The new treason of the intellectuals

Julien Benda is as relevant today as he was in 1927

Artillery Row

Nikolay Mikhailovich Karamzin died on 12 December 1826. By then, eleven of the twelve volumes of A History of the Russian State (1826) had been published. The tome was meant to be a nation-building work. Full of literary qualities and passionate phrases, Karamzin composed each volume to stir and awaken the national consciousness. Karamzin, like most Russian thinkers during that period, was influenced by the members of the sentimental school of the Scottish Enlightenment. Amongst them was David Hume, who famously declared reason the slave of the passions. According to Karamzin, however, Hume failed to live up to his own dictum. The Scot’s The History of England (1754) oozed of “boorish impartiality”, to Karamzin a sign of a weak soul. The book could have been a proper work of history, perhaps, “if this historian we call the most perfect among the New had not distanced himself so unnecessarily from England, [and] boasted of his impartiality”. 

Whilst “in Thucydides we always see an Athenian Greek, [and] in Livy we always see a Roman”, Karamzin writes, Hume’s history of England could just as well have been written by a Spaniard.

Favourable conditions for disinterested intellectuals were short lived

Perhaps Karamzin’s true source of inspiration was not the authority of the ancients, however. Returning home from his travels to Western Europe in 1789–90, Nikolai Karamzin praised not only the Scottish sentimentalists, but also the pre-Romantic German poets such as Herder. One hundred years later, in the now infamous book The Treason of the Intellectuals (1927, org.: La Trahison des clercs), the French philosopher Julien Benda lent support to this alternative conclusion. Benda had observed sentiments very similar to Karamzin’s in his own country, France. Not only did his intellectual peers adore their nations, they did so in deference to the authority of the ancients. Benda deemed the reference hollow. In Thucydides, we feel Athens on every page, Benda agreed, but Thucydides also often contemplated a world in which Athens would cease to exist. Polybius, too, imagined Rome meeting her fatal hour. In contrast, Benda found the new nationalists utterly incapable of imagining their countries in the future ashtray of history. The real source of the sentiment on display in Karamzin’s thought, and in Benda’s contemporaries, could not lie in ancient history, nor Scottish sentimentalism. Instead, Julien Benda argued, what was at play was an entirely new philosophy: Romanticism.

In Julien Benda’s telling, the rise of Romanticism was closely connected to the fall of the Roman Empire. For a brief period after the fall, nations were yet to develop a strong sense of national consciousness. In this milieu, the disinterested intellectual, bereft of all ties to worldly affairs, thrived. Arthur Schopenhauer, for instance, was completely indifferent to the uprising of Germany against Napoleon Bonaparte in 1813. The favourable conditions, however, were short lived.

In Germany, by the turn of the century, the two philosophers Johan Gottlieb Fichte and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel had already equalled the advancement of Germany with the final triumph of being. By the time Julien Benda was born, in 1867, Romanticism had spread far and wide, “the soul of Greece [giving] place to the soul of Prussia among the educators of mankind”.

In The Treason of the Intellectuals, Julien Benda describes the backbone of the Romantic ideology as “Particularism”, a philosophy which “exhorts the peoples to feel conscious of themselves in what makes them the most distinct from others”, not just as individuals, but also as nations. The Romantic Particularist excludes only universalism from his worldview, but this is exactly his treason, Benda argues.

In France, the defining event of the rise of the new clerks was the Dreyfus affair. In 1894, the Jewish artillery officer Albert Dreyfus was accused of having leaked confidential information to the Germans. Emile Zolá and Julien Benda believed Dreyfus to be innocent, but Benda was more interested in whether such facts were even important. One of the prominent anti-Dreyfusards, Maurice Barrés, wrote that “in psychological terms, it is sufficient for me to know that he [Dreyfus] is capable of treason”. Dreyfus was a Semite, Barrés an anti-semite, and truth should bend to that particular fact alone. 

In 1906, Dreyfus was officially declared innocent by the Supreme Court. This did not mean universalism had defeated particularism, however. After all, to the Particularists, the Dreyfus affair was merely one particular case, not to be generalised from. Maurice Barrés continued to believe that the French should not seek justice and truth per se, but “must limit [itself] to inquiring if there is justice in the relations between two given men, at a given time, under specified circumstances”. Benda continued to be dissatisfied with this Particularist view. 

Julien Benda wanted a united Europe devoid of national consciousnesses

Benda only accepted passionate engagement with the Dreyfus affair insofar as the passions had nothing to do with the Dreyfus affair in particular and everything to do with justice in general. Passion was not in itself a crime — but passion that did not cling to an ideal of truth was.

Benda termed this elevation of particular facts, above objective fact, “romantic positivism”. In his humble estimate, it infected everything. War, for instance, was no longer merely a form of material conquest, but also a form of cultural conquest, “entirely an invention of modern times”. Amongst the Romantics, one soon talked of “Greek science” and “Russian science, and “Greek justice” and “Russian justice”, but never of Science in general. Amongst the historians, Benda observed, there was a persistent will to argue one’s nation “in the right, even when it is wrong or “wrong, even when it is right”. 

Julien Benda was disillusioned with this state of affairs. He wanted a united Europe devoid of national consciousnesses, but predicted a bleak future rather than a perfect European womb. Wars would become uglier, Benda thought, chiefly because wars had become culture wars.

Dissatisfied with the failure to create a united Europe, late in life Benda fell prey to the Romantic and Particularist passions he had so despised in his earlier years. He became, like so many other intellectuals, an ardent Marxist and a supporter of Stalin.

In many ways, Benda uniquely foresaw his own cave-in as well as today’s culture. In a society of winners and losers, even the formerly most disinterested philosopher will enter the battleground of ideas out of necessity.

The Romantics of 1927 elevated “particular experience”. Today, the woke elevate “lived experience”. Maurice Barrés evaluated the truth of the Dreyfus case purely based on national interest. Today, Jordan Peterson defines truth as “that which is good”. The Particularist Positivists squared personal belonging with national belonging. Today, there is little gap between Vicky Osterwald’s recent work In Defense of Looting (2019) and Vladimir Putin’s recent claiming of land by deference to simple historical fact. 

Sometimes, today’s intellectual betrayals are even more direct. Sam Bankman-Fried, CEO of the recently bankrupt venture capital fund FTX, recently stated that the truth was secondary to his ideological ambitions. When asked by VOX’s Kelsey Piper, “So you kinda don’t believe in ‘doing unethical shit’, as anything other than a judgment we bestow upon the losers?” Bankman-Fried responded that “A month ago CZ (CEO of Binance, ed.) was a walking example of ‘don’t do unethical shit or your money is worthless’. Now he’s a hero. Is it because he is virtuous, or because he had a bigger balance sheet?” 

Julien Benda would have sent them all to the intellectual gallows for treason. But he also wouldn’t have singled out anyone in particular. Just as Romanticism appeared to heal a fragmented post-Rome environment, intellectuals today merely follow the tectonic shifts and needs of their intellectual environment — one of particular interests, online communities and a hundred ways to make money. In that sense, they really are clerks. 

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