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."
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?"
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."
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."
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.
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."
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.
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."