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Tuesday, February 11, 2003

The Opium of the Intellectuals

Every Reader Can Learn Much from Aron

This, the most famous of Aron’s works, was first published in 1955. It is now republished together with the essay “Fanaticism, Prudence and Faith,” which was Aron’s original response to his critics. It thus becomes the fifth volume in Transaction’s series of Aron’s works. In his introduction to this new edition, Professor Harvey Mansfield writes that “The good sense of non-philosophers needs to be protected against bad philosophy even when it goes over their heads, for there are many, especially among the young, who will be impressed with such high-sounding doctrines as existentialism and phenomenology, especially when combined with the moral content and fueled by the passionate hatred characteristic of Marxism.” Mansfield concludes that Aron’s critique of the fusion of Marx and Nietzsche, of party doctrine and existential thought of French intellectuals in the decade after World War II “continues to speak to the irresponsibility and incoherence of postmodern thought today.”

But would such thinkers listen? If they had ever been willing to take account of such radical criticism, they would surely never have become relativistic postmodernists in the first place. So the value of the present republication is primarily historical. For some of us, it provides reminders of intellectual battles long ago. But every reader can hope to learn much from Aron about the peculiarities of political conflicts in France, about how these are all affected by consequences of the revolution of 1789, and about the peculiar part played in such conflicts by the intellectuals as a self-conscious class.

Perhaps the best way to suggest the nature and richness of a work that defies summary is first to quote its two mottos and then proceed to give the suggestive titles of the three parts.

The first motto is the passage from Marx which begins, “Religion is the sigh of the creature overwhelmed by misfortune,” and ends, “It is the opium of the people.” The second motto is provided by Simone Weil. It is one that expresses Aron’s main thesis. It is that “Marxism is undoubtedly a religion, in the lowest sense of the word. Like every inferior form of religious life, it has been continuously used, to borrow the apt phrase of Marx himself, as an opiate for the people.”

The first part of the book is entitled “Political Myths.” The second is “The Idolatry of History.” And the third is “The Alienation of the Intellectuals.” These parts are followed by two separate chapters, one on “The Destiny of the Intellectuals” and the other titled interrogatively “The End of the Ideological Age?”

The third part of the book begins with a chapter titled “The Intellectuals and their Homeland,” which concludes with three paragraphs of especial interest to a British reviewer. The first of these begins, “Of all Western countries, Great Britain is probably the one which has treated its intellectuals in the most sensible way.” Apparently, that means not treating them so seriously as they are in France. Perhaps so. Aron was certainly right about the elevated position of the intellectuals of his own country. “Whether one likes or dislikes it, welcomes or deplores it, the fact remains that the ‘clerks’ of Paris still play a role in the world and radiate an influence out of all proportion to the place that France occupies on the map,” he writes. French intellectuals continued to invoke such superficially alluring ideals as “the classless society” and “the exploitation of man by man” long after history had exposed them as dangerous delusions.

These terms are neither so eloquent nor so clear as liberty, equality, and fraternity, nevertheless they illustrate one of the historic functions of the French intelligentsia: “that of associating itself with humanity’s dreams and transforming for better and for worse the prosaic achievements of society into Promethean tasks, glorious defeats, tragic epics.”

Aron informs us that the French intelligentsia was torn between “attachment to democratic ideas and a taste for aristocratic values; between love of liberty and a revolt against the power and technical civilization of the United States.” But I must confess to a lack of sympathy with these various tensions. No doubt Aron was again right in insisting that owing to those conflicts, the French intelligentsia “represented more than itself,” but if one reflects on the effects of an education in Paris on many future rulers in the “Third World,” it is difficult not to deplore the influence of the French intelligentsia.

Raymond Aron’s analysis of French intellectual culture of the 1940s and 1950s retains its relevance into the 21st century, helping to illuminate the minds of intellectuals so that we can understand their penchant for irrational utopianism. Although the particular controversies have changed somewhat, our modern intellectuals partake of the same opium.

  • Antony Flew was an English philosopher. Belonging to the analytic and evidentialist schools of thought, Flew was most notable for his work related to the philosophy of religion. During the course of his career he taught at the universities of Oxford, Aberdeen, Keele and Reading, and at York University in Toronto.