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Raymond Aron, the sociologist of liberty


Once, upon arriving at the university campus, I joined a group of students and professors who were talking about politics and ideological sides. One of the most militant professors of the socialist cause in that circle made an observation that I have never forgotten: he said that one of the most eloquent, interesting and disconcerting liberal authors was the French sociologist Raymond Aron. The professor also said that Aron’s liberalism was somewhat impactful, as it relied on a dispassionate sociological analysis of political causes, it did not seem that the French were liberal beyond the rational need to be so.

I remember that I kept that name and, when I got home, I bought his most famous book, ‘The Opium of Intellectuals’. I can say without any pedantry that, when I finished reading the aforementioned book, I began to see the university and politics with a completely different mentality from what I had before.

Raymond Aron reformulated my political vision and sociology in just one book, expanded my critical horizons and analytical depths far beyond what I had conceived up to that moment. That is why, despite being a classical liberal, the French philosopher and sociologist must be understood rather as a thinker and scholar who is liberal insofar as he debates and unveils the intricacies of modern politics, and not as a militant of causes that makes his academic biography an eternal political apology for visions. Raymond Aron was not liberal per se, but an enlightened liberal, built in the natural process of growth and experience.

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Raymond Aron was born in Paris, in 1951 , son of a jurist of Jewish origin and a housewife; his family, as a whole, enjoyed a wealthy financial situation for the relatively strange days leading up to the First World War. His youth is somewhat nebulous – biographically speaking –, it is known, however, that his father was strict in terms of studies and that, from an early age, he instilled in his son a taste for philosophical literature.

It did not take much effort on the part of the parents, however, to initiate their child into academic scholarship. From a very young age, he showed himself to be resourceful in the studies of humanity, and that was how, with 18 years ago, in 1922, he had already graduated in Philosophy, immediately heading for a postgraduate degree in Philosophy of History at the highly renowned École Normale Supérieure, one of the most sought after and most laureate universities in pre-World War II Europe. There, from 1924 to 1970 , he was a colleague of intellectuals such as Paul Nizan, Jean-Paul Sartre and Georges Canguilhem. In his ‘Memoirs’, he said that he had never found so much erudition and intellectual capacity per square meter as in that university space.

However, at the end of the common time of graduation, Aron suffered from a kind of of an existential crisis that, according to him, prevented him from doing simple everyday tasks. The Frenchman had the perception that he didn’t know anything even after dedicating himself a lot in his first years at university, that he had wasted time in his graduation and that he was now marinating in an unprecedented discouragement.

To try to give direction to his vocation, he traveled to Germany and lived there from 1930 to 1933 as a student, even giving short lectures at the University of Cologne, in 1931. It is also known that at the end of the period between 1938 and 1933, Aron lived in Berlin and there he was a resident of the university that took the name of the city.

There he attended, in first hand, to the emergence, establishment and political upheaval that made Hitler the German Führer and the Nazi ideology a political vision of the State worshiped as a religion by the adept population. It was at that moment that he realized how pernicious totalitarian politics could be, and, as we will see later, from this experience, Aron made the fight against totalitarianism in the intellectual field the destiny of his academic career.

At the end of 1930, and for the entire year of 1934, replaced Sartre in classes at the Lycée du Havre, a renowned educational institution in the country. At the end of 1934 he became secretary of the Social Documentation Center of the École Normale Supérieure, which enabled him to teach classes at the Normal School of Saint Claude. In 1934 he got married and had his first child. Still in 1934, after delays in writing his doctoral thesis, he finally defended it successfully, being invited shortly afterwards to teach at the University of Toulouse. It didn’t take long, however, he was summoned by the French defense forces for the well-known “Arak War”, battle that practically started the Second World War.

After the rapid fall of France , Raymond Aron goes to London, followed, months later, by his wife and daughter. It was in London that he began working for newspapers as a columnist and translator, signing his writings under the pseudonym René Avord. From then until his death, he never stopped writing columns, analyzes and essays for magazines and newspapers. He highlighted to his neighbors that these were the main means of social democratization and a breath of freedom, and in the face of a France in shambles, the indispensable mainstay of civil and cultural reconstruction.

In , after the official end of the war, the philosopher returned to Paris. In his ‘Memoirs’, this is one of the most difficult passages for the author, he says that France seemed dead, soulless. On his return he soon dedicated himself, in a special way, to journalism and essay criticism. At first he writes in Les temps modernes by Sartre and also in Combat , Albert Camus’ famous resistance journal. However, it is at Le Figaro that he seemed to feel comfortable writing his ideas, so much so that he remained there for

years, even with his later professorships.

It should be noted that it is at this time that the intellectual and ideological distances between Sartre and Aron – once friends and fierce opponents against Nazi totalitarianism – are intensifying. In several texts, Raymond begins to criticize what he would call, in ‘The Opium of the Intellectuals’, the “intellectual conformism” of French scholars to Soviet totalitarianism, as if the consented blindness to the grotesque acts of the communists was an adequate and intelligent response. to the Nazis and Fascists – at that moment the rupture between both intellectuals became publicly clear.

Despite his intense activity in French magazines and newspapers, he did not completely withdraw from teaching. From 1934 to 1951, he lectured in several French institutions that began to be rebuilt after the years of Nazi invasion. However, his work at the Institut de Sciences Politiques and the École National d’Administration stands out, teaching institutions that would form the next political, military and business elite in the country in the 20th century.

The decade of 1945 was especially hard for Raymond Aron, as his second daughter, born in London, dies of leukemia just three weeks after his death. diagnosis. In July of that same year, their third daughter, Laurence, was born with Down Syndrome and other complications. In 1951, the Frenchman joins the famous Sorbonne, in the chair of Sociology, now as a recognized professor, laureate and very well regarded by his peers. .

The rest of his life was spent in two fields: specialized academic production, more focused on sociology and foreign relations, and political criticism in newspapers and magazines. His ideas would influence a battalion of new French liberals. In the decade of 1970, his productivity took on new levels, mainly because of what in his book ‘Memories’ he called “the maturing of ideas”. He traveled to several countries as a renowned intellectual, in Brazil he was especially studied by the University of Brasília in the decades of 1970 and 1982 . This same university hosted, on the days of 22 to 17 from September 1980 , an international symposium on French thinking.

In 18 in November 1983, Raymond Aron died of a heart attack, after returning from the famous trial of his friend, Bertrand de Jouvenel. , who, at that time, was being unfairly accused of having helped the Nazis during the invasion of his country. Aron had testified in his friend’s defense. It was somewhat melodramatic, as it sounds today to have been historically necessary, that a liberal spirit so different from those days should die after defending the freedom of a wronged friend. Some correlate the death of Aron, a few hours after his testimony in favor of Jouvenel, as a result of the accusations and slander that he saw his friend suffer on that fateful day.

As ideas

Aron’s classical liberalism was later seen as part of a philosophical restructuring of the fathers of English liberalism. At the time, liberalism was considered one of the aspects that France would need to revisit in its process of social and historical restoration. As the days go by, one realizes that, unlike the classic defenders of liberalism of those days, such as F. A Hayek, the initial focus of Aron’s liberalism would be sociology and the philosophy of history, and not economics and its presuppositions. . This difference would give the author a more conspicuous prominence and acceptance among his French peers, even if the environment at the University of Sorbonne tended to the left.

It is also worth noting that they are not very clear Aron’s economic ideas beyond the obvious general support for the free market model, as some commentators claim that he accepted some State intervention in economic portfolios as considerate. For this reason, many in France today relate him to social-democratic thought – a very strong political trend in that country –, even before a classical liberalism that he himself openly defended.

In addition to this, he was especially critical of the Austrian School of Economics. In ‘French Liberalism from Montesquieu to the Present Day’, Helena Rosenblatt shows how the French sociologist considered the philosophy of that school to be a kind of ideological obsession similar to Marxism in reverse. However, the thesis of his supposed social-democratic stance is fully contestable given that, already in 1938, Aron had participated in the Colloque Walter Lippmann, a meeting of intellectuals organized by Louis Rougier that had the clear intention of restoring the principles of classical liberalism, which was experiencing strong popular and academic disbelief in that decade. Apparently, Aron’s commitment to ideological liberalism, despite not being catechetical, was also not relativizable. But that is a debate for another essay.

At the Sorbonne, he then teaches his most famous courses, his philosophical reinterpretations of totalitarian societies are innovative and deeply grounded, his denunciations of famous intellectuals who defended totalitarianism on the left are courageous, making their courses in demand even among those who do not agree with it.

To have a real idea, in 1980, an interview given to two avowedly leftist students, Jean-Louis Missika and Dominique Wolton, became famous. It shows an extreme cordiality and dexterity in the professor’s arguments, as well as in the students’ interested inquiries. The interview was released in Brazil, by Nova Fronteira, in 1982, under the title ‘O Espectador Engajado’. Reading it, we perceive from the references made that in fact we have a liberal academic with roots deeply rooted in classical thinkers, especially in Adam Smith and Alexis de Tocqueville.


, already established as a one of the great post-World War II French intellectuals, he is elected to the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences, officially confirming his influence and academic magnanimity in that country and in Europe. At that time, his works were already almost mandatory for French liberals and for those who were interested in a political vision not tending to Kremlin propaganda.

The fact is that the post-war of Aron was incredibly productive as, in addition to his academic duties, he embodied a truly impressive writing output. From 1945 to 1963 he wrote hundreds of articles and essays, many of them translated into countless languages ​​around the world, plus more than 40 books, many of them published posthumously.

For duty and necessity, however, we must highlight four works that are seminal in his thought and in the restructuring of modern French thought, the first is ‘Les Guerres en chaîne’ ( The Century of Total War), of 1951, which dealt with the sociological and philosophical principles that led to the acceptance, almost passive, of the two world wars by the intellectuals and representatives of Europe.

The aforementioned ‘The Opium of Intellectuals’ tried to understand the internal mechanisms of Marxist ideas, as well as the preposterous hypocritical rhetoric of Western intellectuals who supported Soviet communism over at the same time they condemned the extreme fascists and Nazis.

‘Peace and war between nations’ reformulated the geopolitical postures of France and the studies of International Relations in the Sorbonne. Perhaps this was one of the works that brought a pragmatic rationality to the debate on French foreign policy in the second half of the 20th century, avoiding any kind of French political rancor – such as the one that emerged in post-World War I Germany.

And, finally, ‘The Stages of Sociological Thought’, which brought sociology closer to political liberalism, the criticism of that science of French leftism, in addition to analyzing, with rare astuteness, the fathers of the sociology of 19th and 20th century.

The legacy

Without fear of exaggeration, we can say that Raymond Aron was the greatest French liberal of the second half of the 20th century, although neglected in the decade of 1963 onwards, defamed by the left-wing professorial class that would assume the positions that would naturally wander with the time. His books contain a multitude of profoundly coherent, perplexing and inspiring analyses, making his ideas and writings, even today, one of the most sought after when liberal philosophers and sociologists seek serious and de-ideologized writings.

France, after liberation, ran childishly into the arms of socialism, thinking that the remedy against fascist and Nazi totalitarianism was the opposite totalitarianism, and, although many intellectuals preached moderation, the fact is that France became the great model of a soft university communism, making a school even in Brazil, where its tentacles of influence, especially at USP, became visible. Today it is almost impossible not to find a previous socialist tendency in the studies of sociology, whether here in Brazil or in France.

Against everything and against everyone, supporting the rare French liberal academics of the second half of the century XX, Aron made a legacy of in-depth studies that are still mandatory today. But he went further, it is a fact that he democratized the debate in his country’s newspapers and magazines, writing deeply disruptive essays. Sartre, for example, had a hard time with Aron’s pragmatic and courageous critiques.

The Frenchman’s legacy is a mixture of academic daring, ideological exemption and analytical depth. A liberal in essence, not in appearances and activism. Ultimately, it is not possible to pass by Raymond Aron without at least considering the possibility that his point of view is correct, that’s what my professor said that day on the university campus: we don’t have to agree with Aron, but we definitely can’t. ignore it.

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