Excerpt from The Treason of the Intellectuals

by Julien Benda

Translated by Richard Aldington


Julien Benda, "The Treason of the Intellectuals" ("La trahison des Clercs," 1927), translated by Richard Aldington; William Morrow & Company, New York; 1928 (P. 181-203)


     TO SUM UP: If I look at contemporary humanity from the point of view of its moral state as revealed by its political life, I see (a) A mass in whom realist passions in its two chief forms—class passion, national passion—has attained a degree of consciousness and organization hitherto unknown; (b) A body of men who used to be in opposition to the realism of the masses, but who now, not only do not oppose it, but adopt it, proclaim its grandeur and morality; in short, a humanity which has abandoned itself to realism with a unanimity, an absence of reserve, a sanctification of its passion unexampled in history.

     This remark may be put in another form. Imagine an observer of the twelfth century taking a bird's-eye view of the Europe of his time. 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. Those who make the world's values, make them for a nation; the Ministers of Jesus defend the national. 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. Modern Europe is like the brigand in one of Tolstoi's stories, who made his confession to a hermit, and the hermit said in amazement: "Others were at least ashamed of being brigands; but what is to be done with this man, who is proud of it?"

     Indeed, if we ask ourselves what will happen to a humanity where every group is striving more eagerly than ever to feel conscious of its own particular interests, and makes its moralists tell it that it is sublime to the extent that it knows no law but this interest—a child can give the answer. 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. A race of which one group exalts one of its masters (Barrès) to the skies because he teaches: "We must defend the essential part of ourselves as sectarians," while a neighboring group acclaims a leader because, when he attacks a defenseless small nation, he says, "Necessity knows no law"— such a race is ripe for the zoölogical wars Renan talks about, which, he said, would be like the life and death wars which occur among rodents and among the carnivora. 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. (184-1) In this sense the most insignificant writer can serve peace where the most powerful tribunals can do nothing. 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. (186-1)

     I can point to other sorts of pacifism, whose chief result I dare to say is to weaken the cause of peace, at least among serious-minded persons:—

     (a) First, there is the pacifism I shall call "vulgar," meaning thereby the pacifism which does nothing but denounce "the man who kills," and sneer at the prejudices of patriotism. 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. (186-2)

     (b) Mystic pacifism, by which I mean the pacifism which is solely animated by a blind hatred of war and refuses to inquire whether a war is just or not, whether those fighting are the attackers or the defenders, whether they wanted war or only submit to it. This pacifism is essentially the pacifism of the people (and that of all the so-called pacifist newspapers) and was strikingly embodied in 1914 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 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.

     I have also a word to say about the severities of these "justiciaries" towards France's attitude immediately after her victory, towards her desire to force the enemy to make good the damage done to her, and to seize on pledges if he refused. 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 1918 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." (189-1)

     (c) Pacifism claiming to be patriotic, by which I mean the pacifism which claims to exalt humanitarianism, to preach the abatement of the militarist spirit and of national passion, and yet not to harm the interests of the nation nor to compromise its power of resistance to foreign nations. 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.

     By this I mean the "clerk's" determination to put forth his principles as valid in the practical order of things, as reconcilable with the safeguarding of the sword's conquests. This determination, which has affected the Church for twenty centuries and almost all the idealists (give me the names of those since Jesus who have declared themselves incompetent in the practical order of things), is the source of all the "clerk's failures." It may be said that the "clerk's" defeat begins from the very moment when he claims to be practical. 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." Thus we see that the "clerk" who claims to secure the works of the world has a choice between two consequences. 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. In other words he declares to them that his kingdom is not of this world, that the grandeur of his teaching lies precisely in this absence of practical value, and that the right morality for the prosperity of the kingdoms which are of this world, is not his, but Caesar's. When he takes up this position, the "clerk" is crucified, but he is respected, and his words haunt the memory of mankind. (191-1) The need to remind the modern "clerks" of these truths (for every one of them is angry at being called Utopian) is one of the most suggestive observations in connection with our subject. 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.e. of perishing as human. 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...for if you saw clearly what you are, you could no longer remain so closely united to your body. You would no longer watch over the preservation of your life." (192-1) But though I think it a bad thing that the "clerk's" religion should possess the lay world, I think it still more to be dreaded that it should not be preached to the layman at all, and that he should thus be allowed to yield to his practical passions without the least shame or the least, even hypocritical, desire to raise himself however slightly above them. "There are a few just men who prevent me from sleeping"—that was what the realist said of the teachers of old. Nietzsche, Barrès, and Sorel do not prevent any realist from sleeping; on the contrary. 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."

     Is this adoption of "integral realism" by the human species permanent, or merely temporary? 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. Once more Vauvenargue's admirable saying would be verified. "The passions have taught men reason." But such a thing only seems to me possible after a long lapse of time, when war has caused far more woes than have yet been endured. 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." Civilization as I understand it here—moral supremacy conferred on the cult of the spiritual and on the feeling of the universal—appears to me as a lucky accident in man's development. 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 does not appear to me in the least to be a thing due to the human race by virtue of the data of its nature. 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. Nothing seems to me more doubtful than Aristotle's remark that it is probable the arts and philosophy have several times been discovered and several times lost. 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. I cannot sufficiently admire the rare mental value displayed by La Bruyère (in my opinion) when he wrote the following lines in a century which was strongly inclined to think it was the topmost summit of human development: "If the world lasts only a hundred million years, it will still be in all its freshness and only beginning; we ourselves are almost contemporary with the first men and the patriarchs, and who, in those far-off ages, will be able to avoid confusing us with them? 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!"

     I shall go further and say that even if an examination of the past could lead to any valid prediction concerning man's future, that prediction would be the contrary of reassuring. 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? The religion of the spiritual, I said just now, seems to me a lucky accident in man's history. I shall go further, and say it seems to me a paradox. The obvious law of human substance is the conquest of things and the exaltation of the impulses which secure this conquest. Only through an amazing abuse were a handful of men at desks able to succeed in making humanity believe that the supreme values are the good things of the spirit. To-day humanity has awakened from this dream, knows its true nature and its real desires, and utters its war-cry against those who for centuries have robbed it of itself. Instead of waxing indignant at the ruin of their domination, would it not be more reasonable for these usurpers (if there are any left) to wonder that it lasted so long? Orpheus could not aspire to charm the wild beasts with his music until the end of time. However, one could have hoped that Orpheus himself would not become a wild beast.

     It is scarcely necessary to say my remarks on realist desires and their violent perfecting do not blind me to the immense growth of gentleness, justice, and love written to-day in our customs and laws, which would certainly have amazed our most optimistic ancestors. There is an immense improvement in the relations between man and man within the groups which fight each other—especially within the nation where security is the rule and injustice is a scandal. But to keep more closely to our subject, perhaps we do not sufficiently realize the incredible degree of civilization implied by the good treatment of prisoners, and the care of enemy wounded in wars between nations, and by the institution of public and private charity in the relations between the classes. The denial of progress, the assertion that barbarity of heart has never been worse, are natural themes for poets and those who are discontented, and perhaps they are even necessary to progress. But the historian, whether he looks at national or class warfare, is amazed at the transformation of a species which only four centuries ago roasted prisoners of war in baker's ovens, and, only two centuries ago forbade the workers to establish a pension fund for their aged members. Nevertheless I must point out that these improvements cannot be credited to the present age. They are the results of the teaching of the eighteenth century, against which the "masters of modern thought" are in complete revolt. The establishment of war ambulances, the wide development of State charities are the work of the second Empire, are connected with the "humanitarian clichés" of Victor Hugo and Michelet, which are immeasurably despised by the moralists of the past half century. They exist to some extent despite of these moralists, not one of whom has conducted a truly humane campaign, while the chief of them—Nietzsche, Barrès, Sorel—would blush to be able to say like Voltaire: "I have done a little good, 'tis my best work." I must add that these good works are now merely customs, i.e. actions performed from habit, without the will taking any part in them, without the mind reflecting on their meaning. And if the mind of our realists ever came to think of them, I think there is every possibility that it might prohibit them. I can well imagine a future war when a nation would decide not to look after the enemy wounded, a strike where the bourgeoisie would make up its mind not to support hospitals for the benefit of a class which was ruining it and anxious to destroy it. I can imagine both priding themselves on getting free from a "stupid humanitarianism," and finding disciples of Nietzsche and Sorel to praise them for it. The attitude of the Italian Fascists and the Russian Bolshevists towards their enemies is not calculated to give me the lie here. The modern world still displays certain failures in pure practicality, a few stains of idealism from which it might well cleanse itself.

     I said above that the logical end of the "integral realism" professed by humanity to-day is the organized slaughter of nations or classes. It is possible to conceive of a third, which would be their reconciliation. The thing to possess would be the whole earth, and they would finally come to realize that the only way to exploit it properly is by union, while the desire to set themselves up as distinct from others would be transferred from the nation to the species, arrogantly drawn up against everything which is not itself. And, as a matter of fact, such a movement does exist. Above classes and nations there does exist a desire of the species to become the master of things, and, when a human being flies from one end of the world to the other in a few hours, the whole human race quivers with pride and adores itself as distinct from all the rest of creation. At bottom, this imperialism of the species is preached by all the great directors of the modern conscience. It is Man, and not the nation or the class, whom Nietzsche, Sorel, Bersgon extol in his genius for making himself master of the world. It is humanity, and not any one section of it, whom August Comte exhorts to plunge into consciousness of itself and to make itself the object of its adoration. Sometimes one may feel that such an impulse will grow ever stronger, and that in this way inter-human wars will come to an end. In this way humanity would attain "universal fraternity." But, far from being the abolition of the national spirit with its appetites and its arrogance, this would simply be its supreme form, the nation being called Man and the enemy God. Thereafter, humanity would be unified in one immense army, one immense factory, would be aware only of heroisms, disciplines, inventions, would denounce all free and distinterested activity, would long cease to situate the good outside the real world, would have no God but itself and its desires, and would achieve great things; by which I mean that it would attain to a really grandiose control over the matter surrounding it, to a really joyous consciousness of its power and its grandeur. And History will smile to think that this is the species for which Socrates and Jesus Christ died.


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184-1  "Peace is not the absence of war, but a virtue born from strength of soul." (Spinoza.)  (back)

186-1  Here is an example: "Universal peace will come about one day, not because men will become better (one cannot hope for that) but because a new order of things, new science, new economic needs, will impose a state of peace on them, just as the very conditions of their existence formerly placed and maintained them in a state of war." (Anatole France, Sur la Pierre blanche.) Note the refusal, mentioned above, to believe in any possible betterment of the human soul.  (back)

186-2  This observation applied to nearly all anti-militarist literature up to our own times. We have to come to Renan and Renouvier (at least among writers not of the Church) to find authors who speak of war and national passions with the seriousness and respect due to such dramas.  (back)

189-1  I am not to say whether the claims of France after her victory might have been impolitic, for the thinkers I am discussing here only speak of what they consider their immorality. Notice that the pacifism of the Church, at least among the great teachers, is not at all inspired by sentimental considerations, but by pure moral educations. "What do we condemn in war?" says Saint Augustine. "Is it the fact that they kill men who have all one day to die? Only cowards, not religious men would bring this accusation against war. What we condemn in war is the desire to do harm, an implacable soul, the fury of reprisals, the passion for dominion." (This is taken up by Thomas Aquinas in the Summum,2, 2, xl, art. I.)  (back)

191-1  I consider that "My kingdom is not of this world" may be said by all whose activity is not directed to practical ends: The artist, the metaphysician, the scientist insofar as he finds satisfaction in the practice of science and not in its results. Many will tell me that they and not the Christians are the true "clerks," for the Christian accepts the ideas of justice and charity only for the sake of his salvation. No one will deny, however, that men, even Christians, exist, who accept this idea with no practical end in view.  (back)

192-1  Malebranche, Méditations chrétiennes (ix, 19).  (back)


Julien Benda (1867-1956) studied engineering at the École Centrale Paris (which he abandoned in his third year) and history at the Sorbonne. He was a French essayist and thinker whose work was much influenced by l'affaire Dreyfus. An ardent defender of Universal Values -- Reason, Justice, Truth -- and an admirer of Socrates, Plato, Montaigne, Spinoza and Kant, Benda is particularly remembered for his master work, La Trahison des Clercs.

Published under the provision of U.S. Code, Title 17, section 107.
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Published March 31, 2003
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