When hatred of culture becomes itself a part of culture, the life of the mind loses all meaning. Who knows if in centuries to come there will not be universities for re-establishing our former ignorance? For today, in the United States anyway, only the title of the book, not its argument, enjoys much currency. Academics and journalists, pundits, moralists, and pontificators of all varieties are in this sense clercs.
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When hatred of culture becomes itself a part of culture, the life of the mind loses all meaning. Who knows if in centuries to come there will not be universities for re-establishing our former ignorance? For today, in the United States anyway, only the title of the book, not its argument, enjoys much currency.
Academics and journalists, pundits, moralists, and pontificators of all varieties are in this sense clercs. The English translation, The Treason of the Intellectuals, 1 sums it up neatly.
From the time of the pre-Socratics, intellectuals, considered in their role as intellectuals, had been a breed apart. This contradiction was an honor to the human species, and formed the rift whereby civilization slipped into the world. More and more, intellectuals were abandoning their attachment to the traditional panoply of philosophical and scholarly ideals.
One clear sign of the change was the attack on the Enlightenment ideal of universal humanity and the concomitant glorification of various particularisms.
Nor did he believe that intellectuals, as citizens, necessarily should abstain from political commitment or practical affairs. What Benda found novel was the accreditation of such cynicism by intellectuals. The educators of the human mind now take sides with Callicles against Socrates, a revolution which I dare to say seems to me more important than all political upheavals. The Treason of the Intellectuals is an energetic hodgepodge of a book.
Partisan in its claims for disinterestedness, it is ruthless in its defense of intellectual high-mindedness. And given the continuing echo in our own time of the problems he anatomized, the relevance of his observations to our situation can hardly be doubted. From the savage flowering of ethnic hatreds in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union to the mendacious demands for political correctness and multiculturalism on college campuses across America and Europe, the treason of the intellectuals continues to play out its unedifying drama.
In , the young French philosopher and cultural critic Alain Finkielkraut took up where Benda left off, producing a brief but searching inventory of our contemporary cataclysms. In this sense, the book is a trahison des clercs for the post-Communist world, a world dominated as much by the leveling imperatives of pop culture as by resurgent nationalism and ethnic separatism. Beginning with Benda, Finkielkraut catalogues several prominent strategies that contemporary intellectuals have employed to retreat from the universal.
A frequent point of reference is the eighteenth-century German Romantic philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder. And Finkielkraut, like Benda and, indeed, like Montaigne , tends to proceed more by collage than by demonstration. The geography of intellectual betrayal has changed dramatically in the last sixty-odd years.
In , intellectuals still had something definite to betray. In the broadest terms, The Undoing of Thought is a brief for the principles of the Enlightenment.
Among other things, this means that it is a brief for the idea that mankind is united by a common humanity that transcends ethnic, racial, and sexual divisions. The Frankfurt School Marxists Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno gave an exemplary but by no means uncharacteristic demonstration of one strain of this brand of anti-rational animus in the mids.
Historically, the Enlightenment arose as a deeply anti-clerical and, perforce, anti-traditional movement. Living on a soil of substantive traditionality, the ideas of the Enlightenment advanced without undoing themselves. It did not ravage society as it would have done had society lost all legitimacy.
It is this mature form of Enlightenment, championing reason but respectful of tradition, that Finkielkraut holds up as an ideal. The process of disintegration has lately become an explicit attack on culture. This is not simply to say that there are many anti-intellectual elements in society: that has always been the case.
The innovation of contemporary culture is to have obliterated the distinction between the two. This is the undoing of thought. What about those cultures in which the testimony of one man counts for that of two women? In which female circumcision is practiced? In which slavery flourishes? In which mixed marriages are forbidden and polygamy encouraged?
Multiculturalism, as Finkielkraut points out, requires that we respect such practices. Not to worry! Only an ignoramus who believed that there were important distinctions, qualitative distinctions, between the barbarian and the civilized man could possibly think of objecting. Of course, the attack on distinctions that Finkielkraut castigates takes place not only among cultures but also within a given culture.
Here again, the anthropological imperative has played a major role. From now on no rigid division separates masterpieces from run-of-the mill works. For confirmation of this, one need only glance at the pronouncements of our critics. In describing this process of leveling, Finkielkraut distinguishes between those who wish to obliterate distinctions in the name of politics and those who do so out of a kind of narcissism.
The litany that Finkielkraut recites is familiar: A comic which combines exciting intrigue and some pretty pictures is just as good as a Nabokov novel. What little Lolitas read is as good as Lolita. An effective publicity slogan counts for as much as a poem by Apollinaire or Francis Ponge…. The footballer and the choreographer, the painter and the couturier, the writer and the ad-man, the musician and the rock-and-roller, are all the same: creators.
We must scrap the prejudice which restricts that title to certain people and regards others as sub-cultural. The upshot is not only that Shakespeare is downgraded, but also that the bootmaker is elevated. Among other things, that exhibition demonstrated the extent to which the apotheosis of popular culture undermines the very possibility of appreciating high art on its own terms. When the distinction between culture and entertainment is obliterated, high art is orphaned, exiled from the only context in which its distinctive meaning can manifest itself: Picasso becomes a kind of cartoon.
This, more than any elitism or obscurity, is the real threat to culture today. Finkielkraut notes that the rhetoric of postmodernism is in some ways similar to the rhetoric of Enlightenment. This fraud is the dirty secret that our cultural commissars refuse to acknowledge. There is another, perhaps even darker, result of the undoing of thought. The disintegration of faith in reason and common humanity leads not only to a destruction of standards, but also involves a crisis of courage.
Communism may have been effectively discredited. This translation is still in print from Norton.
The Treason of the Intellectuals
I believe there are better critiques of the trends described in this book. Julien Benda Pavelescu Sabin-Stefan rated it really liked it Dec 30, Hammam Azar rated it really liked it Dec 20, In Europe in the s, intellectuals oc abandoning their attachment to traditional philosophical and scholarly ideals, and instead glorified particularisms and ontellectuals relativism. This is the undoing of thought. Emehinola Taiwo rated it liked it Dec 17, The business guru is arguably top of the heap when it comes to academic rubbish. Transaction PublishersDec 31, — Philosophy — pages.
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. Closing this work, Benda darkly predicts that the augmentation of the "realistic" impulse to domination of the material world, justified by intellectuals into an "integral realism", risked producing an all-encompassing species-civilization that would completely cease "to situate the good outside the real world".
The treason of the intellectuals & “The Undoing of Thought”