Julien Benda Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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."