Thoughts, Ideas, Observations

Raymond Aron, Jean-Paul Sartre, and the Limits of Being Right

John Bedell

World-famous philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre was not the best student in his graduate school class. That was Raymond Aron (1905-1983), who had the top score on their exams and then won a prize for his dissertation on Max Weber and the philosophy of history. Then the careers of that whole generation were derailed by World War II. Aron at least was not surpirsed, since had had been in German in 1933 and came back telling everyone that war was inevitable. After France fell to the Nazis, Sartre hung around Paris, womanizing and wrestling with philosophical concepts too obscure for the Gestapo to care what he was up to. Aron fled to London to serve the Free French cause and ended up editing their newspaper.

After the war Europe was divided into democratic and communist camps, and Sartre led most of France’s intellectuals in championing communism. This was a whole decade after Stalin’s show trials that made it clear to anyone paying attention what his regime was like, but Sartre still found ways to justify everything. While Stalin’s thugs were clamping down in eastern Europe and killing or jailing thousands of “enemies of socialism,” Sartre was singing the praises of revolution. Sartre’s philosophy was very much concerned with self knowledge, with avoiding the “bad faith” of deceiving yourself. He wrote even more about the problem of freedom and what it means; his most famous work, Nausea, features a character who experiences his own freedom as a sickness. And yet all of his wrestling with nausea and staring into the face of nothingness somehow always brought him back to the party line.

Meanwhile Sartre’s old friend and classmate Raymond Aron had become one of France’s leading anti-communists. He grew so angry with the callous way Sartre (and Simone de Beauvoir) justified Stalin’s brutalities that he published a letter declaring their friendship at an end. Aron moved on from philosophy to sociology and history, but his politics were so unfashionable in the postwar years that he had to wait until 1955 before he received a professorship. Meanwhile he continued to work as a journalist and to write books. In 1955 he published The Opiate of the Intellectuals (1955), a frontal assault on the communist enthusiasms of his French intellectual peers that regularly appears on lists of the most influential books of the twentieth century. But that was just one of more than forty books that Aron wrote. His main topics were sociology and what we might call the philosophy of social science, that is, what it means to interpret or understand complex human societies, what counts for evidence, and what are the limits to our understanding of the modern human world. But he also wrote about modern history, French politics, Israel – Aron was a Jew who hated the notion of a unified “Jewish people” and considered himself more French than Jewish – nuclear strategy, political science, the idea of progress, and more. His most widely read book these days may be War and Peace between Nations (1962), a highly regarded look at what “realism” in foreign relations really means.

Realism was an important word to Aron, since he considered himself above all a realist. Looking around the world in the 40s and 50s, he thought – like George Orwell, Arthur Koestler, and many others who also identified as realists – that the only real question in foreign policy was whether to ally with the Americans or the Soviets. It was no good to say that you did not like the Americans, or to complain that American capitalism, racism, and support for third world dictators was nearly as bad as whatever the Soviets were up to. It did not matter; there were only two powers in the world, and only a fool would think that France would be better off under Soviet dominance than in NATO. It was Aron’s pro-American views that brought him into conflict with de Gaulle, who considered it his mission in life to restore France’s sense of its own greatness. Aron found nationalism to be an ideology nearly as dangerous as communism, and he regarded de Gaulle’s search for Gloire absurd. Thus although Aron was generally seen as a man of the Right and wrote for a conservative newspaper, he was not comfortable with Gaullism or any other branch of conservatism. He was too independent, too skeptical that any one point of view was enough. He was an insider of sorts, but never in the true circles of power; he was offered important government posts on several occasions but he always refused. He disliked the loss of intellectual freedom that joining a government involved, did not want to be careful about what he said. He especially disliked the way de Gaulle used carefully vague words to preserve his freedom of action, making bold speeches that really committed him to nothing. If that was leadership – and it was, and is – Aron wanted no part of it.

On the big questions of his lifetime, Aron was right: he stood up for freedom against Hitler and then against Stalin, he worked for peace and democracy, he wanted France to give up its colonies and ally with the United States against communism. He was a great scholar, an important voice in French affairs, by almost any standard a huge success. At yet he considered himself a much smaller and less important man than many of those who were wrong, especially his old classmate Jean-Paul Sartre. Have you ever heard of him?

Aron knew that though he might be right, he was not cut out for greatness. He did not want to make the compromises necessary to participate in democratic politics, so he achieved nothing in that vein. His scholarly work consisted mainly of careful reviews of radical ideas produced by others, much weighing and assessing but few bold pronouncements. He had a habit, maddening to some critics, of ending long essays and even books with a question mark. With him everything was tentative, partial, uncertain, complex. He refused to over-simplify. He dismissed radical ideas because he doubted that the world could really be changed very much, certainly not on purpose. He also refused to be moved by the sort of intentionally obscure language used by philosophers such as Hegel and Sartre. What, he asked, repeatedly, does this really mean? And yet accuracy of language and fidelity to reality as we understand it will only get you so far. As Stanley Hoffman wrote,

But what would be left of this huge of writings? Aron often expressed his own doubts. He always put “creators” above “critics”: Sartre, for all his political divagations, was a creator, Aron, for all his lucidity, was only a critic. His conception of man and of history made him impatient with what he called halftruths, prophecies based on a powerful but partial central intuition, such as Marx’s or Freud’s. But he admired most those who had changed man’s way of thinking in this fashion, and he knew that he was not one of them.

One admirer called Aron “the supreme destroyer of confusions and illusions.”

So we come to one of the great paradoxes of scholarship, and perhaps of all human thought: to be right is only one goal among many and not the most important. To be bold and exciting matters more. The most famous thinkers are not the ones who come closest to the truth, but the ones who devise new ways of thinking or new vocabularies. This is true even when the newness is largely sham. The ideas of the big modern thinkers – Marx, Freud, Sartre, Foucault – consist partly of old ideas in new clothes and partly of nonsense; strip away the nonsense and the received wisdom and you are left with at most a small advance in real understanding. Yet by their style, their clever rhetoric, their thunderous pronouncements, these men changed the culture in ways no careful, modest thinker ever has.

Boldness has its place in philosophy. But one of the reasons twentieth-century politics turned so awful was that a whole generation let this intellectual fascination with radical ideas and bold solutions spill over into the actual business of government. Aron took his stand against this criminal nonsense. He fought for clarity of thought because he could see what bad philosophy might lead to when equipped with tanks and interrogation rooms. At times whole human societies have been swept by what seems like madness -- the Ghost Dance among the plains Indians, Revolution among French intellectuals. The attraction to extreme beliefs and extreme actions is universal in humanity, and from time to time it overwhelms our minds. But another side of humanity is also universal: practical, down-to-earth, simple, unmoved by passion. In an age where murderous passions killed 50 million humans and threatened our planet with destruction, Raymond Aron stood up for the other side of our minds. He talked sense. In his lifetime, that was what the world needed most.

January 25, 2014

From the 
Commonplace Book

The man who no longer expects miraculous changes either from a revolution or from an economic plan is not obliged to resign himself to the unjustifiable. It is because he likes individual truth, that he refuses to surrender his soul to an abstract ideal of humanity, a tyrannical party, and an absurd scholasticism. . . . If tolerance is born of doubt, let us teach everyone to doubt all the models and utopias, to challenge all the prophets of redemption and the heralds of catastrophe.

--Raymond Aron



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