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|Julien Benda (1867-1956)|
French political and social philosopher, novelist and critic,
who argued in his most famous work, La trahison des clercs (1927,
The Treason of the Intellectuals), that contemporary intellectuals have
abandoned the pursuit of universal truths in favor of every kind
political and national passions. A prolific writer, Julien
Benda published about 50 books, mostly forgotten today, but his
phrase "la trahison des clercs" has been evoked many times. As a
rationalist and defender enlightment values, he was in direct
opposition to the fashionable intuitionism of Bergson.
"Civilization, I repeat, seems to me possible only if humanity consents to a division of functions, if side by side with those who carry out the lay passions and extol the virtues serviceable to them there exists a class of men who depreciate these passions and glorify the advantages which are beyond the materials." (from The Treason of the Intellectuals)
Benda was born into a prosperous Jewish family in
Paris."I was raised in the spirit of the Republic," Brenda said in his
memoirs. "Democratic principles were ingrained in my bones." He often
heard his father say that it was scandalous that a Jew opposed the
Revolution, "for without it he would still be in the ghetto." (The Holocaust, the
French, and the Jews by Susan Zuccotti, 1993, p. 8)
Between 1889 and 1891 he studied at the École Centrale but left his school, and after military service, he entered the University of Paris, receiving his bachelor's degree in history in 1894. Before devoting himself to writing, Benda led a carefree life and spent weekends at the chateau of his cousin, Simone Casimir-Périer.
Benda was one of many artists and intellectuals who defended Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer unjustly convicted of treason. He contributed articles on the case to Revue Blanche, which were later collected in Dialogues à Byzance (1900). The Dreyfus affair soon turned into a clash between "the forces of the past and the forces of the future," as Zola said, and made explicit the role of intellectuals as watchmen over the moral values of the society. Later, in his 70s Benda said that it had been a fortunate episode for the men of his generation.
Benda was an extreme rationalist from the beginning of his career and remained faithful to his belief that there is an universal Truth to be found. A defender of reason, he opposed Bergson's philosophy, particularly his intuitionism, in such works as La Bergsonisme: ou, Un Philosophie de la mobilité (1912), Une philosophie pathétique (1913), and Sur le succés du Bergsonisme (1914). Condemning all modern trends in the arts and literature Benda regarded Bergson as a supreme example of a general cultural and philosophical decline. "Bergsonism," he said, "was perhaps the only philosophy to have been really understood by the vulgar." Bergson himself preferred to remain silent.
The anti-clerical L'Ordination (1911-12), Benda's first novel, was originally published in Charles Péguy's Cahiers de la Quinzaine. This work was shortlisted for the Prix Goncourt, France's most prestigious literary award. As a reply to Benda's negative criticism of Bergson's philosophy, Péguy wrote his essay 'Note sur M. Bergson et la philosophie bergsonnienne' in April 1914, but he also acknowledged that Benda was "the only adversary of Bergson who knew what it was all about."
In 1913 the Benda's family business went bankrupt. During
World War I Benda contributed to Figaro articles, which were
collected in Les sentiments de Critias (1917) and Billets
de Sirius (1925). He pleaded a "moral program for Europe" in
an essay published in Foreign Affairs
(July 1934) and supported fiercely his country against
Germany, which he did not regard as a Cartesian nation; there is
nothing to be learned from the German spirit: "Already there are
Frenchmen who think Sparta admirable and Athens contemptible, to whom
respect for abstract truth and abstract justice is a childish weakness
from which serious people should recover; they think Nietzsche a far
greater man than Descartes, and find Hitler the ideal type." (Guardians of the Humanist
Legacy by Jeroen Vanheste, 2007, p. 158)
Always thought provoking and polemic against obscurity, sentiment, feeling, and modern age in general, Benda concluded in 1945 in La France byzantine, that France herself has become decadent, the new Byzantium.
"Our age has seen priests of the mind teaching that gregarious is the praiseworthy form of thought, and that independent thought is contemptible. It is moreover certain that the group which desires to be strong has no use for a man who claims to think for himself." (from The Treason of the Intellectuals)
La trahison des clercs, which came out when Benda was
60 years old, gained a lot of attention. A new edition of the book was
published in 1947. Benda used the term "clerks" in the medieval sense
of the word. By the term he meant all those "whose activity essentially
is not the
pursuit of practical aims, all those who seek their
joy in the practice of an art or a science or metaphysical
speculation." Spinoza, Schiller, Baudelaire, and César Franck, for
example, were true "clerks," intellectuals, who never "diverted from a
single-hearted adoration of the Beautiful and the Divine by the
necessity of earning their daily bread." But modern "clerks" have
betrayed their vocation and their traditional philosophical and
scholarly ideals by involving themselves in passions of race, class and
nation: "Our age is indeed the age of the intellectual organization of
political hatreds," he said. Most crucially, they have broken their
tradition by mingling
political passions with their work as artists, as scholars, as
philosophers. Truth and just are determined by the useful.
The Nobel writer Romain
Rolland, for whom the cause of peace in Europe was essential,
criticized Benda for his view about what is the duty of the
intellectuals. Having expressed his sympathies for the international
Socialist movement, Rolland no longer considered himself an apolitical
writer, and declared: "My very participation in the privileged realm of
intelligence provides me the means, imposes on me the dyuty, of
effectively aiding the community – by illuminating, if I can, the
right road and the dangers that beset it. No, I will not turn my back
on politics." (Romain Rolland and the Politics of the Intellectual Engagement by David Fisher, 2013, p. 218)
The common man has won, was Benda's conclusion. His mission "of preserving intelligence in the world" view its most cogent expression in José Ortega y Gasset's famous essay The Revolt of the Masses (1929). T.S. Eliot, who agreed with Benda's arguments concerning the role of the intellectual elite, noted that the French thinker's "own brand of classicism is just as romantic as anyone else's." Although Benda condemned the glorification of national particularism, there is an anti-Teutonic strain in some of his work.
Since 1920s Benda advocated European federalization for cultural reasons. Firmly believing
French was the most rational language he argued that it should be taken
as the common
language in the united Europe.
the 1930s Benda lectured at various universities in the
United States. In his diaries, he spoke admiringly about the
standardization of American life – it was perfect for a thinker who did
not want to be "disturbed by the picturesque". ('Julien
Benda's Anti-Passionate Europe' by Jan-Werner Müller, European Journal of Political Theory,
5(2):125-137, April 2006)
With the rising threat of totalitarianism, Benda abandoned his earlier insistence that intellectuals should stand apart from practical politics and challenged them to descend from their ivory towers, saying that "the clerc must now take side." According to Brenda, Fascism and Communism were two different types of totalitarianism, but its Soviet manifestation had something good in its goals of social transformation. (The Passing of an Illusion: The Idea of Communism in the Twentieth Century by François Furet, 1999, p. 537) In La trahison des clercs he dismissed the pacifism of Romain Rolland, claiming that in Rolland's case the "mystique of peace" has triumphed over the "sentiment of justice." (The Spectrum of Political Engagement: Mounier, Benda, Nizan, Brasillach, Sartre by David L. Schalk, 2015, p. 132)
During the Occupation, Benda lived in Carcassonne, bustling with projects. As a Jew, he was made to wear the yellow star, in spite of the fact that he rejected any form of Zionism. In Paris, his notes and library was destroyed by the German Nazis. La Grande Epreuve des démocraties (1942) was smuggled out of France and first published in the United States by Editions de la Maison Française. For a period, Benda was a Communist sympathizer – Georges Soria, L'Humanité's correspondent, said in 1948 in Moscow that Benda was useful because, "even though he was against Marxism and Communism, he supported the party's present policien in France." (Paris After the Liberation 1944-1949: Revised Edition by Antony Beevor & Artemis Cooper, 2004, p. 333)
Louise Eugenie Lebas, whom Benda married relatively
in life, was the daughter of a former military governor. After the war
Benda attacked the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre, arguing that
existentialism was nothing but warmed-over Bergsonism. When both Sartre
and Benda gave a public lecture in October 1945 on the same day at the
same evening, Sartre spoke to a fully packet hall, where women fainted
and chairs were smashed, but Benda was greeted with empty seats.
Even as he found himself isolated and ignored, Benda remained a prolific writer. Except La trahison, his major works never sold very well. Julien Benda died on June 7, 1956, in Fontenay-Aux-Roses. He had requested beforehand that no eulogies be delivered at his funeral. Benda's two autobiographical works, La jeunesse d'un clerc (1936) and Un Régulier dans le siècle (1937), document the evolution of his thought. L'Humanite, the mouthpiece of the French Communist Party, claimed Benda as being on the side of the "party of truth" at the time of his death.
For further reading: Les lois de l'esprit: Julien Benda ou la raison by Pascal Engel (2012); 'Julien Benda (1867-1956)' by Karlis Racevskis, in The Columbia History of Twentieth-century French Thought, edited by Lawrence D. Kritzman (2006); 'The Intellectual as Architect and Legitimizer of Genocide: Julien Benda Redux' by S.K. Danielsson, in Journal of Genocide Research, Vol. 7; Numb. 3 (2005); 'Benda, Julien,' by Hugo Azérad, in Encyclopedia of Modern French Thought, edited by Christopher John Murray (2004); 'Benda, Julien,' in Encyclopedia of the Essay, ed. by Tracy Chevalier (1997); 'Benda, Julien,' in World Authors 1900-1950, Vol. 1, ed. by Martin Seymour-Smith and Andrew C. Kimmens (1996); Julien Benda: un misantrophe juif dans la France de Maurras by Louis Albert Revah (1991); The Opium of the Intellectuals by Raymond Aron (1985, original French edition, 1955); The Spectrum of Political Engagement: Mournier, Benda, Nizan, Brasillach, Sartre by David L. Schalk (1979); Treason, Tradition and the Intellectual: Julien Benda and Political Discourse by Ray Nichols (1978); Julien Benda by Robert J. Niess (1956)