Jeffrey Collins on Mark Lilla

From the July 18, 2008 TLS:

Several German thinkers produced by interwar Germany cast a shadow over The Stillborn God. Lilla’s account of the varied political implications of anthropological, cosmological and Gnostic conceptions of God recalls the work of Eric Voegelin; his interest in the fecundity of Hegel’s eschatological vision that of Karl Lowith. But the most palpable unnamed influence in Lilla’s text is Carl Schmitt, the German theorist of political “decisionism” whose posthumous academic popularity has been little hampered by his Nazism. Lilla borrows Schmitt’s thesis that Hobbes first introduced a hairline split between political and religious authority that was subsequently widened by Spinoza. Schmitt also influentially deployed the term “political theology” to argue that most ideologies of the state were “secularized theological concepts”. The Stillborn God seems to deploy this conceptual apparatus, but with the intention of celebrating the liberal tradition that Schmitt reviled.

As an account of Enlightenment ideas, The Stillborn God is schematically misshapen. Categorizing canonical philosophers as friends or enemies of a “Great Separation” – at least as that notion is defined by Lilla – elides too many complexities. John Locke, for instance, did advocate a stringent “separation” of religious and political life, but he did not share the anthropologically circumscribed (and inherently atheistic) understanding of religion that supposedly undergirded Lilla’s “Great Separation”. By contrast, Hobbes and Spinoza exhibited the irreligion that Lilla requires, but they were not “separationists”. Both advocated religious establishments, theological censorship, political controls on the clergy, and minimalist religious creeds designed to valorize state power. In crafting an autonomous political logic, they sought to co-opt (rather than sequester) the social power of religion.

Lilla has domesticated Hobbes in particular, who was capable of writing: “Is not a Christian king as much a bishop now, as the heathen kings were of old?”.

And Rousseau hardly betrayed Hobbes on this point. Lilla’s narrative, astoundingly, ignores The Social Contract, where Rousseau’s account of “civil religion” pays homage to Hobbes for boldly fusing religious and political power. Likewise, there is a distinct echo of Hobbes’s “Mortall God” in Hegel’s spiritualized state.

In short, Lilla’s effort to disentangle an Anglo-American “separationist” liberalism from a German “theological” variant encounters more than a few hopeless snarls. Indeed, his polarization of these two options sets up a non shooting war of small differences.

I think this is about right, but I take the error to be one of anachronism: casting contemporary atheism back onto the earlier thinkers most amenable to it, while ignoring the issue that the secularized state that it would produce was fairly unthinkable at the time. It doesn’t make Hobbes or Rousseau any less secular, but it makes the fulcrum on which Lilla’s distinction pivots somewhat incoherent. There’s a similarity here to the deflationary readings of Hegel, which assign to Hegel a thoroughly modern atheism which does not seem capable of transcending the present epoch.

One thought on “Jeffrey Collins on Mark Lilla

  1. I predict an annoyed letter to the editor — let me know if I’m right, yeah? I can’t really see Lilla taking kindly to either accusations of crypto-Schmittianism or ignorance of The Social Contract. Ouch.

Leave a Reply