The Failure of European Intellectuals?

Benda_225wJan-Werner Müller in Eurozine:

Towards the end of last year, as the Eurozone crisis was reaching (yet another) climax, a number of journalists in the German quality press alerted their readers to an aspect of the crisis which had received scant attention so far: the euro crisis marked not only the failure of Europe's central bankers, or Greek bureaucrats, or Italian non-taxpayers, or Angela Merkel (all depending on one's perspective) – it also signified a comprehensive failure of intellectuals. Why were they not defending the great achievements of European integration? Why were they not putting forward appealing visions of the continent's future, instead squandering a great legacy of mutual trust and understanding among Europeans which had been nurtured over many decades? Were they simply sleeping through a crisis that might eventually usher in the return of ugly nationalisms? Or even military conflict, as elder European statesmen like Helmut Kohl never tire of warning?

The idea of a distinctive “failure” or even “betrayal” of the intellectuals originated in the twentieth century. The latter was commonly understood as an “age of ideologies”: ideas not only mattered in some vague general manner, they could be directly translated into politics and turn into deadly forces. Just think of Czeslaw Milosz's famous observation that in mid-twentieth-century Europe “the inhabitants of many European countries came, in general unpleasantly, to the realization that their fate could be influenced directly by intricate and abstruse books of philosophy”. Intellectuals acted on the world-historical stage, taking part in the bloody drama of the battle between liberal democracy, fascism, and Soviet communism.

Given this role, what constituted “failure”? Not speaking one's ideologically prescribed lines correctly? In 1927 the French essayist and moraliste Julien Benda accused fellow writers and philosophers of betraying their vocation by advocating nationalist positions: proper intellectuals would speak (universal and timeless) truth to power, he argued, instead of being in the business of advancing the national interest.