Julien Benda
The Failure of Imagination and Thought

by Gilles d'Aymery

March 31, 2003


"A race of which one group exalts one of its masters (Barrès) to the skies because he teaches: 'We must defend the essential part of ourselves as sectarians,' while a neighboring group acclaims a leader because, when he attacks a defenseless small nation, he says, 'Necessity knows no law' -- such a race is ripe for the zoölogical wars Renan talks about, which, he said, would be like the life and death wars which occur among rodents and among the carnivora."
--Julien Benda, La Trahison des Clercs, 1927

On March 24, 1999, the NATO alliance of 19 countries launched an undeclared and illegal war on Serbia, a small country whose people and politicians had been obstinately demonized for years. The overwhelming majority of the American opinion makers that form the punditocracy was actively advocating and supporting the conflict and regurgitating the crass disinformation fed by the powers that be. On or about the time Thomas Friedman of The New York Times wrote his ignominious words -- "...Let's at least have a real war . . . It should be lights out in Belgrade: every power grid, water pipe, bridge, road and war-related factory has to be targeted . . . the stakes have to be clear: Every week you [Serbs] ravage Kosovo is another decade we will set your country back by pulverizing you. You want 1950? We can do 1950. You want 1389? We can do 1389 too . . . Give war a chance..." (NYT, April 23, 1999) -- I felt compelled to reach out to a small, hard-to-read book, La Trahison des Clercs (The Treason of the Intellectuals), written in 1927 by a relatively obscure thinker, Julien Benda.

Then as now with the brutal, illegal and shameful invasion of Iraq following 12 years of as brutal, illegal and shameful economic strangulations and regular bombing strikes -- here too, a small country that never attacked the United States -- the case for violence and destruction was based on forged documents, blatant lies, smear and innuendoes propagated with crude sophisms, circular thinking and first-degree syllogisms.

How could these opinion makers (journalists, academics, moralists) so uncritically report and repeat ad nausea about Operation Horseshoe (a forged document in 1999) or Iraq's alleged attempts to purchase uranium from Niger (a forged document in 2003)? How, with the historical knowledge of the abject disinformation that led to the first Gulf War in 1991, could they not be more careful, exercise critical thinking, and voice their opposition to the current mayhem, firmly, without equivocation or casuist rhetoric?

The circumvolutions of the liberal but reluctant hawks à la Bill Keller who pontificated that Secretary of State Colin Powell's (deeply flawed) presentation at the UN had convinced him, or the meek opponents of war such as David Corn, Marc Cooper, Todd Gitlin, Nathan Newman, and the many poster children of the institutionalized Left (in the words of Edward Herman, the "Cruise Missile Left") displayed a remarkable intellectual fickleness and demonstrated once again their attachment to the system, though assuredly in a more benign, less arrogant formula, as good centrist reformists as they are.

Their yes-but intellectual masturbations and logical contortions (yes, Saddam is a tyrant but war is not the way to go) have led them to become apologists in disguise for the invasion and to attack, smear and attempt to discredit parts of the anti-war movement not to their liking.

Marc Cooper, for example, could write without second thought, "I might support this war if [Christopher] Hitchens and [Michael] Ignatieff -- whose sincerity in aiding the liberation of the Iraqi people is beyond question -- were our secretaries of state and defense. Instead we are saddled with an administration riddled with imperial ideologues who wish to invade Iraq not as an act of freeing its people, but as a first step in reordering the world into a Pax Americana" (LA Weekly, March 21 - 27, 2003), thus laying bare his true colors: His beef is not with regime change and the march toward US domination as his admiration for Hitchens and Ignatieff, two zealous imperial ideologues themselves, shows; It's with the current clique in the White House whose ambitions, clearly similar to that of a Clinton or a Blair, are a bit too raw and sanguine for his delicate stomach. A Gore presidency, one presumes, would have secured the backing of the UN before taking on Saddam, a sort of Empire Lite with a fig leaf, all the while conveniently ignoring the fact that the 1999 aggression against Serbia was not sanctioned by the international body.

Following the successful October 2002 anti-war demonstrations, these self-defined moralists of the Left launched an unremitting campaign to divide the antiwar movement with increasingly virulent slanders against those they considered too radical. Thus, you could read Nathan Newman asserting that "[T]he Workers World Party to this day believes that the North Korea dictatorship is the model of how society should be run;" (1) or, Todd Gitlin's "The Hussein apologists who sponsored the earliest antiwar demonstrations under the banner of International ANSWER..." (LA Times, March 23, 2003); or again the Lerner Affair, a month or so ago... Repetitive and disingenuous attacks, never documented, never substantiated, whose (possibly unconscious but certainly actual) aim is, as the old dictum goes, to divide and conquer -- obfuscate, deride, agitate, confuse, mislead, and misdirect people. Here again, consciously or not, they joined the institutional chorus (cf. Arthur Schlesinger Jr., LA Times, March 23, 2003, who writes, "Why let the opposition movement fall into the hands of infantile leftists?"). By now, The New York Times, the paper of the Establishment by excellence, is running full speed with the lead.

How could these influent paragons of Academia and other self-proclaimed opponents of the order of the day be so callous with their responsibilities and not take a principled moral stand? They, after all, claim to belong to the intellectual elite of the U.S.

Which brings me back to Mr. Benda's book.

On October 15, 1894, in France, a French Army Captain, Alfred Dreyfus, was arrested for allegedly passing military secrets to the German Military Attaché, Lieutenant-Colonel von Schwartzkoppen, and immediately sent to the military prison du Cherche Midi. Two months later Captain Dreyfus was court-martialed, condemned to deportation for life and military degradation. In January 1895, Dreyfus was publicly humiliated and degraded, booed by the attending crowd as "a traitor," and sent to Devil's Island, a penitentiary in French Guyana. Thus began the sordid and infamous Dreyfus Affair where rabid anti-Semitism -- Dreyfus was Jewish -- interests of state, military cover-up (false and fabricated evidence), societal cowardice, and nationalistic jingoism coincided to create a most shameful injustice. (2)

Like Horseshoe in 1999 and the uranium from Niger in 2003 (among many other fabrications), the incriminating evidence to sentence Dreyfus was a forged a letter; a document fabricated by an Army Major, Major Henry (or, more precisely, one of his agents) as well as an intense campaign to demonize the captain and an effort to safeguard the institutions (military, government, etc.).

Charles Maurras, a nationalist and royalist advocate and a champion of the anti-Dreyfusards, would eventually claim that Henry, who was jailed once the forgery had been proven and committed suicide by slitting his throat with a razor, was a "man of honor" who had written a "patriotic forgery" (emphasis added).

Through the persistent efforts of his wife and his brother, Lucie and Mathieu Dreyfus, a movement to exonerate the officer started in earnest thanks to the help of the Vice-President of the Senate, the Alsatian Auguste Scheurer-Kestner and with the support of intellectuals such as Marcel Proust, Joseph Reinach, Marcel Prévost, Anatole France, Georges Clemenceau, and, of course, Émile Zola who wrote an open Letter to the President of the Republic (Félix Faure), published as a pamphlet in the January 13, 1898 issue of L'Aurore, under the famous headline, "J'ACCUSE...!".

For his courageous and principled stand, Émile Zola, as successful a novelist as Norman Mailer today, was drawn into the court under various libel charges, condemned to prison and a huge financial fine, forced to flee into exile, and eventually died in 1902 from carbon monoxide poisoning. At his funeral, Anatole France eulogized him as "a moment in the conscience of man."

To challenge authorities does have consequences, whatever time and place. In other words, you are either with us or else.

Among those intellectuals was Julien Benda, a lesser-known essayist and novelist known for his anti-conformism, his innate aversion for all the "chapels," be they ideological or political, his eventual despise for the social whirl of his time, the Parisian salons and other antechambers of "bourgeois culture," and a fervent admirer of Socrates, Plato, Montaigne, Spinoza, Kant...

Benda was born on October 26, 1867 in Paris, in a prosperous family. He enlisted at the prestigious École Centrale to become an engineer before abandoning the pursuit in his third year and studying at the Sorbonne where he graduated with a licence ès-lettres in History. His youth was rather mundane until the country got engulfed in the Dreyfus Affair's whirlwind. He published his first article in Le Siècle on January 15, 1898, two days after the publication of Zola's "J'ACCUSE...!" and a week after Scheurer-Kestner had given a passionate speech (à la Robert Byrd) on the floor of the senate in defense of Alfred Dreyfus, to no avail. From then on and for his entire life the Dreyfus Affair, with the increasingly virulent xenophobic hatred and anti-Judaism of the "anti-Dreyfusards" and "nationalists" (Edouard Drumont, Maurice Barrès, Léon Daudet, Charles Maurras), (3) and the failure of the majority of the institutional punditry and intellectual authorities, will play a significant role in his work.

While Benda was a prolific writer -- over 1,000 essays or articles and tens of books -- he remains by and large unknown with the exception of his 1927 master-work, La Trahison des Clercs, which was translated as The Treason of the Intellectuals by Richard Aldington in 1928.

A reviewer for the New York Herald-Tribune, William A. Drake, wrote at the time: (4) ". . . the most significant book which has come out of Europe in many months. I respectfully suggest that all and sundry make note on their calendars to read it. . . .

". . . a book of intense significance to the new age. In its pages Benda bitterly attacks those who would betray the cause of the pure intellect to utilitarian ends. His particular complaint is against the ideologists of the cult of nationalism, headed in France by Charles Maurras and his associates in the present hotly disputed movement of l'Action Française, by Maurice Barrès and Charles Péguy and elsewhere by such men as William James, Rudyard Kipling, Gabriele d'Annunzio, Miguel de Unamuno and Vicente Blasco Ibáñez . . . of the greatest interest and value.

"Unquestionably one of the greatest controversialists of our time, what M. Benda has to say concerning the subordination of this age of political ideas to political passions, and his particularizations upon this theme are arresting, revealing and disquieting in the extreme."

What Benda was actually dissecting was the death of universal values (a.k.a. Hellenism) and the triumph of the values of realism (German, Saxon values) and pragmatism. He was enouncing that the present humanity as a whole was moving toward integral reality and he worried about a return to barbarity. This was 1927. He had experienced "la Grande Guerre" (WWI) that literally destroyed an entire generation; he had witnessed the rise of revolutionary ideologies (Nationalism, Fascism, the precursors of National Socialism), the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, and venomous ethnic hatreds (anti-Semitism, or more accurately anti-Judaism); and he was living through a period of capitalist economic contraction that would eventually lead to the Great Depression and WWII.

He concluded his exposition: "At bottom, this imperialism of the species is preached by all the great directors of the modern conscience. It is Man, and not the nation or the class, whom Nietzsche, Sorel, Bersgon extol in his genius for making himself master of the world. It is humanity, and not any one section of it, whom August Comte exhorts to plunge into consciousness of itself and to make itself the object of its adoration. Sometimes one may feel that such an impulse will grow ever stronger, and that in this way inter-human wars will come to an end. In this way humanity would attain "universal fraternity." But, far from being the abolition of the national spirit with its appetites and its arrogance, this would simply be its supreme form, the nation being called Man and the enemy God. Thereafter, humanity would be unified in one immense army, one immense factory, would be aware only of heroisms, disciplines, inventions, would denounce all free and disinterested activity, would long cease to situate the good outside the real world, would have no God but itself and its desires, and would achieve great things; by which I mean that it would attain to a really grandiose control over the matter surrounding it, to a really joyous consciousness of its power and its grandeur. And History will smile to think that this is the species for which Socrates and Jesus Christ died."

And History will smile. . .

Amusingly, Benda is widely ignored or discounted by the contemporary Anglo-Saxon "Left." He is acknowledged for the title of his book that has been abused and over-abused for decades, but the book is not much read in these quarters. He is viewed as too much of a classicist and not enough of a Marxist. At best, the analogy of the title is correctly associated to our pundits and events, at worst, unnoticed.

Furthermore, and more entertainingly, the references in the current American Hall of Fame of Nothingness (but destruction, killing and consumerism) are generally found in conservative venues such as Jeffrey R. Nyquist (5) and others. Roger Kimball of The New Criterion, (6) for instance associates Benda with the work of Alain Finkielkraut, (7) a French conservative intellectual who is a professor of philosophy at the École Polytechnique de Paris. Finkielkraut, in his La Défaite de la pensée (1987), translated one year later by Dennis O'Keeffe as The Undoing of Thought, postulates that relativism, postmodernism, multiculturalism, or simply -- this is an exegesis -- a multi-polar world are eating away at Western Civilization. Julien Benda must be cringing in his resting place at the thought of being recuperated by right-wingers, he who obstinately placed himself far apart from conservative and nationalist ideas!

Benda was a clerc, an intellectual, which he defined as "[a] type of people whose activity does not pursue practical ends, but take solace in the exercise of art, or science, or metaphysical speculation, that is to say the possession of a non-material good." Justice, truth and reason were the main values by which an intellectual should be guided, outside of any secular interest. Values such as faith, love, courage, enthusiasm, had to be avoided for they were based on sentiment, not reason -- thus agreeing with Spinoza that "the perfection of things should be judged according to their nature [essence] only, and things are not more or less perfect because they please our senses or offend them."

Only reason allows for ascertaining the difference between just and unjust, between truth and error. We are far away from the dogmas of all sorts, be they ideological or religious. The function of the intellectual then is to stand for the universality of the quest for knowledge, to combat the palatial guard dogs, whichever palace they guard, to acknowledge error and learn from it, to refuse coercive power, and, in Gautama Buddha's words, to "[b]elieve nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your common sense."

Excerpt from The Treason of the Intellectuals


1.  http://www.nathannewman.org/log/archives/000725.shtml#000725  (back)

2.  See the excellent research of Jean-Max GUIEU, Associate Professor of French, School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University, at http://www.georgetown.edu/faculty/guieuj/ezlinks.htm -- and more particularly his Chronology of the Dreyfus Affair, at http://www.georgetown.edu/faculty/guieuj/chronology.htm  (back)

3.  On French far-right, Drumont, Barrès, Daudet, Maurras, et al. see http://www.ac-clermont.fr/etabliss/mauriac2001/ed-a-sou.htm (in French)  (back)

4.  Inside jacket of the original US edition, translated by Richard Aldington, William Morrow & Co., New York, 1928.  (back)

5.  http://www.financialsense.com/stormwatch/geo/pastanalysis/2002/0305.htm  (back)

6.  http://www.newcriterion.com/archive/11/dec92/treason.htm  (back)

7.  http://www.bibliomonde.com/pages/fiche-auteur.php3?id_auteur=157 (in French)  (back)

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The 1991 Gulf War Rationale - A Swans Dossier

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This Week's Internal Links

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Excerpt from The Treason of the Intellectuals - by Julien Benda

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How Raven Came To Be Black: A telling of a Macah Story - by Milo Clark

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Zimbabwe: The Spark ...Claire Short's letter of November 1997 - by Baffour Ankomah

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Published March 31, 2003
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