When hatred of culture becomes itself part of culture, the life of the mind loses all meaning.
-- Alain Finkielkraut, The Undoing of Thought
Today we are trying to spread knowledge everywhere. Who knows if in centuries to come there will not be universities established to establish our former ignorance.
-- Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742 - 1799)
Benda May Have Been Too Optimisitic
The Bear is an intellectual. So are all of his ephemerists friends. This is not a boast, it is simply the correct name for people who pursue the rewards of a life of the mind, as opposed to "realism," as our friend Julien Benda (la trahison des clercs) uses the word.
Although Benda was remarkably prescient in Treason of the Intellectuals, he did not get everything right. The great evil that Benda saw was intellectuals abandoning their age-old calling of insisting upon the universal when it came to mankind. In Benda's mind, the danger was that intellectuals were building philosophies based upon national differences. The German Völk, Italian Art, French elan, the English Empire. They got their hands dirty, and became "realists," not as opposed to "realism," but concerned with practical outcomes.
It is true that we passed through that stage - disastrously. It is just as true that patriotism seems to be a spent force in the West. One would be embarrassed to express patriotism in the United States. No longer do children perform the ceremony of innocence before the schoolroom flag, hand over heart.
How Benda Was Right
However, Benda turned out to be right, after all. Intellectuals of today support ever-smaller divisions of humanity. As Benda specifically predicted: people wish even to be distinguished by their vices. There is no eccentricity so rare as it does not have an intellectual spokesman -- or, spokesperson -- and political lobby.
Benda also observed that politics had become the concern of everyone, and that neighbors would wage an unending political war against one another. This has come to pass. It is a fairly recent historical development, although we can scarcely imagine it. People have been concerned with politics all throughout history, but in fits and starts. Never before has the vast majority of the West identified themselves by their political views, and never stopped banging the drum.
Humanity has been shattered into a thousand pieces by the treason of the intellectuals. Yet the fragments tend to gravitate toward one of two poles: the Right and the Left. Political people - almost everyone, that is - are comforted because they can look up and see one or the other of the great umbrellas that loosely unites and protects them.
Intellectuals Right and Left
In general, the Right is the philosophy of true conservatism. True intellectuals of the Right preach a centripetal philosophy. They are the true champions of mankind, because they advocate for man in general. They do not feel compelled to tinker with history, to stick a name on part of mankind and champion The Worker, The Homosexual, The Refugee. The intellectuals of the Right are mostly true and faithful, if few. They know that when an intellectual is tempted to "realism," i.e. results, he will inevitably chose sides, and thereby lose the legitimacy of the universal. He will, in other words, commit treason.
It is precisely by engaging in special pleading, that the intellectual of the Left commits treason. "I raise this man up, and put all other men down." They have a pact with one another that they will not step on each others' toes. The intellectual of the Left is always modern. "I celebrate today only; I erase the past." There is always that fatal choice. We come down to arguing with a straight face whether a man should use the ladies' room, because such practical absurdities are the inevitable tragicomical end of Leftist intellectualism.
By the way, the Left has won everywhere, if you have not noticed. The Right, who are not "realists," in Benda's sense of the word (practical) cannot match the passionate intensity of a thousand people fighting for a thousand special recognitions. Mankind has been more thoroughly fragmented than at Babel, and the past is forgotten.
When Facebook has 71 genders, you have to admit you're fighting a desperate rear-guard action for civilization, if not sanity.
Benda Wrong by 196, but Right by 7 Billion
But what would Benda say about the great supranational movements, where the old states of the West are giving up their independence and identity? Does this not disprove Benda's thesis? No. First of all, this is a new development, and we do not know if it will last, or if national particularism will will reassert itself. But Benda might well point out that a mere 196 nations without nationalism are nothing compared to 71 genders, 1000 religions, 25,000 parties, 250,000 blogs, and people who shell out over a billion-and-a-half dollars for tattoos per year, in the U.S. alone. Anybody can be a constituency.
So maybe Benda missed by 196 nations. He still wins by 7 billion people, if everyone has their own individual party.