The Shipwrecked Mind:

On Political Reaction


Patrick J. Keane

To begin with full disclosure: I am in essential agreement with the now famous or infamous salvo Mark Lilla fired off shortly after the publication of the book here under review. I refer of course to his widely discussed and hotly debated op-ed, “The End of Identity Liberalism,” which appeared in the November 18, 2016, issue of The New York Times. Lilla argued there that Donald Trump’s victory nine days earlier had much to do with the fact that American liberalism, in rightly honoring the nation’s diversity, had in recent years “slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender, and sexual identity”: a fixation that had “distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing.”

Trump’s victory, an outcome Lilla unequivocally pronounced “repugnant,” had many causes, some of them still being sorted out by a Special Counsel and by various congressional committees investigating Russian interference in that election. Though the final result seems to have been tilted in Trump’s favor by the Russian intervention and was certainly contributed to by Hillary Clinton’s flaws as a candidate, Trump’s victory is in large part attributable to the disaffection of much of the vast middle of the country: the rejection of a Democratic Party that has in recent years increasingly aligned itself with liberal identity politics. A majority of voters in the so-called Heartland, mostly white, very religious, and non-college educated, was irritated, even repelled, by the self-righteousness of a secular ideology that had enshrined hyper-sensitivity, multi-culturalism, and political correctness at the expense, Lilla argued, of electoral common sense.

A progressive himself, Lilla, Professor of Humanities at Columbia, is anything but hostile to diversity, empathy, and tolerance. But in 2016, with momentous issues facing the nation (not least the possible election of a mendacious, malignant narcissist and potential demagogue), Lilla complained that far too many shortsighted liberals, narcissistically fixated on viewing almost everything through the lens of identity, had lost focus and alienated great swaths of voters—fiddling, for example, with gender issues involving which bathrooms and lockers people might use while Rome burned. Odious though the right-wing distinction between liberals and “real” Americans may be, two facts are undeniable. First, however intolerable it may be to the sore winner, Hillary took the over-all popular vote; but, second and crucially, Trump won the electoral college and the presidency because two-thirds of whites without college degrees voted for him, as did over 80% of white evangelicals, and more than half of white women.

Though greeted with much approval, the op-ed also provoked a firestorm among some progressives. Lilla was accused of discounting, not the fear and economic uncertainty of many Trump voters, but the xenophobia and racial prejudice that animated so many of them— resentments intuitively exacerbated and exploited by Trump, who gushed after his victory in the Nevada caucuses, “I love the poorly educated.” His campaign later pounced with relish on the red meat of Clinton’s graphic “basket of deplorables” remark (which predictably overshadowed the sentences immediately following, revealing empathy with the plight of those economically left behind). The most hard-core and biased Trump supporters, labelled at enormous political cost “deplorables,” should have been quietly, and more realistically, perceived as “unreachables,” as immune to liberal seduction as they are contemptuous of liberal condescension . By seeming to discount, or apologize for, white “identity” politics in his critique of and call for an “end” to liberal identity politics, Lilla was seen as supplying ammunition to that unreachable enemy, in the process making white supremacy and “whitelash” not only comprehensible but respectable.

Some balanced and balancing criticisms from the left had merit, especially those citing Lilla’s failure to register the market-oriented forces which, more than campus-diversity “craziness,” dominate today’s colleges and universities. The more extreme attacks, some caricaturing Lilla himself as a reactionary, even a racist, went a long way toward proving the op-ed’s original point. There is, to be sure, other suffering in America than that of whites in the Heartland; but to read some of his critics, one would think that Lilla (to adapt Tom Paine’s squelching of Edmund Burke’s chivalric paeon to Marie Antoinette), had “pitied the plumage, but forgotten the dying bird.” He had done no such thing; what Lilla had done, within the admitted limits of an op-ed, was to warn progressives that, as Emerson would say, “nothing is got for nothing”: that, in this case, an obsession with identity issues, however intrinsically valid, could, and in fact did, contribute in elevating to the Presidency of the United States not merely an inexperienced ignoramus unfit for the office, but a dangerous populist reactionary.

As a journalist and political scientist who is also an astute historian of ideas, particularly the ideas associated with what his mentor Isaiah Berlin called the “Counter-Enlightenment,” Mark Lilla grasps, and takes into serious account without sharing, the impulses that drive reactionary politics. He is thus well suited to examine its philosophic roots. In doing so in his new book, he does not go back to Burke, the fountainhead of modern conservatism rather than of reaction. Focusing in The Shipwrecked Mind on twentieth-century thinkers, Lilla distinguishes between the two. Unlike conservatives, reactionaries are,

in their own way, just as radical as revolutionaries, and just as firmly in the grip of historical imaginings. Millennial expectations of a redemptive new social order and rejuvenated human beings inspire the revolutionary; apocalyptic fears of entering a new dark age haunt the reactionary.

The reactionary Savoyard diplomat and philosopher Joseph de Maistre (1753-1821) and his many progeny, celebrants of Throne and Altar, became, as Lilla notes, adept at presenting, often melodramatically, the Enlightenment, that culmination of culture and civilization, as the destroyer from within of the ancien régime: a horror story, anticipating Julian Benda’s trahison des clercs, that “became the template for reactionary historiography in Europe, and soon around the world.” In this telling, only those still longing to submit themselves to tradition and to their God know what it means to have the old harmony disrupted by “alien ideas” promoted by intellectuals and “elitists,” and only those who have preserved memories of the old ways are capable of seeing what is happening. “Today political Islamists, European nationalists, and the American right tell their ideological children essentially the same tale.”

Post hoc, propter hoc is the “profession of faith” of the reactionary, whose mind is “shipwrecked.” He is “time’s exile,” since, where “others see the river of time flowing as it always has, the reactionary sees the debris of paradise drifting past his eyes.” The revolutionary “sees the radiant future invisible to others and it electrifies him”; the reactionary, immune to modern “lies,” sees “the past in all its splendor and he too is electrified.” The reactionary’s belief that he is “the guardian of what actually happened, not the prophet of what might be,” explains “the strangely exhilarating despair” that courses through reactionary literature, “the palpable sense of mission.” As William F. Buckley’s National Review put it in its very first issue, the magazine’s mission was to “stand athwart history, yelling Stop!” It is “the militancy of his nostalgia,” Lilla insists, that “makes the reactionary a distinctly modern figure, not a traditional one.”

The major theme of his new book is the role of nostalgia in shaping modern politics (in Europe, in the Middle East, and, though with admirable restraint he avoids mentioning Donald Trump, in the middle United States). Warming to that theme, Lilla expands on it in the introductory pages immediately preceding his synopsis of the contents of The Shipwrecked Mind:

Every major social transformation leaves behind a fresh Eden that can serve as the object of someone’s nostalgia. And the reactionaries of our time have discovered that nostalgia can be a powerful motivation, perhaps even more powerful than hope. Hopes can be disappointed. Nostalgia is irrefutable….One simply cannot understand modern history without understanding how the reactionary’s political nostalgia helped to shape it, or make sense of the present without recognizing that as a self-declared exile he, no less than the revolutionary, can sometimes see it more clearly than those who feel at home in it. We owe it to ourselves to understand his hopes and fears, his assumptions, his convictions, his blindness, and, yes, his insights… .

The Shipwrecked Mind helps us understand all of the above.

He gradually became aware of the force of “political nostalgia,” Lilla tells us, in the course of working on The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals and Politics (2001, now available in a 2016 expanded edition from New York Review Books). In The Reckless Mind, a prize-winning study of the perilous intersection of philosophy and the political ideologies of Communism, Fascism, and Nazism, Lilla examined what he called the “tyrannophilia” of a number of modern European intellectuals, prominent among them, from Germany, Nazi allies Martin Heidegger and Carl Schmidt, and the mystical Marxist Walter Benjamin; and, from France, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and the Russian-born French philosopher Alexandre Kojéve—sophisticated thinkers in varying degrees attracted to Hitler, Stalin, or Mao, whom they narcissistically and naively imagined were translating their own ideas into political reality. In his Afterword to The Reckless Mind, “The Lure of Syracuse,” Lilla traced the roots of his “philotyrannical intellectual” back to The Republic of Plato, and, more specifically, to his doomed attempt to transform Dionysius, the tyrant of Syracuse, into a philosopher-king.

The “different force” Lilla gradually came to see as animating reactionary thought was a “political” version of the “nostalgia” that had settled over Europe in the aftermath of the French Revolution, a nostalgia that had never lifted, and had indeed intensified in the wake of the two world wars. Oswald Spengler, author of The Decline of the West (two volumes, 1918, 1923), was followed by other “declinists,” usually on the political right, sometimes on the left. The influence of Spengler’s study of civilizational decline as an essentially “philosophical problem” was enormous in Europe; and traces of Spenglerian cyclical mythmaking, the “downfall” of a civilization as part of a larger world-historical process, also appear, notes Lilla, “in the writings of radical political Islamists, whose story of the secular West’s decline into decadence, and the inevitable triumph of a vigorous, renewed religion, has European fingerprints all over it.”

The Shipwrecked Mind consists of three sections (“Thinkers,” “Currents,” and “Events”), flanked by an incisive Introduction and illuminating Afterword. The bookis not a systematic treatise on the concept of reaction but a series of examples and reflections that expands upon Lilla’s project, examining how “certain exemplary intellectual figures were swept up in the ideological dramas of the twentieth century.” Following the Introduction, the opening section offers compact but richly detailed chapters on three early-twentieth-century German thinkers. Franz Rosenzweig, the least explicitly political of the three, was also the most religious, and his work provides variations on the nostalgia-motif at the heart of Lilla’s book. A second figure, Eric Voegelin, who brooded over the relation between religion and politics, felt a Spenglerian need to transform the catastrophe of the First World War into a story of rupture and decay with “philosophic meaning"—a need intensified with the rise of Nazism. Like Leo Strauss, the third and most influential of Lilla’s German émigré thinkers, Voegelin arrived in the United States on the eve of the Second World War, and both brought with them from Europe some portentous ideas about the crisis of the age. Though Voegelin never won the kind of following that developed around the work of Strauss, he did briefly attract admirers among conservatives who saw a "crisis of the West”‘ in the cold war, in mass popular culture, and in the student rebellion. But Voegelin was too solitary and idiosyncratic a thinker “to leave behind a proper school,” and his particular brand of what Lilla calls “historical nostalgia” did not survive.

Just the opposite is true in the case of Leo Strauss, who has spawned several generations of Straussians, and has had a major impact on American political thought, especially on some well-known Neoconservatives, who in turn have had significant, and mostly unfortunate, roles to play in our recent political and military history, including Strauss’s University of Chicago pupil Paul Wolfowitz, an architect of the disastrous Iraq War. As Lilla shows, Strauss’s influence in this country has been at once immense and perverse. In Europe over the past decade or more, Strauss’s posthumous reputation has grown, attended by the proliferation of penetrating studies of his thought. But in America, at least after the cultural shift of the late '60s, he has more often than not been misread, or at least made to serve partisan ends, by his admirers on the right. Even the accurate appraisal of the leveling threats to liberal democracy presented by Strauss’s pupil and fellow Platonist Allan Bloom, in his runaway best-seller The Closing of the American Mind, was so darkened by Bloom’s response to armed student violence on his Cornell campus and the cowardice of craven administrators that his genuine insights “got buried in Weltschmertz and doomsaying.” Bloom went so far as to equate not only violent student revolt but the youth culture of the '60s with far worse. “Whether it be Nuremberg or Woodstock, the principle is the same”: a reactionary statement made once by Bloom, but quoted twice by Lilla.

Though that hyperbole would be too nihilistic and apocalyptic for Leo Strauss, conservatives and reactionaries alike are of course right to see in him a defender of reason and of civic and civil democracy, both under threat. Studying what he envisioned as the quintessential tension, between Jerusalem and Athens, between the revelation-based Jewish religious and mystical search for God, and the Greek emphasis on the power of human reason, Strauss—who devoted his career to the defense of an ever-questioning Socratic philosophy, or at least “the possibility of philosophy"—chose Athens. Indeed, in Lilla’s synopsis of Strauss’s account, "the trouble in Western civilization began when early-modern and Enlightenment thinkers turned away from the Greek tradition and tried to reestablish philosophy on new foundations”: a novel shift epitomized by Machiavelli, whose turn from pure contemplation to political mastery marked, for Strauss, the decisive historical break within the philosophic tradition.

Lilla ends his chapter on Strauss by illustrating, with three rhetorical questions, the accuracy of Henry James’s observation that America is hard on all European legacies. “Where but in America,” Lilla asks,

could a European thinker convinced of the elite nature of genuine education produce pupils who would go on to make common cause with populist politicians? Where but in America could a teacher of esotericism, concerned about protecting philosophical inquiry from political harm, find his books used to train young people to become guardians of an ephemeral ideology? Where but in America could the Socratic practice of skeptical questioning inspire professions of faith in a national ideal?

The “Currents” section of Lilla’s book consists of two essays on “political theology.” The first, “From Luther to Walmart,” deals with American theoconservatism, a movement embracing traditional Catholics, evangelical Protestants, and neo-Orthodox Jews. Whatever their doctrinal differences, they are united in condemning America’s cultural decline and descent into decadence, as well as what they perceive as a liberal and secular assault on religion. The “nostalgia” shared by these disparate religious sects locates, as in most reactionary thought, a wrong turn at some point in the past, followed by elegiac lamentation over, and a determination to recover, what Lilla calls, borrowing from Robert Frost, “the Road Not Taken.”

Many Christian theoconservatives, especially anti-modern Catholics, have taken their cue from Alasdaire MacIntyre, whose After Virtue (1981) turned out to be, as Lilla notes, “one of the most influential books of our time.” In the account of MacIntyre, a Marxist-turned-Catholic, the Aristotelian tradition, incorporated in the Summa Theologiae of Thomas Aquinas, gave Europeans “a coherent narrative for understanding and practicing virtue in their individual and collective lives.” But the synthesis achieved in the Summa was destroyed by what MacIntyre depicts with palpable dread as the “Enlightenment project.” It was a shattering that affected not only the Church, but society itself; for the Enlightenment “unwittingly prepared the way for acquisitive capitalism, Nietzscheanism, and the relativistic liberal emotivism we live with today in a society that [according to MacIntyre] 'cannot hope to achieve moral consensus’.”

In lieu ofadvocating time-travel back to the Middle Ages, MacIntyre concluded with a sort of prayer, accurately characterized by Lilla as “a visionary call for creating new moral communities based on old modes of thought, where a coherent life might once again be sustained.” The final sentence of After Virtue (“We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict”) directly anticipates a new movement, called by its initiator, Rod Dreher, “the Benedict Option.” His just-published book of that title, subtitled “A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation,” is, whatever its virtues, a perfect example of what Lilla means by a reactionary text: a manifesto and rallying cry for Christians, surrounded by decadence and abandoned by an insipid church, to return to an ancient way of life, as a new Dark Age looms.

Conservative Catholics have seized on The Benedict Option (already a best-seller) just as, five years ago, they seized on Brad Gregory’s MacIntyre-inspired The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society. Here the disruptive culprit, preceding the Enlightenment, is the Protestant Reformation. Despite the book’s announced aim, to explain how “Europe and North America came to be as they are,” the focus is on the United States. Gregory contends that our major problems—political polarization, rampant consumerism, environmental degradation, declining educational standards, cultural relativism, and the secular dismissal of the truth-claims of religion—all have a single source: societal “hyper-pluralism,” a term he employs “with metronomic regularity.” As that remark suggests, Lilla skewers Gregory’s book. “A straightforward history of the post-Reformation West written from a Catholic standpoint would have been a welcome addition,” he says. “Instead, Gregory has offered up a sly crypto-Catholic travel brochure for the Road Not Taken that has been warmly received by critics of contemporary liberal society on the right and the left. The craving for theological-political mythmaking has somehow survived the ravages of our secular age.”

In “From Mao to St. Paul,” the second and final essay in “Currents,” Lilla discusses thinkers ranging from the far right to the far left. They include the repugnant yet fascinating Nazi jurist Carl Schmidt (given a chapter of his own in The Reckless Mind) and two radical philosophers, both of whom find in St. Paul a source of revolutionary inspiration: the Maoist Alain Badiou and Jacob Taubes, a gnostic rabbi who carried on a curious yet sustained correspondence with Schmidt. In surveying reactionary literature in contemporary France, Lilla focuses on two popular writers. The first is Éric Zemmour, a Muslim and mercurial Jeremiah whose La Suicide français offers its readers a relentless but engaging plethora of betrayals and catastrophes, and a set of enemies to hate. The second, and more significant, is the brilliant and controversial Michel Houellebecq, an examination of whose not-quite dystopian novel Submission concludes “Currents.”

Houellebecq has often been critical or simply dismissive of Islam, “the stupidest of religions.” Yet Submission, set in 2022, ends with France under a newly-elected Muslim government and the novel’s protagonist passively submitting, a blasé convert to Islam. By a remarkable coincidence, the novel was published on the very day of the ISIS attack on the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. As we learn from “Paris, January 2015,” the essay that immediately follows (the single piece in the “Events” section), Lilla was in Paris during that murderous attack. The original version of his essay, in which Houellebecq also figures, was written at that time, and first appeared in The New York Review of Books. Now, with it woven into the over-all design of The Shipwrecked Mind, we can better see the connection between some French “reactionary” writing and its nuanced Muslim contexts, as well as the resemblance between the yearning of American theoconservatives for the lost harmony of medieval Catholic society and the fantasizing of Islamist jihadists seeking to restore a vanished caliphate. Despite obvious, blood-soaked distinctions, we have similarly shipwrecked minds, the nostalgia of reactionary thinkers dreaming of a lost golden age, which never was on sea or land. Hence the culminating rightness of Lilla’s Afterword, “The Knight and the Caliph.”

We know all too well what is represented by the Caliph. As Lilla remarks toward the end of the Afterword, it is “in the Muslim world that belief in a lost golden age is most potent and most consequential today.” As for the Knight, the first and only words Lilla quotes from him come when the goatherds he is sitting among start cracking acorns to eat for dessert. Don Quixote (for it is he) just rolls the nuts in his hand, lost in a reverie. Clearing his throat, he informs the chewing peasants: “Fortunate the age and fortunate the times called golden by the ancients.” We live in a post -9/11 world in which the tragicomic nostalgia of Don Quixote for a lost golden age has been weaponized, transformed into the now permanent threat, and often lethal barbarity, of terrorism. There is no golden age in Don Quixote’s future, but also no spirit of vengeance in his heart. As Lilla notes, moving from his main, European and American, sites of “political reaction,” the “literature of radical Islamism is a nightmare version of Cervantes’ novel.”

Meanwhile, back at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, or at Mar-a-Lago or Trump Tower, we have our own tragicomic nightmare, in the bloated form of quite a different Don. Though he ran as a populist, Trump is the epitome of a nostalgia-driven reactionary—even in his populism, which involves, for example, supposedly putting thousands of coal miners back to their obsolescent work, while walking away from even the modest, voluntary climate accords reached in Paris. Trump’s carbon-choked golden age is really a return to the nineteenth-century Gilded Age, dominated by an even greater gap in the distribution of wealth and power. Ironically, only with Trump’s removal from office, by impeachment or in the 2020 election, can we even hope to “make America great again.” In the meantime, here he is, in all his boorishness and dangerous megalomania—thanks in large part to the defeat of liberal identity politics by the unleashing of a vulgar bumper-sticker version of the reactionary politics roiling so much of our world and assessed so lucidly, so sympathetically yet critically, in The Shipwrecked Mind.