Defiled by the menace of power

The Reckless Mind
September 27, 2002

The Reckless Mind is a miscellany of cautionary tales, with a moral, drawn from Plato's Seventh Letter , loosely appended at the end. Its characters vary in fascination, and are depicted with uneven intimacy and engagement. The cautions it offers concern the moral perils for the life of the mind of ill-advised and incontinent engagement with political power. The tales cover principally the three-quarters of a century from the first world war to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Within that timespan, they largely ignore the massive aberrations of the left's family romance with the Soviet Union, as chronicled for example in Francois Furet's The Passing of an Illusion , in favour of Germany, and of Paris in the aftermath of the second world war. What interests Mark Lilla is the scale and giddiness of his characters' indiscretions, variations on the age-old theme of philosophy's seduction by the malignities of power.

There is a great deal to understand within that ample space, much of it far from agreeable. The Reckless Mind , a relatively brief compilation of miniatures, could scarcely hope to master most of it. But Lilla is extremely successful in conveying the interest of two very different questions that it raises. How could these enormously ambitious and far-from-humble figures misjudge so epically? And what led many of them to act so discreditably? You might view the first as a question about the internal momentum of thought itself; but the second is unmistakably more one of motivation, character and the apparent rewards of different paths of self-advancement. Lilla himself plainly believes the first not merely more interesting, but also causally more penetrating. But his tales do little to sustain this judgement, and it is far from clear that his concluding moral is even compatible with it. Should we see the seduction of philosophy as grand and deep (as grand and deep as philosophy itself), or as quotidian and shallow (as quotidian and shallow as philosophers themselves inevitably turn out to be in most aspects of their own lives)?

The most successful of the tales is the first, on Martin Heidegger, Hannah Arendt and Karl Jaspers, partly because it is written with greater warmth and from much closer in, and partly because the relation within it between intellectual stakes and moral danger genuinely is more startling than in any of the other cases. Henry James notwithstanding, a tale with three characters has considerably more potential than one confined to a single heroine or villain. This tale has a genius (or, at any rate, magus) and two very considerable talents. It has sex and love, and the horror of the betrayal of a huge gift. Like Heidegger himself, Arendt and Jaspers clearly lived it as tragedy and nightmare; and Lilla evokes their sense of it with great vividness. But whatever one should make of Heidegger's philosophy, it is clear that in politics he was a monumental ass, who for a time behaved quite abominably. It showed impressive gall to claim that Hitler should have apologised to him for making such a fool of him; but it would have been deranged to blame anyone but himself for rendering him for a time such an egregious knave. Here only the eye of the believer could see the internal momentum of thought, and not merely the trivial, if sensationally ill-timed self-degradation of an in some ways remarkably obtuse person.

None of Lilla's other protagonists - Carl Schmitt, Walter Benjamin, Alexandre Kojève, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida - come through as dramatically, though all duly discredit themselves to varying degrees (Benjamin least as a human being, and perhaps Kojève least as a comparatively subterranean interpreter of politics). Each is presented directly and engagingly, but in no case in ways that attempt to do justice to their own broadest intellectual purposes. Koj ve remains as grey as ever in his eminence (for all the forceful tributes to his sense of humour); but Lilla certainly succeeds in making him sound pretty repellent. Benjamin, inevitably, appears far more sympathetically, but scarcely as a source of dependable insight into what was ever likely to happen in the world. Schmitt's character is effectively blackened at some length, without clarifying in the slightest why his works still repay careful attention. Foucault is cogently dispraised as a role model, but again in a way that fails to capture the value of his work. Derrida is treated most curtly of all, in a fashion that brings out all too well the stupefying vapidity of some of his recent political mantras.

What is missing from this book is a coherent conception of why political judgement is such a hazardous activity for everyone. The political seduction of philosophers might be a scandal because all political seduction is a scandal. If the political seduction of philosophers is a special scandal, that can only be because philosophers themselves have chosen to deem it so: to conceive themselves and it in a light that should put it categorically out of the question. Shades of Heidegger? There is every reason to believe that this is simply a mistake (either about it, or about their own role and the facilities it provides, or very probably both). Why should philosophers judge in or about politics any more dependably or nobly than anyone else? What do they know (what must they know?) for this purpose that others don't or can't? Some striking lines of thought have been developed in the attempt to answer this question; but the answers they offer are always quite unconvincing or obviously beside the point. Plato's in the Republic , the most striking of them all, is perhaps also the most unmistakably so. You could know the Republic backwards in the original, and perhaps in some sense believe all it argues, and still recognise yourself utterly bemused by the political realities of any particular time or place. There is always far too much to judge in politics for anyone even to be aware of most of it, and no reliable means to judge any of it accurately. In the wrong place at the wrong time (indeed, everywhere always) you do not need to be particularly imperceptive or especially vile to misjudge very badly indeed, and align yourself with great evil. If there is a single great problem of understanding here, it is not the treacheries of philosophy or a life dedicated to sustained thought. It is the obscurity, and the glittering promise and menace, of politics itself.

Lilla's cautionary tales lack the intensity of personal engagement or the vatic energy of George Steiner; but he is an intellectual journalist of polish and finesse, fresh, accessible and continuously interesting - perhaps without quite the literary flair for the New Yorker , but a beau idéal for the New York Review of Books or the Times Literary Supplement . He is a consistent pleasure to read. Yet what you feel as you read him is very seldom the internal momentum of thought.

John Dunn is professor of political theory, University of Cambridge.

The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics

Author - Mark Lilla
ISBN - 0 940322 76 5
Publisher - The New York Review of Books
Price - £16.99
Pages - 216

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