Raymond Aaron



Commentary on the book “Memoirs” by the French intellectual.

It is not the easiest of tasks to talk about the 855 pages of Memoirs of Raymond Aron (1905-1983), a French professor, thinker and journalist whose ideas and activities were always closely linked to the political and intellectual history of his country. Author of a vast body of work – around 40 books and hundreds of academic articles –, contributor to the newspaper Le Figaro for more than 30 years (1947-1977), from the weekly The Express (from 1977), professor at the Sorbonne and at the France secondary school.

Aron started writing his reminiscences only at the age of 74, after being victimized two years earlier by an embolism that frustrated his project of developing other theoretical studies – memoirs, in his opinion, required “lesser intellectual effort” (p. 764). . It could be, but the fact is that Aron worked on the originals for about four years, edited only in 1983 by Julliard.

Divided into five parts – Political education (1905-1939); The temptation of politics (1939-1955); A Teacher in the Storm (1955-1969); the Mandarin Years (1969-1977) and The Postponement (1977-1982) – and an epilogue, the Memoirs are pleasant to read. Written in the first person, with a lot of irony, good humor and a captivating style, the book by Raymond Claude Ferdinand Aron (his full name) begins by focusing on his childhood, as the youngest of a couple who “belonged to the middle bourgeoisie of French Judaism” (p. 14).

Aron talks about his brothers (Adrian and Robert), the financial difficulties faced by his parents after they lost everything on the Stock Exchange in 1929, as well as his schooling, when he was a colleague of Jean Maugüé – a professor at USP right at the beginning of the construction of this university –, where he refined his cultural background by learning Latin, Greek and history, and also where he met Jean Paul-Sartre and became his friend and partner in discussions for a few decades – both met at the Sorbonne in the 1920s and they soon got along, to the point where Sartre confided to Simone de Beauvoir the following: “I only feel good when Aron arrives”.

aron makes his aggregation (1) in 1928, having obtained the first classification with a considerable difference (10 points) over Emmanuel Mounier, the second place. That same year, Sartre was not approved, having obtained the aggregation only in 1929, with a higher points total than Aron. Still in this part – Political Education, 1905-1939 – he talks about the years he spent in Germany, having been, as early as 1931, a French assistant at the University of Cologne, in the department of Romance languages. Two years later (31/01/1933), he watches Hitler rise to the Chancellery. The years he spent in Cologne were of great use to him, having been attracted by the sociology of Max Weber (of which he was one of the introducers in France), coming into contact with the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl and the works of Martin Heidegger – although not If he became very interested, he had the merit of taking him to Sartre – and also becoming involved in politics (which Sartre would only do many years later).(2)

Aron, between 1928 and 1933, approached the French Nouvelle Revue, through articles written for Europe e Free Proposals, articles that deal with “almost all of Franco-German relations, the rise of national socialism and the Hitlerite revolution” (p. 835). Back in France, on the recommendation of Célestin Bouglé, he was put in charge of the Philosophy course at the École Normale Supérieur, better known as the École de Saint-Cloud. And before the outbreak of World War II, he stayed, between 1937 and 1938, at the University of Bordeaux, teaching Sociology (p.167).

The temptation of politics

The second part (The temptation of politics, 1939-1955) begins in September 1939, with Aron's enlistment in the French army to face Hitler's troops – he presented himself and left for the Belgian border, “where he was supposed to establish the meteorological station OM1” (p.178). The French capitulation in May 1940 took him to the French Resistance in exile (in London), where he headed in June 1940. A few months later, he became one of the editors of the magazine Free France, over almost five years, signing articles with the pseudonym René Avord.

In August 1939, shortly before the war, Aron was appointed “master of lectures” at the Faculty of Letters in Toulouse. When he returned, with the end of hostilities, he chose not to pursue a university career. “To put it bluntly, he was stricken with the political bug. Not that he dreamed (…) of a political career. What decided me to interrupt the university career to which I was destined, (...) was the transformation of my own person, due to the years in London, which I had spent very close to the actors of History in the exercise of journalism. Deep down, I didn't confess even to myself, the university as I had known it, as I guessed it in advance, bored me (...).

In 1944-1945, another ambition temporarily diverted me from what I would now call my natural place; the ambition to participate in the great national debates, to serve my country, not to have to impatiently endure if France again sank into decline. My country was liberated and everything remained to be done (...) My authentic ambition, strictly intellectual, gave way for a while to the dream of public service and political intoxication. I rarely ask myself what my existence and my work would have been like had I occupied the chair in Bordeaux, which would probably have taken me to Paris, not in 1955 but in 1948…” (p. 215-21). (3)

Aron started writing for Fighting in March 1946, then the most famous newspaper in literary or political circles in Paris. The editorials were written by Albert Camus and the team was made up of a plethora of intellectuals who, “coming out of the Resistance, had not yet regained their natural place” (p. 228). In the patota, among others, Albert Olivier, Jacque Merleau-Ponty (cousin of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, professor of Philosophy in Nanterre), Pierre Kaufman (professor at the same university), Alexandre Astruc, Roger Grenier and Aron – all directed by Pascal Pia. Aron's collaborations on Fighting impressed Pierre Brisson, editor-in-chief of Le Figaro until his death in 1965. So, in the spring of 1947, Brisson “persuaded me to write a series of articles a month. I was paid for published collaboration” (p. 242). (4)

Aron was a member, from 1948 to 1952, of the RPF (Regroupment of the French People), the party of the brilliant General Charles de Gaulle. However, before and after 1948 and 1952, he was a member of the European Unity and Community: “Public meetings, colloquiums, study seminars were numerous enough during the cold war years and the following years to remember them all” (p. 260). He continued in journalism, but at no point did he give up teaching or stop writing books.

He has taught courses at the National School of Administration and at the Institute for Political Studies, lectures at foreign universities – particularly in Manchester and Tübingen. He wrote two books, Le grand schism (1948) and Les wars en chant (1951), “attempts at a kind of immediate philosophy of history – in a process that should serve as a context and foundation for my daily or weekly comments and for my positions” (p. 311). Le grand schism he drew in broad lines, at the same time, the map of world politics and that of French politics. He stated, in this book, that the relationship between the great powers could be summed up in the following words: “peace impossible – war unlikely”, wise words, which remain true until today (p. 312).

A teacher in the storm

Um Professor na Torta (1955-1969), with just over 200 pages, becomes the third part of Memoirs. It begins with his return to the Sorbonne, in 1955. I can't resist and transcribe, now, the words on the first page: “I expected from the Sorbonne the discipline I had lost. The birth of a little mongoloid daughter in July 1950, the death of Emmanuelle [his second daughter, born in 1944 in England] a few months later from fulminating leukemia, had mortified me more than I could say. There is no learning from misfortune. When it hits us, we still have everything to learn. I was a bad student, slow and angry. I sought refuge at work. The more I sank into this illusory refuge, the more I lost myself. Aware of losing myself, I suffered even more, in addition to my own unhappiness, wounds that time had not healed. I expected help from the Sorbonne and I was not deceived in my hopes. She didn't give me back what the 1950s had taken away from me forever, she helped me reconcile with life, with others and with myself” (p. 365).

Then, Aron describes the controversies and backstage of the frenetic French academic life, focusing on the clashes when he joined as a professor, his divergences about the role of the university, his company through articles in newspapers and magazines about the need for reforms , thesis boards, May 1968 (a topic that is taken up again in Chapter XVIII, “He didn't understand us” or May 1968) etc.

Aron states that he was 50 years old in 1955, when he ran against G. Balandier “some 15 years younger than me”, whose candidacy had been raised by George Gurvitch, “who, among other qualities, possessed that of 'university activism' (the phone calls, door-to-door electoral visits)”, having stated, “to anyone who would listen, that my books and articles destined me more for a ministry portfolio than for a chair in sociology” (p. 36).

In the context of the Sorbonne – in fact, that was the name that many still gave to the Faculty of Arts at the University of Paris – “the election, preceded by the visits, constitutes the equivalent of an initiation rite. Once the test has been suffered and overcome, the elect is accepted by all, both those who fought and those who supported him. Other disputes, other underground connections replace the alliances that had been forged before the election and because of it” (p. 367).

In the mid-1950s, each professor had an assistant, who corrected the dissertations, directed the students' work and also taught courses. A little over a decade later, the regime for receiving the title of doctor was modified and, instead of just one, Aron had 10 assistants who took care of the students (p. 373). In the meantime, Sociology also gains legitimacy, spreading inside and outside the university.

Aron's first public course at the Sorbonne had industrial society as its theme, focusing on five-year plans, agrarian collectivization, Moscow processes – in short, the Soviet Union and its policy that aimed to “catch up with the United States and develop the forces of production in the socialist system. His initial courses ended up approaching themes that “brought the so-called academic Sociology closer to the rumors of the public square”. Like this, Eighteen lessons on industrial society, the class struggle e Democracy and totalitarianism corresponded to the courses of, respectively, 1955-1956, 1956-1957 and 1957-1958 (p. 376). Still in the 1960s, he created, within the scope of the VI Section of the École Pratique des Hautes Études, a research center called the European Center for Historical Sociology, with Pierre Bourdieu as its general secretary and animator, “in fact, the effective director until the rupture caused by the events of 1968” (p. 380).

The years 1955-1968 were the most academic years of Aron's life, since, of the thirteen courses he taught, five came out in the form of a handout before being published in books, he exposed a part of Peace and war between nations, gave at the Institute of Political Studies “the first course ever given in France on nuclear strategy and I wrote it in three weeks, a posteriori, the great debate. In 1967, under the title of Espoir et peur du siècle, put together three essays on La droite, la decadence, la guerre; in 1965, for the Encyclopaedia Britannica, wrote a roof article, in fact a book that was only published in France in 1968, Les desillusions du progrès. On the other hand, I did not use a one-year course on Montesquieu's political thought, another on Spinoza's, a one-year course (two hours a week) on Marx, yet another (two hours a week) on equality. These classes originated in part from the present, from the problems that the area proposed” (p. 381-382).

In other chapters of this third part (The Algerian tragedy, The industrial society, The general's great project; Peace and war), Aron transcribes long excerpts from his books, articles published in the press and course notes, highlighting his positions on of the Algerian conflict.

So as not to go on too long, I think that Wilson Coutinho summed up Aron's thoughts on the matter with propriety: “It was against the war in Algeria, which divided the country, in the 60s, without resorting to any noisy refrain. It just coldly demonstrated that it was silly in economic terms to keep Algeria associated with France. Sartre, on the contrary, wanted the soldiers to desert. 'Sartre does this because he doesn't care that a deserter might be shot', objected Aron”. In Peace and war (5) reflects on the international situation and the dispute between the United States and the Soviet Union. In his understanding, the two great powers will start a total conflict, but end up establishing peripheral zones where political-military clashes will take place (such zone would be, in particular, the Middle East, Africa and regions of Asia). In addition, Aron makes a series of considerations about the nuclear strategy, as already mentioned in the previous paragraph.

Finally, the chapter “He didn't understand us” or May 1968 (p. 513-544), where Aron recounts his breakup with a series of friends and co-workers, deserves some consideration. Detailed analysis of events would require a series of considerations that it is not possible to carry out at the moment. I only draw attention to Sartre's virulent article against Aron's positions, which he considered reactionary. (6) He attacked General Charles De Gaulle a lot and made several criticisms of Aron.

In the best-known passages, Sartre stated: “the faculty professor is almost always (…) a gentleman who has written a thesis and recited it for the rest of his life (…) When Aron, growing old, endlessly repeats the idea of ​​the thesis to his students, Written before the 1939 war, without those who listen to it being able to exercise the slightest critical control over it, it exercises real power, but which is certainly not based on knowledge worthy of the name (…) I give my hand to cut off Raymond Aron he never questioned himself, and that is why, in my view, he is unworthy of being a teacher (...). This presupposes above all that each teacher accepts being judged and challenged by those he teaches, and that he convinces himself: 'They want me completely naked'. It is embarrassing for him, but it is necessary, now that the whole of France has seen De Gaulle completely naked, for students to be able to face Raymond Aron completely naked. The clothes will not be returned to you if you do not accept the contestation”.

In truth, Sartre's accusations about Aron were not entirely correct. First, Aron always gave “new” courses, which every two years (or at most three) inevitably turned into books or articles; he has published almost 40 books, hundreds of academic articles, has contributed to dozens of university journals – in addition to his activity in the press for more than 40 years. It should also not be forgotten that Aron has always been a critic of the French university education system, which for a certain time brought him the dislike of a good part of the so-called “mandarins of teaching”.

The Mandarin Years

In part four (The Mandarin Years – 1969-1977), which spans around 170 pages, Aron details the 30-year period in which he collaborated on the Le Figaro, talks about his conceptions about the international political conjuncture, weaves configurations about the “decline of the West”, details the presence of the United States in the contemporary political scenario, emphasizing the role played during the 1970s by his friend Henry Kissinger, and dedicates some lines about your entry in France secondary school, the most legitimate academic institution in his country.

the postponement

The fifth part (The postponement: 1977-1982) is dedicated to the embolism he suffered in April 1977, when he was 72 years old, and which slightly impaired his speech. Two years later, he decided to write the Memoirs. Aron also deals, in 10 pages, with his collaborations in The Express and takes stock of his generation in the last chapter.

In the epilogue (p. 811-833) he makes a sort of balance of his activity over more than 50 years of militancy, concluding with the following words: “If you gave me my black loves, I would say that all ideas, all causes for which I fought appear endangered the very moment one agrees, retrospectively, that I was not wrong in most of my fights. But I don't want to give in to discouragement. The regimes for which I advocated and in which some saw nothing more than a disguise of power, arbitrary and violent in essence, are fragile and turbulent: however, as long as they remain free, they will retain unsuspected resources. We will continue to live for a long time in the shadow of the nuclear apocalypse, torn between the fear inspired by monstrous weapons and the hope awakened by the miracles of science“ (p. 832).

An ardent critic of socialism and a skeptic of communism, inevitably taking positions that could be classified as conservative, I lost count of the number of times Aron irritated me. However, reading your Memoirs, even for those who are completely unaware of his work, will leave no doubt that Aron was one of the exponents of contemporary liberal thought and, always, consistent with his critical stance, he challenged the dogmas of the left until the end of his life, never getting tired of worrying about with the dialectic between totalitarianism and democracy. (7)

*Afranio Catani, retired professor at USP and visiting professor at UFF, is one of the organizers of the Bourdieu vocabulary (Authentic).


Raymond Aron. Memoirs. Translation: Octávio Alves Velho. Rio de Janeiro, New Frontier, 855 pages.


(1) Aggregation: “it is the contest that gives the right to teach in secondary schools. In the subjects of Law, Medicine and Pharmacy, it gives access to higher education in these specialties” – translator’s note, Octávio Alves Velho, p. 15. The aggregation consists of seven tests, written and oral, in which the candidate can reach a maximum of 110 points (Aron, Memoirs, P. 41). A aggregation in Philosophy, for example, includes “the translation and commentary of a text in Greek” (p.29).

(2) See, on this subject, Wilson Coutinho (Folha de S. Paul, 10/9/1986, p. 56), in which the Memoirs of Aron and the biography of Annie Cohen-Solal, Sartre: 1905-1980. Porto Alegre: L&PM, 1986, 692 pages.

(3) Aron failed in 1948, in a contest to enter the Sorbonne, stating that Georges Gurvitch was chosen. According to Aron, his participation as a columnist for the Le Figaro ended up harming him, because during his candidate visit to the members of the panel, Georges Davy interpreted that, if he was forced to choose between the Sorbonne and the newspaper Le Figaro, would not give up journalism. Davy repeated this interpretation in the professors' assembly, "by malice or naivety, and thus decided a close election". Aron wrote that “there were three candidates, G. Gurvitch, J. Stoetzel and myself; J. Stoetzel specified that he did not act as a candidate before me, but the favors of the director of the Philosophy section, J. Laporte, were for him. The bulletins that tipped for him the first time should normally have been for me. The words communicated by Davy probably displaced the few voices that ensured Gurvitch's success” (p. 240).

(4) On pages 243-244 et seq, Aron details P. Brisson's role in the reconstruction of the Le Figaro which, shortly after the war, became, in a few months, “the national morning” (p. 243).

(5) In Portuguese, it was edited by the University of Brasília (trans. Sérgio Bath) with the title Peace and war between nations. 492 pages. The original edition, in French, dates from 1982.

(6) Sartre's article, published in the weekly magazine Le Nouvel Observateur (June 19. 1968), is entitled “The Bastille of Raymond Aron”. See in particular, pages 531-532 of Memoirs, from which the quotes that appear throughout this paragraph were taken.

(7) This article reproduces, with minor changes, a review published in Magazine of Business Administration (RAE), EAESP-FGV, vol. 27, no. 2, p. 61-64, April-June, 1987.


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