Mind your language

Trahison des clercs — a phrase that dates back all the way to 1927

3 March 2018

9:00 AM

3 March 2018

9:00 AM

I had long associated the phrase trahison des clercs with the writer Geoffrey Wheatcroft, though I can’t put my finger on examples in his oeuvre.

In any case, I wrongly presumed that trahison des clercs dated from the Middle Ages, when clerks in orders were the learned ones, like Chaucer’s Clerk of Oxford, responsible for faithfulness to the knowledge they had. The old proverb went: Les bons livres font les bons clercs — ‘Good books make good scholars.’

But I now discover that the phrase goes back no further than 1927, when Julien Benda used it as the title of a book, translated into English as The Great Betrayal a year later by Richard Aldington, who turned more than 30 books into English in the 1920s, years before he got his teeth into T.E. Lawrence.


In America it was published as The Betrayal of the Intellectuals, which was ambiguous for those not already informed as to whether the intellectuals were betraying or being betrayed.

William Empson, in the poem ‘Just a Smack at Auden’ (1938), making fun of the poet who lent him the money to return from China on the eve of the second world war, gives the phrase as treason of the clerks: ‘What was said by Marx, boys, what did he perpend?/ No good being sparks, boys, waiting for the end./ Treason of the clerks, boys, curtains that descend,/ Lights becoming darks, boys, waiting for the end.’ The rhyme must have influenced his choice of translation.

The connotations vary. Benda argued that ‘those who for 20 centuries taught Man that the criterion of the morality of an act is its disinterestedness’ were now teaching that ‘the morality of an act is measured by its adaptation to its end’. They’d sold out.

Roger Scruton, in reviewing Bryan Magee’s Confessions of a Philosopher, wrote that the author ‘regards the excuses offered for the Soviet Union by liberal intellectuals as a trahison des clercs’. Howard Jacobson once accused Simon Armitage of the crime of trahison des clercs for opposing the plan Michael Gove had hatched of reintroducing into schools the learning of poetry by heart. From the latter treachery, if treachery it was, no one died.

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