Despite the wide range of his interests, which cover such diverse fields as philosophy, aesthetics, history, sociology, literature, and politics, Benda was and remains known as a man of one idea. It was he more than anyone else in the 20th century who conceptualized the notion of the intellectual. In 1927 Benda published La Trahison des clercs (The Betrayal of the Intellectuals), in which he formulated his famous thesis of the intellectuals’ betrayal of their vocation as the guardians of Truth and its absolute character. The book instantly caused a commotion, and its title, like that of Ortega y Gasset’s La rebelión de las masas (1930; The Revolt of the Masses), Hermann Rauschning’s Die Revolution des Nihilismus (1938; The Revolution of Nihilism), or Raymond Aron’s L’Opium des intellectuels (1955; The Opium of the Intellectuals), became a catch-phrase among political scientists. Benda’s other works are an elaboration upon the thesis advanced in The Betrayal of the Intellectuals, and they can be properly understood only when read against its background.
The term clerc, which Benda used in the title rather than intellectuel, was applied in the Middle Ages to all those who devoted their lives exclusively to the pursuit of Truth and who, on account of their concerns with “unworldly causes,” were not subject to civil jurisdiction. Paradigmatic examples of the clercs whom Benda mentions are Socrates and Jesus, and several thinkers (St. Thomas, Descartes, Pascal, Spinoza, Malebranche, Newton, Kant, Husserl) who openly declared “their kingdom not to be of this world.” In contrast to the clerc of old, the modern clerc abandoned his vocation, making Truth subservient to a political program or an ideology. “What a joy for them to learn that this universal is a mere phantom, that there exist only particular truths, Lorraine truths, Provençal truths, Brittany truths…Humanity hears the same teaching about classes and learns that there is a bourgeois truth and a working-class truth; better still, that the functioning of our minds should be different according to whether we are working men or bourgeois.” Again, in contrast to the clerc of old, for whom his homeland was a spiritual realm, the modern clerc asserts that he is first of all a member of a nation, a race, a class of which he ciaims to be the spokesman. “The modern world has made the ‘clerk’ into a citizen…Humanity is national. The layman has won…The ‘clerk’ is not only conquered, he is assimilated. The man of science, the artist, the philosopher are attached to their nations as much as the day-laborer and the merchant.”
Benda links the process of the “nationalization” of the clerc with the gradual demise of Hellenistic metaphysics. He devoted three works to describing this phenomenon: La Fin de l’éternel (1927; The end of the eternal), Essai d’un discours cohérent sur les rapports de Dieu et du monde (1931; Essay on the discourse on the relationship between God and the world), and La Crise du rationalisme (1949; The crisis of rationalism). Although the crisis of rationalism was, as Benda called it, a triumph of “Luther over Erasmus,” it was only after the appearance of German philosophy (especially the philosophies of Schlegel, Fichte, Nietzsche, Lotze) that “Luther’s triumph” became a palpable fact which could be observed in art and literature. In Belphégor (1918), Benda notices that the current public no longer knows how to derive intellectual pleasure from art; it demands instead that art give rise to emotions and sensations. There are essentially three culprits in this situation: the Romantics, the “intuitionists,” and various critics of rationalism. The Romantics declared “artistic sensibility” as the criterion of judgment. As a result a work of art is considered “great as soon it achieves a literary and artistic success,” the intellectual content being of no interest; consequently, when “all arguments are equally defensible… error is no more false than truth” (The Betrayal of the Intellectuals). The authors guilty of “Romanticism” are Mallarmé, Proust, Gide, Valéry, Alain, Giraudoux, Suarès, and the Surrealists (La France byzantine [1945; Byzantine France]). Other culprits are philosophers of a different provenance: Blondel, Lacroix, Rouyer, Gonseth, Bachelard, Le Roy, Rougier, Cuvillier, Brunschvicg, and Lefebvre. All of them rejected “classical rationalism” either as an “inferior form of cognition” on account of its being incapable of “inventing” (La Crise du rationalisme) or, as in the case of the Marxist Lefebvre, as “defective.”
Benda’s true intellectual foe is Henri Bergson. In his three books, Le Bergsonisme, ou, une philosophie de la mobilité (1912; Bergsonism, or, a philosophy of mobilization), Une philosophie pathétique (1913; A pathetic philosophy), and Sur le succès du Bergsonisme (1914; On the success of Bergsonism), Benda attacked Bergson’s concept of “intuition.”
However, what in Bergson was an intellectual error became a real threat from the American “apostle” of pragmatism, William James: after over 20 centuries of humankind’s being taught that the morality of an action lies in its disinterestedness, James declared that the moral is that which fits the circumstances.
Benda’s analysis does not stop at the theoretical level, however. The changes which the new intellectual movements brought about in the 19th century lie at the root of the political and social crises in which Europe found itself in the middle of that century.
Having rejected the Hellenistic idea of the timeless Absolute, the modern clerc found his vocation in exalting the value of that which exists only “in time”—namely, a nation. It was not until the middle of the 19th century—called by Benda “the age of the intellectual organization of political hatred”—that nations began to see themselves as bearers of Truth in the name of which they fought wars. Benda is far from expressing a naive view of the peaceful coexistence of nations in the past. However, as he observes, in contrast to the 19th century, wars had been for the most part motivated by a desire to annex the other’s territory or to extend one’s own political control over another nation; they were essentially the wars of kings. In the 19th century wars became an instrument of demonstrating the “cultural superiority” of one nation over another. “This form of patriotism was so little known to preceding ages that there are countless examples of nations adopting the cultures of other nations, even of those with whom they were at war, and in addition reverencing the culture adopted” (The Betrayal of the Intellectuals).
As a result of the growing need for a “unified Europe” in response to the nationalistic tendencies that led to World War I, Benda published Discours à la nation européenne (1933; Discourse on the European nation). He scornfully rejected the European project, finding it to be nothing but an empty idea (“pure reason has never founded anything in the terrestrial order”). Those who had such a dream in the past (Emperor Justinian, Charlemagne, Charles V) were either actual or aspiring tyrants. The new dreamers, like the old, “completely ignore the fact that Europe’s peoples have their respective histories, their ideas, their languages.” Europe is a spiritual realm; if the European project is ever to come true, its proponents need first to repudiate the myth of Marx (who conceived of man as a product of economic relationships) on behalf of the myth of Plato, who believed man to be first and foremost a spiritual being.
Most of Benda’s works did not survive much beyond their author’s death, and only a handful are known today by their titles. What remains truly durable in Benda’s output is his book-length essay on intellectuals. Benda had written it before the “Great Conversion” of intellectuals to fascism, Nazism, and communism. Most of the names (Mommsen, Treitschke, Ostwald, Brunetière, Barrès, Lemaître, Péguy, Maurras, D’Annunzio, Kipling) and historical events (e.g. the Dreyfus Affair) which served Benda as the material to formulate his thesis, do not say much to a contemporary reader. Yet, if Benda’s The Betrayal of the Intellectuals did not share the fate of his other works, it is due to the correctness of his diagnosis of the reasons which lie at the root of the Great Betrayal.
Born 26 (some sources say 28) Dccember 1867 in Paris. Studied at the Lycées Charlemagne, 1876–84, Condorcet, from 1884, Henri IV, 1884–87, Saint-Louis, 1887– 88, and the École Centrale, 1888–91; military service, 1891–92; the Sorbonne, 1891–94, licence in history, 1894. Contributor to various periodicals, including Revue Blanche (White review), Revue de Pans (Paris review), Nouvelle Revue Française (New French review), Mercure de France (Mercury of France), Divan, and Le Figaro. Frequented the salon of Simone Casimir-Périer. Went bankrupt, 1913. Lectured at various American universities, 1936–38. Lived in Carcassonne during World War II. Married late in life.
Commander, Legion of Honor, 1938. Died in Fontenay-aux-Roses, near Paris, 7 June 1956.
Essays and Related Prose
Dialogues à Byzance, 1900
Mon premier Testament, 1910
Le Bergsonisme, ou, une philosophie de la mobilité, 1912
Une philosophie pathétique, 1913
Sur le succès du Bergsonisme, 1914
Les Sentiments de Critias (articles), 1917
Belphégor: Essai sur l’esthétique de la présente société française, 1918; as Belphegor, translated by Sarah J.I.Lawson, 1929
Billets de Sirius (articles), 1915
Lettres a Mélisande, 1925
La Fin de l’éternel, 1927
La Trahison des clercs, 1927; as The Great Betrayal, and as The Treason of the Intellectuals, translated by Richard Aldington, 1928; as The Betrayal of the Intellectuals, 1955
Essai d’un discours cohérent sur les rapports de Dieu et du monde, 1931
Esquisse d’une histoire des Français dans leur volonté d’être une nation, 1932
Discours à la nation européenne, 1933
Précision, 1930–1937 (articles), 1937
Le Rapport d’Uriel, 1943
La Grande Épreuve des démocraties: Essai sur les principes démocratiques, leur nature, leur histoire, leur valeur philosophique, 1945
La France byzantine; ou, Le Triomphe de la littérature pure, Mallarmé, Gide, Proust, Valéry, Alain, Giraudoux, Suarès, les surréalistes: Essai d’une psychologie originelle du littérateur, 1945
Les Cahiers d’un clerc (1936–1949), 1949
La Crise du rationalisme, 1949
Other writings: three novels (L’Ordination [The Yoke of Pity], 1911–12; Les Amorandes, 1922; Songes d’Eleuthère, 1949), a collection of short stories, autobiography, and works on politics, philosophy, and literature. Also edited the Oeuvres completes by La Bruyère and the Dictionnaire philosophique by Voltaire.
Aron, Raymond, The Opium of the Intellectuals, Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1985 (original French edition, 1955)
Furet, François, Le Passé d’une illusion: Essai sur l’idée communiste au XXe siècle, Paris: Laffont/Lévy, 1995
Kołakowski, Leszek, Bergson, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1985:88–93
Kołakowski, Leszek, “The Intellectuals,” in his Modernity on Endless Trial, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990:32–43
Niess, Robert J., Julien Benda, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1956
Read, Herbert, Introduction to The Betrayal of the Intellectuals by Benda, Boston: Beacon Press, 1955:xiii-xxxii
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