From an interview in the November 28, 2018, edition of Le Monde with Élisabeth Badinter, conducted by Jean Birnbaum. Badinter is a French public intellectual and historian whose three-part history of the Enlightenment, Les Passions intellectuelles, was republished as one volume by Éditions Robert Laffont in November. Translated from the French by John Cullen.
birnbaum: It’s been more than fifteen years since the first volume of your trilogy appeared. What is there in the current context that inspired you to reissue your work?
badinter: We have a need for rationality today. The philosophes of the eighteenth century, after all, were engaged in a battle of rationality versus superstition, and now, in a period when the irrational is taking up a vast amount of space in our social and intellectual lives, returning to that battle seems appropriate.
birnbaum: “The intellectuals had changed masters, but they were still slaves.” You wrote that sentence at the end of the third volume of your Passions, explaining that the clercs—the highly educated—were obeying the king less and less and opinion more and more. What do today’s intellectuals obey?
badinter: Social media! That’s what everyone’s afraid of. There are subjects one barely broaches, and then on tiptoe—#MeToo and #BalanceTonPorc. Social media have doubled the power of a public opinion that’s free to say anything it wants but is often lacking in nuance, ill-informed, and incredibly violent. In the eighteenth century, popular opinion, the so-called doxa, respected the learned, respected philosophers, and it was limited. It was nothing compared with what’s going on today; no one feels eager to get crushed under the insults of millions of people.
birnbaum: “It’s lonely, and I have such a great need for ‘community,’” François Mauriac wrote in a letter to Jacques Maritain. Aren’t intellectuals all the more intimidated by social media because they’re plagued, in their solitude, by a desire for “community”?
badinter: You have to distinguish between established intellectuals recognized by public opinion and the younger class of intellectuals. In the beginning, if you were Diderot, Rousseau, d’Alembert, and you had lunch together once a week at the Hôtel du Panier Fleuri, you formed a friendly community. But when the same people emerged into public consciousness, then the group broke up, because rivalries took over. And that’s when individuals become isolated and alone. I see this every-man-for-himself attitude today.
birnbaum: As the years have passed, things on Twitter have become a lot harsher, to the point where everyone seems to steer clear of an honest discussion and to desire enemies rather than opponents. Are we witnessing a “Twitterization” of the intellectual debate?
badinter: I don’t have the impression that relations among intellectuals have fundamentally changed in the past twenty years. You put a distance between yourself and other people, but you don’t treat them like enemies. Might it even be possible that intellectuals are going to rediscover a sense of community precisely because of the hostility they encounter on social media? If we’re the objects of general loathing, that could put a little life back into us! Intellectuals could regress six or seven centuries and return to the lives of the scholars who talked things over in convents and monasteries without any outside intervention. We’ll reflect, exchange ideas, hold colloquiums, have yelling matches, but there will be just us. So I remain comparatively optimistic: the intellectual life is a choice, a pleasure, a pain, but it’s also a need. Nothing will be able to put an end to it.
birnbaum: Correspondence has always had a fundamental place in intellectual life. What’s going to become of it in the digital age?
badinter: It’s a source of knowledge that’s lost today, because nobody writes letters anymore. The philosophers’ letters that I cite in my books could reach eight, fifteen, twenty pages, whatever it took to articulate an argument. If correspondence has been fundamental to intellectual life, it’s because, in general, private letters haven’t been subject to censorship, and you could express all your thoughts in them. In eighteenth-century correspondence, even very straitlaced people—a scientist like Réaumur, for example—always ended up letting themselves go, thereby clarifying some aspect of their personality. Regular correspondence provides deeper knowledge of the addressees and is the source of fruitful controversies. The correspondents aren’t anxious, and even if they’re sometimes wrong, they count on being able to speak freely. I don’t think it’s possible to speak freely on the internet. I don’t use email to carry on any correspondence worthy of the name. When I write a letter, I’m more confident. Aren’t you?