Lilla provides a welcome corrective in restoring analytical balance but is less convincing when he veers toward polemics.




A short book drawn from a series of essays analyzes the contemporary relevance of the oft-maligned “reactionary,” who isn’t retreating into the past so much as reclaiming it.

Though the revolutionary impulse has been analyzed to the point of overkill, Lilla (Humanities/Columbia Univ.; The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West, 2007, etc.) suggests that its opposite pole has been all but ignored, that “we have no such theories about reaction, just the self-satisfied conviction that it is rooted in ignorance and intransigence, if not darker motives.” The author proceeds to argue that the revolutionary spirit is all but spent, that its reactionary counterpart is on the ascent, and that liberal relativism has been exposed in the process. He says that this strain is not restricted to the right and that reactionary “tropes can also be found on the fringe left, where apocalyptic deep ecologists, antiglobalists, and anti-growth activists have joined the ranks of twenty-first-century reactionaries.” Lilla opens with biographical essays on three intellectuals (Leo Strauss the best known among lay readers), grounding the book in the religious reaction of “theoconservatism,” though the analysis provides context dating back to Socrates and Plato. The essay on Strauss underscores a “distinction between nature and convention,” pitting the latter against the moral authority of the former. “It was only a matter of time before modern thought…descended into relativism and nihilism,” he writes. The author’s accounts of terrorism and the anti-Muslim backlash in France make the analysis vividly contemporary, showing how previously it was anathema in France to be “a reactionary with a theory of history that condemned what everyone else considered to be modern progress. Today it is permissible.” Within this context, he claims that Michel Houellebecq’s controversial Submission deserves to be compared with Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. Most American critics weren’t nearly that generous, but the author is less concerned with literary value than with ideas and arguments.

Lilla provides a welcome corrective in restoring analytical balance but is less convincing when he veers toward polemics.

Pub Date: Sept. 6, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-59017-902-4

Page Count: 176

Publisher: New York Review Books

Review Posted Online: June 1, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2016

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If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.


The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

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This a book of earlier, philosophical essays concerned with the essential "absurdity" of life and the concept that- to overcome the strong tendency to suicide in every thoughtful man-one must accept life on its own terms with its values of revolt, liberty and passion. A dreary thesis- derived from and distorting the beliefs of the founders of existentialism, Jaspers, Heldegger and Kierkegaard, etc., the point of view seems peculiarly outmoded. It is based on the experience of war and the resistance, liberally laced with Andre Gide's excessive intellectualism. The younger existentialists such as Sartre and Camus, with their gift for the terse novel or intense drama, seem to have omitted from their philosophy all the deep religiosity which permeates the work of the great existentialist thinkers. This contributes to a basic lack of vitality in themselves, in these essays, and ten years after the war Camus seems unaware that the life force has healed old wounds... Largely for avant garde aesthetes and his special coterie.

Pub Date: Sept. 26, 1955

ISBN: 0679733736

Page Count: 228

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Sept. 19, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1955

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