Julien Benda’s classic study of s Europe resonates today. The “treason of the intellectuals” is a phrase that evokes much but is inherently ambiguous. Julien Benda (26 December – 7 June ) was a French philosopher and novelist. He remains famous for his short book, La Trahison des Clercs (The Tr. The Treason of the Intellectuals: Julien Benda: La Trahison des clercs (; The Treason of the Intellectuals; also published as The Great Betrayal), Benda.
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When hatred of culture becomes itself a part of culture, the life of the mind loses all meaning. Today we are trying to spread knowledge everywhere. Who knows if in centuries to come there will not be universities for re-establishing our former ignorance?
I nthe French essayist Julien Benda published his famous attack on the intellectual corruption of the age, La Trahison des clercs. For today, in the United States anyway, only the title of the book, not its argument, enjoys much currency. Academics and journalists, pundits, moralists, and pontificators of all varieties are in this sense clercs.
The English translation, The Treason of the Intellectuals1 sums it up neatly. From the time of the pre-Socratics, intellectuals, considered in their role as intellectuals, had been a breed apart. This contradiction was an honor to the human species, and formed the rift whereby civilization slipped into the world.
According to Benda, however, this situation was changing.
The treason of the intellectuals & “The Undoing of Thought” | The New Criterion
More and more, intellectuals were abandoning their attachment to the traditional panoply of philosophical and scholarly ideals. One clear sign of the change was the attack on the Enlightenment ideal of universal humanity and the concomitant glorification of various particularisms. The attack on the universal went forward intelleectuals social and political life as well as in the refined precincts of epistemology and metaphysics: Nor did he believe that intellectuals, as citizens, necessarily should abstain from political commitment or practical affairs.
What Benda found novel was the accreditation of such cynicism by intellectuals. In other words, the real treason of the intellectuals was not that they countenanced Callicles but that they championed him. Benda understood that the oof were high: T he Treason of the Intellectuals is an energetic hodgepodge of a book. Partisan in its claims for disinterestedness, it is ruthless in its defense of intellectual high-mindedness.
And given the continuing echo in our own time of the problems he anatomized, the relevance of his observations to our situation can hardly be doubted. From the savage flowering of ethnic hatreds in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union to the mendacious demands for political correctness and multiculturalism on college campuses across America and Europe, the treason of the intellectuals continues to play out its unedifying drama.
Inthe young French philosopher and cultural critic Alain Finkielkraut took up where Julisn left off, producing a brief but searching inventory of our contemporary cataclysms.
In this sense, the book is a trahison des clercs for the post-Communist world, a world dominated intellrctuals much by the leveling imperatives of pop culture as by resurgent nationalism and ethnic separatism. Beginning with Benda, Finkielkraut catalogues several prominent strategies that contemporary intellectuals have employed to retreat from the universal. A frequent point of reference is the eighteenth-century German Romantic philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder.
The Undoing of Thought resembles The Treason of the Intellectuals stylistically as well as thematically. And Finkielkraut, like Benda and, indeed, like Montaignetends to proceed more by collage than by demonstration. The geography of intellectual betrayal has changed dramatically in the last sixty-odd years. Inintellectuals still had something definite to betray.
In the broadest terms, The Undoing of Thought is a brief for the principles of the Enlightenment. Among other things, this means that it is a brief for the idea that mankind is united by a common humanity that transcends ethnic, racial, and sexual divisions. Such ideals have not fared well in the twentieth century: But the dispersal of these particular chimeras has provided no inoculation against kindred fabrications: The Frankfurt School Marxists Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno gave an exemplary but by no means uncharacteristic demonstration of one strain of this brand of anti-rational animus in the mids.
The diatribe that Horkheimer and Adorno mounted against the concept of Enlightenment reminds us of an important peculiarity about the history of Enlightenment: Historically, the Enlightenment arose jupien a deeply anti-clerical and, perforce, anti-traditional movement.
It is this mature form of Enlightenment, championing reason but respectful of tradition, that Finkielkraut holds up as an ideal. The process of benva has lately become an explicit attack on culture. This is not simply to say that there are many anti-intellectual elements in society: The innovation of contemporary culture is to have obliterated the distinction between the two.
This is the undoing of thought. There are many sides to this phenomenon. What about those cultures in which the testimony of one man counts for that of two women?
In which female circumcision is practiced? In which slavery flourishes? In which mixed marriages are forbidden and polygamy encouraged? Multiculturalism, as Finkielkraut points out, requires treasn we respect such practices. To a large extent, the abdication of reason demanded by multiculturalism has been the result of what we might call the subjection of culture to anthropology.
Only an ignoramus who intellectuxls that there were important distinctions, qualitative distinctions, between the barbarian and the civilized man could possibly think of objecting. Of course, the attack on distinctions that Finkielkraut castigates takes place not only among cultures but also within a given culture. Here again, the anthropological imperative has played a major jjulien.
F or confirmation of this, one need only glance at the pronouncements of our critics. Whether working in the academy or other cultural institutions, they bring us the same news: In describing this process of leveling, Finkielkraut distinguishes between those who wish to obliterate distinctions in the name of politics and those who juljen so out of a kind of narcissism. The multiculturalists wave the standard of radical politics and say in the words of a nineteenth-century Russian populist slogan that Finkielkraut quotes: The litany that Finkielkraut recites is familiar:.
The upshot is not only that Shakespeare is downgraded, but also that the bootmaker is elevated.
Among other things, that exhibition demonstrated the extent to which the apotheosis of popular culture undermines the very possibility of appreciating high art on its own terms. When the distinction between culture and entertainment is obliterated, high art is orphaned, exiled from the only context in which its distinctive meaning can manifest itself: Picasso becomes a kind of cartoon.
This, more than any elitism or obscurity, is the real threat to culture today. And this brings us to the question of freedom. Finkielkraut notes that the rhetoric of postmodernism is in some ways similar to the rhetoric of Enlightenment.
Enlightenment looks to culture as a repository of values that transcend the self, postmodernism looks to hulien fleeting desires of the isolated self as the only legitimate source of value. What Finkielkraut has understood with admirable clarity is that modern attacks on elitism represent not the extension but the destruction of culture.
This fraud is the dirty secret that our cultural commissars refuse traeson acknowledge. T here is another, perhaps even darker, result of the undoing of thought. The disintegration of faith in reason and common humanity leads not only to a destruction of standards, but also involves a crisis of courage.
Communism may have been effectively discredited.
This translation is still in print from Norton.