Big Bad Ideas

By Mattson, Kevin | Commonweal, October 11, 2002 | Go to article overview

Big Bad Ideas


Mattson, Kevin, Commonweal


The Reckless Mind Mark Lilla New York Review Books, $24.95, 216 pp.

Mark Lilla, who teaches in the University of Chicago's Committee on Social Thought, has written a small book about a very big question: Why do seemingly smart people develop pernicious ideas? More specifically, how to account for twentieth-century writers and thinkers who embraced totalitarianism--what Lilla calls "the philotyrannical intellectual"? These questions have been asked and answered before. As I read Lilla, numerous thinkers and ideas popped into mind: Daniel Bell's tentative celebration of the "end of ideology"; Whittaker Chambers's self-flagellating tirade against the modern substitution of communism for God; Christopher Lasch's warning of the "anti-intellectualism of the intellectuals." The list goes on.

If Lilla's questions aren't new, neither are his characters. Still, the reader can learn from these intellectual portraits painted with broad and insightful strokes. Dissecting the "place of passion in the life of the mind," Lilla starts, not too surprisingly, with the philosopher Martin Heidegger, examining his friendship with Karl Jaspers, his love affair with Hannah Arendt, and his willful embrace of Nazism. Lilla recounts a terrifying conversation between Jaspers and Heidegger. Jaspers: "How can such an uncultivated man like Adolf Hitler govern Germany?" Heidegger: "Culture doesn't matter. Just look at his marvelous hands." Heidegger's philosophy of "being" and "authenticity" turned into madness. Need we debate Jaspers's conclusion that a "demon had crept into" Heidegger's mind?

Lilla then contrasts Heidegger's politicization of philosophy with Arendt's argument that politics and philosophy should be separated and allowed to follow their own "vocabulary and ... rules." But if Lilla is disgusted with Heidegger (who isn't?), he isn't satisfied with Arendt's solution. He asks: "But if philosophers take the rule of reason with them" out of the political realm, "what other standards will replace it? Who or what will stand against tyranny?" Unfortunately, Lilla probably couldn't come up with a philosopher armed with a sense of truth who stayed in the political realm and prevented tyranny, and I doubt anyone could. This only makes his story that much more doomed for gloom.

Lilla moves onto the Catholic political theorist Carl Schmitt--another thinker whose connection to Nazism is incontestable. Schmitt's criticism of the endless debates of "parliamentary democracy" and his theory of "decisionism"--the argument for a strong sovereign to cut to the chase--fit perfectly with fuhrer politics. What is more surprising, though, is how Walter Benjamin, a man of the left, embraced Schmitt's political philosophy. Lilla shows that Benjamin junked theology for Marxism but preserved, along the way, a messianic utopianism. In the end, Schmitt's right-wing and Benjamin's left-wing antiliberalism shared more than first appearances may suggest.

Lilla departs Germany for France, where things don't get much better. Sartre's Stalinism is well-known, and Lilla detours through it into Alexandre Kojeve's later life in France, and finally homes in on Michel Foucault. Against Sartre's blind consistency, Foucault's postmodern leftism substituted haphazard shifts, though keeping intact destructive political conclusions. Drunk from Nietzsche's critique of "Enlightenment humanism," Foucault threw himself into the maelstrom of Paris 1968 and then endorsed everything from Maoist roving juries to the Iranian revolution. Lilla draws on James Miller's brilliant biography to discuss Foucault's personal forays into drugs and sadomasochistic homosexuality. Facing the threat of aids, Foucault "laughed at the talk of `safe sex' and reportedly said, `To die for the love of boys: What could be more beautiful?'" Lilla concludes that Foucault reflects what happens when a thinker struggles "with his inner demons," grows "intoxicated by Nietzsche's example," and then "projects" his life onto "a political sphere in which he has no real interest and for which he accepts no real responsibility.

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