Philotyrants, Inc.

George Crowder, Flinders University

Mark Lilla The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals and Politics, New York, New York Review Books, 2001 (xiii +217 pp). ISBN 0-940322-76-5.

There was once an international vogue, hard though it is to believe now, for the politics and thought of Mao Tse-Tung. At my current university in the 1970s and 80s, happily before my time, the works of the Great Helmsman were studied avidly by both students and their lecturers, especially in the Philosophy and Politics Departments, and were seen as pointing to a new and better world. All this occurred at a time when it had been known for more than a decade that ‘the Great Leap Forward’ (1958-60), Mao’s forced reorganisation of Chinese agriculture and industry, had resulted in the death by famine of millions of people. More recently, the ‘Cultural Revolution’ (1966-76) had authorised the imprisonment and persecution of a whole generation of intellectuals, professionals and others. Yet back in the suburbs of Adelaide, honours and graduate students were enthusiastically writing, and were being applauded by their teachers for writing, theses arguing that the Cultural Revolution had not gone far enough.

How can otherwise intelligent people be attracted to forms of politics that are patently tyrannical? This is the question that Mark Lilla tackles in The Reckless Mind. It is an intriguing question, and, Lilla notes, still alive for us today. For it remains one of the marvels of current intellectual life in the English-speaking countries how fashionable remain the works of some noted representatives of the ‘philotyrannical’ tendency, as Lilla calls it. The basic political conclusion of writers like Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida is that liberal democracy is just as repressive as the Stalinist Soviet Union; power may take somewhat different forms in the two cases, but one cannot show that one system is superior to the other. Perhaps this is an advance on the earlier generation of philotyrants represented by the Maoists, for whom state totalitarianism was clearly preferable to liberalism. But that is small comfort for the thinking person who has managed to retain some sense of proportion. One can concede that current forms of Western liberal democracy and capitalism are far from perfect without consigning them to the same moral level as the gulag.

Where does this lack of political balance come from? Lilla takes us on a journey through the minds of some of the most brilliant philosophers of the twentieth century, from both the Left and Right of politics, to see how they ended up endorsing some of the worst political regimes. In the case of Martin Heidegger and Carl Schmitt, the favoured system was Nazism. The extent to which Heidegger’s Nazi affiliation was connected with his existentialist philosophy is still hotly debated. Lilla briefly sketches the case for the prosecution, noting how Heidegger’s rejection of traditional Western notions of an essentially rational human nature, and his emphasis on the value of authentic action with a given ‘world’ of meaning, could be (and were) interpreted to imply support for schemes of national regeneration unfettered by any concern for human rights. At any rate, the facts of Heidegger’s conduct are no longer in doubt. In 1933 he joined the Nazi Party and was appointed Rector of Freiburg University, using his position and his philosophical prestige to sing the praises of the Nazi cause. After the War, Heidegger was inclined to explain away this period of his career as a temporary aberration. But although he resigned his official post in 1934, it is now known that he continued for years to inform on colleagues and to betray Jewish associates including his former mentor, the philosopher Edmund Husserl. In later years he continued to evade responsibility for his choices, attempting to justify his behaviour, in correspondence now published, to friends like Karl Jaspers and Hannah Arendt.

An even more outspoken and unrelenting defender of the Third Reich was Carl Schmitt, a political and legal theorist now hailed by many as a leading thinker of the twentieth century. Oddly, Schmitt has become attractive to some theorists on the political Left critical of liberal constitutional and legal restraints on democratic processes. But his opposition to liberalism is based on a notion of politics hard to square with the Left’s traditional universalism and concern for equality. For Schmitt, the realm of ‘the political’ is essentially concerned with distinguishing your friends from your enemies, uniting with the former in order to crush the latter.

How can otherwise intelligent people be attracted to forms of politics that are patently tyrannical?

Behind Schmitt’s politics lies a dark theological view: liberalism is not merely mistaken but sinful in its evasion of God’s command to ‘Fight thy enemy’. Lilla finds in this link between theology and politics a deep commonality between philotyrants of the Right, like Schmitt and Heidegger (who originally intended to become a priest), and those of the Left. Among the latter, Walter Benjamin is usually thought of as a hero of the neo-Marxist Frankfurt School who perished while trying to escape from the Nazis in 1940, but Lilla draws attention to recent work tracing Benjamin’s early and continuing interest in the apocalyptic strain in traditional Jewish theology. In the political realm this translates into a messianic vision, according to which political and social problems are fated to be resolved by a sudden act of divinely sanctioned violence, transforming human life from its unsatisfactory present condition (shallow, materialist and legalist) into a redemptive and perfected future. Benjamin seems to have imagined the apocalypse as the proletarian revolution and the rule of God as the dictatorship of the proletariat, but he became the victim of a messianic vision more like that of Schmitt.

A similar, Left-wing messianism apparently inspired Alexandre Kojève, a Russian-born philosopher from a bourgeois background briefly imprisoned during the October Revolution but who became a committed communist, describing himself as ‘the conscience of Stalin’. Unlike Benjamin, he eventually achieved a soft landing as a high-level economic and cultural adviser to successive French governments from the 1940s to the 1960s. Kojève’s version of the apocalypse was his notion of ‘the end of history’, derived from a reading of Hegel, and which has more recently been endorsed in the eponymous book by Francis Fukuyama (1992). History will end in the sense that a ‘universal and homogeneous state’ will emerge that resolves all significant ideological conflicts among human beings. Whether the final state will take a liberal-democratic or Soviet form is, for Kojève, a matter of indifference. Challenged by the conservative philosopher Leo Strauss to explain how this consummation would be possible without tyranny, Kojève replied that tyranny may have its uses, for the right purpose, in the right hands.

Lilla detects the same broad theme of political irresponsibility and neglect of consequences in the French poststructuralists, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. In the case of Foucault, Lilla uses the work of James Miller to question the received Left-wing view of a deeply political thinker, a hero of 1968, dedicated to the overturning of bourgeois norms in defence of any group marginalised by them. The alternative picture Lilla presents is of a theorist preoccupied with essentially personal concerns, namely his own place as a homosexual and sadomasochist within the French society of his day. Foucault’s forays into political engagement in the wake of 1968 are seen as the exception rather than the rule, a naïve adventure with no more than the vaguest political goals. Lilla finds the widely read Discipline and Punish (1975) ‘shot through with violence and sadomasochism’ (2001: 151), unreliable as history and unoriginal as social philosophy. Its view of liberal democracy as a network of prisons was thoroughly discredited by the appearance of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, which vividly described a real network of prisons maintained by a regime touted as the showcase of the anti-capitalist alternative.

In their linking of theology and politics, Lilla finds a deep commonality between philotyrants of Left and Right.

As for Derrida, Lilla argues convincingly that the logic of his deconstructionist philosophy, according to which no text or term can have a stable meaning, has left him with nothing to say politically, since any moral or political claim Derrida might make would be undermined by his own method. Derrida’s recent turn to a notion of ‘justice’ which eludes any definition is rightly dismissed as bearing ‘all the signs of intellectual desperation’ (p.183).

Lilla draws his principal themes together in a closing essay, ‘The Lure of Syracuse’. The central narrative is that of Plato’s failed attempt to persuade Dionysius, the Tyrant of Syracuse, to mend his ways. Are we to conclude, then, that (contrary to Plato’s apparent advice in The Republic) efforts to think philosophically about politics are always either dangerous or (at best) futile, that philosophers should stay out of politics altogether and political leaders out of philosophy? Lilla does come close to this conclusion in some places, but his more considered view is otherwise: politics cannot do without philosophy, because without the reasoned interrogation of philosophy, politics is rudderless, dependent on received tradition or charismatic leaders. But philosophers, in coming to politics, should exercise moderation and self-control—indeed, philosophy itself requires self-restraint. As Lilla expresses this, using Plato’s imagery, the erotic quest for knowledge must be curbed and controlled before it becomes a tyrant within the soul of the individual who consequently tyrannises over others. Political philosophers must have regard to political realities, to the real consequences of their ideas for real people. The philotyrant is not a true philosopher, but an intellectual who has lost or neglected that necessary self-restraint and sense of reality.

Mark Lilla has written a brilliant book, dealing with large, important themes, but handling these with a remarkable lightness of touch. He sketches complex chains of ideas with an elegance and eloquence that reminded me of Isaiah Berlin. Often he employs a wry, mordant sense of humour, sometimes to devastating effect (especially in the essay on Derrida). There is an extraordinary degree of coherence among the chapters, considering that all except the last were originally extended reviews in the New York Review of Books or the TLS. I would have liked Lilla to say more about what the true balance between philosophy and politics requires, or what ‘self-control’ means, and about which philosophers have come closer to getting this right. I also wonder whether someone could be philotyrannical in defence of some version of liberal democracy or capitalism: a candidate may be Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974). But these are no more than thoughts about how to deepen and extend a superb piece of work.


Foucault, Michel (1975), Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la prison, Editions Gallimard. English translation: Discipline and Punish, trans. A. Sheridan, London: Allen Lane, 1977.

Fukuyama, Francis (1992), The End of History and the Last Man, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

George Crowder is Senior Lecturer in Political Theory at Flinders University, Adelaide. He is the author of Classical Anarchism: the Political Thought of Godwin, Proudhon, Bakunin, and Kropotkin (Oxford, 1991), and Liberalism and Value Pluralism (Continuum, forthcoming 2002).

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