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Treason of the Intellectuals

The French thinker Julien Benda made a high-minded case for the moral transcendence of the truth. The flaws in his argument show why speaking truth to power is a fraught endeavor.

Mark Lilla
December 07, 2021
Original photo: Wikimedia Common
Julien BendaOriginal photo: Wikimedia Common
Original photo: Wikimedia Common
Julien BendaOriginal photo: Wikimedia Common

Certain books never live up to their memorable titles. Others do, but not in the way their authors might have anticipated. Julien Benda’s The Treason of the Intellectuals, an essential intervention in 20th-century debates about intellectual responsibility, is the second sort of book. Cast into the agitated waters of European politics between the two world wars, it still floats ashore every decade or so, attracting readers with its stirring call to the independent life of the mind, free from the lures of power and authority. It is essential reading. Ever since the book’s publication in 1927, its argument has been taken up by writers of very different political stripes in very different historical circumstances. In the 1930s communist intellectuals denounced their fascist counterparts as traitors to the truth; liberals levied the same charge against communists and fellow travelers during the Cold War, only to find themselves then put in the dock by progressives and neoconservatives and now populists. Treason is one of those books that serve both as a lens for discerning the present and a mirror reflecting the image of those who appeal to it.

Our century will properly be called the century of the intellectual organization of political hatred. With this one sentence, we recognize Julien Benda as our contemporary. The hatreds he had in mind—racial, national, class-based—are once again our own. When Treason was written, street violence stoked by a hyper-partisan press was common between rival radical factions united only by their contempt for liberalism and parliamentary democracy. In France the most potent political force on the scene was the antisemitic Action Française, the monarchist social movement whose daily newspaper was widely read in elite circles and served as a microphone for the silver-tongued racism of its founder Charles Maurras and nationalist writers like Maurice Barrès. The diminutive Maurras was anything but a street fighter. Instead he invented what might be called the counter-intellectual screed, which can be defined as a ruthless attack on the intellectual class for faults to which one is oneself miraculously immune. In 1905 Maurras published a pamphlet titled The Future of the Intelligentsia (L’Avenir de l’intelligence), which portrayed France’s intellectuals as a déclassé caste that had lost its influence in the age of capitalism and mass democracy, and was now exacting revenge by turning against the fatherland and becoming the puppet of Jewish and German interests. By declaring writers and journalists to be political and racial traitors, Maurras was not too subtly putting targets on their backs.

Two decades later, Julien Benda, a man of the left, published his brilliant riposte to Maurras that turned the accusation of betrayal around. The core of the book, as in Maurras’ own pamphlet, is a highly idealized portrayal of European intellectual life from the Middle Ages until the French Revolution. Benda imagined an honorable class of politically detached thinkers who for centuries had kept their eyes fixed solely on the eternal ideals of truth, justice, and beauty. He called them les clercs, an old French word for scribe that has a whiff of the ecclesiastical about it. Some of les clercs were saints (Thomas Aquinas), some were poets (Goethe), some were philosophers (Descartes), some were artists (Da Vinci), some were scientists (Galileo). What they shared was the sense of a transcendent calling and a commitment to guard it against the encroachment of power and necessity. They were not naïve; they recognized that power and necessity have claims on us, and at times we must bow to them. But they never confused necessity with truth and justice. Even Machiavelli, Benda reminds us, who taught his Prince the strategic use of evil to secure his rule, never called evil good, just necessary.

On Benda’s telling, this class of intellectuals was transformed in the 19th century under the influence of Romanticism and historicism, which lured them into thinking that their task was to shape the world, not simply understand it. In the wake of the French Revolution the strict rule of reason came to seem a paltry thing next to energy and feeling and the march of history and the evolution of the species. If existence is only a blur of pure becoming, the temptation is to enter its flow and participate in the process, bending it if one can. The value of an idea in such a process then becomes its effectiveness, not its timeless truth. And power, whether that of the creative genius, the leader, the race, the nation, a class, or a movement, becomes an idol. In abandoning their critical distance from the mundane world, modern intellectuals of left and right became moralists of realism, Benda charged, the spiritual militia of the temporal, herding the masses toward the next historical end. The scribe’s defeat begins right from the point where he claims to be practical. As soon as he asserts that he takes into account the interests of the nation or the established classes, he is already—inevitably—beaten. The arrow launched against Maurras here reaches its target, and the call to serve truth, justice, and beauty can once again be heard.

It is a captivating and inspiring story. So captivating that the reader almost forgets that The Treason of the Intellectuals is itself a powerful polemic meant to have a practical effect. This book is stranger than it first appears. After all, had Benda only been concerned with living the clerical life, he simply could have gotten on with it—or, at most, he could have issued a call to join him in the land of the lotus eaters. Instead, he makes a practical case against practicality, an engaged case against political engagements.

The mystery deepens when one considers the arc of Benda’s own intellectual and political engagements over the years. His life spanned a dreadful period in European history, from just before the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 to the failed Hungarian uprising against Soviet occupation in 1956. He was spared none of the stations of the cross. At the turn of the century, he had gained prominence for his passionate writings in defense of the Dreyfusard cause, then became just as passionately anti-German during the First World War. After the publication of Treason, where he argued for disengagement from politics, he did an about-face during the Spanish Civil War, arguing that intellectuals were obliged to take the Republicans’ side and turn a blind eye to whatever atrocities they may have committed. He then moved further left, becoming a prominent anti-fascist with communist sympathies (though he considered Marxism a sham).

When Paris fell to the Germans in 1940 Benda was hunted by the Nazis, hid out in Vichy with help from the French Resistance, and barely escaped arrest and almost certain death in 1944. After the war, he was among the loudest voices calling for the execution of collaborators with the Nazis, including certain writers and intellectuals. His hatred of them became legendary. As the Soviet Union tightened its grip on Eastern Europe, Benda prevaricated. Most shamefully, he justified the show trial and execution of Hungarian Foreign Minister László Rajk in 1949 on trumped-up espionage charges and a forced confession—all the while professing his unwavering adherence to the high principles of Treason.

But hypocrisy is too universal to be interesting, and a book loses none of its value if the author betrays its message. If anything, the message is reinforced. In Benda’s case, though, there is more coherence between his life and work than might first appear. The more closely one reads Treason, the clearer it becomes that Benda’s ideal scribe is not a mere guardian of the temple of truth. He is, by virtue of his very detachment from political life, its only legitimate judge. Benda wants to convince us that a clear, disinterested view of moral and political reality can only be had from on high, not in the thick of things. He then quietly asserts—this is the decisive step—that les clercs who achieve this view have a responsibility to reveal the truth and defend it in public. There is a subtle shift in Treason from the image of the intellectual as truth’s servant, to one of the intellectual as truth’s representative—which is a prophetic, not a clerical, calling.

The political prophet’s kingdom is still not of this world. He has no practical plan for what must be done, he only has a keen eye for falsehood, for moral abominations, for what absolutely must not be done. Wherever lies are told and cruelty is practiced, wherever rights are violated, the responsible intellectual must, as we glibly say, speak truth to power. Then his job is over. As for defeating the liars in battle, crafting laws to punish the cruel, and building institutions to protect rights—well, there are people for that. And if they fall short, they too shall be judged.

Many of us today are in the grip of nostalgia for moral clarity, and so we hold onto unambiguous stories of injustice and resistance like planks from a sinking ship.

From this perspective, The Treason of the Intellectuals is the quintessential act of a responsible scribe. Benda has simply taken his whip and cleared the money changers and whores out of the Temple so that the true prophets can be heard. The real heroes of Treason, it turns out, are not the monkish types in their cells with their manuscripts and compasses and telescopes. They are not St. Thomas, Da Vinci, Galileo, or Descartes. They are rather those who at a critical historical juncture delivered The Protest, the resounding NO! that still lives in our memories. What Benda most admires in Montaigne, for example, is not his skepticism or his style, it is his denunciation of witch burning and exposure of colonialism’s absurdity; in Montesquieu, it is the condemnation of slavery; in Voltaire, the campaign to exonerate Protestant Jean Calas of his son’s murder; in Zola, the j’accuse that would eventually free Captain Dreyfus. These were all courageous acts of intellectual protest and they eventually had real effects. Witches are no longer burned, slavery is no longer legal, and Dreyfus was eventually freed. In an earlier work, Benda wrote that reason is revolutionary in its essence precisely because it is universal, while the social order is always self-interested, partial. These examples show why truth is a friend of justice. One does not speak truth to power simply to clear one’s conscience or keep the relevant ministries informed. One does it in a counter-exercise of power, however feeble and doomed it might be. And sometimes it has revolutionary effects.

But all power, even the power of truth, comes with temporal responsibilities, in particular the responsibility to consider the potential consequences of acting on that truth. There are cases in which ending a moral abomination incurs negligible moral costs. Those are rare. The normal moral case in political life is more like the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s, a nightmare of clashing interests and reciprocal abominations. On the subject of prophetic responsibility in such situations, Benda has nothing to say.

Once we have spoken truth to power, once it is exposed and thwarted, power does not wither and die. There is a struggle over recapturing it, after which new victors have power over the newly vanquished, and new abuses become possible. What then is Benda’s morally clairvoyant scribe to do? To be consistent, he must commit himself to shouting the same NO! at the same volume every time a violation occurs, without acting himself. That is an absurd position to be in (though one can imagine a good Bergman film on such a Swedish parson). Instead, what most often happens is that at a certain historical moment—and to some minds, it is always that moment—the injustices on one side will seem so great that fighting to vanquish them will seem to the prophet the only imperative, no matter what may follow.

This is psychologically understandable: A moral crime in the hand will always seem weightier than two in the bush. But it is one thing to bow to necessity and accept that a certain abuse of power may be necessary to prevent a larger one. It is quite another to then convince oneself, as so many intellectuals in modern history have, that the monstrousness of the status quo transubstantiates any lie against it into a truth, and any crime against it into a moral act. It implies that, seen from the right perspective, those who tell such lies and perpetrate such crimes have the cleanest hands of all. At this point the definition of speaking truth to power becomes exoneration.

This way of thinking is, of course, a moral and political trap, and Julien Benda fell into it in the 1930s, never to emerge. Ten years after his tribute in Treason to dispassionate intellectual devotion to the true, the good, and the beautiful, he could write this about the atrocities committed by communists during the Spanish Civil War:

I say that the scribe must now take sides. He must choose the side which, if it threatens liberty, at least threatens it in order to give bread to all men, and not for the benefit of wealthy exploiters. He will choose the side which, if it must kill, will kill the oppressors and not the oppressed. The clerc must take sides with this group of violent men, since he has only the choice between their triumph or that of the others. He will give them [the communists] his signature. Perhaps his life. But he will retain the right to judge them. He will keep his critical spirit.

Benda never fully recovered his.

The Treason of the Intellectuals remains an inspiring, almost religious, call to the independent life of the mind, a book of enduring value. But it also offers unintended lessons in how easy it is to slip from that life into one of prophetic engagement with forces one does not understand, let alone master. The book’s very failings show why speaking truth to power is more fraught and complex than those with the megaphones seem to think.

Take these two passages from Edward Said’s otherwise thoughtful book Images of the Intellectual:

It is a spirit in opposition, rather than in accommodation, that grips me because the romance, the interest, the challenge of intellectual life is to be found in dissent against the status quo.
The intellectual always has a choice either to side with the weaker, the less well represented, the forgotten or ignored, or to side with the more powerful.

The image that comes to mind is that of an enormous, windowless castle surrounded by a moat, with angry peasants outside with burning torches, fighting to get in. It’s a picture tinged with the romance Said mentions and seems to tell a simple story: An inherently unjust Power is exploiting the Powerless, who have truth and justice on their side. History is full of examples of this basic drama. But it is also full of examples like the storming of the U.S. Capitol in January 2021, when hundreds of the forgotten or ignored, in dissent against the status quo, tried to overturn a legal election. In this case the Power was legitimate and the Powerless were spreading lies about imaginary injustices. There is nothing a priori just or reasonable about the wretched of the earth.

But there is a deeper problem with this image of politics, which is basically medieval. It conveys an understanding of power as something monolithic, closed off, uncommunicative, always defensive—and the peasants as having no voice in its operation except through resistance. This was never the case even in the Middle Ages, and it is certainly not the case in modern democracies. There is no single “power elite” that commands the castle. Economic, political, and cultural power are different, are held by different people and groups and institutions at different times, and their interests are never fully aligned. Workers, voters, and consumers all have voices and must to some extent be catered to. Today they may feel they have less power than in the past, but that is not because Power is united against them; it is because power has become so dispersed and decentralized through globalization that it is ever harder to mobilize it to any clear collective end. When the state of affairs that results is unjust, a morally admirable urge to protest, to sound the NO!, surges within. One never wants to lose the capacity to utter that word. But what next? Fight the Power! Fine, but first we need its address. One of the many ironies of the New York Occupy Wall Street demonstrations of 2011 was that Wall Street doesn’t live on Wall Street anymore. It lives on servers in air-conditioned bunkers around the globe, hiding as best it can from responsibility. And no one yet knows how to tame it.

Said idealizes the independent prophetic intellectuals, whom he contrasts with those he believes have been “co-opted” by institutions like business, the military, even political parties—seemingly unaware that he is just inverting the old right-wing myth, cultivated by figures like Maurras, that those institutions have instead been co-opted by corrupt modern intellectuals. It is striking how large a role co-optation plays in both his and Benda’s books, and how absent are notions of reciprocal engagement and honest differences of opinion. Democratic life is relatively open and necessarily dialogical. Prophets don’t take meetings, democrats do. We speak, someone else speaks, reasons are given, evidence is examined, sometimes consensus forms. As John Stuart Mill argued so powerfully in On Liberty, truth in politics is not delivered to us from on high so we can then bring the world to its knees. We discover it together, or try to discover it, through inquiry and argument. We even change our minds sometimes—precisely because we want the truth and want to defend it. This is why maintaining norms of open debate and argument is so important in democracies. The alternative is a public square full of competing prophets, each with his own moral clarity, and gangs of followers high on the idea that their co-opted adversaries are traitors against truth and justice.

Many of us today are in the grip of nostalgia for moral clarity, and so we hold onto unambiguous stories of injustice and resistance like planks from a sinking ship. This is understandable because the world we now find ourselves in is simultaneously cruel and obscure. But the truth is that ours is a time when the prophets on their perch see less than those in the fog below who are tapping their canes, taking one step at a time. Recall the first generation of Russian revolutionaries, who felt an enormous deflation after the czar was deposed and the civil war had drawn to a close. Their lives up until that moment had consisted, to paraphrase Dostoevsky, of eating radishes and writing denunciations. Now suddenly they had to learn about the actual condition of their vast country and the machinery of the state they inherited. As their memoirs show, many fell into depressions as they tried to cope with their new roles. One can only feel sympathy for them. The romance gone, institutions paint their gray on gray. But in them one learns a valuable lesson: that achieving moral clarity is the work of a lifetime and we can’t do it alone.

From Lilla’s introduction to Julien Benda’s The Treason of the Intellectuals, in a new translation by David Broder, published this month by Eris.

Mark Lilla is Professor of the Humanities at Columbia University and author of The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics and The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction.