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Julien Benda’s
Anti-Passionate Europe
Jan-Werner Müller
Princeton University
European Journal
of Political Theory
© SAGE Publications Ltd,
London, Thousand Oaks
and New Delhi
issn 1474-8851, 5(2) 125–137
[DOI: 10.1177/1474885106061601]
a b s t r a c t : In the early 1930s, Julien Benda provided one of the most
uncompromising visions for a united Europe. In line with his rationalist universalism,
Benda sought a continent that was cleansed of passion and particularism, and called
on European intellectuals to act as a rationalist vanguard in constructing such a
Europe. However, Benda fatefully wavered between polity-building strategies of
reshaping and redirection. For the most part, Benda seemed to demand nothing less
than a comprehensive reshaping of the moral and political psychology of European
citizens. However, his universalism faltered frequently, and he conceived of Europe
rather as a large nation, in which the ‘passion for reason’ would come to dominate
other passions. Such ambiguities – and failures to draw a clear line between normative
ideals and the pragmatics of polity-building – persist in many present debates on
European unification.
k e y w o r d s : Julien Benda, European integration, intellectuals, nation-building, universalism
Only a misanthrope could regard European culture as the universal condition of our
species. (Johann Gottfried Herder)
Au vrai, j’aime moins la raison que la passion de la raison. (Julien Benda)
Julien Benda remains much-quoted and little-read. The famous title of the
French thinker’s book The Betrayal of the Intellectuals is almost inevitably invoked
in discussions of intellectual engagement; but by and large Benda’s actual ideas are
no longer studied. Michael Walzer could still claim in the 1980s that La Trahison
des clercs ‘remains the best single statement of the critical intellectual’s creed and
the most vivid account of the temptations and dangers of intellectual politics’.1
Yet few seem to feel the need any longer to consult this exemplary ‘creed’.
Benda is hard to classify politically; some have even, paradoxically, called him a
‘reactionary of the Left’. In the 1920s, he became best known for his advocacy of
the intellectual as a defender of universalist values; he directed his ire against
nationalist right-wingers and communists for betraying universal ideals in favour
of the particular interests of nation or class. In 1933 he published a now almost
forgotten pamphlet entitled An Address to the European Nation. At less than 120
Contact address: Jan-Werner Müller, Department of Politics, Princeton University,
Corwin Hall, Princeton, NJ 08544–1012, USA.
Email: [email protected]
European Journal of Political Theory 5(2)
pages, Benda’s Address amounted to a complete manual for supranational politybuilding; but it also presented one of the most stringent and uncompromising
visions of the moral and psychological preconditions for European unity. I wish
to re-examine Benda’s thoughts on Europe, because his arguments have lost none
of their basic force; the stark choices Benda presented, no less than the confusions
he was grappling with, are still with us – whether in Jürgen Habermas’s recent call
for a united Europe embodying certain civilization ideals or Pierre Bourdieu’s
longing for a ‘more universalist Europe’. However, before presenting Benda’s
thoughts on a united Europe, I should like to say a few more words about Benda
the man – and the reasons why he has so much fallen out of favour.
An Homme Sans Cœur?
Benda certainly has had the misfortune of unsympathetic – to say the least – biographers and commentators. They have chided him for his lack of originality,
although one might say that he merely remained faithful to his own idea that a
true universalist would never say anything original. Benda’s critics have also
pointed to the rather embarrassing fact that every single book by a man who called
upon fellow intellectuals to remain above human emotion turned out to be an
intensely personal polemic. Even worse, Benda was a ‘polemicist of bad faith’ who
wilfully distorted the positions of his opponents.2 As his first major biographer put
it, ‘his hatred gave him his books’ – and Benda, who once wrote that la haine donne
du génie, might well have agreed.3
The very same hatred seems to have prevented the ‘idéologue passioné’ from
leaving a structured intellectual legacy. At first sight a caricature of the French
Cartesian philosopher, Benda had a distinct ‘taste for the rectangular, the homogeneous, the certain’. But this supposed ‘second-rank figure’ was in fact incapable
of building any system; while continuously professing ‘rationalism’, Benda’s
approach to politics was in fact psychological (and emotional) through and
through.4 An essayist and moraliste by nature, he almost seemed like a person
transported into the 20th century from the time of Montaigne and the French
moralists. A few brilliant moralist fragments – often vented in anger, it seems –
have to be retrieved from his many, arguably too many, writings.
Yet the ‘foremost theorist of the clerkly life in our time’ has also been charged
with ‘congenital coldness’ and even with being an accomplished misanthrope.5 He
is said not only to have imposed impossible standards of moral rectitude on his
contemporaries, but also to have lacked a basic understanding of human complexity and the subtleties of moral life.6 Some of Benda’s views do indeed fit the
caricature of a rationalist in politics – or in the world tout court. For instance, the
supposed homme sans cœur was one of the few French intellectuals of the first half
of the 20th century who happened to be enthusiastic about the United States. But
what was the reason for this enthusiasm, which Benda expressed in his diaries
when travelling in the US to give lectures in the late 1930s? The apparent
Müller: Julien Benda’s Anti-Passionate Europe
standardization of American life, the ‘lack of history’, and the ‘lack of ruins’, the
French visitor argued, perfectly allowed the thinker to keep thinking without
being ‘disturbed by the picturesque’.7 Staying at motels which all looked the same,
the maître-penseur could keep his attention firmly on eternal truths. America was
‘detestable’ for artists (who of course depended on the ‘picturesque’) – but,
according to Benda, it was a ‘dream for the intellectual’.8 Such simple-minded
dualisms have probably done more than any congenital coldness to damage
Benda’s posthumous reputation.
Above all, however, the professional controversialist became the victim of his
own success. The one phrase of ‘la trahison des clercs’ overshadowed all his other
work. Written in 1927, the essay posited a strict division between the temporal,
the materialist, the earthly, and the emotional, on the one hand; and, on the other,
the universal, unitary, and, above all, the rational. The latter, ‘clerkly’ values
were also said to be ‘static’ and ‘disinterested’. It was such values which had to