The phrase is French -- La Trahison des clercs” -- meaning roughly "the treason of the intellectuals''. This particular phrase, launched by Julien Benda in 1927, could only have popped out of a French head. Benda’s beef was that the intellectuals of his day were placing the virtue of action above the necessity of lucid thinking. Opinion makers, Benda feared, were allowing political commitment to strangle thought. As Roger Kimball put it in a 1992 essay in the New Criterion, "Benda claimed, politics was THE ideal of disinterestedness, the universality of truth: such guiding principles were contemptuously deployed as masks when they were not jettisoned altogether. It was in this sense that he castigated the 'desire to abase the values of knowledge before the values of action.'”
When intellectuals abandon “the universality of truth” for political reasons, they are guilty of intellectual treason. During Benda’s own day, politicians were wearing convincing but false masks of intellectualism; think of Stalin in Russia, Hitler in Germany, Mussolini in Italy, and the choir of intellectuals who surrounded them. Suitably abased, knowledge yielded to political force blind to truth.
As viewed by Kimball, Benda’s warning has modern applications: “Those who for centuries had exhorted men, at least theoretically, to deaden the feeling of their differences … have now come to praise them, according to where the sermon is given, for their ‘fidelity to the French soul,’ ‘the immutability of their German consciousness,’ for the ‘fervor of their Italian hearts.’ In short, intellectuals began to immerse themselves in the unsettlingly practical and material world of political passions: precisely those passions, Benda observed, ‘owing to which men rise up against other men, the chief of which are racial passions, class passions and national passions.’ The ‘rift’ into which civilization had been wont to slip narrowed and threatened to close altogether.”
All around us today are pseudo-intellectuals, traitors to wisdom and common sense, fairly worshiping at the throne of some political genius, some over-powering political doctrine, some false devil of the utopian political imagination. Not content merely to divide people into warring groups, they grow violently disruptive, as did the Sturmabteilung of Hitler’s day. Who among us remembers that many of Hitler’s Brownshirts had been communists, or that Stalin was a “breaker of nations” because he had perfected the art of political division, or that Kim Jong-un’s father and grandfather were worshiped in North Korea as gods, as was Caligula in Rome, or that in Benda’s France, the most influential of the intellectuals – but for Camus and some few other heroic exceptions – were worshipers of political action, fellow travelers in Stalin’s bloody race to power? Such were the traitorous intellectuals then -- and now.
Yes – now. In America, atomization into irreducible classes – blacks, women, presumed oppressed groups, the underprivileged or, as the modern atomizers would have it, the white privileged and everyone else – have been justified by intellectuals in academia and the media because, without such divisions, a desired political action would be impossible. Such was the condition of Europe during the rise of fascism and communism, both offshoots of socialism. Mussolini defined fascism this way: “Everything in the state, nothing outside the state, nothing above the state.”
The omnipotent state will need men like gods to administer it. Nationalism in America rejected such politically opportune atomization and its attendant evils – the centralized state overseen by a strongman, the hawking of utopian socialism from every rooftop – and it was the embrace of tradition, what G. K. Chesterton used to call “the democracy of the dead,” that saved republican government here from the social revolutionists wreaking havoc everywhere in Europe, China, Russia, East Asia, and wherever else the totalitarian urge was not resisted..
These same anarchic disintegrative forces are now at work in the United States education. The anarchist is not a man who believes in nothing; he is a man, uprooted from his culture, who will believe in anything. Deculturation does not lead to an excess of liberty and freedom; it leads to a multiplicity of cults – and, of course, deculturated cult figures, every one of whom is worshiped as a minor deity or, perhaps nearly the same thing, a Hollywood celebrity.
Tradition gives a voice to the dead. Once viable traditions and supportive cultural forms – the family, the church, representative political parties, a responsible media, constitutional government -- have been destroyed, only the imperious voice of Caesar will be heard in the land, and his message is always the same: kneel before the throne of power, and power will lift you up.
Don Pesci is Vernon, Conn-based essayist,