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