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Treason of the Intellectuals

Gideon Samet is an Israeli journalist and ex-editor-in-chief of the Hebrew newspaper Ha’aretz. On August 23, he published an op-ed in The New York Times that was captioned “Is Sharon losing his grip?” and that contained the following sentence — which, I suspect, proved puzzling to many readers:

“Since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin almost a decade ago, there has been much room for concern over an Israeli version of the treason of the clerks, in failing to promote a settlement, even an interim one, with the Palestinians.”

What clerks was Mr. Samet talking about? And why should Israeli shop clerks be expected to promote a settlement with the Palestinians, much less be accused of treason for failing to do so?

Other readers would not have been puzzled at all, although they may have been bemused by Mr. Samet’s English. They would have known that he was referring to a once well-known book by the French Jewish intellectual Julien Benda, published in 1927 under the title La trahaison des clercs. They probably just wondered why Mr. Samet did not follow the sensible example of Benda’s English translator, Richard Aldington, who called his 1928 English edition of the book “The Treason of the Intellectuals.”

True, clerc in modern French does not mean “intellectual,” either, the word for that being intellectual. It is a word rarely used apart from the idiomatic expression être grand clerc en la matière, “to be an expert on the subject.” It certainly does not mean a shop clerk, which is a commis, and it would at best be construed by most Frenchman as an archaic term for either a notary or a clergyman.

In both French and English, indeed, “cleric” or “clergyman” is the original meaning of clerc or “clerk.” The word goes back to the Latin clericus, “priest,” which in turn derives from Greek klerikos, “of the clergy,” itself coming from Greek kleros, “inheritance.” What does an inheritance have to do with the clergy? The missing link is a Greek phrase in the New Testament book of Acts that says, referring to the apostle Peter, elakhen ton kleron tes diakonias tautes, “he has received the portion [or “inheritance”] of this ministry.” In turn New Testament scholars have traced this to the book of Deuteronomy, where we read that “the priests, the Levites, and all the tribe of Levi shall have no portion nor inheritance [Hebrew nah.alah] among their brethren; the Lord is their inheritance.” Unlike the other tribes, in other words, each of which was allotted a geographical part of the land of Israel, the biblical priests were expected not to live off the land but to be supported by their fellow Israelites.

Why the words clerc and clerk, which once denoted a cleric or clergyman, later changed their meaning is easy to understand. In medieval Europe, the clergy was the only literate part of the Christian population and all scholarly and intellectual endeavor came from its ranks; hence, by the 14th century “clerk” in English had come to denote a scholar or someone with book learning. By the 16th century it had taken on the commercial meaning of anyone who could keep records or accounts, from which the transition to the contemporary shop clerk is minimal.

To return to Julien Benda, however: if clerc in the sense of a scholar or intellectual already was archaic in his day, why did he use it in the title of his book?

To answer this question, one has to say a few words about the contents of La Trahaison des Clercs, a polemical attack on early 20th-century European intellectual life that was widely read and commented on when published. In this book, Benda, an assimilated Jew who sympathized with the French liberal, anti-Communist left, launched a scathing critique of the many intellectuals of the 1920s who were attracted to totalitarian ideologies and to the idea that there was no such thing as a disinterested search for truth, but only different political interests and causes to one or another of which a non-escapist intellectual had to commit himself. Benda contrasted this outlook with what he believed to be the traditional one, associated by him with the Catholic church, of the scholar-intellectual dedicated to the pursuit of ultimate realities while keeping aloof from the power politics of his age. The abandonment of the values of the medieval clerc was the “treason” he pilloried in his book.

Although one can argue with various aspects of Benda’s thesis (were medieval Christian intellectuals like Peter Abelard or Bernard of Clairvaux really so divorced from the political and ecclesiastical struggles of their times?), the name he gave it has remained a buzzword. If you are having an intellectual argument with a friend and wish to accuse him or her of shallowness or prejudice, you always can score a point or two by mentioning la trahaison des clercs, even if you are using the phrase totally out of its original context. This is the case with Gideon Samet, who seems to think that “the treason of the clerks” consists of their staying out of politics, when Julien Benda was in fact saying the precise opposite.

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