Raymond Aron (1905-1983) excelled as an academic scholar, teacher, and journalist. He applied the methods of sociology to the study of economics, international relations, ideology, and war.
Raymond Aron was born in Paris, France, on March 14, 1905, the year that brought the separation of church and state in that country. His father, Gustave, was a professor of law who had married Suzanne Levy. After the world depression struck France, Raymond married Suzanne Gauchon on September 5, 1933. Their union produced two girls, Dominique (Mrs. Antoine Schnapper) and Laurence.
Aron had already graduated from the prestigious Ecole Normale Supérieure, the intellectual center of some of France's greatest thinkers, and in 1928, when only 23 years old, he won his agrégation in philosophy. Over the next 10 years he expanded into sociology and economics and received a State Doctorat in 1933. He had already started his career with a lectureship at the University of Cologne in Germany (1930-1931) and as a staff member at the Maison Académique of Berlin (1931-1933).
Having departed just as Hitler assumed power, Aron returned to his native land to become a philosophy professor at the Lycée of Le Havre (1933-1934), and from there he became the secretary of the Center for Social Documentation of the Ecole Normale/Supérieure (1934-1939). Just before World War II began in 1939 he joined the humanities faculty of the University of Toulouse as associate professor of social philosophy. He was active in the military defense against Germany in 1939-1940, and when France fell he joined Gen. Charles De Gaulle in London. Here he began his career as a journalist, serving as editor-in-chief of La France Libre and, after the liberation of France, as an editorial writer of Combat (1946-1947) and Le Figaro, a right of center newspaper within the old liberal tradition of France. Aron referred to himself as a "Keynesian with a certain nostalgia for economic liberalism." For over 20 years he was one of the leading French columnists and thrived in the liberty allowed him by the paper. Later, when the newspaper was taken over by right-wing financiers led by Robert Hersant, he resigned in 1977 to preserve the editorial liberty that he had devoted his adult life to defending.
Aron remained a man of many talents, combining journalism, university teaching, and voluminous writing. He served as professor at the Ecole Nationale d'Administration and at the Institut d'Etudes Politiques (1945-1955). He then moved to the Sorbonne, where he joined the Faculty of Letters (1955-1968), and finally, in 1970, to that pinnacle of France's educational system, the Coll'e de France, where he served as professor of sociology until his death in 1983.
Aron's long career as teacher and writer brought him many honors. He was elected to almost all the major academies: Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques, American Philosophical Society, American Academy of Arts and Sciences (honorary foreign member), British Academy, and Deutsche Akademie für Sprache und Dichtung. His prizes include Prix des Ambassadeurs (1962) for his book Paix et guerre entre nations; Prix Montaigne (1968) for the body of his work; Prix des Critiques (1973) for his République impériale; and Prix Goethe. He was elected as a chevalier, later officer of the Legion of Honor, and was awarded several honorary doctorates.
Aron's publications may be summarized by a book review by Stanley Hoffman published in the New York Times Book Review of June 17, 1979:
The range of Raymond Aron's interests is immense. He is a philosopher, a sociologist, a political scientist, an economist; he is a scholar and a journalist. His 40-odd books and innumerable articles fall into two broad categories. Some are profound, often erudite reflections on the meaning of history, on the nature and forms of modern industrial society, on international conflict through the ages, on the evolution of political and social thought. … The second category consists of books and articles suggested by current events and debates, and especially by the political and intellectual tides in France… What is common to both is Raymond Aron's relentlessly analytical and critical mind and his passionate defense of political liberalism. He is a descendant of the Philosophies of Enlightenment, and his intellectual godfathers are Montesquieu and Tocqueville.
Aron had for many years an intellectual mission: to defend the liberal order of the western world and to expose the left-wing myths that undermine the liberal tradition of freedom and private property. His views tended to range him with conservatively oriented groups; however, he insisted that, as a Keynesian liberal, he was neither rightwing nor left on all issues. His position depended on the issue: economic policy, North African policies, or relations between East and West.
His opposition to Marxism was based on several beliefs. In one of his most popular books, The Opium of the Intellectuals (1955, 1957), he contended that Marxism is mental opium and that many learned people create and believe false myths. These myths include the belief that history is progressive and liberating (whereas the victory of Marxism in Russia led to totalitarian controls), and that the proletariat is the collective savior of humanity, while in fact most workers, rather than becoming bearers of Marxism, just want a middle class standard of living.
Another highly influential publication, The Century of Total War (1954), presents a study of the inability of men to shape their destiny. "Since … bourgeois Europe entered into the century of total war, men have lost control of their history and have been dragged along by the contradictory promptings of technique and passions." What was most decisive about World War I was the "technical surprise," the vast use of deadly weapons. Industry discovered the means to provide the "mass production of destruction." This happened with the replacement of old-time professional armies with armies of people, the masses. Popular passions hardened ideologies, especially nationalism, with the result that the war created a "Europe of nationalities." The folly of men led to World War II, a conflict that became global but failed to bring the peace and liberty that west Europeans sought. "European democracy and freedom and civilization are the victims, even more than Germany, of a victory won in their name." Raymond Aron died in 1983.
Further Reading on Raymond Aron
Reviews of Aron's work can be found in New York Times Book Review (June 17, 1979); TIME (July 9, 1979); Commentary (September 1979); Best Sellers (September 1979); and National Review (November 9, 1979).
Additional Biography Sources
Aron, Raymond, Memoirs: fifty years of political reflection, New York: Holmes & Meier, 1990.
Colquhoun, Robert, Raymond Aron, London; Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1986.