Saturday March 6, 2004
The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics, by Mark Lilla
" Intellectual" is, famously, not a valid or respectable career option in this country. So if I say that this book contains essays on eight of them, you may feel that your weekly book-buying budget should be directed elsewhere. And if I add that Lilla's subjects include not only those commonplace bogeymen Foucault and Derrida, but the Nazis Heidegger and Carl Schmitt, you may make a robustly empirical gesture and move on.
But this is important. Lilla's short, elegant and readable book is about what happens when philosophers get tangled up in the real world, when they become political - and by "political" we should not understand the milk-and-water British version of the concept, but that continental engagement with absolutely tyrannical regimes.
This is not simply a matter of Heidegger joining the Nazi party and denouncing Jewish colleagues, though that is bad enough. It is also a matter of recognising that the world is in the shape it is because of the influence of the most rarefied of minds. Alexandre Kojève confessed that he had read Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit several times without having understood a word; but once he got it, it launched a train of thought that has produced, so far, the EEC, Gatt, Fukuyama's End of History and the fact that your grocer can get busted for selling you two pounds of potatoes instead of a kilo.
That may be an irritation but it is quite benign when you consider the other possibilities, the far more problematic and brutal avenues a philosopher can take (Kojève had an influential post-war job in the French Ministry of Economic Affairs). These have been in the offing since Plato sailed to Syracuse in the fourth century BC in order to try and see whether Dionysius the tyrant had it in him to be a philosopher. The story is told, and reflected on, in Lilla's afterword; you will then understand just why the quip made to Heidegger in 1934, on his return to teaching after his stint as Nazi rector of Freiburg - "Back from Syracuse?" - was so insulting. As Lilla puts it: "Dionysius is our contemporary. Over the last century he has assumed many names: Lenin and Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini, Mao and Ho, Castro and Trujillo, Amin and Bokassa, Saddam and Khomeini, Ceausescu and Milosevic - one's pen runs dry."
For me, at least, the book has been a great help. While it has its gaze firmly fixed on one major theme, Lilla is not in the business of pooh-poohing these thinkers: they may have had enormous blind spots, but they were not stupid, and this book serves as a useful primer on all the thinkers here (with the exception of Walter Benjamin, not very well served by Lilla). One does not refuse to engage with these people simply because they have opinions with which the truly civilised can never become aligned. Carl Schmitt, for instance, may have been the most disgustingly rabid and startlingly unapologetic of anti-semitic fascists ("What was really more indecent," he once asked, "joining Hitler in 1933, or spitting on him in 1945?"), but his view of the groundspring of politics as conflict deserves attention whichever end of the spectrum you occupy. Like De Maistre (Lilla does not make very much of the similarities, which surprised me) before him, his facing up to the potential monstrosity of mankind means he has to be listened to, and people from both left and right would travel to learn from this warped guru.
Lilla puts it thus: "Ever since the two world wars, western liberals have considered war 'unthinkable'. In the view of Schmitt's conservative admirers, this only means that war has become more thoughtless, not less frequent or less brutal." I would propose that such an insight alone makes the price of the book worthwhile. Which may make me, in a coinage of Derrida's which Lilla exposes to mild scorn, a bit of a carnophallologocentrist - but so be it.
There is no index. Even a bad one would have been preferable.