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The Opium of the Intellectuals

by Roger Kimball

Posted: Jan 18, 2005 07:59 PM

How many people still remember The Opium of the Intellectuals, the French philosopher Raymond Aron’s masterpiece? First published in France in 1955, at the height of the Cold War, L’Opium des intellectuels was an immediate sensation. It caused something of a sensation in the United States, too, when an English translation was published in 1957. Writing in The New York Times, the historian Crane Brinton spoke for many when he said that the book was "a kind of running commentary on the Western world today."

Unaccountably the book was out of print for many years. It was therefore welcome news indeed that Transaction Publishers brought out a new edition of Opium in 2001. The deformations that Aron analyzed are still very much with us, even if the figures that represent them have changed.

Aron’s subject is the bewitchment--the moral and intellectual disordering--that comes with adherence to certain ideologies. Why is it, he wondered, that certain intellectuals are "merciless toward the failings of the democracies but ready to tolerate the worst crimes as long as they are committed in the name of the proper doctrines"?

Aron’s title is an inversion of Marx’s contemptuous remark that religion is "the opium of the people." He quotes the French writer Simone Weil’s sly reversal of Marx: "Marxism is undoubtedly a religion, in the lowest sense of the word. . . . [I]t has been continually used . . . as an opiate for the people."

In fact Weil got it only partly right.

Marxism and kindred forms of thought never really became the people’s narcotic. But they certainly became--and in essentials they still are--the drug of choice for the group that Aron anatomized: the intellectuals. The Opium of the Intellectuals is a seminal book of the twentieth century, an indispensable contribution to the literature of intellectual disabusement.

Aron, who died in 1983 in his late seventies, is a half-forgotten colossus of twentieth-century intellectual life. Part philosopher, part sociologist, part journalist, he was above all a spokesman for that rarest form of idealism, the idealism of common sense. Aron was, Allan Bloom wrote shortly after the philosopher’s death, "the man who for fifty years . . . had been right about the political alternatives actually available to us. . . . [H]e was right about Hitler, right about Stalin, and right that our Western regimes, with all their flaws, are the best and only hope of mankind."

From the 1950s through the early 1970s, Aron was regularly calumniated by the radical Left--by his erstwhile friends Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, for starters, but also by their many epigoni and intellectual heirs. In 1963, for example, Susan Sontag dismissed Aron as "a man deranged by German philosophy belatedly converting to Anglo-Saxon empiricism and common sense under the name of `Mediterranean’ virtue."

In fact, it would be difficult to find anyone at once more knowledgeable about and less "deranged" by German philosophy than Raymond Aron. His was a sober and penetrating intelligence, sufficiently curious to take on Hegel, sufficiently robust to escape uncorrupted by the encounter. The fact that Aron was hated by the Left does not mean that he was a partisan of the Right. On the contrary, he always to some extent considered himself a man of the Left, but (in later years anyway) it was the pre-Marxist Left of high liberalism.

As the sociologist Edward Shils noted in an affectionate memoir of his friend, Aron moved from being a declared socialist in his youth to becoming "the most persistent, the most severe, and the most learned critic of Marxism and of the socialist--or more precisely Communist--order of society" in the twentieth century. Shils spoke of Aron’s "discriminating devotion to the ideals of the Enlightenment."

The ideals in question prominently featured faith in the power of reason. Aron’s discrimination showed itself in his recognition that reason’s power is always limited. That is to say, if Aron was a faithful child of the Enlightenment--its secularism, its humanism, its opposition of reason to superstition--he also in many respects remained a faithful grandchild of the traditional society that many Enlightenment thinkers professed to despise.

Enlightened thinking tends to be superficial thinking because its critical armory is deployed against every faith except its faith in the power of reason. Aron avoided the besetting liability of the Enlightenment by subjecting its ideals to the same scrutiny it reserved for its adversaries. "In defending the freedom of religious teaching," he wrote, "the unbeliever defends his own freedom."

Aron’s generosity of spirit was a coefficient of his recognition that reality was complex, knowledge limited, and action essential. The leitmotif of Aron’s career was responsibility. He understood that political wisdom rests in the ability to choose the better course of action even when the best course is unavailable--which is always.

The subject of politics, Aristotle noted, is "the good life for man." What constitutes the good life? Aron cannily reminds us that the more extravagant answers to this question are often the most malevolent. They promise everything. They tend to deliver misery and impoverishment.

Hence Aron’s rejection of Communism: "Communism is a degraded version of the Western message. It retains its ambition to conquer nature, to improve the lot of the humble, but it sacrifices what was and must remain the heart and soul of the unending human adventure: freedom of enquiry, freedom of controversy, freedom of criticism, and the vote."

Such freedoms may seem pedestrian in comparison with the prospect of a classless society in which liberty reigns and inequality has been vanquished once and for all. But such an idea, he noted, is "no more than an illustration in a children’s picture book."

For Aron, the issue was "not radical choice, but ambiguous compromise." He continually came back to man as he is, not as he might be imagined: "At the risk of being accused of cynicism, I refuse to believe that any social order can be based on the virtue and disinterestedness of citizens."

In his foreword to The Opium of the Intellectuals, Aron noted that he directed his argument "not so much against the Communists as against the communisants," against those fellow travelers for whom the West is always wrong and who believe that people can "be divided into two camps, one the incarnation of good and the other of evil."

The primary target of Aron’s polemic was fanaticism. But he also recognized that the defeat of fanaticism often leads to a contrary spiritual sickness, indifference. Both are expressions of the ultimate enemy, nihilism. Skepticism, Aron wrote, is useful or harmful depending on which is more to be feared at the moment: fanaticism or apathy. The intervening faculty that orients us appropriately is practical wisdom, prudence, "the god" (Aron quotes Burke) "of this lower world."

Aron’s indictment of intellectual intoxication is not the same thing as an indictment of intellectuals. He was not anti-intellectual or contemptuous of ideas. This was not simply because he was an intellectual himself. He clearly discerned the immense power, for good or ill, that ideas can have. "Intellectuals suffer from their inability to alter the course of events," he noted. "But they underestimate their influence. In a long term sense, politicians are the disciples of scholars or writers."

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