By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 14th May In the French philosopher Julien Benda published a piercing attack on the intellectuals of his day. They should, he argued in La Trahison des Clercs the treason of the scholars act as a check on popular passions 1. But those ideals, he argued, had been lost. Europe was now lying in the gutter, looking in the gutter. In doing so, they justified and magnified political passions. The result of this intellectual support for domination, Benda argued, was that there was now no moral check on the pursuit of self-interest.
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This remark may be put in another form. He would see men groping in the obscurity of their minds and striving to form themselves into nations to mention only the most striking aspect of the realist will ; he would see them beginning to succeed; he would see groups of men attaining consistency, determined to seize a portion of the earth and tending to feel conscious of themselves as distinct from the groups surrounding them.
But at the same time he would see a whole class of men, regarded with the greatest reverence, laboring to thwart this movement. He would see men of learning, artists and philosophers, displaying to the world a spirit which cared nothing for nations, using a universal language among themselves.
He would see those who gave Europe its moral values preaching the cult of the human, or at least of the Christian, and not of the national, he would see them striving to found, in opposition to the nations, a great universal empire on spiritual foundations.
And so he might say to himself: "Which of these two currents will triumph? Will humanity be national or spiritual? Will it depend on the will of the laymen or of the "clerks"? And for long ages the realist cause will not be completely victorious; the spiritual body will remain faithful to itself long enough to our observer to be uncertain of the result.
To-day the game is over. Humanity is national. The layman has won. But his triumph has gone beyond anything he could have expected. The "clerk" is not only conquered, he is assimilated.
The man of science, the artist, the philosopher are attached to their nations as much as the day-laborer and the merchant. All humanity including the "clerks," have become laymen. All Europe, including Erasmus, has followed Luther. I said above that the humanity of the past, more precisely the humanity of Europe in the Middle Ages, with the values imposed upon it by the "clerks," acted ill but honored the good.
It may be said that modern Europe with teachers who inform it that its realist instincts are beautiful, acts ill and honors what is ill.
This humanity is heading for the greatest and most perfect war ever seen in the word, whether it is a war of nations, or a war of classes. As regards the nation, think of Italy; as regards class, think of Russia; and you will see the hitherto known point of perfection attained by the spirit of hatred against what is "different" among a group of men, consciously realist and at last liberated from all non-practical morality. And my predictions are not rendered less probable by the fact that these two nations are hailed as models throughout the world by those who desire either the grandeur of their nation or the triumph of their class.
These dark predictions do not seem to me to need as much modification as some people think, on account of certain actions resolutely directed against war, such as the setting up of a supernational institution and the agreements recently made by the rival nations. Imposed upon the nations by their Ministers rather than desired by them, dictated solely by interest the fear of war and its ravages and not at all by a change in public morality, these new institutions may perhaps be opposed to war but leave intact the spirit of war, and nothing leads us to suppose that a nation which only respects a contract for practical reasons, will not break it as soon as breaking it appears more profitable.
Peace, if it ever exists, will not be based on the fear of war but on the love of peace. It will not be the abstaining from an act, but the coming of a state of mind. And moreover these tribunals leave untouched the economic war between the nations and the class wars. Peace, it must be repeated after so many others have said this, is only possible if men cease to place their happiness in the possession of things "which cannot be shared," and if they raise themselves to a point where they adopt an abstract principle superior to their egotisms.
In other words, it can only be obtained by a betterment of human morality. But, as I have pointed out above, not only do men to-day steel themselves entirely against this, but the very first condition of peace, which is to recognize the necessity for this progress of the soul, is seriously menaced.
A school arose in the nineteenth century which told men to expect peace from enlightened self-interest, from the belief that a war, even when victorious, is disastrous, especially to economic transformations, to "the evolution of production," in a phrase, to factors totally foreign to their moral improvement, from which, these thinkers say, it would be frivolous to expect anything.
So that humanity, even if it had any desire for peace, is exhorted to neglect the one effort which might procure it, an effort it is delighted not to make. The cause of peace, which is always surrounded with adverse factors, in our days has one more against it—the pacifism which pretends to be scientific.
When I see certain teachers, even if they are Montaigne, Voltaire, and Anatole France, whose whole case against war consists in saying that highwaymen are no more criminal than leaders of armies, and in laughing at people who kill each other because one party is dressed in yellow and the other in blue, I feel inclined to desert a cause whose champions oversimplify things to this extent, and I begin to feel some sympathy for the impulses of profound humanity which created the nations and which are thereby so grossly insulted.
This pacifism is essentially the pacifism of the people and that of all the so-called pacifist newspapers and was strikingly embodied in by a French writer who, having to judge between two fighting nations one of which had attacked the other contrary to all its pledges while the other was only defending itself, could do nothing but intone "I have a horror of war" and condemned them both equally.
It is impossible to exaggerate the consequences of this behavior, which showed mankind that mystic pacifism, just like mystic militarism, may entirely obliterate the feeling of justice in those who are smitten with it. I think I see another motive in the French writers who in adopted the attitude of M. Romain Rolland—the fear that they would fall into national partiality if they admitted that their nation was in the right.
It may be asserted that these writers would have warmly taken up the cause of France, if France had not been their own country. The motive which here animated these moralists without their perceiving it, seems to me very remarkable; it was the thought that the just person must inevitably be weak and suffer, that he must be a victim.
If the just man becomes strong and comes to possess the means of enforcing justice towards himself, then he ceases to be just to these thinkers. If Socrates and Jesus make their persecutors disgorge, then they cease to embody justice; one step more and the persecutors, having become victims, would embody right. In this the cult of justice is replace by the cult if misfortune, a Christian Romanticism which is somewhat unexpected in a man like Anatole France.
No doubt the events of upset all the habits of the advocates of right. Outraged right became the stronger, the assailed toga triumphed over the sword, the Curiatii were victorious.
Perhaps some coolness of mind was needed to recognize that right remained right, even when thus invested with force. The French pacifists failed to remain cool. In short, their attitude in the past ten years has been inspired by sentiment alone, and nothing could show better the degree of weakness to which intellectual discipline has now fallen among our "princes of the mind. This attitude—which is that of all Parliamentary pacifists—is the more antipathetic to upright minds in that it is inevitably accompanied by the assertion which is also nearly always contrary to the truth that the nation is not in the least threatened and that the malevolence of neighboring nations is a pure invention of people who want war.
But that is merely an aspect of a very general fact, which is of supreme importance to the matter under discussion. As soon as the "clerk" claims that he does not disregard the interests of the nation or of the established classes, he is inevitably beaten, for the very good reason that it is impossible to reach the spiritual and the universal without undermining the institutions whose foundations are the possession of the material and the desire to feel distinct from others.
A true "clerk" Renan says excellently: "The mother-country is a worldly thing; the man who wants to play the angel will always be a bad patriot. Either he secures them and transgresses all his principles, which is the case with the Church supporting the nation and property; or he maintains his principles and causes the ruin of the institutions he claimed he was supporting, which is the case with the humanitarian who claims to safeguard what is national. In the first case the "clerk" is despised by the just man, who denounces him as cunning and strikes him out of the rank of "clerk"; and in the second case he collapses under the hooting of the nations who call him inefficient, while he provokes a violent and loudly acclaimed reaction on the part of the realist, which is what is now happening in Italy.
From all this it follows that the "clerk" is only strong if he is clearly conscious of his essential qualities and his true function, and shows mankind that he is clearly conscious of them. When he takes up this position, the "clerk" is crucified, but he is respected, and his words haunt the memory of mankind. It shows that the desire to be practical has become general, that the claim to be so has now become necessary in order to obtain an audience, and that the very notion of "clerkdom" has become obscured even in those who still tend to exercise that function.
It will be seen that I entirely dissociate myself from those who want the "clerk" to govern the world, and who wish with Renan for the "reign of the philosopher"; for it seems to me that human affairs can only adopt the religions of the true "clerk" under penalty of becoming divine, i. This has been clearly seen by all lovers of the divine who did not desire the destruction of what is human.
This is marvelously expressed by one of them when he makes Jesus say so profoundly to His disciple: "My son, I must not give you a clear idea of your substance You would no longer watch over the preservation of your life. This is the novelty I want to point out, which to me seems so serious. It seems to me serious that a humanity, which is more than ever obsessed by the passions of the world, should receive from its spiritual leaders the command: "Remain faithful to the earth.
Are we, as some people think, witnessing the beginning of a new Middle Ages and one far more barbarous than the former, for though it practiced realism, it did not extol realism , from which, however, will arise a new Renaissance, a new return to the religion of distinterestedness? The elements we have discovered as forming the new realism scarcely allow us to hope so.
It is hard to imagine the nations sincerely striving not to feel conscious of themselves as distinct from others, or, if they do so, having any other motive than that of concentrating inter-human hatred into that of class. It is hard to imagine the clergy regaining a real moral sway over the faithful and being able supposing they desired to do so to tell them with impunity unpleasant truths.
It is hard to imagine a body of men of letters for corporative action becomes more and more important attempting to withstand the bourgeois classes instead of flattering them. It is still harder to imagine them turning against the tide of their intellectual decadence and ceasing to think that they display a lofty culture when they sneer at rational morality and fall on their knees before history.
Nevertheless one thinks of a humanity of the future, weary of its "sacred egotisms" and the slaughterings to which they inevitably lead, coming as humanity came two thousand years ago, to the acceptance of a good situated beyond itself, accepting it even more ardently than before, with the knowledge of all the tears and blood that have been shed through departing from that doctrine.
Men will not revise their values for wars which only last fifty months and only kill a couple of million men in each nation. One may even doubt whether war will ever become so terrible as to discourage those who love it, the more so since they are not always the men who have to fight.
When I set this limit to my pessimistic outlook and admit that such a Renaissance is possible, I mean no more than that it is just possible. I cannot agree with those who say it is certain, either because it happened once before, or because "civilization is due to the human race.
It blossomed three thousand years ago under a set of circumstances whose contingent character was perfectly perceived by the historian who called it "the Greek miracle. It seems to me so little such a thing that I observe large portions of the species the Asiatic world in antiquity, the Germanic world in modern times who showed themselves incapable of it and quite likely to remain so.
And this means that if humanity loses this jewel, there is not much chance of finding it again. On the contrary there is every chance that humanity will not find it again, just as a man who should find a precious stone in the sea and then drop it back in the water would have little chance of ever seeing it again.
The other position which maintains that civilization, despite partial eclipses, is something which humanity cannot lose, seems to me quite worthless except as an act of faith—though it is valuable as a means of preserving the good we wish to keep. I should not think it a serious objection to what I have said if some one should point out that civilization, lost once with the fall of the ancient world, nevertheless had it Renaissance. Every one knows that the Graeco-Roman form of mind was far from being wholly extinguished during the Middle Ages and that the sixteenth century only brought to life what was not dead; to which I add that even if that form of mind had been "reborn" ex nihilo, the fact that this is the only instance would make it insufficient to reassure me, although the fact that it had occurred would disturb me.
Let me point out in this respect that insufficient attention is perhaps paid to the fact that there are always only a very tiny number of instances in history on which are built up a "law," which claims to be valid for the whole past and future evolution of humanity.
Vico says that history is a series of alternations between periods of progress and periods of retrogression; and he gives two examples. Marx says history is a series of economic systems, each of which casts out its predecessor by means of violence; and he gives one example. I shall be told that these examples could not be more numerous, owing to the fact that history, at least known history, is so short. The truth, implied by this very reply, is that history has lasted too short a time for us to be able to deduce laws from it to enable us to infer the future from the past.
Those who do so are like a mathematician who should decide the nature of a curve from the form he finds it has at its very beginning. True, a somewhat uncommon turn of mind is required to confess that human history, after several thousands of years, is only beginning. But if we judge of the future from the past, what new things are we ignorant of in the arts, in the sciences, in Nature, and I dare say, in history?
What discoveries will be made! What different revolutions will occur in our Empires all over the world! How ignorant we are! And how slight is an experience of six or seven thousand years! People forget that Hellenic rationalism only really enlightened the world during seven hundred years, that is was then hidden this a minima verdict will be granted me for twelve centuries, and has begun to shine again for barely four centuries; so that the longest period of consecutive time in human history on which we can found inductions is, upon the whole, a period of intellectual and moral darkness.
Looking at history, we may say in a more synthetic manner that, with the exception of two or three very short, luminous epochs whose light, like that of certain stars, lightens the world long after they are extinct, humanity lives generally in darkness; while literatures live generally in a state of decadence and the organism in disorder.
And the disturbing thing is that humanity does not seem to mind these long periods of cave-dwelling. To come back to the realism of my contemporaries and their contempt for a distinterested existence, I must add that my mind is sometimes haunted by a dreadful question. I wonder whether humanity, by adopting this system to-day, has not discovered its true law of existence and adopted the true scale of values demanded by its essence?
I shall go further, and say it seems to me a paradox.
La Trahison Des Clercs
Life[ edit ] Born into a Jewish family in Paris, Benda had a secular upbringing. His articles on the Dreyfus affair were collected and published as Dialogues. It was translated into English in by Richard Aldington ; the U. It was republished in as The Treason of the Intellectuals with a new introduction by Roger Kimball. This polemical essay argued that European intellectuals in the 19th and 20th century had often lost the ability to reason dispassionately about political and military matters, instead becoming apologists for crass nationalism, warmongering and racism. Benda defended the measured and dispassionate outlook of classical civilization , and the internationalism of traditional Christianity.
La Nouvelle Trahison des Clercs
trahison des clercs