usually serves as a needed corrective. The Shipwrecked Mind—where three paragraphs of hammering through dense marble can suddenly reveal a clear image in the matter of a sentence—certainly showcases his considerable talents. But the emerging composite sculpture leaves much to be desired.
In fairness, Lilla recognizes that he’s taking a “modest” first step on a daunting journey. Where theories and histories of political and cultural revolution abound, he observes that theories and histories of political and cultural reaction frequently tend toward “the self-satisfied conviction that [reaction] is rooted in ignorance and intransigence, if not darker motives.” Lilla expresses bewilderment about this, arguing that the spirit of reaction is as powerful, if not more “potent a historical force,” as its often-lauded twin, revolution. And yet the main reaction to the reactionary is “a kind of smug outrage that then gives way to despair.”
What’s implied is a welcome promissory note that Lilla will—one would expect—charitably situate the reactionary tradition, while simultaneously helping us better understand our current reactionary climate. But the promise is soon abandoned. “The reactionary mind,” Lilla writes, “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.” What’s more, “the militancy of [the reactionary’s] nostalgia is what makes the reactionary a distinctly modern figure, not a traditional one.” While the idea that there is a difference between a modern and a traditional figure may be somewhat provocative, whatever questions it provokes Lilla hardly asks and never answers. More importantly, in associating the reactionary with various thinkers, and what those thinkers have, could, or should have done with their thoughts, The Shipwrecked Mind arrives at some head-scratching conclusions.
Set in three acts, Lilla introduces three supposed reactionaries (Franz Rosenzweig, Leo Strauss, and Eric Voegelin), seeks to illustrate two currents reflective of reactionary thinking (in the work of Brad Gregory and Alain Badiou), then offers a real-time response to the recent wave of terrorist attacks in Paris (originally published in the New York Review of Books, reviewing both Michel Houellebecq and Éric Zemmour).
In the first act, Lilla does a fine job bringing his subjects to life, clearly (and for the most part accurately) contextualizing their work up against the challenges of their age. In the case of Leo Strauss we see how his tutelage under Heidegger formed the foundation to question and eventually defend Socratic philosophy. Where Heidegger challenged the bedrock of philosophical authority, Strauss eventually insisted that societies were inscrutable without that authority. With Eric Voegelin we see how witnessing mid-century cultural upheaval, and (like Strauss) relocating from Europe to America, heightened his awareness of spiritual influences that shape societies and individuals, especially in times of crisis. In the case of Franz Rosenzweig, we see a young scholar lured by the trappings of modern thought, but who soon (like Heidegger) became dissatisfied with the extent to which philosophy had turned away from what he called “the everyday of life.”
Each of these men had a palpable hunger to discern truth in its timeless and revelatory sense, then apply it in a meaningful way, historically, philosophically, and spiritually. But does this make them reactionaries? Was Rosenzweig a reactionary for offering Judaism as an alternate narrative to the spiritually void, suicidal trajectory of modernity, especially its increased industrial and military power? Was Voegelin a reactionary because he made unrecognized historical and theological connections that could help us better understand various shifts of thought and action from age to age? Was Strauss a reactionary because he drew on the wisdom of ancient philosophy and sought to apply it in the twentieth century?
Lilla offers a compelling and occasionally insightful account of Strauss’s personal journey (raising rabbits in his youth, wanting nothing more than to be a postman and read Plato), along with the conceptual tension that animated Strauss’s navigation between Athens and Jerusalem in his scholarship. Though he would eventually side with Athens, Strauss never lost sight of the ability of religious authority to confer the very same natural rights that are central to the modern liberal project. Like many German expatriates (including Voegelin, with whom he carried on a robust correspondence) who found asylum and achieved academic stardom in the United States, this ability to engage the religious dimension of politics and philosophy proved very attractive to American students who had flirted with consumerist nihilism and were not persuaded. Lilla shows that in both his appointments, at the University of Chicago and Cornell, Strauss was a gravitational force, especially in the 1960s, for pupils who “had particularly ugly experience with student violence, race-baiting, and liberal cowardice in the face of attacks on the university.” But where some might see a legitimate appeal to antiquity as a response to the moral obscurity of the Woodstock generation, Lilla sees a “path that led from the seminar rooms in Chicago to the [reactionary] right-wing political media-foundation complex in Washington.” This because Strauss taught supposedly wild ideas like resisting historical relativism, reaffirming the educational value of classical philosophy, and reinforcing the need for natural rights. While it’s inarguable that some of Strauss’s most recognized students were conceptually or actively connected to various right-leaning movements, to posit a direct line from his teaching to Rush Limbaugh and Fox News is the kind of loose judgment that makes The Shipwrecked Mind such a confusing little book.
Besides these sweeping biographical conclusions, another problem surfaces in Lilla’s book. Just as you think a signpost has emerged that could help you work through the conceptual framework he’s trying to unpack, it can curiously disappear in a heartbeat. For example, Lilla points to the expansive literary history fuelled by revolutionary ideals, suggesting that “the reactionary has yet to find his Dostoevsky or Conrad.” But in a complementary footnote he says that “the great exception is Thomas Mann,” whose Leo Naphta in The Magic Mountain is a suitable fictive creation: If so, why not say (and explain why) the reactionary has found his Thomas Mann? And why Lilla chose the metaphor of a shipwreck is no less perplexing, when the reactionaries (loosely defined) in this volume range from prominent twentieth-century thinkers with a wealth of influence to widely respected contemporary scholars whose work continues to inform, if not shape, discourse in the West. What’s more, radical Islamists have succeeded in luring entire nation-states into war. If a shipwreck refers to a vessel that’s been rendered unnavigable, these supposed shipwrecks, their respective movements and acolytes, appear to be cruising along just fine.
This curious mixture of over- and underreach, insight and intrigue, populates the final two acts of Lilla’s account, whether he’s examining the Left’s new fascination with the apostle Paul, or orthodox Christianity’s uncertainty in the early twenty-first century. “From Luther to Walmart” is a chapter as smartly titled as it is attractively stylized. But argumentatively it’s a careless takedown of a very good (though not perfect) book. While Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation is worthy of criticism, it does not deserve the comically flagrant treatment that Lilla gives it. (For a more responsible and appropriately challenging assessment of Gregory’s book, you can read Peter Gordon’s review Has Modernity Failed?, at The Immanent Frame.)
It’s the tragic attack of the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris that brings us to Lilla’s strongest moment, analyzing the conservative French intellectual Éric Zemmour, but more so with his treatment of the enigmatic novelist Michel Houellebecq. Partly because he was in Paris at the time, Lilla has a firm grasp on the paradoxical insight underpinning Houellebecq’s latest novel, Submission; coincidentally the French publication date of the novel was two days before the Hebdo attack, and on the very day of the attack Houellebecq was satirically rendered on the paper’s cover. So in his portrayal of the unravelling of France’s collective identity, Lilla understands precisely what’s at stake in the novel’s political theology: “Since the far right wants to deport Muslims, conservative politicians look down on them, and the Socialists, who embrace them, want to force them to accept gay marriage.” In other words, “no one party represents their interests,” so it should come as no surprise that this has inspired dangerous pockets of political anxiety, mixed with theological ambition.
In Submission, the binding power of religious conviction ultimately overwhelms the long-held belief that the pursuit of freedom can hold a society together. After all, the goal of theological traditions, Lilla acknowledges, is to “shape better human beings, not freer ones.” While that may be unsettling to our Western liberal tendencies, and antithetical to the terrorist acts exercised in the name of human improvement, the question facing democracies on both sides of the Atlantic is whether shaping better human beings and freedom’s pursuit are fortifying partners, or eternal enemies. This is the central question of Submission, and it’s worth noting that Houellebecq escapes being labelled a reactionary.
Ironically enough, Lilla himself has not escaped the label. Just days after the election of Donald Trump, he made his way to the Sunday Review of the New York Times, lamenting Hillary Clinton’s loss, and the Left’s prioritizing of identity politics over policy platforms that have universal resonance. “The fixation on diversity in our schools and in the press,” he argued, “has produced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups, and indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life.” As his talismans, Lilla pointed to Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and Franklin Roosevelt, voices who championed a spirit of American unity, and in Roosevelt’s case, captained the country through some of its most treacherous waters.
Shortly thereafter, Lilla was accused, in one way or another, of being time’s exile, and nostalgia’s prisoner. More pointedly his colleague at Columbia Katherine Franke likened him to David Duke, and argued that he was simply standing on the shoulders of a white supremacist male hierarchy, trampling down on the marginalized. While her argument was both predictably abstract and painfully convoluted, it exposed an inherent weakness in The Shipwrecked Mind‘s conceit, namely, that we all (even unwittingly) are liable to become time’s exile and nostalgia’s prisoner.
“We are only too aware,” Lilla writes in the closing line of his book, “that the most powerful revolutionary [what happened to reactionary?] slogans of our age begin: Once upon a time. . . .” Perhaps a more accurate slogan for the revolutionary and the reactionary would be, It depends on the day.