The Opium of Intellectuals

Their are sources of required reading for those guilty of having given themselves over to murderous passionate ideologies only later to live with poisoned conscience.  Julien Benda’s “The Treason of Clerics” and Raymond Aron’s 1955 masterpiece “The Opium of Intellectuals” are being released by Transaction Press this month.  They are irreplaceable tracts on how passionate theological ideals informed and destroyed much of the 20th century.  Both take their cue from Dostoyevsky’s canon of protagonists.

Aron shows how noble ideas can slide into the tyranny of secular religion when untied from Christian Humanism.  As a trained sociologist, he wishes to emphasize how political thought has a profound responsibility of telling the truth about social and political reality in all its mundane imperfections and tragic complexities.

Aron explodes the three myths that dominate so much of radical thinking: the Left, the Revolution, and the Proletariat.  For Aron, each of these ideals refrain from organizing themselves around personalism (the human person) and instead begin from the flawed premise of a determinism ending in slaughter from criminalizing political differences.

Aron’s subject is the bewitchment, the moral and intellectual disordering that comes from an adherence to ideology.  The ideals espoused from the left beginning with the French Revolution are ideological and therefore mystifying rather than illumination.

Why is it he wonders “that certain intellectuals are merciless toward the failings of democracies but ready to tolerate the worst crimes as long as they are committed in the name of the proper doctrines.”

Aron’s indictment of intellectual intoxication is not the same as an indictment of intellectuals.  He was not contemptuous of ideas.  He understood better than many the Latin phrase “Imprimus’ which means ‘because ideas have consequences.’  Throughout his life he clearly discerned the immense power ideas can have.  Aron once remarked that ‘intellectuals suffer from the inability to alter the course of events’, meaning that politicians are the disciples of scholars and writers.  For the 19th and 20th century that meant a wrongly held belief in the malleable structure of humanness (Rousseau), an elevated belief in purpose of intention (Hegel), and the false premise that progress is analogous with destruction (Positivism).

Although Aron’s writings never go so far as to indict the false fruits of secular humanism bequeathed to the West beginning with the Protestant Reformation ending with the Enlightenment.  He brings the most significant contribution to the West from Christianity since Augustine:  namely that the eclipse of transcendence ushers in a passionate adherence to abstraction destroying humanness.

About William Holland

Systematic Theologian/International Relations
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