The Vanished Intellectual

This spring marks the centenary of the birth of two all-round intellectuals, those ideological avatars of the Cold War era, Raymond Aron and Jean-Paul Sartre. Aron was born on March 14, 1905, Sartre on June 21.

Sartre and Aron began their 50-year acquaintance with a shared elite French education that included a formative period in Germany just before the rise of Nazism. Each in his inimitable way displayed the contrariness both loved and loathed in intellectuals: Aron fancied Anglo-American liberalism before it became fashionable, while Sartre remained a Communist sympathiser after the fashion had passed.

Aron wrote cool, sleek prose about the most heated geopolitical conflicts, while Sartre could turn any triviality into an existential crisis. Yet they often stood together against the French political establishment. Both joined the Resistance when France was a Nazi puppet state, and both called for Algerian independence after France regained its sovereignty.

Unfortunately, Sartre and Aron are also joined in death: both have been disowned, ignored, or underrated by all the academic disciplines – philosophy, literature, sociology, politics – to which their voluminous works might be thought to have contributed. Silenced by death, Sartre and Aron are remembered more for the attitudes they brought to whatever they wrote about than for what they actually said.