Monday, July 2, 2012

An Account Of Mark Lilla's Afterwards In His Book The Reckless Mind

In his Afterwards, Mark Lilla in his book The Reckless Mind tries thematically underpinning the preceding chapters, which broadly deal with, as the sub title says, "Intellectuals in Politics." That underpinning might allay the impression these chapters are discrete essays, previously published, recast in book form but not tightly fit together.

In trying to do so, Lilla’s Afterwards turns on central questions:

“What is it about the human mind that made the intellectual defense of tyranny possible in the twentieth century? How did the Western tradition of political thought, which begins with the critique of tyranny in the Republic…reach the point where it became respectable to argue tyranny was good, even beautiful?”

(This Lilla calls “philotyranny.")

Lilla in the first part of his Afterwards posits a historian of twentieth century ideas answering his questions. This historian assumes the shared intellectual roots of modern philosophic love of tyranny and tyranny itself. He identifies two rival European intellectual traditions, calling one philotyrannical.

One line of argument is that one tradition, the Enlightenment, exploded the prevalence of Christian traditions and practices, encouraging social engineering by presumed “simple ideas of rational order.” On this view, the Enlightenment both bred tyrannies and was itself tyrannical in its intellectual methods—intolerant, absolutist, and deterministic. It hated and suppressed the diversity and pluralism of the Western tradition. Its single mindededness anchored twentieth century totalitarianism. It assumed one true answer to each moral and political question, all ascertainable by reason and interconnected.

But a counter line of argument exists, keying on innate religious impulse and vaunting the irrational as informing Europe’s intellectual history. Twentieth century European tyranny connects with religious privileging of the irrational. The urge to hurry the “coming of the Kingdom of God in a profane world” underlay these tyrannies.

On one version of this line of argument, the essence of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Europe is not rationalism inclining to liberal democracy but, rather, religious and messianic expectations infusing modern democratic ideas. Hence, a frenzied, irrational apprehension of democracy overtook reason as the French Revolution descended into Jacobin terror.

These arguments pit a cold, efficient, heartless rationalism against the irrationalism of revolutionary fervor, the innate impulses of religion, the claims of blood and the glorification of violence.

Another way to try to get at the central questions is to examine the social history of Lilla's subject intellectuals in European political life over the history of their ideas. Here a conventional account is that the Dreyfus Affair brought out French intellectuals from the precincts of the arts and lit their higher duty as the state's conscience. A usual narrative follows: fights between the republican Dreyfusards and Catholic nationalists; fights over the Russian Revolution and the Popular Front after WW1; fights over Vichy; Sartre’s post WW11 existential Marxism; fights over Algeria; the neo left radicalism of and after May 1968; and the Mitterrand liberal-republican consensus.

Contending here are Sartre’s committed intellectuals as against bourgeois orthodoxy, and their radical critique of capitalism and imperialism as against restraint and anti Romantic proportion counseled by Raymond Aron. He called for mature and sober judgment in assessing the relative injustices of liberal democracies compared to tyrannies.

Despite this contention in France, something different occured in Germany. It had a qualitatively different intellectual class indifferent to the French idea of commitment. Its intellectual tradition, said Thomas Mann, was “culture, soul, freedom, art and not civilization, society, voting rights and literature...Germans never elevate social problems above moral ones, above inner experience.”

Jurgen Habermas argued that by withdrawing from modern politics, German intellectuals since the nineteenth century dwelt in a fantasy world of ancient Greece, of mystical Teutonic forests, of Magic Mountains that in the twentieth century made Hitler seem a regenerative force. Political engagement could have positioned them to stand against Nazism.

So, further contending are the critiques of disengagement—Habermas—and of blind political commitment—Aron.

For Lilla none of these contentions answer his questions about why European twentieth century philotyranny existed. They are partial and proximate, not touching his questions' heart. For that one needs to start where Lilla briefly begins his first Chapter, Plato's themes of philosophy and love.

Against these themes and to highlight their significance, Lilla posits a recurring intellectual type who can be linked to tyranny. He covets and regurgitates second and third rate ideas. Eros drives him, as it drives all men.

For Plato that innate force, the energy of love, wants to reach beyond itself, to stretch itself. All men are incomplete and seek to fulfill their own yearning. Eros is that yearning. Eros moves body in some and body and mind in others. Aspirationally, it leads to philosophy or the sublime arts or the right ordering of civic life--politics in its best sense. Yet it can lead to wanton excess of the senses and to cruelty. The former are heaven bound, the latter earth bound.

Love is of a piece with Eros. It too becomes wanton in excess. True happiness, therefore, resides in restraint and self disciplined proportion. They form self control, hence self mastery, the command of one's soul, even as Eros urges past restraint. Philosopy provides self mastery in the face of love, provides a disciplined erotic life seeking consciously what Eros unthinkingly aspirationally goes to—“eternal truth, justice, beauty, wisdom.” Only the few can think their way there. Others seek their wholeness or find their fracturing in relation to their capacities or incapacities.

Now some coherent understanding emerges. Tyrants for Plato are enslaved by their passions, those in whom Eros, the force of love, expels moderation and conquers their souls. Contrastingly, the philosopher knows the make-mad love of wisdom but does not enslave himself. Restraint permits self governance.

Some self-tyrannized become rulers. Their erotic madness enslaves self and subject. But much more numerous are self- tyrannized sophists forming the clerisy, in a word, intellectuals.

They are “sunburned” by ideas. They cannot master their passion for ideas or for the rewards of fame and celebrity. Endlessly they talk and write and theorize and intellectualize. (These days they are public intellectuals, often not knowing whereof they speak.) They are a herd parading as independent minds. They are driven by their passions and external quests, unable to restrict themselves to worth. In the young the passion for ideas may be for the good. The young may be educated into disciplined restraint so to approach the condition of philosophy or some other heaven-pointing good.

Some, diagnoses Plato, will slip their education and step if moved enough, by self and sophist, from thought to the action of politics. They will seek tyrannical fulfillment by wielding power. Their sophists will flatter them and toady to them for favor and celebrity. Contrastingly, those nearing philosophy will strive always toward the eternal by way of their restraint.

The limitless depths of excess and the illimitable heights of the eternal tell how Plato's thought-experimenting ideal of a philosopher king is to be understood. The ideal of this conjured figure makes clear the incommensurability between philosophy and politics. Such an ideal man, being an ideal man, will never exist.

Failing commensurability, the best men can do is approximate it by way of self control. And a lover of wisdom amidst tyrants and beasts sometimes best withdraws to live “pure of injustice and unholy deeds, and take his leave graciously and cheerfully with fair hope.” Public life will even in the best of circumstances and for the best of men inexorably devolve to compromise and injustice. (This inevitability's correlative is Socrates's drinking hemlock and, more so, his self-understood philosophic need to drink it.)

Self knowledge by self mastery is the best way to see and understand tyranny. Philosophy is the best way out of the tyrant’s rule of himself and others. A connection exists, says Plato, between the yearning for wisdom and tyranny. A yearning is the urging the of Eros. Unharnessed, it can wreck and destroy. Self knowledge is the key to harnessing for good and so the key to the soul's wholeness. Self knowledge's presence and absence marks the difference between philosophers in Plato’s sense and sophist intellectuals, philotyrannists among them.

Communism, Marxism, Fascism and National Socialism inspired hateful tyrants and blinded intellectuals to tyranny. But now an insight exists into philotyranny, an insight deeper than that provided by history, even the history of ideas. Twentieth century tyranny appealed to the vanity and raw ambition of modern intellectuals. More insidiously, though, it appealed to the connection between yearning for wisdom and tyranny. Yearning unchecked overtakes men.

To the overtaken, moderation and rational skepticism seem sniveling, mere excuses for inaction. They will hate the moderate, the rationally skeptical, the cool headed, the dispassionate and the philosophically disinterested. But those very qualities and their absence, again, mark the difference between Plato’s ideal of the philosopher and the recurrent sophist intellectual.

Some historians ascribe twentieth century philotyranny to the times' conditions, a historicist explaining (away). But tyranny keeps on, in men's souls and in their politics. The allure of power and the allure of ideas, or even an idea, draw forth tyranny. As the twentieth century excited certain forms of philotyranny, so the sources of tyranny and intellectuals’ love of it go on and on. And so men must be vigilant, as the precondition for the good, “to master the tyrant within."

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