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Investigations
The tyrant within


This February Mark Lilla sat on a New York University panel about 9/11 and was shocked to hear a fellow panelist, the French intellectual Jean Baudrillard, "offering his fanciful take on the attack as a [symbolic] suicide by the towers." Lilla recalled the moment recently while keynoting a U of C Women's Board luncheon. "An act of suicide by the towers-because of the evils of capitalism and globalism and despite the loss of life-was actually, according to this respected intellectual, a predictable thing."

Lilla, a professor in the Committee on Social Thought and the College, was shocked but not surprised. The author of The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics (New York Review Books, 2001), he has spent several years wondering, "What is it about the human mind that made the intellectual defense of tyranny possible in the 20th century? How," he writes, "did the Western tradition of political thought, which begins with Plato's critique of tyranny in the Republic..., reach the point where it became respectable to argue that tyranny was good, even beautiful?"

Intellectuals' defense of tyranny and acts of mass political violence such as 9/11 is, Lilla argues, a peculiarly recent phenomenon, arising with the past century's master ideologies such as fascism and Marxism. He has a name for it: philotyranny. His book sets out neither to finally separate nor inextricably bind a thinker's ideas with his or her political leanings, but rather to understand what about an intellectual might lead him or her to embrace despicable politics. Lilla believes it has to do with love-eros-that "demonic force that floats between the human and the divine, helping us to rise or transporting the soul into a life of baseness and suffering in which others suffer with us," he writes. "The philosopher and the tyrant, the highest and lowest of human types, are linked through some perverse trick of nature by the power of love."

One obvious example of a 20th-century intellectual with a predilection for tyranny is the philosopher Martin Heidegger, whose support of the Nazis repulsed his students and colleagues and continues to disturb those who study his powerful ideas. There are many other examples, and Lilla's book relates the fall of six philosophers: Heidegger, fellow Nazi sympathizer Carl Schmitt, the mystical Marxist Walter Benjamin, the Stalin enthusiast Alexandre Kojève, Michel Foucault with his bent for Maoism and Khomeinism, and the deconstructionist Jacques Derrida. Lilla also cites the "surprising number of pilgrims to Moscow, Berlin, Hanoi, and Havana," the "political voyeurs who made carefully choreographed tours of the tyrant's domains with return tickets in hand, admiring the collective farms, the tractor factories, the sugarcane groves, the schools, but somehow never visiting the prisons." Still other intellectuals never even left their desks, "developing interesting, sometimes brilliant ideas to explain away the sufferings of peoples whose eyes they would never meet."

The phenomenon, he points out, didn't die with the 20th century, as his fellow panelist's out-of-touch explanation for 9/11 shows. Nor is it restricted to European soil: even former president Jimmy Carter's recent visit to Cuba catches Lilla's critical eye. "Carter meeting with Fidel is not a bad thing," he says, "but what he thinks about Fidel probably is." With their "jejune hopefulness about regimes elsewhere," Americans often embrace a sort of "moral Carterism" toward tyrants.

Whatever it's called, the attraction to tyrannical ideas is, in Lilla's view, the product of an intellectual drunkenness, citing Plato's belief that eros is what draws certain men to tyranny and other men to philosophy. "For Plato, to be human is to be a striving creature," writes Lilla, "one who does not live simply to meet his most basic needs but is somehow driven to expand and sometimes elevate those needs, which then become new objects of striving.... This yearning, this eros, is to be found within all our good and healthy desires, those of the flesh and those of the soul." While some people satisfy their yearnings with their bodies, others become philosophers or poets or, he writes, "concern themselves with 'the right ordering of cities and households'-that is, with politics in the highest sense."

The problem is that love-whether its object is another human or an idea-induces a "blissful kind of madness" that's difficult to control, creating the danger of becoming "possessed by love madness" and the urge to contribute to the "right ordering" of society. Noblest is the philosopher who, like Socrates, is "supremely self-aware of [his life's] own tyrannical inclinations"-and stays out of politics.

That self-awareness, argues Lilla, is exactly what philotyrannical intellectuals lack. With eros, he argues, comes responsibilities-and although the age of master ideologies may be past, "so long as there are thinking men and women at all...the temptation will be there to succumb to the allure of an idea, to allow passion to blind us to its tyrannical potential, and to abdicate our first responsibility, which is to master the tyrant within."
-S.A.S.



  JUNE 2002
  > > Volume 94, Number 5


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