Written in the 1920s, Benda’s basic thesis is that the modern age has been one of a great increase in both the social ambit and depth of feeling of political passions: To-day political passions show a degree of universality, of coherence, of homogeneousness, of precision, of continuity, of preponderance, in relation to other passions, unknown until our times (p.28).
The first part of the book—The modern perfecting of political passions—puts the case that the modern age is notable for the extent (particularly in the degree they have penetrated all ranks of society) and intensity of its political passions. (Benda, or perhaps his translator, at times writes of democratic when he means demotic.) The second part—Significance of this movement—nature of political passions—briefly examines political passions as melding two sorts of desires—the desire for some material interest and the desire for a sense of distinctive status.
The bulk of the book is in the third part: The “clerks”—the great betrayal. By clerks, Benda means all those directed towards things beyond simple material interest—art, science, general intellectual activity. Their betrayal is a simple one—abandoning any sense of disinterested concern for truth or reason and subordinating what they do to specific political passions. Benda argues that some sense of the universal is inherent in any serious intellectual activity (p.162). He particularly concentrates on nationalist passions, but he refers more than once to class passions having the same adulating subordination.
This is very much a live issue. Contemporary science is clearly not immune from such pressures. While W H Auden was someone who very much came to reject such utilitarian art, having fallen prey himself to the temptation of it.
Benda sees this subordination as a general phenomenon. He spends, for example, considerable effort detailing the way churchmen have come to subordinate any sense of a general Christianity to the convenience of national claims (pp172ff). Benda summaries his argument at the end of the section in the reasons for the change in the clerks: The imposition of political interests on all men without exception; the growth of consistency in matters apt to feed realist passions; the desire and possibility of men of letters to play a political part; the need in the interests of their own fame for them to play the game of a class [the bourgeoisie] which is daily becoming more anxious; the increasing tendency of the “clerks” to become bourgeois and to take on the vanities of that class; the perfecting of their Romanticism; the decline of their knowledge of antiquity and of their intellectual discipline (pp 176-7). These are factors which he regards as being bound up with the very nature of the modern world (p.177).
Benda spends considerable time analysing and denouncing the clerkly extolling of the overt subordination of moral strictures to the “right of nations”. This seems to me to be something that is nowadays much less applicable. On the contrary, the demand that their countries adhere completely to designated moral restraints has become much more the flavour of contemporary political intellectualising. Conversely, his discussion of various forms of pacifism (pp186) seems to be very much spot on, including his identification of vulgar pacifism (simple contempt for soldiers and soldering) and mystic pacifism (an undifferentiated hatred of war regardless of purposes). Benda notes that one gets both those who support their country, even when it is in the wrong and those who don’t support their country, even when it is in the right: the frenzy of impartiality, like any other frenzy, leads to injustice (p.188).
Benda regards the Romantic impulse to exult feeling at the expense of thought (p.171) to be particularly intellectually corrupting and to be intimately connected with the decline of classicism (p.172). Again, very much live issues. The political correctness phenomenon precisely attempts to censor thought and expression in the name of appropriate feelings.
The continuing feature within intellectual culture is the worship of the strong (or at least omni-competent) state. Benda denounces the tendency to worship the state as the epitome of the nation, regardless of justice, to the extent of extolling an amoral realism that claims supreme virtue for its wars along with an abiding contempt for those who fail to go along with this worship. He notes that it makes perfect sense in the absence of a sense of anything greater. The experience of two World Wars has undermined the martial amoral realism, but not the tendency to worship a strong state—strong for “compassion”—with similar contempt for anyone who suggests that the instrument is not worth the moral grandeur so invested in it. The amoral realism still operates—in the denial of any moral feeling or good intentions except for folk like them.
And Benda’s general thesis about the subordination of a sense of wider principles and the importance of their disinterested application also seems highly applicable. Just to take one example, those who sneered at Ronald Reagan’s categorisation of the old Soviet Union as the evil empire now work assiduously at portraying the US as the evil empire, where a successful overthrow of a murderous, aggressive dictator and a ham-fisted attempt to construct an Arab democracy is somehow “proof” of the depths of its evil, yet no amount of tyranny or systematic mass murder was proof of the Soviet regime’s. (Even though there is some fascinating statistical evidence about the significance of the Soviet Union in promoting armed conflict—while one could argue it was primarily the existence of two poles of global power which generated the dynamic, that would be to be too glib about the nature of the Soviet state.)
Writing from 1924 to 1927—before the full horrors that Leninism was to unleash on the world—Benda somewhat over-concentrates on bourgeois insecurities and their effects. On the other hand, the (rational) fear of Leninism-cum-Stalinism was to give strength to extreme politics playing to such insecurities that would exemplify everything Benda was saying.
His point about “wanting to be bourgeois” is a very powerful one. Much of modern progressivist politics represents classic middle class sneering at uppity workers, with academics and other progressivist intellectuals leading the charge. Denouncing “urban sprawl” gets much of its emotional oomph from horror at the workers wanting houses-with-gardens. Spruiking public transport way beyond economic plausibility is all about sneering at the working class male cult of freedom-through-the-motor-car. The fights over immigration are built around castigating as racist the perfectly rational desire of the working class to resist the downward pressure on their living standards from imported competition. And so on. At each stage, the “higher motives” of the advocates of putting-the-boot-into-working-class-aspi
Nor should Benda’s concern about loss of classical heritage be dismissed. A great virtue of a “classical education” is that it did give a sense of standards and ideas that operated across time and across very different societies. If nothing else, it provided more chance that dressing up old ideas in new clothing would be more easily spotted.
One of the striking things about the essay was that its analysis of intellectual life was one in which modern intellectual debate is almost entirely a Franco-German affair, with the odd Italian or Spaniard getting a look in. Apart from one reference to the "nation of Shakespeare", Benda does not refer to a single Anglosphere writer or thinker.
The last part is entitled Summary—Predictions. In it, Benda predicts that this intellectualising of realism—by which he means abandonment of any sense of higher standards beyond those convenient for political passions—will lead naturally to the greatest and most perfect war ever seen in the world (p.183). It may even lead, through eventual victory, to the abolition of all war in a unified society of pure materialism. But the loss of any sense of higher standards beyond such realism he fears may be irrevocable. That is, that there may never been another Renaissance where a sense of such things is re-grasped, for he regards the appeal of such realism to be very strong—indeed, the natural outlook of most people.
Benda’s essay is bracing in its pessimism. It also makes one much more conscious of changes in intellectual perspectives that one might not otherwise consider. Despite shifts in context since—in part precisely as a result of what Benda was analysing—it very much remains a tract for our times.