The Reckless Mind by Mark Lilla

With a condescending smirk it’s easy to dismiss intellectuals as a bunch of inconsequential twits. Happily, they confine themselves to ‘ivory towers’ in places like Magdalen College, Oxford. Wrong!

Intellectuals and thinkers of various stripes have had an enormous impact on the world and all who live in it. The consequence of their thought is profound. What would the world look like without the following eggheads: Nicolas Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton, Robert Hooke, Robert Boyle, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, David Hume, John Dalton, James Clerk Maxwell, John Stuart Mill, Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, or Albert Einstein? They all spent half their lives in the study.

Mark Lilla has taken as his focus those thinkers whose work has directly impacted on politics in the 20th century. His argument is that they have had a particularly disastrous effect – brilliant, yes, but reckless. He offers essays on the Nazi leanings of Martin Heidegger and Carl Schmitt, on Walter Benjamin’s mystical Marxism, on Alexandre Kojève’s weakness for Stalin and on the anti-liberal fusillades of Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida.

‘The Reckless Mind’ is ‘not a systematic treatise,’ as Lilla tells us, ‘since what it has to say can best be learned by studying intellectual and political lives in concrete historical situations.’ Instead he weaves biographical facts about selected thinkers into their ideas and searches for how ‘each life converges to some centre’ (Emily Dickinson’s phrase, which stands as an epigraph to the book). Some, like Schmitt — who saw out his entire 96 years in the same Westphalian village where he was born — live remarkably unruffled by the historical turbulence of their times. Others, like Benjamin, who wandered through Berlin, Paris and Moscow, and committed suicide in the Pyrenees whilst fleeing the Nazis, strained to hold together ‘cultic and Communist activity’ having more jagged intellectual biographies. Many of these thinkers were drawn to mysticism and sometimes to theological ideas; most were interested in extremes of violence and conflict; all were anti-bourgeois, and in some way anti-modernist. Somehow they all achieved a typically 20th-century blend of logical argument and anti-rational prejudice.

Lilla works toward a general assessment in the book’s final essay, ”The Lure of Syracuse.” He evokes the story of Dionysius, the tyrant of Syracuse, who consorted for a time with philosophers but ended — in Plato’s word — merely ‘sunburned’ by ideas, and remained a tyrant. The troubling question is how philosophy can ever see anything good in tyranny. Lilla points to the siren song of love, which he believes can overpower the soul. You may disagree, and think that more impersonal forces of history drove these thinkers to their appalling political choices.

What it is not possible is to think that ideas have no consequences. Enquire at your local library. Check if this important title is in stock by consulting the online catalogue at
Mark Lilla ( is an American political scientist, historian of ideas, journalist, and professor of humanities at Columbia University in New York City
236 pages in NYBR Collections

First published 2001, expanded edition 2016

ISBN  978-1590170717 

Professor Mark Lilla

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