Julien Benda

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Julien Benda (26 December 18677 June 1956) was a French philosopher and novelist.



Treason of the Intellectuals (1927)

  • When Machiavelli advises the Prince to carry out the Machiavellian scheme of action, he invests those actions with no sort of morality or beauty. For him morality remains what it is for everyone else, and does not cease to remain so because he observes (not without melancholy) that it is incompatible with politics. … For him evil, even if it aids politics, still remains evil. The modern realists are the moralists of realism. For them, the act which makes the State strong is invested with a moral character by the fact that it does so, and this whatever the act may be. The evil which serves politics ceases to be evil and becomes good.
    • pp. 107-108
  • For M. Maurras the practical is the divine, and his “atheism” consists less in denying God than in shifting him to man and his political work. … It is the divinizing of politics.
    • p. 108
  • Up until our own times men had only received two sorts of teaching in what concerns the relations between politics and morality. One was Plato’s and it said: “Morality decides politics”; and the other was Machiavelli’s, and it said “Politics have nothing to do with morality.” Today we receive a third. M. Maurras teaches: “Politics decide morality.”
    • p. 110
  • Formerly, leaders of states practiced realism, but did not honor it… With them morality was violated, but moral notions remained intact. … The modern governor, owing to the fact that he addresses crowds, is compelled to be a moralist, and to present his acts as bound up with a system of morality.
    • pp. 110-111
  • Christianity exhorted man to set himself up against Nature, but did so in the name of his spiritual and disinterested attributes. Pragmatism exhorts him to do so in the name of his practical attributes. Formerly man was divine because he had been able to acquire the concept of justice, the idea of law, the sense of God; today he is divine because he has been able to create equipment which makes him the master of matter.
    • pp. 126-127 (regarding homo faber)
  • The modern clercs have created in so-called cultivated society a positive romanticism of harshness. The have also created a romanticism of contempt.
    • p. 143
  • The modern moralists extol … the cult of practical activity in defiance of the disinterested life.
    • p. 146
  • What these thinkers despise in the man of study is precisely the man who … does not predicate the capture of its environment by the species, or who, if he does predicate it, as the scientist does by his discoveries, retains for himself only the joy of knowledge and abandons the practical exploitation of his discoveries to others.
    • p. 148
  • The desire to abase the values of knowledge before the values of action...
    • p. 148
  • That teaching of modern metaphysics which exhorts man to feel comparatively little esteem for the truly thinking portion of himself and to honor the active and willing part of himself with all his devotion...
    • p. 149
  • Philosophy, which formerly raised man to feel conscious of himself because he was a thinking being and to say, ‘I think therefore I am,” now raises him to say … “I think, therefore I am not,” (unless he takes thought into consideration only in that humble region where it is confused with action).
    • p. 149
  • From his loftiest pulpit the modern clerc assures man that he is great in proportion as he is practical.
    • p. 150
  • Teachers … preach “the superiority of the intelligence”; but they preach it because in their opinion it is the intelligence which shows us the actions required for our interests, i.e. from exactly the same passion for the practical.
    • p. 151
  • That teaching according to which intellectual activity is worthy of esteem to the extent that it is practical and to that extent alone.
    • p. 151
  • Since the Greeks the predominant attitude of thinkers towards intellectual activity was to glorify it insofar as (like aesthetic activity) it finds its satisfaction in itself, apart from any attention to the advantages it may procure. Most thinkers would have agreed with … Renan’s verdict that the man who loves science for its fruits commits the worst of blasphemies against that divinity. … The modern clercs have violently torn up this charter. They proclaim the intellectual functions are only respectable to the extent that they are bound up with the pursuit of concrete advantage.
    • pp. 151–152
  • One of the principle causes is that the modern world has made the clerc into a citizen, subject to all the responsibilities of a citizen, and consequently to despise lay passions is far more difficult for him than for his predecessors.
    • p. 158
  • If shame is cried upon him, … he will point out … that today he has to earn his living, and that it is not his fault if he is eager to support the class which takes a pleasure in his productions.
    • pp. 158–159
  • The true clerc is Vauvenargues, Lamarck, Fresnel, … Spinoza, Schiller, Baudelaire, César Franck, who were never diverted from single-hearted adoration of the beautiful and the divine by the necessity of earning their daily bread. But such clercs are inevitably rare. … The rule is that the living creature condemned to struggle for life turns to practical passions, and thence to the sanctifying of those passions.
    • p. 159
  • I think I see another motive in the French writers who in 1914 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. Whereas Barrès said, "I always maintain my country is right even if it is in the wrong," these strange friends of justice are not unwilling to say: "I always maintain my country is in the wrong, even if it is right." There again we see that the frenzy of impartiality, like any other frenzy, leads to injustice.
    • pp. 187–188

Quotes about Julien Benda

  • For the intellectual class, expertise has usually been a service rendered, and sold, to the central authority of society. This is the trahison des clercs of which Julien Benda spoke in the 1920s. Expertise in foreign affairs, for example, has usually meant the legitimization of the conduct of foreign policy and, what is more to the point, a sustained investment in revalidating the role of experts in foreign affairs. The same sort of thing is true of literary critics and professional humanists, except that their expertise is based upon noninterference in what Vico grandly calls the world of nations but which prosaically might just as well be called “the world.” We tell our students and our general constituency that we defend the classics, the virtues of a liberal education, and the precious pleasures of literature even as we also show ourselves to be silent (perhaps incompetent) about the historical and social world in which all these things take place. ...

    Humanists and intellectuals accept the idea that ... cultural types are not supposed to interfere in matters for which the social system has not certified them.

    • Edward Said, The World, the Text, and the Critic (1983), pp. 2-3