The Method and Vision of Paul Bénichou: An Essay

Mark K. Jensen
Pacific Lutheran University

V: Bénichou's Vision of Modernity

Let us now turn to Bénichou's larger vision of the course of modern history and its significance. Careful to delimit the field of his research and ever modest in the presentation of his claims, the larger coherence of the body of Bénichou's work has not been widely remarked, except to assimilate it to "liberalism." While this identification is accurate as far as it goes, it underestimates the extent to which his work is itself the expression of a vision of modern history that to some extent both accounts for and evaluates the ideological struggles of the modern West. This interpretation of modern history can be briefly sketched as follows.

Bénichou takes as given that autonomous individuals find themselves in complex hierarchical societies; this background constantly subtends his view of literary texts. "If obliged to define it by some unique characteristic, I would choose that which makes of literature the natural expression of thought . . . [W]ithin a single society, different groups are affected and react differently. Every sociological analysis of works of the mind is led to use the notion of class . . ." {71} It is no part of his project to account for the existence of free individuals or the constitution of the concept of society and its orders as these emerge from a matrix of a premodern past. In a sense, the crisis of modernity is already incipient in all the historical periods of which Bénichou treats.

In the conclusion of The Consecration of the Writer, Bénichou writes: "This book has attempted to describe the ways in which in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the old religious system entered into competition with or was supplanted by a faith in which human beings, and not God, tended to occupy the primary position." {72} What is true of The Consecration of the Writer is also true of the works that form its sequel: Le Temps des prophètes, Les Mages romantiques, and L'École du désenchantement. These volumes describe the intellectual expression in France of the modern struggle to cope with the problems occasioned by the momentous shift we call secularization, in the sphere of political and social thought as well as in the work of the great creative writers. {73}

Bénichou describes a religiously grounded feudal order faced with a decline of the credibility of its ideological and religious foundation. This decline is concomitant with and, to a large extent, the result of the rise of a belief in the essential self-sufficiency of humanity, i.e. of the autonomous individual, which belief is a hallmark of the Enlightenment. This is accompanied by a widespread hope for a regenerating élite who will help to usher in a novus ordo seclorum, a new order of things. From these two complementary and divergent tendencies emerges, in the period from 1760 to 1789, what Bénichou calls "the consecration of the writer," the consecration of the "man of letters" whose mission it is to guide humanity to the promised land of the new order.

There then intervenes the traumatic influence of the experience of the French Revolution. Though Bénichou refers only to France, the dimensions of these events extend throughout the Western world. This is why his work is important for understanding intellectual developments far beyond the borders of France; French was, after all, the cultural as well as diplomatic lingua franca of the West during the centuries Bénichou treats. The effect of the Revolutionary trauma was to bring about a convergence of tendencies that had, till then, been divergent. On the one hand, the secular, anti-religious tendencies of the Enlightenment were modified, and became more accomodating to religious notions, as is seen in different ways in the works of Mme de Staël, Constant, and Cousin, among others. On the other hand, the experience of the Revolution and the dashing of its initial hopes brought about a religious revival -- one, however, that was affected by the new ideas of the age, as may be seen in the work of Chateaubriand, Ballanche, and Lamartine. It is to this "deep convergence" that Bénichou atributes the consecration of the poet-thinker after 1820, in the heyday of French Romanticism. {74} The three subsequent volumes of Bénichou's study of Romanticism in France (or four, if we count Selon Mallarmé) describe in detail the thought of the period on the relationship of intellectuals to the social order, and the complex ways in which the most important writers of the period related to this thought while maintaining their own independence from it.

The agent of the changes Bénichou describes was "the rise of an intellectual corps possessing new prestige and a new social make-up." {75} This "corps" (corporation) survived the attacks -- often self-inflicted -- caused by the disappointment of Revolutionary hopes, to emerge transfigured. "The romantic vision of the world, as it was popularized in France, is the result of that adaptation." {76} Writers proclaimed themselves to be an incarnation of what they called "the Ideal" in this new dispensation, "a causative force (élément moteur) in society, pushing and urging the social body to transform and reform itself." {77} The Romantic view of writers "is, to tell the truth, the consecration of a time that no longer believes in priests, that accepts the divine only on the condition that one still be allowed to doubt and criticize freely: therein lies its true nature and the underlying form of its action." {78}

Bénichou's detailed account of these developments depends on two notions: social authority and spiritual authority. Since these play a crucial role, let us examine more closely what they mean.

The desire to use a plain vocabulary that stays close to common experience has led Bénichou to adopt notions of "need" and "authority" that correspond precisely to the two givens of his analysis mentioned above: the autonomous individual in a hierarchically articulated social order. Living as such individuals, we regularly experience "need" and "authority"; they may be considered to be given elements of our experience. In his analysis of the interaction of history with the world of ideas, Bénichou projects these notions onto the larger society in order to account for how history and writers affect each other. Historical events can bring about social needs, which in turn affect or even create mental dispositions (of every sort, ranging from the affective to the ideological). Writers being the intellectual creatures they are, they are naturally affected by such mental dispositions. According to Bénichou's explicitly non-Marxist view, the influences also flow in the opposite direction: writers profoundly affect dispositions of thought and experience, which in turn affect what we can call, for lack of a more widely accepted term, the "needs" of society. Such needs must be counted among the prime factors in the historical process. Bénichou, of course, in keeping with the methodological tenets described in Part II of this essay, does not propose even so simple a schematic account. But some such conceptualization underlies the ideas expressed whenever Bénichou speaks in general terms, as in the concluding reflections in The Consecration of the Writer :

I have attempted in the preceding pages to see how the history of society and the history of literature were linked in the dramatic period during which the France of old gave way to modern France. . . . . [A] role peculiar to literature . . . cannot be denied . . . . It is not untrue that the stumbling block of sociological criticism . . . is the difficulty of maintaining the sense of the inherent life of works, as they are felt by authors and readers . . . . The [sociological] method is only justifiable if one can achieve a point of view from which the visible content of the work and its historical justification are so close as to be indistinguishable. . . . [T]his point of view does exist: it identifies a social need that emerges from a decisive moment of the historical drama as well as its issue in new dispositions of thought: there, the creator is on the same ground as the mass of his contemporaries, who welcome in him the instrument of their salvation. This dynamic relation supposes that works exist as ends, as answers to a specific call, as well as in their aspect as necessary maneuvers in the realm of the universal, to which aspect alone is due their power to persuade human minds. If our analyses are to be valid, the social conjuncture and the work, the call and the response, must appear to be so close that the two voices merge, and what results from this must amount to a sort of self-evidence for us, which is the echo of what contemporaries experienced. {79}
This is as close as Bénichou comes to a systematic account of the theoretical grounding of his concept of "social need." As the last sentence quoted suggests, the method's justification depends, ultimately, upon the évidence -- "self-evidence" -- of the results for "us," Bénichou and his readers, as a sort of echo to the self-understanding of those who lived then. This "self-evidence" is but the criterion of plausibility in another guise. Bénichou implicitly repudiates any attempt to produce or to rely upon a more elaborate sociology of knowledge. Indeed, Bénichou believes that the relations between the study of society and the study of literature have, of late, become all too much a one-way street. Properly understood, literary critics and historians have as much, if not more, to teach students and theoreticians of society as they have to learn from them:
[W]hat means to knowledge we possess . . . enable literary criticism to teach historians of society at least as much as if not more than it can learn from them. . . . The connection between the two disciplines has mistakenly been imagined to go in one direction only. {80}
But to return to the concept of "need": it is hard enough to describe the "needs" of individual human beings. Who can say what are the "needs" of a society? What justification is there for Bénichou's common-sense notion of "need" -- a concept he applies not only to individuals with, in addition to their material needs, their "need for the absolute and for plenitude" of "for admiration and communion" but also to collective entities like the state (in need of a legitimating doctrine) or societies as a whole (where a certain kind of literature can be seen as a need, whether as a form of communication and means of mobilization or simply as a vehicle of "general inspirations")? {81} Such a justification might be based upon a recognition that the maintenance of the processes upon which the lives of individuals or societies depend requires the satisfaction of certain functions. Absent a consensus on the precise nature of such functions as well as any confidence that reliable knowledge of them will ever be achieved, the common-sense notion of need is precisely the one we use in our practical affairs, where, in spite of all, we make sense of things daily in a realm of insufficient and uncertain knowledge. {82} Need is also a notion that is endlessly and, apparently, unavoidably invoked in debates about social policy.

The same could be said of power or authority. Equally important to Bénichou's account of Romanticism is the notion of spiritual authority or spiritual power. This notion appears in the subtitle of Le Sacre de l'écrivain : Essai sur l'avènement d'un pouvoir spirituel laîque dans la France moderne.) As is the case for the idea of "social need," the concept of spiritual power is not defined precisely. From the body of Bénichou's writing, however, we can extract a notion of humanity which includes a deep-rooted need for belief on the part of the individual, as well as a social need for a doctrine of legitimation capable of enlisting the support of the members of society. In France, of course, the Catholic Church traditionally fulfilled that social role, while offering itself as the proper source of satisfaction for the individual's need to believe. According to Bénichou, a "new spiritual power [was] born in the eighteenth century from the disrepute of the old church." {83} This power, rooted in the rise of what he calls "the philosophic faith," {84} produces the crisis of modernity with which we are all familiar, for it continues to this day. In describing it in these terms, Bénichou is adopting language acceptable to his subjects: Lamennais called the problem of "spiritual authority" "the great question of the century," and Saint-Simon and Hugo wrote about the constitution of a new "spiritual power" to replace the old. {85} This "quest for belief" preoccupies all of humanity, of course, but it is above all the concern of the writer. {86}

For Bénichou, then, the problem is the essentially modern one of belief. Romanticism is conceived dramatically as "the vast prologue or first important act of a longer history that continues in our own time" or, intellectually, as the "general debate, which goes on, between freedom to criticize and dogma." {87} That the modern problem of belief has lasted so long is due to its difficulty. Historically, it first appears in earnest in the sixteenth century. The Revolution scuttled the post-Reformation modus vivendi and has left us in a profoundly divided and uncertain situation, to which the modern era owes so much of its pathos.

We are divided between the recent experience of free examination, which has been an obvious agent of the transformation we have witnessed, and the idea, inherited from earlier habits of thought, according to which social cohesion requires common undisputed beliefs. In other words, we do not know whether the free exercise of thought is the soul of modern society, or only the prelude to the establishment of a new dogma. {88}
Marxist historical materialism, extremely influential at the time Bénichou undertook his volumes on French romanticism, claimed to be just such a "new dogma," the successor to the Utopies studied in Le Temps des prophètes.

On the level of individual belief, one of the characteristic modern solutions has been the development of a peculiar sort of belief without belief -- an attitude Bénichou detects in all of the writers he discusses in L'École du désenchantement. There he declares: "Romanticism -- and this is its greatness -- combines doubt with faith." {89} The best writers of the mid-nineteenth century, thinking themselves to be incarnations of the Ideal, felt torn between an acute personal need to believe and an inherent social commitment to frankness and integrity. They are seen in L'École du désenchantement to be attracted to a "belief without belief" -- an attitude that has left its mark on much of modern art and literature, especially poetry. Bénichou's vision of Romanticism places this attitude in the larger context of the social and spiritual dilemmas of the modern West. From this perspective, Romanticism takes on the appearance of a temporary, perhaps transitional phase, due to its special problems and characteristics.

Poets, despite the memories and legends of primitive times, had always been marginal figures in European society, ill-suited by nature to take part in human affairs. Their elevation to high rank, be means of a supposed link of their ministry to divine providence, was born of the need felt by postrevolutionary society to conserve the sacred while secularizing it. But this elevation occurred in a period in which the intervention of God in human affairs and the possibility of any priesthood whatsoever had ceased to be objects of genuine belief. The sort of half-religion that romanticism claims to be, with its simultaneously supraterrestrial and militant poets, may well have been but a moment of transition, a sort of passing dizzy spell occurring between the old Catholic society and a new down-to-earth world. {90}
In an interview published in Le Débat in 1989, Bénichou placed in a broader context the view of modern Western history that the results of his research suggest. Here the notion of a spiritual power is linked to the articulation of early Western society into three orders, "the three great types of European society, as it has been observed and described in modern centuries, namely the Priest, the Warrior, and the Worker." {91} In Western history, the independence of the spiritual power has been distinctive. "The peculiarity of Christian Europe, speaking comparatively, lies in the presence of this body . . . spiritually dominating the political power without having to submit directly to its vagaries, [and which] appears to have existed only there." {92} The key to the drama Bénichou recounts is the weakening of the basis of the West's traditional "spiritual power," and modernity appears as an extended period of conflict among various efforts to redefine what this might be in the future. In these circumstances, independent writers have offered a social location for a lay version of "spiritual authority" -- the pouvoir spirituel laïque of Bénichou's subtitle. In its secular version, certain inevitable problems arose, and the response to these problems is an important explanatory factor in accounting for the events of the French Revolution.
I believe that this logic explains in large part the almost immediate drift of the French Revolution toward the Terror, that is, toward a power with universal claims relying upon a doctrine erected into a dogma. The Revolution had no choice. If it wanted to accomplish its task, it had to lay claim to unshakable truths and apply them. To a great extent, the Robespierrist excesses are explained by the reduction of the two ancient powers to a single one. {93}
Historians who ignore this in favor of exclusively "social" or political dimensions of events are missing something essential. "These were not politicians. . . . The men of 1789 were convinced philosophes who wanted to substitute one spiritual system for another." {94} The attempt ended in failure, but the memory of the effort haunted the subsequent period. "At bottom, the romantic period corresponds to a great effort to produce a corrected edition of the Enlightenment system, one that would not entail the disadvantages that the Terror had made so strikingly apparent." {95}

Notes to Part V
{71} Bénichou, Le Sacre de l'écrivain, p. 18, p. 7 of the English translation.
{72} Ibid., p. 467 (p. 336 of the English translation).
{73} For the history of the term "secularization," which originally referred to the seizure of ecclesiastical property by temporal authorities, see Herman Lübbe, Säkularisierung: Geschichte eines ideenpolitischen Begriffs (Freiburg: Karl Alber, 1965).
{74}Bénichou, Le Sacre de l'écrivain, p. 467 (pp. 336-37 of the English translation); cf. pp. 141 & 326ff.
{75} Ibid., p. 470 (p. 339 of the English translation).
{76} Ibid., p. 471 (p. 339 of the English translation).
{77} Ibid., p. 472 (p. 340 of the English translation).
{78} Ibid., p. 473 (pp. 341-42 of the English translation).
{79} Ibid., pp. 463-64 (pp. 333-34 of the English translation).
{80} Ibid., pp. 465-66 (p. 335 of the English translation).
{81} Ibid., pp. 67, 350, 110-12, 284, 346.
{82} It would be interesting (albeit foreign to Bénichou's own inclinations) to develop a phenomenological account of need, which has to do with our experience of necessity in time "lived as events and actions." David Carr, Time, Narrative, and History (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), p. 41. Carr's work on the "transindividual subject" would be a promising place to begin an attempt to develop a philosophical account of Bénichou's notion of a "social need." Ibid., pp. 122-85.
{83} Bénichou, Le Sacre de l'écrivain, p. 462 (p. 331 of the English translation).
{84} Ibid., pp. 21 (p. 9 of the English translation; see also the entries in the index of the translation under "philosophic faith," which refer to this and to equivalent phrases like "faith of the eighteenth century," "modern faith," "new faith," "philosophical humanism," "secular faith," etc.).
{85} Bénichou, Le Temps des prophètes, pp. 142, 249; Les Mages romantiques, p. 307.
{86} Bénichou, Le Temps des prophètes, p. 29.
{87} Bénichou, Le Sacre de l'écrivain, p. 21 (p. 9 of the English translation); Le Temps des prophètes, p. 11.
{88} Ibid., pp. 8-9.
{89} Bénichou, L'École du désenchantement, p. 583.
{90} Ibid., pp. 581-82.
{91} Bénichou, "Parcours de l'écrivain," Le Débat 54 (March-April 1989), p. 32. Cf. Georges Duby, The Three Orders: Feudal Society Imagined, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980).
{92} Bénichou, "Parcours de l'écrivain," p. 24.
{93} Ibid., p. 25.
{94} Ibid. This analysis has much in common with Hans Blumenberg's, which emphasizes the way in which the program of an earlier age (in this case, dogmatic Christianity) can force an independent movement (here, the modern Enlightenment) to -- as Blumemberg puts it -- "reoccupy positions" dictated to it by the earlier age, in spite of itself. Cf. The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, p. 151 et passim.
{95} Bénichou, "Parcours d'un écrivain," p. 25.

Last Update August 21, 2001