Julien Benda Essay - Critical Essays

Benda, Julien


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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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."

Principal Works

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

La Grande Epreuve des dgmocraties (philosophy) 1942

Le rapport d'Uriel (philosophy) 1943

Un antisemite sincere (philosophy) 1944

La France byzantine; ou, Le triomphe de la littgrature pure: Mallarmé, Gide, Proust, Valgry, Alain, Giraudoux, Suares, les surrgalistes (philosophy) 1945

Exercice d'un enterre vif (philosophy) 1946

Du pogtique (philosophy) 1946

Tradition de l'existentialisme; ou, Les philosophies de la vie (philosophy) 1947

Trois idoles romantiques: le dynamisme, 1'existentialisme, la dialectique matgrialiste (philosophy) 1948

Les cahiers d'un clerc (1936-1949) (autobiography) 1949

Songe d'Eleuthere (philosophy) 1949

De quelques constantes de l'esprit humain: Critique du mobilisme contemporain (philosophy) 1950


T. S. Eliot (essay date 1928)

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 application. It is, indeed, more general; for M. Benda now draws his illustrations from England, Germany, Italy and America, as well as from France. In these illustrations I do not think that he has been altogether fair; and as he has cited William James and Kipling, we are entitled to cross-examine him on his examination.

M. Benda's thesis may be divided into two parts, upon which we may find that we give separate verdicts. The first part is a general criticism of the political passions of the present time. The second part is a scrutiny of the culpability of certain noted men of letters, and implies a rule of life which M. Benda would lay down for men of letters of our time. In the first general diagnosis, I am inclined to yield complete assent; in the second part, he does not seem to me to have carried his analysis of individuals far enough; and the ideal that he holds up to contemporary men of letters seems to me to be infected with romance. But he puts a problem which confronts every man of letters; the same problem which Mr. Wyndham Lewis has solved for himself in his own way by writing his recent books: the problem of the scope and direction which the activities of the artist and the man of letters should take today.

With the first part of M. Benda's thesis I cannot deal in this short paper. No one can disagree with his statement of the "modern consummation of political passions"; his classification of passions of race (e.g., the Nordic theory and the Latin theory), passions of nations (e.g., fascism) and passions of class (e.g., communism). I say that no one can disagree with the statement, which is made with all M. Benda's usual lucidity and concision; but the analysis could be carried much farther than M. Benda carries it. A new Remy de Gourmont could "dissociate" these ideas of Nationalism of Class, of Race into their local components; and there is also the Religious Idea (not discussed by M. Benda) to be dissociated (with special reference to an actual controversy in England) into components such as conviction, piety, prejudice and politics. Each of these subjects would take a chapter by itself. Let us merely accept M. Benda's general statement of the "perfection" of these passions in the modern world—in universality, in coherence, in homogeneity, in precision, in continuity and in condensation; and proceed to the question: what is the role of the man of letters; does he today involve himself in these passions, and if so, why; and what is his proper function?

M. Benda brings a grave accusation against the modern "man of letters," whom he calls the "clerc." The accusation is retrospective, for it applies to most of the nineteenth century. The "clerc, "instead of sticking to his business of pure thought or pure art, has descended into politics in the widest and sometimes the lowest sense. M. Benda's instances are mostly contemporary and mostly French. For the sake of completeness, no doubt, he has added a few foreigners, such as D'Annunzio, Kipling and William James. Among these three "clercs" I can see nothing in common. D'Annunzio is a brilliant prose artist of pseudo-decadence, who took up with Italian nationalism as a new excitement; Kipling (it seems to me) writes of the Empire because he was born in India instead of Sussex (and as Mr. Dobree has said, part of his interesting peculiarity is that he makes the deck of a P. and 0. liner seem as much British soil as Sussex or Shropshire); James is included merely because he voiced a rather silly enthusiasm for the American war with Spain. M. Benda is more exact with his own compatriots. Two of those whom he accuses are Barrés and Péguy. But one asks the question: has he carried his analysis far enough? I dislike both of these writers as much as M. Benda does. But the question is: are these writers dangerous because they have concerned themselves with practical and political matters, or rather because their attitude, both in art, speculative thought and practical thought, was wrong? Let us undertake to consider what are the causes of the inclination of men of letters—including poets, novelists and even painters (there is as yet no instance of a musician)—to occupy themselves with social theories: and second, to distinguish the artists or men of letters who excel in their proper sphere, but fail in their public occupation, from those who exhibit the same faults in their art as in their public activity, and finally from those who (if there are such) excel and are right in both.

Ours is an unsettled age. No one is sure to what "class" of society he belongs; at no time has "class" been more uncertain, and yet at no time has the consciousness of "class" been greater. Everyone is now conscious of class, but no one is sure what class is; everyone is conscious of nationality and race (our very passports impress that upon us), but no one is sure who or which or what is what or which race, or whether race is divided north and south or east and west or horizontally, or whether any of us is anything but a mongrel, and we suspect that the more we know about race the more clearly we shall see that we are all merely mongrels. We are conscious of these questions as a man with indigestion is conscious of his stomach. It might almost be said that everybody is conscious of every question and no one knows any answers. This has been called an age of specialization, but it is very much the age of the amateur. Not long ago I attended, with some curiosity, a "religious convention"; I heard a popular novelist and a popular actor talk nonsense for half an hour each, and then I left. There is, in fact, very little respect for authority: by which I mean respect for the man who has special knowledge of some subject of which oneself is ignorant.

The causes are, of course, many; and I merely mention these things in order to point out that the meddling of men of letters in practical affairs, to which M. Benda objects, is only one phenomenon of a general confusion. The publicist who writes about everything on earth responds to the demand of a public which has a mild and transient interest in everything on earth. All this is perfectly commonplace, and I only mention it in order to point out that it is, in practice, extremely difficult to draw a line between the mere vulgarizer of knowledge and the...

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Leonard Woolf (essay date 1928)

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...

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Irving Babbitt (essay date 1932)

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...

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George Santayana (essay date 1933)

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.]


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John Dewey (essay date 1948)

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,...

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E. 0. Siepmann (essay date 1948)

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....

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Robert J. Niess (essay date 1956)

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...

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Lothar Kahn (essay date 1968)

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...

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Ray Nichols (essay date 1978)

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...

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Treason And Tradition

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...

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David L. Schalk (essay date 1979)

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...

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Further Reading


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...

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