The French philosopher Raymond Aron, who died in 1983 in his late seventies, is a half-forgotten colossus of Twentieth Century  intellectual life. Part philosopher, part sociologist, part journalist, he was above all a spokesman for that rarest form of idealism, the idealism of common sense. He was, Allan Bloom wrote shortly after Aron’s death, “the man who for fifty years… had been right about the political alternatives actually available to us… [H]e was right about Hitler, right about Stalin, and right that our Western regimes, with all their flaws, are the best and only hope of mankind.” 

Over the course of his career, Aron occupied various exalted academic posts – at the Sorbonne, the École pratique des hautes études, the Collège de France – but he was never merely an academic. He wrote some 40 books – on history, on the conduct of war, on the cultural and political prospects of France – and was an indefatigable political commentator, for some three decades for Figaro and then, at the end of his life, for L’Express. 

Aron understood that political wisdom rests in the ability to choose the better course of action even when the best course is unavailable – which is always.

Although showered with honours, Aron never enjoyed the dazzling celebrity that came the way of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and, especially, of Jean-Paul Sartre, his classmates at the École normale supérieure. In part, that was because of his intellectual style, which lacked braggadocio. He also lacked the appetite for celebrity, which is another way of saying he did not prize brilliance over truth. He certainly did not lack ability. By many measures, Aron was the most accomplished of his peers, in breadth as well as solidity of knowledge. He took first place at the agrégation in that most distinguished class, and it is a nice detail that in the early 1940s Sartre humbly presented Aron with a copy of Being and Nothingness as an “ontological introduction” to Aron’s earlier book on the philosophy of history.

From the 1950s to the early 1970s, Aron was regularly calumniated by the radical Left – by his erstwhile ­friends Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, for starters, but also by their many epigoni and intellectual heirs. In 1963, for example, Susan Sontag dismissed Aron as “a man deranged by German philosophy belatedly converting to Anglo-Saxon empiricism and common sense under the name of ‘Mediterranean’ virtue.” In fact, it would be difficult to find anyone at once more knowledgeable about and less deranged by German philosophy than Raymond Aron. His was a sober and penetrating intelligence, sufficiently curious to take on Hegel, sufficiently robust to escape uncorrupted by the encounter.

The fact that Aron was hated by the Left does not mean that he was a partisan of the Right. On the contrary, he always to some extent considered himself a man of the Left, but (in later years anyway) it was the pre-Marxist Left of high liberalism. (Bloom aptly subtitled his essay on Aron “The Last of the Liberals.”) Aron’s criticism of the Left was not a repudiation but an extension of his liberalism. As the sociologist Edward Shils noted in an affectionate memoir of his friend, Aron moved from being a declared socialist in his youth to becoming “the most persistent, the most severe, and the most learned critic of Marxism and of the socialist – or more precisely Communist – order of society” in the Twentieth Century. 

The fact that Aron was hated by the Left does not mean that he was a partisan of the Right.

Again, this shift tokened not a repudiation of youthful ideals but a maturing recognition that ideals worth cherishing are those that can be fulfilled without destroying what they profess to exalt.

In this context, Shils spoke of Aron’s “discriminating devotion to the ideals of the Enlightenment”. The ideals in question prominently featured faith in the power of reason; Aron’s discrimination showed itself in his recognition that reason’s power is always limited. That is to say, if Aron was a faithful child of the Enlightenment – its secularism, its humanism, its opposition of reason to superstition – he also in many respects remained a faithful grandchild of the traditional society that many Enlightenment thinkers professed to despise.

Enlightened thinking tends to be superficial thinking because its critical armoury is deployed against every faith except its own blind faith in the power of reason. Aron avoided the besetting liability of the Enlightenment by subjecting its ideals to the same scrutiny it reserved for its adversaries. “In defending the freedom of religious teaching,” he wrote, “the unbeliever defends his own freedom.” Aron’s generosity of spirit was a coefficient of his recognition that reality was complex, knowledge limited, and action essential.  Aron, Shils wrote, “very early came to know the sterile vanity of moral denunciations and lofty proclamations, of demands for perfection and of the assessment of existing situations according to the standard of perfection.” As Aron himself wrote in his masterpiece, The Opium of the Intellectuals (1955), “every known regime is blameworthy if one relates it to an abstract ideal of equality or liberty.” 

The leitmotif of Aron’s career was responsibility. Not the whining metaphysical or “ontological” responsibility that Sartre was always going on about – the anguished “responsibility of the for-­itself” burdened by groundless freedom – but the exercise of that prosaic, but indispensable, virtue: prudence. Aron understood that political ­wisdom ­rests in the ability to choose the better course of action even when the best course is unavailable – which is always. “The last word,” he insisted, “is never said and one must not judge one’s adversaries as if one’s own cause were identified with absolute truth.” 

Like its chemical counterpart, the first effect of the opium of the intellectuals is unbounded exhilaration. Only later does the stupefaction become evident.

It is worth noting that among Aron’s favorite terms of commendation were “prosaic” and its cognates, while he consistently used “poetry” and its cognates pejoratively. In his Memoirs (1983), Aron wrote that in The Opium of the Intellectuals he attempted “to bring the poetry of ideology down to the level of the prose of reality.” What Aron called the “Myth of the Revolution” (like the “Myth of the Left” and the “Myth of the Proletariat”) is so seductive precisely because of its poetical charm: it induces the illusion that “all things are possible,” that everything – age-old institutions, the structure of society, even human nature itself – can be utterly transformed in the fiery crucible of revolutionary activity. Combined with the doctrine of historical inevitability – a monstrous idea that Marx took over from Hegel – the Myth of the Revolution is a prescription for totalitarian tyranny. What does the liquidation of the Kulaks matter in the face of the necessary unfolding of the dialectic? Like its chemical counterpart, the first effect of the opium of the intellectuals is unbounded exhilaration. Only later does the stupefaction become evident.

Unlike the revolutionary, the reformer acknowledges that genuine progress is contingent, piecemeal, and imperfect. Progress is contingent because it depends upon individual initiative and might be undone; it is piecemeal because ideals are never achieved all at once, but only approached step by faltering step; and it is imperfect because the recalcitrance of reality – including the messy reality of human nature – guarantees slippage, frustration, incompleteness, and sheer perversity.

The rule of law; economic vitality; respect for tradition; freedom of speech: out of such prosaic elements are the seemingly miraculous successes of Western society forged. 

The ideal of the reformist, Aron noted, “is prosaic,” that of the revolutionary “poetic”. Equally, one is real, the other fantastical. In his Memoirs, Aron acknowledged that: “I do in fact think that the organisation of social life on this earth turns out, in the end, to be rather prosaic.”  The rule of law; economic vitality; respect for tradition; freedom of speech: out of such prosaic elements are the seemingly miraculous successes of Western society forged. (One thinks of Walter Bagehot’s observation that “the essence of civilisation… is dullness… an elaborate invention… for abolishing the fierce passions.”) The subject of politics, Aristotle noted, is “the good life for man.” What constitutes the good life? Aron cannily reminds us that the more extravagant answers to this question are often the most malevolent. They promise everything; they tend to deliver misery and impoverishment. Hence his rejection of Communism: 

“Communism is a degraded version of the Western message. It retains its ambition to conquer nature, to improve the lot of the humble, but it sacrifices what was and must remain the heart and soul of the unending human adventure: freedom of enquiry, freedom of controversy, freedom of criticism, and the vote.” 

Such freedoms may seem pedestrian in comparison with the prospect of a classless society in which liberty reigns and inequality has been vanquished once and for all. But such an idea, Aron noted, “is no more than an illustration in a children’s picture book.” 

To say that Aron was suspicious of the poetical is not to deny that his sober vision of human fulfillment exhibits a poetry of its own. Aron, one might say, was a poet of the realm of prose. Another way of putting this is to say that he was a champion of the real in the face of the blandishments of the ideal. The prospect of ideal – that is, total, complete – emancipation bewitches susceptible souls because “it contains in itself the poetry of the unknown, of the future, of the absolute.” The problem is that the poetry of the absolute is an inhuman poetry. As Aron drily observed, in real life ideal emancipation turns out to be “indistinguishable from the omnipotence of the State.” 

The issue is “not radical choice, but ambiguous compromise”. Aron continually came back to man as he is, not as he might be imagined. Yes, some individuals are honourable and trustworthy. But, Aron writes, “at the risk of being accused of cynicism, I refuse to believe that any social order can be based on the virtue and disinterestedness of citizens”. Following Adam Smith and other classical liberals, he looked to the imperfections of man for the fuel to mitigate imperfection. 

Unlike the Marxist, the classical liberal regards men as: “basically imperfect and resigns himself to a system where the good will be the result of countless actions and never the object of a conscious choice. In the last resort, he subscribes to the pessimism which sees politics as the art of creating the conditions in which the vices of men contribute to the good of the State.” Aron acknowledged that this prosaic model lacks the grandeur of utopia. 

“Doubtless the free play of initiative, competition between buyers and sellers, would be unthinkable if human nature had not been sullied by the Fall. The individual would give of his best in the interests of others without hope of recompense, without concern for his own interests.”

But that “if” issues an unredeemable promise. Aron’s twofold task was to remind us, first, that there is no human nature unsullied by the Fall and, second, to suggest, as does orthodox Christianity, that what prophets of the absolute decry as a disaster was in fact a “fortunate fall,” a condition of our humanity. The utopian is optimistic about man, pessimistic about particular men and women: “I think I know man,” ­Rousseau sadly wrote, “but as for men, I know them not.” ­
The anti-utopian is pessimistic, or at least disabused, about man; this forgiving pessimism frees him to be optimistic about individuals. 

In his foreword to The Opium of the Intellectuals, Aron noted that he directed his argument “not so much against the Communists as against the communisants,” against those fellow travellers for whom the West is always wrong and who believe that people can “be divided into two camps, one the incarnation of good and the other of evil, one belonging to the future and the other to the past, one standing for reason and the other for superstition.” 

Marxism is a primary allotrope of the opium of the intellectuals because its doctrine of historical inevitability insulates it from correction by anything so trivial as factual reality. When Merleau-Ponty assures us that in the modern world the proletariat is the only form of “authentic intersubjectivity” or when he writes that Marxism “is not a philosophy of history, it is the philosophy of history, and to refuse to accept it is to blot out historical reason,” no argument will wean him from his folly. What he needs is intellectual detoxification, not refutation.

It is the same with Sartre, who championed totalitarian regimes from the Soviet Union to Cuba but who exhibited an implacable hatred of America and liberal democracy. (“America is a mad dog,” he exclaimed in one effusion; “it is the cradle of a new Fascism.”) Sartre’s “ethical radicalism,” Aron wrote, “combined with ignorance of social structures, predisposed him to verbal revolutionism. Hatred of the bourgeoisie makes him allergic to prosaic reforms.” 

The existentialism of Sartre, the nihilism of Derrida or Foucault, all exhibit a similar intellectual incontinence. 

In insulating its victims from reality, the opium of the intellectuals at the same time insulates them from the rebukes of contradiction. This has allowed for some peculiar intellectual hybrids. For example, the philosophies of Nietzsche and Marx are diametrically opposed: one celebrates the lonely genius, the other the collective; one looks for a new aristocracy of Übermenschen, the other for the institution of the classless society. For any unintoxicated person, such differences are essential: they mean that the philosophies of Marx and Nietzsche are incompatible. But for intellectuals under the influence such distinctions count for naught. As Aron notes, the descendants of Marx and Nietzsche (and Hegel and Freud) come together by many paths. The existentialism of Sartre, the nihilism of Derrida or Foucault, all exhibit a similar intellectual incontinence. What unites them is not a coherent doctrine but a spirit of opposition to the established order, “the occupational disease,” Aron notes, “of the intellectuals.”

George Orwell famously remarked that there are some ideas so absurd that only an intellectual could believe them. The Opium of the Intellectuals provides a kind of aerial survey of the higher gullibility that Orwell disparaged, analysing its apparently perennial attractions, describing its costs, mapping its chief roadways and pointing out some escape routes. For this reason, The Opium of the Intellectuals was a seminal book of the Twentieth Century, an indispensable contribution to that most patient and underrated of literatures, the literature of intellectual disabusement. Raymond Aron was its high and most eloquent priest.