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.

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