Lilla on Liberalism – Prologue

Mark Lilla, whose attitude and intellectual posture generate equal parts admiration and annoyance for more than a decade, is never short of things to say. Whether its dismantling the cult of Derrida and introducing Americans to the “European” Leo Strauss in the pages of The New York Review of Books or chronicling the deep theologico-political problem afoot in contemporary France, Lilla rarely fails to bring his erudition to bear. Unfortunately, he sometimes brings his obnoxious arrogance as well. For instance, his review of Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation was an unfortunate blend of generalizations and dismissals even if Lilla’s observations on narratives of decline wasn’t entirely off the mark. And that’s the thing: Lilla is seldom off the mark entirely; he just sometimes overlooks (or omits) arguments and facts unhelpful to his positions. Consider, for example, his brief book The Stillborn God. Ostensibly a critical history of the intersection of religion and politics in modernity, the work is guilty of the “slight oversight” of leaving out the Catholic Church.

Now Lilla returns with a bit of political soul searching, The Once and Future Liberal. Lilla, who self-identifies as a liberal in the largely American sense, believes that liberalism has foregone a vision of the common good in favor of tethering itself to identity politics. At the same time, it is also a critique of the individualism of contemporary liberalism, specifically where politics is bound up with the self and what is good for the individual based on his preferences, whims, orientations, etc. The Once and Future Liberal is as pithy as it is powerful; it is a call to action, nay, repentance for American liberalism, one which will no doubt be difficult to hear at this juncture in history.

Not being a liberal in any sense whatsoever, I approached Lilla’s work with integralist, but not unsympathetic, eyes. It is rare that any political, social, or religious movement comes to terms honestly with its own failures in the hope of building itself back up. While portions of Lilla’s book contain obvious finger pointing, it is not unfair finger pointing. Liberal elites within the Democratic Party and society at large should be held accountable for the bad ideological bets made since the collapse of the New Deal-Great Society project in the 1970s. The question now is whether there are liberals with Lilla’s knack for self-criticism and imaginative rethinking who are willing to take up his call for a refreshed liberalism.

In the next four web-log posts, I will consider Lilla’s argument in The Once and Future Liberal on a chapter by chapter basis, including the Introduction. Are there important details Lilla omits from his work? What, if any, lessons can Catholics faithful to the Church’s social magisterium take away from Lilla’s observations? And, above all, is Lilla’s hope for liberalism renewed even desirable at this stage in history? Or does his critique ultimately point beyond itself to what comes after liberalism?

More From Lilla on France (and Manent)

A couple of weeks back I linked to a New York Review of Books article by Mark Lilla on France’s decline. He has now returned with a follow-up piece, “How the French Face Terror,” which is actually a review of four recent publications on the problem of Islam and terrorism in France. (For what it is worth, I also offered a few remarks on Lilla’s forthcoming book on political reaction here.) One of the books under review, Pierre Manent’s Situation de la France, comes under fire from Lilla for its apparent nostalgia and schadenfreude. Here are the relevant paragraphs:

Continue reading

Lilla’s Forthcoming Shipwreck

After an eight year hiatus, Mark Lilla has a new book coming out this September, The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction. (Apparently a post at Columbia University comes packaged with a less demanding publication schedule than one might expect from Lilla’s former home, the University of Chicago.) Here’s the description:

A sense that history has taken a catastrophic course and attempts to recover a lost philosophical or religious tradition characterize the twentieth-century intellectuals whose work Mark Lilla investigates in The Shipwrecked Mind. From Franz Rosenzweig, who sought to lead assimilated Jews back to the sources of Jewish tradition, to Leo Strauss, who tried to recover the Socratic tradition in philosophy, to Eric Voegelin, who wrote a multivolume universal history to explain human consciousness, to the rediscovery of Saint Paul by former Marxists, Lilla traces the craving for theological-political mythmaking, for grand—if imaginary—historical narratives that explain why we feel shipwrecked in a decadent present and how we can escape it. In the 2015 attacks in Paris and their aftermath, he finds political nostalgia on both sides: the terrorists’ longing for a glorious Muslim past that they hoped to recreate in a modern caliphate and the cultural pessimism of French intellectuals worried about the decline of France. Reactionary illusions of a lost golden age, Lilla argues, continue to have potent effects in our own time.

Anyone who has kept tabs on Lilla’s output at the New York Review of Books won’t be terribly surprised by the list of thinkers Lilla chooses to examine nor his interest with France. With respect to Rosenzweig, Strauss, Voegelin, and more recent critical theorists enamored with St. Paul (e.g., Badiou and Agamben), Lilla has penned essay-sized reviews of their works over the last decade, meticulously noting how each offers an ostensible “escape” from late modernity through a return to some semi-utopian past. The problem posed for Lilla is that “escape” may not really be what the thinkers he considers were after, particularly Voegelin and Strauss who, despite appearing to superficially romanticize the past, always had their eyes set on the future. They weren’t seeking to escape modernity an its various iterations; they wanted to overcome them, and they believed — in very distinct ways — that those who came before had managed to chart a pathway beyond. That’s not exactly a new thought, mind you. Roll back the clock more than half-a-millennium and one finds any number of medieval philosophers and theologians casting a long gaze back at pagan thought in order to both unlock some of the most pressing puzzles of their times and, to a possibly more limited extent, overcome the limitations of their age. No, neither St. Thomas Aquinas nor Moses Maimonides thought a “better future” lay in a more “glorious past”; but both were broad enough in their respective thinking to know that that the past, or more specifically a particular past and the great minds it produced, still had much to say well over 1,000 years after the fall of classical civilization.

Of course, Lilla deserves a fair hearing, but “fair” doesn’t mean “blind.” Recall, for instance, that Lilla’s last scholarly effort, The Stillborn God, was rightly panned for its radically incomplete treatment of religion and politics for choosing to omit Catholic thought altogether. And notice that once again Lilla seems to be intentionally side-stepping Catholicism, choosing instead to focus on secularized Jewish, atheistic, and religiously ambiguous figures (e.g., Voegelin). Could it be that this time out Lilla is giving quiet credit to Catholicism for producing thinkers who were not “political reactionaries” in his limited, polemical, sense? If only that were true. However, anyone who has perused Lilla’s hard-hitting critique of Brad Gegory’s The Unintended Reformation knows full well that Lilla believes Catholics are quit capable of engaging in their own form of historical (and hysterical) myth making in order to both critique modernity and, in some sense, escape it.

Maybe he’s right. Contemporary Catholicism is shot through with a very amateurish form of myth making, one that posits a glorious Catholic age in the not-so-distant past while suggesting, nay, advocating that the resurrection of certain pieties, to say nothing of liturgical forms, will help usher it back into existence or, absent that, protect “the remnant” from the pathologies and temptations of the present age. Then there is that other, most liberal, form of myth making, the one that claims that every renovation, innovation, or flat-out insurrection against anything and everything recognizably Catholic from within the Church herself has some sort of historical antecedent, a connection with a more “pristine age” of Christianity where love and mercy flowed freely and the intolerance of dogmatization and legalistic thinking had no place whatsoever. What are the political consequences of this dueling myth making? I doubt Lilla knows, or cares.

Pastor’s History of the Popes

Ludwig von Pastor’s 16-volume History of the Popes is a monumental scholarly achievement, and like so many monumental scholarly achievements, nobody reads it anymore. Part of the reason may be that so few Catholics are aware of Pastor’s work. It’s not something you are going to find browsing an Ignatius Press or TAN Books catalog. But thanks to advances in on-demand printing and the good efforts of my friend Eliot Milco (author of learned and intellectually quirky web-log The Paraphasic), Pastor’s magnum opus is becoming available once again.

Milco has posted some brief information on the project here and you can peruse the available volumes here. Anyone seriously interested in Catholic history cannot afford to ignore these books and the wealth of information they contain. Also, every volume purchased puts a bit of money in Milco’s pockets, which means he won’t have to go back to teaching at a heterodox Jesuit high school for a living.

Some Catholic and Orthodox Reading for Tuesday

Elliot Milco, my friend and author of The Paraphasic web-log, may have just produced his best (blogging) work to date. “In the Absence of a Shepherd” recounts Milco’s days as a student and, later, teacher at a prestigious Jesuit high school in Chicago. More than an autobiographical reminiscence, the post takes a hard look at the chimera of “Ignatian Catholicism” and the deplorable state of Catholic education before concluding with some pointed remarks aimed at the “chief shepherd” of the Archdiocese of Chicago, Blase Cupich. Having first-hand experience with another form of qualified Catholicism, in this case “Vincentian Catholicism,” I sympathize with Milco’s account and wonder what, if anything, can be done to overcome the worldliness of contemporary Catholic education at every stage along life’s way. Setting up alternative, orthodox, centers of Catholic learning is course necessary, but without sizable private contributions and strong institutional support from the Church, they will never amount to more than marginal enterprises benefiting only a select number of souls.

Sticking with the topic of Catholic education for a brief moment, Rod Dreher has come to the defense of New York Times columnist Russ Douthat, who is currently under attack from liberal elites at Catholic colleges and universities for the crime of “heresy hunting.” As a side note, I was shocked to see that my alma mater, DePaul University, is not represented on the list of witch hunters.

As for witches and other demonic things that go bump in the night, an Eastern Orthodox friend of mine, Geoffrey Thompson, offers a pithy critique of the tendency for some Orthodox (and, undoubtedly, other Christians as well) to overly “spiritualize” physical and psychological ailments. Thompson’s observations may not be for everybody, but anyone who has been around certain Orthodox environs more notable for their superstition than spirituality will quickly understand what he’s talking about.

Finally, over at Ethika Politika, Daniel Schwindt reminds us that “The Popes Want Justice, Not Capitalism.” The piece serves as something of a preview for Schwindt’s forthcoming critique of Michael Novak and Paul Adams’s Social Justice is Not What You Think and warns against the liberal project of “reduc[ing] social justice to an individualized virtue.”