June 9, 2010


Benda, Julien, The Treason of the Intellectuals (La trahison de clercs [1927]) translated from the French by Richard Aldington, introduction by Roger Kimball (New Brunswick & London: Transaction Publishers, 2007, 2009).

"The notion that political warfare involves a war of cultures is entirely an invention of modern times, and confers upon them a conspicuous place in the moral history of humanity." Id. at 20. think about certain characterization of the so-called 'war on terror,' or of America's seemingly neverending 'culture wars.'

"[T]here existed until the last half century [note: Brenda is writing in the 1920s] another, essentially distinct humanity, which to a certain extent acted as a check upon the former [i.e., "the masses, whether bourgeois or proletarian, kings, ministers, political leaders, all that portion of the human species which I shall call 'the laymen,' whose whole function consists essentially in the pursuit of material interests, and who, by becoming more and more solely and systematically realist, have in fact only done what might be expected them"]. I mean the that class of men whom I shall designate 'the clerks,' by which term I mean 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, in short in the the possession of non-material advantages, and hence in a certain manner say: 'My kingdom is not of this world.' Indeed, throughout history, for more than two thousand years until modern times, I see an uninterrupted series of philosophers, men of religion, men of literature, artists, men of learning . . . , whose influence, whose life, were in direct opposition to the realism of the multitudes. To come down specifically to the political passions--the 'clerks' were in opposition to them in two ways. They were either entirely indifferent to these passion, and . . . set an example of indifferent to these passions, and, . . . . set an example of attachment to the purely disinterested activity of the mind and created a belief in the supreme value of this form of existence; or gazing as moralists upon the conflict of human egotisms . . . , they preached, in the name of humanity or justice, the adoption of an abstract principle superior to and directly opposed to those passions. . . .

"Now, at the end of the nineteenth century [and certainly now at the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century] a fundamental change occurred: the 'clerks' began to play the game of political passions. The men who had acted as a check on the realism of the people began to act as its stimulators. . . ."
Id. at 43-45.

"I shall point out two more teachings inspired in the modern 'clerks' [i.e., the modern intellectual], by their preaching of the 'strong State,' and it will not be necessary to add that they are new in the ministers of the spiritual:--

"The first is the teaching whereby they declare to Man that he is great to the extent that he strives to act and to think as his ancestors, his race, his environment thought, and ignores 'individualism.' Thirty years ago many of the French teachers hurled anathemas against the man who 'claimed to seek truth for himself,' to arrive to arrive at his own opinion, instead of adopting the opinion of his nation which had been told what it ought to think by its vigilant leaders. Our age has seen priests of the mind teaching that the gregarious is the praiseworthy form of thought, and that independent thought is contemptible. It is moreover certain that a group which desires to be strong has no use for the man who claims to think for himself.

"The second is the teaching whereby they declare to men that the fact that a group is numerous constitutes a right. This is the morality which the over-populated nations hear from many of their thinkers, while the other nations hear from many of theirs that if their low birth-rate continues they will become the objects of a 'legitimate' extermination. The rights of numerousness admitted by men who claim to belong to the life of the mind--that is what modern sees. But it is certain that if a nation is to be strong, it must be numerous.

"This cult of the strong State and the moral methods which ensure it have been preached to mankind by the 'clerks' far beyond the domain of politics, and on a wholly general plane. This is the preaching of Pragmatism whose teaching during the past fifty years by nearly all the influential moralists of Europe is one of the most remarkable turning point in the moral history of the human species. It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of a movement whereby those who for twenty centuries taught Man that the criterion of the morality of an act is its disinterestedness, that good is a decree of his reason insofar as it is universal, that his will is only moral if it seeks its law outside its objects, should begin to teach him that the moral act is the act whereby he secures his existence against an environment which disputes it, that his will is moral insofar as it is a will 'to power,' that the part of his soul which determines what is good is its 'will to live; wherein it is most 'hostile to all reason,' that the morality of an act is measured by its adaptation to its end and that the only morality is the morality of circumstances. The educators of the human mind now takes sides with Callicles against Socrates, a revolution which I dare to say seems to me more important than all political upheavals."
Id. at 123-124.

Do a search through those newspapers aspiring to be 'papers of record,' such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and through just about any academic journal ostensibly concerned with political, social, moral issues, and note the numerous characterization of, and praising of, some person, some policy, some thesis, some action, etc., as 'pragmatic,' or 'realistic,' or 'practical,' or 'instrumental.' It is the valuing and pursuit of the material interests to the virtual exclusion of the, admittedly abstract, values of morality, humanity, justice, independent thought, and Truth. Under the logic of the ends justify the means, everything goes . . . if it works. Have the lights gone out of the great advancement called The Enlightenment?