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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)

Julien 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 that French was the most rational language he argued that it should be taken as the common language in the united Europe.

In 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)  

Nicia Louise Eugenie Lebas, whom Benda married relatively late 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)

Selected works:

  • Dialogues à Byzance, 1900
  • Mon premier testament, 1910
  • Dialogue d'Eleuthère, 1911
  • L'Ordination, 1911-12 (2 vols.)
    - The Yoke of Pity (translated by Gilbert Cannan, 1913
  • La Bergsonisme: ou, Un Philosophie de la mobilité, 1912
  • Une philosophie pathétique, 1913
  • Sur le succés du Bergsonisme, 1914
  • Les sentiments de Critias, 1917
  • Le Bouquet de Glycère, 1918
  • Belphégor: Essai sur l'esthétique de la présente société française, 1919
    - Belphegor (translated by S.J.I. Lawson, with an introduction by Irving Babbitt, 1929)
  • Vie de Rancé / François-René Chateaubriand, 1920 (introduction and notes by Julien Benda)
  • Les Amorandes, 1922
  • La Croix de roses, 1923
  • Billets de Sirius, 1925
  • Entretien avec Julien Benda par Frédéric Lefèvre, 1925
  • Lettres à Mélisande pour son éducation philosophique, 1926
  • Pour les vieux garçons, 1926
  • L'ordination, 1926
  • La Fin de l'eternel, 1927
  • La trahison des clercs, 1927 - The Great Betrayal (translated by Richard Aldington, 1928) / The Treason of the Intellectuals (US title, translated by Richard Aldington, 1928; with a new introduction by Roger Kimball, 2007) / The Betrayal of the Intellectuals (translated by Richard Aldington, introd. by Herbert Read, 1955)
  • Properce; ou, Les amants de Tibur, 1928
  • Cléanthis; ou, Du beau et de l'actuel, 1928
  • Supplement à De l'espair du faction de Saint-Evremond, 1929
  • Appositions, 1930
  • Essais 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 [Discourse on the European nation]
  • Délice d'Eleuthèrne, 1935
  • Œuvres complètes / Jean de La Bruyère, 1934 (ed.)
  • La jeunesse d'un clerc, 1936
  • Précision, 1930-1937, 1937
  • Un Régulier dans le siècle, 1937
  • The Living Thoughts of Kant, Presented by Julien Benda, 1940
  • La Grande Épreuve des démocraties, 1942
  • Le Rapport d'Uriel, 1943
  • Un Antisémite sincère, 1944
  • La France byzantine; ou, Le Triomphe de la littérature pure: Mallarmé, Gide, Proust, Valéry, Alain Giraudoux, Suarès, les Surréalistes, 1945
  • Exercice d'un enterré vif, 1945
  • Exercice d’un enterré vif (juin 1940-aou^t 1944), 1946
  • Non Possumus, 1946
  • Du poétique, 1946
  • Tradition de l'existentialisme: ou, Les philosophies de la vie, 1947
  • Du style d'idées; réflexions sur la pensée, sa nature, ses réalisations, sa valeur morale, 1948
  • Trois idoles romantiques: Le Dynamisme, l'existentialisme, la dialectique materialiste, 1948
  • Les Cahiers d'un clerc, 1936-1949, 1949
  • La Crise du rationalisme, 1949
  • Songe d'Eleuthère, 1949
  • De quelques constantes de l´espirit humain: Critique du mobilisme contemporaine, 1950
  • Mémoires d'infra-tombe, 1952

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