Julien Benda’s classic study, “La trahison des clercs,” or the “Treason of the Intellectuals” was first published in France in 1927. It described a distressing phenomenon arising at that time in Europe of intellectuals who in effect did not know – or did not care – about justice, truth, and other so-called “metaphysical fogs,” because for them the truth was only determined by the useful, and the just by the circumstances. Over the next few decades this phenomenon grew, as increasing numbers of intellectuals abandoned their attachment to philosophical and scholarly ideals. One clear indication of this change was the attack from many sides on the Enlightenment ideal of universal humanity and the accompanying glorification of various particularisms based on exclusive adherence and dedication to one group, idea, party, sect, or nation. Through the prism of these particularisms, most horrifyingly manifest in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, humans that were outside the fold could justifiably be treated with inhuman cruelty and killed for no reason other than their voluntary (e.g. their political or artistic views) or involuntary (e.g. they were Jews) membership of another particular group.
The message of this book is relevant to contemporary America although in a very different way and environment than early and mid-20th century Europe. The philosophy that is increasingly heard today in the public square in the U.S. is essentially that of the ancient Greek sophist Callicles, namely that success is its own justification, or to reverse a popular phrase, “reward is its own virtue”. This philosophy is supported by legions of lobbyists, academics, consultants, think tanks and politicians. They are in many if not most cases well paid to propagate the precepts of this cynical philosophy, and advocate in favor of its accompanying recommendations for public policy and legislation through “expert” or “independent” studies typically funded (wherever possible anonymously) by the wealthiest individuals and organizations in the U.S. They are enlisted in an enterprise driven by very large corporations and other special interests to help ensure that the latter’s financial successes are expanded, even or only at the expense of others, and their continuation guaranteed through legislation and regulation (or its removal or emasculation through defunding of regulatory agencies).
Many and perhaps most of these supporters are well educated and intelligent enough to understand the consequences of what they are advocating. But as Oscar Wilde said, “I can resist everything except temptation,” and the financial and other temptations for academics, consultants and politicians to support Callicles’ philosophy, even if they do not explicitly espouse it, are substantial.
The difference between the time of Callicles (in the late 5th century BC) and today is that all his important contemporaries found Callicles’ ideas abhorrent. Callicles argued that “the more powerful, the better, and the stronger” are simply different words for the same thing. He insisted, that successfully pursued, “luxury and intemperance … are virtue and happiness, and all the rest is tinsel.” Greed, as the movie “Wall Street” famously proclaimed, is not only good, it is the supreme good.
There are serious questions of economics, social priorities, and the desirable relationships between Government, individuals and organizations (commercial and other) about which people of good faith can reach different conclusions. Vigorous debates about these differences and alternative initiatives are or should be the stuff of healthy democracy. However, these debates cannot take place if some participants reject proven and verifiable facts and continue to propagate falsehoods. It is shocking that professionals and others who know better, in academia, think tanks, and consultancies are prepared to present “facts” that they know are untrue or are made up, and to deny facts that are well established because they are well paid to do so in support of policy positions whose validity depends upon acceptance of these untruths and denials.
Unfortunately examples of the denial of verifiable facts and the fabrication of untruths abound in these United States, including assertions by well-known, knowledgeable and respected sources. They range for example from frequent repetition of the assertion that the U.S. has the best health care system in the world, that is allegedly being ruined by attempts to improve it, to the extraordinary denial of the laws of physics in their submissions to the Federal Communications Commission by organizations whose businesses depend on and prove the applicability of these laws in the real world. The treason of professionals who repeatedly present falsehoods and deny real-world evidence is not that they may have considered Callicles’ ideas at some point in their education and careers, but that they have become the champions of and accredited the cynicism underpinning these ideas, which is that “politics decides morality.” These professionals should be haunted, but apparently are not, by the realization that when rejection or in its most extreme form hatred of facts becomes itself part of their reality, the life of their minds loses all meaning.