Is the world’s “last best hope” for freedom lost?
When French writer Julien Benda published The Treason of the Clerks in 1926, Europe still lay in the shadow of the Great War and a failure of civilizational nerve. The old verities of faith were eroding, and new political religions like communism, ethnonationalism, and fascism were battling for ascendancy in people’s hearts and in the streets.
For Benda, this cultural malaise was the consequence of intellectuals––the “clerks” whose vocation is the life of the mind and the search for truth––having betrayed that calling to honor humane ideals and moral integrity, and instead pursued “practical advantages” in order to fulfill the “desire to abase the values of knowledge before the values of action,” and promote the idea that “politics decides morality.” He particularly focused on the ideologies “owing to which men rise up against other men, the chief of which are racial passions, class passions and national passions.”
In short, a betrayal of the true vocation of the intellectual to “urge their fellow beings to other religions than to the religion of the material…”