Julien Benda 1867-1956
French philosopher and novelist.
Benda is one of the most controversial figures in twentieth-century French philosophy. In his best-known work, La trahison des clercs (Treason of the Intellectuals), he harshly criticized modern thinkers who embraced political and social ideologies at the expense of reasoned and unbiased examination of cultural phenomena. Because of Benda's radical views and caustic personality, his works were often dismissed during his lifetime, and today he is remembered more for his well-publicized intellectual battles than for his writings.
Benda was born in Paris to a middle-class Jewish family. He studied at the Lycee Condorcet—concentrating on the classics and mathematics—and prepared for admission to the Ecole Polytechnique. Dissatisfied with his studies in mathematics, Benda instead entered the Sorbonne as a history student. There he began his lifelong commitment to Greco-Roman rationalism. Granted his degree in 1894, Benda began a career in journalism at the Revue blanche and went on to write for the Nouvelle revue francaise, the Mercure de France, Divan, and Lefigaro. In the late 1890s Benda was one of many artists and intellectuals to become involved in the Dreyfus Affair—the court case of a Jewish officer in the French army convicted of selling secrets to Germany and condemned to life imprisonment on Devil's Island. Both the evidence involved in the case and the motives of those who prosecuted Alfred Dreyfus were questionable, resulting in a decade-long schism in French society between a pro-Dreyfus faction, known as Dreyfusards, who protested his innocence, and those who upheld the French court's judgement, many of whom were avowed anti-Semites. Despite his aversion to ideological causes, Benda openly supported the Dreyfusards on the grounds that truth and justice were "eternal values" and did not obfuscate his commitment to reason. In 1900 Benda published his first book, Dialogues d Byzance, a collection of philosophical pieces on the Dreyfus Affair previously published in the Revue blanche. For the next decade Benda continued publishing in intellectual journals and periodicals. In 1912 his first novel, L'ordination, was denied the prestigious Prix Goncourt, ostensibly because of anti-Semitism among the judges. Later that year Benda published Le Bergsonismne; ou, Une philosophie de la mobilite, an attack on philosopher Henri Bergson that strengthened Benda's reputation as a thinker in the tradition of strict classicism and rationalism. In the late 1920s Benda began to segregate himself from the intellectual community even further with the publication of his most controversial work, Treason of the Intellectuals, in which he castigated romanticism and asserted that artists should rely solely on reason rather than emotion or commitment to social or political doctrines. Ten years later, disgusted with the rise of fascism in Europe, Benda reversed some of the ideas he had set out in Treason of the Intellectuals and joined the French Communist Party. During the German occupation of France in World War II, Benda was forced to wear the yellow star marking him as a Jew and eventually went into hiding until the end of the war. He died in 1956.
While Benda achieved modest success with his novels and short stories, he is known primarily for his works of political and social philosophy. Beginning with Dialogues d Byzance, Benda sought to divorce what he considered overly emotional romanticism from rational intellectualism. In Le Bergsonisme and Sur le succes du Bergsonisme Benda characterized Bergson's humanist and quasi-mystical philosophy as no more than a doctrine of irrational sentimentalism that was destructive to the vitality and stability of the social order. In 1945 he published La France byzantine; ou, Le triomphe de la littgrature pure: Mallarmd, Gide, Proust, Valery, Alain, Giraudoux, Suares, lessurrealistes, in which he broadly accused many highly respected French intellectuals of self-indulgent sentimentality. In Belphegor: Essaisur l'esthetique de lapresente socihtd francais Benda criticized what he regarded as widespread cultural degeneracy in France. His most contentious arguments are contained in Treason of the Intellectuals, a sustained excoriation of emotion-based devotion to social and political causes that Benda believed corrupted the true purpose of the intellectual's role in society.
Upon its publication in 1927, Treason of the Intellectuals generated controversy when some commentators disputed its claim that intellectuals had betrayed their traditional calling as impartial and independent observers of the world around them. Others accused Benda of hypocrisy because of his own tenacity during the Dreyfus Affair and his occasional political pamphleteering. With his vitriolic critiques of Bergson—whose emphasis on subjectivity and intuition had elevated him to near cult status—Benda alienated much of the academic community. Benda did, however, gain adherents to his cause. As T. S. Eliot stated: "[Benda] puts a problem which confronts every man of letters, … the problem of the scope and direction which the activities of the artist and the man of letters should take today." Irving Babbitt concurred with Benda's indictment of modern intellectuals, declaring: "One finds in him a combination of keen analysis with honesty and courage that is rare at the present time, or indeed at any time."
Dialogues a Byzance (philosophy) 1900
Mon premier testament (philosophy) 1910
Dialogue d'Eleuthere (novel) 1911
L'ordination. 2 vols. [The Yoke of Pity] (novel) 1911-12
Le Bergsonisme: ou, Une philosophie de la mobilite (philosophy) 1912
Sur le succ&s du Bergsonisme (philosophy) 1914
Les sentiments de critias (philosophy) 1917
Belphegor: Essaisur l'esthgtique de lapresente socigt&francais [Belphegor] (philosophy) 1918
Les amorandes (novel) 1922
La croix des roses (novel) 1923
Billets de Sirius (philosophy) 1925
Lettres d Melisande pour son education philosophique (philosophy) 1925
La trahison des clercs [Treason of the Intellectuals] (philosophy) 1927
Essai d'un discours coherent sur les rapports de Dieu et du monde (philosophy) 1931
Esquisse d'un histoire des Franpais dans leur volonte dd'tre une nation (philosophy) 1932
Discours d la nation europgenne (philosophy) 1933
Délice d'Eleuthère (philosophy) 1935
La jeunesse d'un clerc (autobiography) 1936
Precision (philosophy) 1937...
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SOURCE: "The Idealism of Julien Benda," in The New Republic Anthology, 1915-1935, edited by Groff Conklin, Dodge Publishing Company, 1936, pp. 293-300.
[An American-born English poet, critic, essayist, and dramatist, Eliot was one of the most influential writers in English of the first half of the twentieth century. His work and thought are characterized by experimentation, formal complexity, artistic and intellectual eclecticism, and a classicist's view of the artist working at an emotional distance from his or her creation. In the following essay, which originally appeared in The New Republic on 12 December 1928, Eliot critiques Benda's theories about the responsibility of intellectuals as presented in La trahison des clercs.]
M. Julien Benda is a critic who does not write often or too much. His Belpbhgor, which some of us recognized as an almost final statement of the attitude of contemporary society to art and the artist, was published in 1918 or 1919. La Trhison des Cleres is the first book of the same type that M. Benda has written since Belpbhgor, it represents some years of meditation and study; we expected a book of the same importance. We are not disappointed. And just as Belphdgor, although based upon an examination of French society alone, applied to the relation of society to the arts in all Europe and America, so is La Trbison des Clercs of general...
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SOURCE: "Just for the Riband to Stick in Their Coats," in The Nation and the Athenaeum, Vol. XLIV, No. 13, December 29, 1928, p. 468.
[Woolf was an English essayist and critic best known for his leading role in the Bloomsbury Group of artists and thinkers in early twentieth-century London. Woolf and his wife, the renowned writer Virginia Woolf founded the Hogarth Press in 1917. The Woolfs and other members of the Bloomsbury Group contributed greatly to the Modernist movement in literature and art. In the following review of the first English-language translation of La trahison des clercs, Woolf challenges Benda's thesis that the "treason of the intellectuals" is a strictly modern, or even widespread, phenomenon.]
Last year intelligent people in France were reading and discussing M. Julien Benda's La Trahison des Clercs, indeed, my copy of the book has sixteenth edition on it (though that does not mean quite the same as it would here). It has now been translated by Mr. Aldington and published under the title The Great Betrayal, by Julien Benda. The book is clever and original, and its thesis, if true, is important. M. Benda means by "clercs" the thinkers, artists, and writers, and he defines them as "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...
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SOURCE: "Julien Benda," in On Being Creative and Other Essays, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1932, pp. 187- 200.
[With Paul Elmer More, Babbitt was one of the founders of the New Humanism (or neo-humanism) movement that arose during the twentieth century's second decade. The New Humanists were strict moralists who adhered to traditional conservative values in reaction to an age of scientific and artistic innovation. In regard to literature, they believed that the aesthetic qualities of a work of art should be subordinate to its moral and ethical purpose. In the following essay, Babbitt analyzes what he calls Benda't "sweeping indictment of the modernists. 'a
The present moment in French literature would seem to be unusually confused. As a first step in getting one's bearings in a somewhat chaotic situation, one may perhaps distinguish between the writers who are still in the main modern movement and those who are in more or less marked opposition to it. This movement has been in one of its most important aspects primitivistic. Rousseau, with his tendency to disparage intellect in favor of the unconscious felicities of instinct, is, though not the first, easily the most influential of the primitivists.
Among the more prominent living opponents of primitivism one may mention M. Ernest Seilliere, who has been developing in numerous volumes the thesis that Rousseau's doctrine of man's natural...
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SOURCE: "The Prestige of the Infinite," in Some Turns of Thought in Modern Philosophy, Cambridge at the University Press, 1933, pp. 102-121.
[Santayana was a Spanish-born philosopher, poet, novelist, and literary critic who received his undergraduate and graduate degrees from Harvard University, where he later taught philosophy. Late in his life, Santayana stated that "reason and ideals arise in doing something that at bottom there is no reason for doing." "Chaos," he had written earlier, "is perhaps at the bottom of everything. "In the following essay, Santayana critiques the ideas advanced in Benda's Essai d'un discours coherent sur les rapports de dieu et du monde.]
"The more complex the world becomes and the more it rises above the indeterminate, so much the farther removed it is from God; that is to say, so much the more impious it is." M. Julien Benda is not led to this startling utterance [in his Essai d'un Discours coherent sur les Rapports de Dieu et du Monde] by any political or sentimental grudge. It is not the late war, nor the peace of Versailles, nor the parlous state of the arts, nor the decay of morality and prosperity that disgusts him with our confused world. It is simply overmastering respect for the infinite. La Trahison des Cieres, or Treason of the Levites, with which he had previously upbraided the intellectuals of his time, now appears to consist precisely in...
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SOURCE: "William James' Morals and Julien Benda's: It Is Not Pragmatism That Is Opportunist," in Commentary, Vol. 5, No. 1, January, 1948, pp. 46-50.
[Dewey was one of the most celebrated American philosophers of the twentieth century and the leading philosopher of Pragmatism after the death of William James. Dewey criticized the detached pursuit of truth for its own sake and advocated a philosophy with the specific aim of seeking improvements in various spheres of human life. In the following essay, he offers a response to Benda's criticism of the American philosophical school of Pragmatism.]
In his article, "The Attack on Western Morality" (Commentary, November 1947), M. Julien Benda chose to include what he regards as pragmatic philosophy as a leading figure in that attack. In fact, he assigns to it, along with and by the side of Russian Bolshevist philosophy, a place in the very front rank of the intellectual forces engaged in undermining the morality of the Western world. This is a serious charge; none the less serious because those who call themselves pragmatists will be highly surprised to learn that the philosophy they profess has had any such extensive influence either for good or evil. One's first impression is that M. Benda is using the term "pragmatic" loosely to stand for all movements that tend to put immediate and narrow expediency—in the sense of profit, whether financial,...
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SOURCE: "Conversations in France-II, III: Benda on Democracy," in The Nineteenth Century and After, Vols. CXLIII and CXLIV, Nos. 852 and 853, February and March, 1948, pp. 107-12; 156-60.
[In the following essay, which consists of the last two installments of a three-part article, Siepmann provides an account of some of his conversations with Benda and outlines the principal ideas in La grande epreuve des democraties.]
During the last few months [of 1944] I have made friends with M. Benda. He is an extraordinary old man.
M. Benda lives in a cell, a tiny room in an out-of-the-way quarter. During the war he lived at Carcassonne in the same asceticism. He lived, moreover, under the noses of the Germans after their occupation of the southern zone, without any of the precautions suggested by the fact that he was one of the world's leading anti-Nazi prophets.
He went further. He wrote, smuggled out of France, and had published in the United States a book which sounds like a trumpet-call in its challenge to totalitarian ideas [La Grande Epreuve des Democraties].
When I heard that M. Benda was living in Toulouse, I asked the distinguished scientist Professor Soulla to arrange for me to meet him. Professor Soulla, like Benda, lives relatively unknown among the Toulouse bourgeoisie. He moves in a circle of intellectuals, mostly exiles from Paris, whom...
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SOURCE: "Of Literature," in Julien Benda, The University of Michigan Press, 1956, pp. 224-54.
[Niess is an American writer and professor of French. In the following excerpt, he examines Benda's view of literature and literary artists.]
"Avoir raison n'est pas litteraire."
That lapidary—and not completely unliterary—phrase from La France byzantine contains the essence of the long attack on the art of literature which Benda began in Dislogues h Byance and which he has enormously developed in the books of the late years of his career. Clearly this antiliterary campaign has been his true favorite, for none of the others is either as old in his work or as continuously developed. But unfortunately for his reputation, it has also been the one which has served most to alienate from him large segments of that "bonne compagnie" to which he has never ceased addressing himself, whatever his opinion of that audience may be, since in it Benda has been doubly impolitic in his own particular way: he has been irritatingly right in some of his conclusions and so touched the sore spot, and, worse, he has also dared treat many of his most distinguished contemporaries with such violence—indeed, sometimes with such obvious injustice—that he has succeeded in discouraging almost everyone, even those best disposed toward his basic views. If unpopularity deliberately sought is the mark of...
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SOURCE: "Julien Benda: Assimilation with Self-Acceptance," in Mirrors of the Jewish Mind: A Gallery of Portraits of European Jewish Writers of Our Time, Thomas Yoseloff, 1968, pp. 52-67.
[Born in Rehlingen, Saar Territory, Kahn is an American educator and writer. In the following excerpt, he considers the influence of Benda's Jewish heritage on his opinions and works.]
Assimilation has been a much overused term in modern Jewish history. Like most such terms it has lost some of its meaning. As generally used it covers a broad range of attitudes which have but few beliefs in common. Assimilation implies a conscious desire to accept all of the ways and modes of the host people, and in the process to abandon, consciously or otherwise, one's ties to the Jewish heritage and people. Andre Maurois, it has been seen, has been silent on those ties. Emmanuel Berl, a lesser known contemporary, has largely rejected them. Julien Benda, one of France's foremost thinkers, has totally embraced the culture of France; very Cartesian and classicist in his thought, his work has been judged one of the most representative expressions of that culture. Yet Benda has retained and even nurtured what measure of Jewishness he sensed in himself.
The wide gap between the assimilationism of Emmanuel Berl and Julien Benda merits comparison. There is little Jewish awareness in Berl. In his many autobiographical works he...
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SOURCE: "The 'Clerc' and the Intellectual," in Treason, Tradition, and the Intellectual: Julien Benda and Political Discourse, The Regents Press of Kansas, 1978, pp. 165-92.
[In the following excerpt, Nichols articulates a distinction in Benda's work between the clerc and the intellectual.]
"The intellectual": for Benda, this was a sort of sacred realm, a vocation, a clerkly ordination. And much of Benda's speech and action here remains pressingly alive, more so, indeed, today than at any time since the crises of the thirties. His concerns, his enemies, his hopes, his disillusionments, his career—all were quintessentially, representatively modern, in provocative and diverse ways. In practice, Benda was discriminating, pungent, wideranging, often valiant: there was much to respect in him. And there was much to learn through him. Most (if not, indeed, all) men find difficulty in living up to their professions at the best of times. Benda's times were not the best. Yet precisely because of this and because of his own articulate ardor, even the central problems with his clerkly stance were also potentials for our times.
The intellectual was a sacred realm. And Benda had indeed defended it, moving from the confident optimism of his earlier pronouncements to a more entrenched, more worried engagement with the modern world. He had always seen the territory of the clerc as a...
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Cry "Treason!"—It is to conjure the most powerful of political impulses. Had Benda reckoned on this, for all his talk of political passion? Small wonder that his catalogue of false clercs and true ones occasioned much violent controversy and much special pleading, little of which was well directed. Too often the reaction was to a vague impression, a capsule conception, or a pet instance, not to the elaborate statement of the Trahison and its ancillary works. So, one of Benda's critics argued that Sorel was essentially a moralist (but this was precisely Benda's point). Another agreed to condemn Sorel—along with Spencer, Barrés, and Maurras—but not Nietzsche; a third defended Nietzsche, but not Péguy; a fourth took the side of Péguy and Barrés together and scolded Benda for his blindness to "divine truth." Such protests need neither be multiplied nor examined seriatim. For the most part they were superficial as well as partial, and their contradictory stances are more confusing than helpful. But they do serve to suggest that Benda's notion of treason was not self-evidently clear. They do direct attention to the basic problem: the nature and consistency of the general criteria whereby Benda had admitted some and excluded others from the kingdom of the clercs.
Clercs and others: this was the basic starting point. That there were two orders of men, two types of concern, two varieties of...
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SOURCE: "The Case against Engagement: Julien Benda and La Trahison des Clercs," in The Spectrum of Political Engagement: Mounier, Benda, Nizan, Brasillach, Sartre, Princeton University Press, 1979, pp. 26-48.
[Schalk is an American writer and educator. In the following excerpt, he considers Benda's views on political engagement and examines the critical reception of Th e Treason of the Intellectuals, as well as the practical understanding of Benda's ideas by various thinkers.]
The idea of a treason or betrayal of the intellectuals has had an enormous success. This concept may be viewed as the reverse of the coin of engagement, or perhaps a slightly distorted mirror-image. It has become a commonplace in America and England. In France it may be traced back at least to the Dreyfus Affair, when intellectuals acquired along with their name a special critical function, and because of the victory signified by the revision of Dreyfus' first trial, gained "a droit de cite unknown in other countries." Both Dreyfusard and anti-Dreyfusard intellectuals accused each other of betraying their "true" functions. The explicit formulation of La Trahison des clercs did not, however, come until 1927, and in France at least the concept has become inseparably (and rightfully) identified with Julien Benda.
Though he has had a number of distinguished American admirers over the years,...
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Siepmann, Eric. "An Unorthodox Leftist." The Twentieth Century 160, No. 957 (November 1956): 452-56.
Posthumous personal and critical account of Benda.
Gellner, Ernest. "La trahison de la trahison des clercs." In The Political Responsibility of Intellectuals, edited by Ian Maclean, Alan Montefiore, and Peter Winch, pp. 17-27. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Contends that "La trahison des clercs was itself a case of 'la trahison des clercs'" because of what Gellner considers the "pragmatic" nature of Benda's argument.
Howarth, Herbert. "Some Gifts of France." In his Notes on Some Figures behind T S. Eliot, pp. 150-98. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1964.
Summarizes Benda's influence on the work of T. S. Eliot.
Hughes, H. Stuart. "The Decade of the 1920s." In his Consciousness and Society: The Reorientation of European Social Thought 1890-1930, pp. 392-431. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1958.
Includes biographical and critical discussion of Benda.
Lewis, Wyndham. "Intuition versus the Intellect: or, Is There Such a Thing as an 'Intellectual'?" In his Rude Assignment: A Narrative of My Career Up-to-Date, pp. 29-42. London: Hutchinson & Co., n.d.
Discusses The Treason...
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