Culture and Anarchy. An unsigned first review of La Trahison des clercs, by Julien Benda
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[ 345 Culture and Anarchy An unsigned first review of La Trahison des clercs, by Julien Benda Paris: Grasset, 1927. Pp. 306. The Times Literary Supplement, 1360 (23 Feb 1928) 118 M. Julien Benda is an author who has for a long time deserved to be better known outside of France. He is the author both of novels, and of books which may be called criticism of manners. He writes conscientiously; he writes slowly; everything that he writes is the fruit of long and patient labour; and he writes well. Apart from his novels, which will be appreciated only by those who read French readily, he is the author of three works of international importance; two books which constitute the most formidable attack upon Bergson that has yet been made;1 his Belphégor, a careful diagnosis of the maladies of contemporary culture, a book equal in importance to Culture and Anarchy;2 and this new book.3 Although most of the evidence for the thesis of La Trahison des clercs is drawn from contemporary France, the application of the judgment is universal . The thesis has two parts. M. Benda is concerned, first, to show that the modern world, in its politics, tends to become more and more governed by political passions and less and less by political ideas. Secondly, M. Benda considerstheattitudeofpeoplehecallsclercs,awordwhichwecanonlytranslate feebly as “intellectuals.” Here he brings a grave and specific charge, for he names some of the clercs; he accuses them of “betraying” the cause of speculative thought – l’art de penser juste – to the interest of political passions . We have therefore to consider separately his general thesis and his particular accusations. Even were his instances limited to French writers , the case would still have a general application; but as he includes Mr. Kipling among the clercs who have “betrayed,” we have an assured interest in the matter. With the first part of the pleading no thoughtful person can quarrel. M. Benda states it clearly and concisely and impartially. When we consider anyofthepotent“politicalideas”oftheday–M.BendareviewsNationalism, Pacifism, Socialism and Communism – we are forced to admit that they all 1928 346 ] move on the same plane, and that one passionate notion is only the counterpart to another. On est frappé, quand on étudie par exemple les guerres civiles qui agi­ tèrentlaFranceauXVIesiècleetmêmeaufinduXVIIIe,dupetitnombre depersonnesdontellesontproprementtroublel’âme;alorsquel’histoire est remplie jusqu’au XIXe siècle de longues guerres européennes qui laiss èrent la grande majorité des populations parfaitement indifférentes en dehors des dommages matériels qu’elles leur causaient, on peut dire qu’aujourd’hui il n’est presque pas une âme en Europe qui ne soit touchée, ounecroiel’être,parunepassionderaceoudeclasseoudenationetleplus souvent par les trois. . . . Les passions politiques atteignent aujourd’hui à une universalité qu’elles n’ont jamais connue. [11-12]4 Allthisistrueandadmirablystated,andconstitutes,ineffect,agravecriticism of democracy. M. Benda continues his inquest with relentless consistency. The political passions have increased in coherence, in homogeneity, in precision , in continuity, in condensation, and in their preponderance over the other passions. M. Benda, who carries his impartiality almost to extremes, begins with specifying Jewish Nationalism – he is a Jew himself. From this he proceeds to the passion of class; not so visible in the “aristocracy,” which has perhaps learned to dissimulate its claims, but certainly in the boast of the “proletariat” which is answered by the boast of the “bourgeoisie.” These passions, and the passions of nations, have much more to do with pride than with interest. War, whatever economic or practical interests may tend to bring it about, is sustained by the pretence of a war of cultures, by the pretence that one form of civilization is being maintained against another. The national emotion, cause of so much hatred between nations, as well as the class emotion and the race emotion, has become a kind of mysticism (there is no English equivalent for la mystique). Religion consequently is no longer universal, as it always pretended to be, but becomes national and enters the national service; it reinforces national (and even class) emotions insteadofcheckingthem;the“oldGermanGod”of1914ismerelyanextreme manifestation of a universal tendency. So far no one is likely to dissent. It is when M. Benda passes from the consideration of general movements to the question of the culpability of “intellectuals” that we begin to have doubts. For M. Benda the true clerc is the intellectual who thinks not for practical ends, not for “action” (absence de valeur pratique), but for the pleasure of “thinking rightly...


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