When hatred of culture becomes itself a part of culture, the life of the mind loses all meaning. Today we are trying to spread knowledge everywhere. Who knows if in centuries to come there will not be universities for re-establishing our former ignorance? I n , the French essayist Julien Benda published his famous attack on the intellectual corruption of the age, La Trahison des clercs. For today, in the United States anyway, only the title of the book, not its argument, enjoys much currency.
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When hatred of culture becomes itself a part of culture, the life of the mind loses all meaning. Today we are trying to spread knowledge everywhere. Who knows if in centuries to come there will not be universities for re-establishing our former ignorance?
I n , the French essayist Julien Benda published his famous attack on the intellectual corruption of the age, La Trahison des clercs. For today, in the United States anyway, only the title of the book, not its argument, enjoys much currency. Academics and journalists, pundits, moralists, and pontificators of all varieties are in this sense clercs. The English translation, The Treason of the Intellectuals , 1 sums it up neatly.
From the time of the pre-Socratics, intellectuals, considered in their role as intellectuals, had been a breed apart. This contradiction was an honor to the human species, and formed the rift whereby civilization slipped into the world. According to Benda, however, this situation was changing. More and more, intellectuals were abandoning their attachment to the traditional panoply of philosophical and scholarly ideals.
One clear sign of the change was the attack on the Enlightenment ideal of universal humanity and the concomitant glorification of various particularisms. Nor did he believe that intellectuals, as citizens, necessarily should abstain from political commitment or practical affairs.
What Benda found novel was the accreditation of such cynicism by intellectuals. In other words, the real treason of the intellectuals was not that they countenanced Callicles but that they championed him.
Benda understood that the stakes were high: the treason of the intellectuals signaled not simply the corruption of a bunch of scribblers but a fundamental betrayal of culture. T he Treason of the Intellectuals is an energetic hodgepodge of a book. Partisan in its claims for disinterestedness, it is ruthless in its defense of intellectual high-mindedness. And given the continuing echo in our own time of the problems he anatomized, the relevance of his observations to our situation can hardly be doubted.
From the savage flowering of ethnic hatreds in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union to the mendacious demands for political correctness and multiculturalism on college campuses across America and Europe, the treason of the intellectuals continues to play out its unedifying drama. In , the young French philosopher and cultural critic Alain Finkielkraut took up where Benda left off, producing a brief but searching inventory of our contemporary cataclysms. In this sense, the book is a trahison des clercs for the post-Communist world, a world dominated as much by the leveling imperatives of pop culture as by resurgent nationalism and ethnic separatism.
Beginning with Benda, Finkielkraut catalogues several prominent strategies that contemporary intellectuals have employed to retreat from the universal. A frequent point of reference is the eighteenth-century German Romantic philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder. The Undoing of Thought resembles The Treason of the Intellectuals stylistically as well as thematically.
And Finkielkraut, like Benda and, indeed, like Montaigne , tends to proceed more by collage than by demonstration. The geography of intellectual betrayal has changed dramatically in the last sixty-odd years. In , intellectuals still had something definite to betray. In the broadest terms, The Undoing of Thought is a brief for the principles of the Enlightenment. Among other things, this means that it is a brief for the idea that mankind is united by a common humanity that transcends ethnic, racial, and sexual divisions.
The Frankfurt School Marxists Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno gave an exemplary but by no means uncharacteristic demonstration of one strain of this brand of anti-rational animus in the mids. Historically, the Enlightenment arose as a deeply anti-clerical and, perforce, anti-traditional movement. It is this mature form of Enlightenment, championing reason but respectful of tradition, that Finkielkraut holds up as an ideal.
The process of disintegration has lately become an explicit attack on culture. This is not simply to say that there are many anti-intellectual elements in society: that has always been the case. The innovation of contemporary culture is to have obliterated the distinction between the two. This is the undoing of thought. There are many sides to this phenomenon. What about those cultures in which the testimony of one man counts for that of two women?
In which female circumcision is practiced? In which slavery flourishes? In which mixed marriages are forbidden and polygamy encouraged? Multiculturalism, as Finkielkraut points out, requires that we respect such practices. To a large extent, the abdication of reason demanded by multiculturalism has been the result of what we might call the subjection of culture to anthropology. Not to worry! Only an ignoramus who believed that there were important distinctions, qualitative distinctions, between the barbarian and the civilized man could possibly think of objecting.
Of course, the attack on distinctions that Finkielkraut castigates takes place not only among cultures but also within a given culture. Here again, the anthropological imperative has played a major role. F or confirmation of this, one need only glance at the pronouncements of our critics. In describing this process of leveling, Finkielkraut distinguishes between those who wish to obliterate distinctions in the name of politics and those who do so out of a kind of narcissism.
The litany that Finkielkraut recites is familiar:. The upshot is not only that Shakespeare is downgraded, but also that the bootmaker is elevated. Among other things, that exhibition demonstrated the extent to which the apotheosis of popular culture undermines the very possibility of appreciating high art on its own terms.
When the distinction between culture and entertainment is obliterated, high art is orphaned, exiled from the only context in which its distinctive meaning can manifest itself: Picasso becomes a kind of cartoon. This, more than any elitism or obscurity, is the real threat to culture today. And this brings us to the question of freedom. Finkielkraut notes that the rhetoric of postmodernism is in some ways similar to the rhetoric of Enlightenment.
What Finkielkraut has understood with admirable clarity is that modern attacks on elitism represent not the extension but the destruction of culture. This fraud is the dirty secret that our cultural commissars refuse to acknowledge. T here is another, perhaps even darker, result of the undoing of thought. The disintegration of faith in reason and common humanity leads not only to a destruction of standards, but also involves a crisis of courage.
Communism may have been effectively discredited. This translation is still in print from Norton.
trahison des clercs
Julien Benda 26 December — 7 June was a French philosopher and novelist, known as an essayist and cultural critic. Born into a Jewish family in Paris, Benda had a secular upbringing. His father's death in left Benda independently wealthy. His articles on the Dreyfus affair were collected and published as Dialogues. Benda survived the German occupation of France and the Vichy regime —, in Carcassonne.
The Treason of the Intellectuals
The treason of the intellectuals & “The Undoing of Thought”