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On Julien Benda's The Treason of the Intellectuals (1927)

"The most insignificant writer can serve peace, where the most powerful tribunals can do nothing."

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In 1927, the French essayist Julien Benda published a short book called La Trahison des Clercs or, as it would be translated in America, The Treason of the Intellectuals.

For Benda (1867-1956), the proper role of the public intellectual is to steer men away from the errors of vulgar materialism and the folly of pursuing power. Historically, the great thinkers are generally disinterested and metaphysical, he argues. They are oriented toward the highest values, which are always to some degree mutually exclusive with power, profit, and status—often, the values of the intellectual are not of this world at all.

Before the nineteenth century, history is “filled with long European wars which left the great majority of people completely indifferent… Today there is scarcely a mind in Europe which is not affected—or thinks itself affected—by a racial or class or national passion, and most often by all three.”

Today, it’s easy to see that this trend has continued for the century after Trahison. A distant war between Russia and Ukraine inflames national sensibilities in the United States, while class identity is experienced as an intersection between new and increasingly trivial categories.

Why? The Trahison.

The treason of the intellectuals was committed when they—as a class, especially from around the 1870s onward—became overtaken by certain modern passions. Especially nationality and race, but we’re talking about something more general than that:

“It seems to me that these passions can be reduced to two fundamental desires: (a) The will of a group of men to get hold of (or to retain a hold on) some material advantage, such as territories, comfort, political power and all its material advantages; and (b) the will of a group of men to become conscious of themselves as individuals, insofar as they are distinct in relation to other men… One [desire] seeks the satisfaction of an interest, the other of a pride or self-esteem.”

In short, public intellectuals became infected with the mental virus of politics.

Benda seems to place the blame initially on the German nationalist intellectuals like Lessing, Schlegel, and Fichte. But from there it spreads everywhere in the West and reaches fever pitch in the 20th century. And it’s true: From Ezra Pound’s fixation with Fascism to Sartre’s fixation with Soviet communism, 20th century intellectual life was a massive capitulation to, and normalization of, political axe-grinding. In the name of an instrumental “realism” that Benda diagnoses expertly.

What is most interesting about reading this book today is that Benda could even experience this defection of the intellectuals as a problem. It feels so distant and quaint.

We are so past the completion of this defection that Benda's indignation almost fails to parse. We have so fully capitulated to what Benda calls "realism" that the average reader today will be confused by the word. He says it like it's a bad thing?

But for all of these reasons, I found this book productively disruptive; it gave me a jolting sense of shame. We are all so adjusted to one generic calculative layer of the world. Living after the treason of the intellectuals, we live in a cultural space that is even flatter than we realize.

The solution for Benda is just old-fashioned, disinterested universalism. The clerks today must relinquish the dream of being practical, which includes the dream of being admired and valued and richly compensated; they must focus on the only raison dêtre they ever had in the first place:

“The ‘clerk’ is only strong if he is clearly conscious of his essential qualities and his true function, and shows mankind that he is clearly conscious of them. In other words he declares to them that his kingdom is not of this world, that the grandeur of his teaching lies precisely in this absence of practical value, and that the right morality for the prosperity of the kingdoms which are of this world, is not his, but Caesar’s. When he takes up this position, the ‘clerk’ is crucified, but he is respected, and his words haunt the memory of mankind. The need to remind the modern ‘clerks’ of these truths (for every one of them is angry at being called Utopian) is one of the most suggestive observations in connection with our subject. It shows that the desire to be practical has become general, that the claim to be so has now become necessary in order to obtain an audience, and that the very notion of ‘clerkdom’ has become obscured even in those who still tend to exercise that function.

The one and only job of the clerc, then as now, is to tell the truth—the inconvenient and unrealistic truth.

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