Three Decent Frenchmen

Three European intellectuals who were also honorable men.

Issue: Summer 1999

Tony Judt, The Burden of Responsibility: Blum, Camus, Aron, and the French Twentieth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 196 pp., $17.50.

The intellectual is a distinctive product of the modern Enlightenment and his virtue is assuredly not "responsibility." As traced by the principal commentators on this new social type, he is marked first and foremost by an ungrounded confidence in "progress", in the forward march of history, and by a desire to eliminate all obstacles to its realization. He dreams of a "symmetrical" or uniform world where the messiness and contingency of ordinary political life is overcome. He is prone to a "literary" view of politics that ignores the constraints facing the acting citizen and statesman.

Benjamin Constant famously emphasized that the modern intellectual is tempted to identify with arbitrary power, as long as it is carried out in the name of the sovereignty of the people. The modern landscape is strewn with examples of intellectuals justifying "popular" or revolutionary despotism. Edmund Burke provided the first full-fledged sociology of modern revolution, locating some of the fanaticism of the French Revolution in the liberation from traditional restraints characteristic of both the littŽrateurs and their allies, the new, ascendant monied interests in France.

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