Julien Benda (1867-1956) was a French cultural critic and novelist. He is best known for his La Trahison des clercs ("the treason of the intellectuals"), which became a lasting international catch-cry.
Julien Benda was born in Paris on December 27, 1867, the only son of a wealthy, assimilated Jewish family. His father had moved from Brussels, abandoning hope for an engineering career. He married his cousin (an active socialite) and became head of his uncle's export firm. He taught his son "the religion of intelligence." Young Benda was educated at élite Paris lycées (Charlemagne, Condorcet, Henry IV, and Saint-Louis).
He became head of the family firm at age 21, when his father died, but his interests lay elsewhere. He too aspired to a career in engineering. Failing entry to the Ecole Polytechnique, he studied engineering at the Ecole Centrale. Finding the course distasteful because it emphasized application, he abandoned it, did his compulsory military service, and eventually took his degree in history at the Sorbonne at 26.
Benda increasingly led the life of wealthy young-man-about-Paris, frequenting the glittering society of the era, especially the circles (into which two of his female cousins had married) of the lawyer/political Eugene Carré and the great Casimir-Périer banking/political family. There he met such figures as Georges Clemenceau and Gabriel d'Annunzio and formed a contempt for polite society's "irrationalism" which, coupled with his philosophic interest in engineering and science, later became a central theme in his writing.
Only at age 30 did he leave his easy life and begin to write, provoked by that greatest of political affairs, the Dreyfus case. The Dreyfus case brought the term "intellectual" into currency and into controversy; it affected Benda profoundly. He contributed to the pro-Dreyfus Revue blanche (frequented by Lucien Herr, Léon Blum, and André Gide) and combined several articles into his first book, Dialogues à Byzance (1900). Revealingly, he took his title from Gen. Auguste Mercier's scornful remark that intellectuals who defended Dreyfus were like Byzantine philosophers who continued their studies with the Turks at their gates. Benda presented humanity as divided into two opposed psychological-cultural types, praised "rationalists" as necessary for civilization, and condemned both anti-Dreyfusards and most pro-Dreyfusards for lacking abstract understanding and embracing emotionalism. He developed these notions throughout his career.
From the Revue blanche, Benda became an intimate of the most advanced circle of the day: Charles Péguy's Cahiers de la Quinzaine, where he encountered Daniel Halévy, Georges Sorel, varieties of socialism, and the new cult for Henri Bergson's philosophy. Péguy published Benda's elaborated psychology of culture; his attacks on the influence of the fashionable salons and of "Bergsonism" (which caused a furor); and his first novel, L'Ordination, a runner-up for the 1912 Prix Goncourt (which prompted a split between Péguy and Sorel).
In 1913 the family export business collapsed, forcing Benda to become a professional writer at age 46. He had already gained some notoriety. World War I advanced his career. He wrote extensively condemning "Germanism" in politics and culture and was rewarded with the ribbon of the Legion of Honour. His enhanced reputation gained him entry to the most prestigious publications, including Jean Paulhan's Nouvelle Revue Francaise; he produced numerous essays, fiction, a major critique of the aesthetics of French society (Belphegor, 1918), and La Trahison des clercs (1927). Benda's Trahison charged modern culture with abandoning intellectual tradition by embracing political passion and 'realist' ideology. It attacked, among others, Nietzsche, Kipling, D'Annunzio, Sorel, Péguy, Maurice Barrès, and (despite neo-classical elements in Benda's own works) Charles Maurras' right-revolutionary Action Francaise. It showed the influence of the neo-Kantianism prominent in French republican education (especially that of Charles Renouvier, erstwhile synthesizer of Kant and Comte). It made Benda a celebrity at age 60. He relished prominence. He continued to battle his critics (such as the Action Francaise, Gabriel Marcel, Jacques Maritain, Daniel Halévy, and Jacques Rivière); elaborated his rationalist creed through notions of eternity, Europe, French history, and two volumes of autobiography; attended conferences; and made two trips to America (1936 and 1938). He asked fellow travellers in a no-smoking compartment to extinguish their pipes simply because he liked rules to be obeyed.
However, political events increasingly affected Benda's high intellectualism. He criticized the weakness of democracy, attacked the French right and the menace of fascism, became active in the Popular Front, and called his fellow "clercs" to join his side. On the fall of France in 1940, he fled to Carcassonne; the Nazis confiscated all his books and papers in Paris. He wrote a clandestine pamphlet for the Resistance and smuggled several works out of France for publication abroad. The liberation found him still vehement, despite his age. He opposed de Gaulle and also opposed any mercy for collaborators (especially for Maurras). He finally married an old friend, Micia Lebas, daughter of a former provincial military governor. In his last years he published two final autobiographical volumes, and he scathingly condemned "pure" literature (Gide, Proust, and surrealism); existentialism (quarrelling with Sartre); and democratic practices. He praised Communist acts, but castigated Communist doctrine as another variety of irrationalism. He died at Foutenay-aux-Roses, outside Paris, on June 7, 1956, at age 88.
Urbane, independent, mocking, author of more than 40 books and innumerable articles, Benda had contact with the most controversial French figures of his time and influenced T. S. Elliot, Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, Irving Babbit, and Herbert Read. His long life was one pre-eminently of writing and of literary/political battles. A brilliant polemicist, his career ironically mirrored his concern with the intellectual.
Further Reading on Julien Benda
Benda is one of those figures who are more often invoked than examined. There are only two major studies of Benda in English, a literary analysis by Robert J. Niess, Julien Benda (1956), and a cultural/political analysis by Ray Nichols, Treason, Tradition, and the Intellectual (1978). Both works have extensive bibliographies which detail short pieces on Benda by such figures as T. S. Elliot. One of Benda's articles (on French democracy and the Nazi threat) is translated in Justin O'Brien (editor), NRF: The Most Significant Writings from the Nouvelle Revue Francaise, 1919-1940 (1958). Selections from Benda's Trahison appear in M. Curtis (editor), The Nature of Politics (1963), and in G. B. de Huszar (editor), The Intellectuals (1960). There have been full English translations of Benda's Trahison (1928, reissued 1955) and Belphegor (1920).